Privileged Immigrant & Naked Strategist (part 1)

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I started writing my “anniversary” post almost four months ago and it’s taken a while to build the confidence to publish. Perhaps it’s not even confidence now that authorises a release, but a spunky desire to obliterate fear of feedback.

The year (April 2011 to April 2012 +), as a whole, has been phenomenal: starting work, moving apartments, making friends, making art, changing jobs, trying new sports, attending a whole universe of different events and discovering a variety of sub-cultures in Canada… and yet these last three months delivered a experience so painful that it turned this new world upside down…. and yet it has been incredibly invigorating. I am absolutely not the woman that arrived in Toronto last year. So much so, that I am nurturing the idea of retiring fillenumerique (my online “personal brand”). I’m not a “digital girl” anymore and the French is unnecessary here. At this point and in this post, I am simply a naked strategist.

Opinionated from a young age, I have always been religiously blunt, though with age, consciously diplomatic. I have wondered whether I could or should write about what’s happened this year, but whether I decide to take these thoughts public or not, I must write them down. They hang like wet clothes on me and undressing takes conscious movement and reflection.

In January, the company that had seduced me from another agency, let me go. Having had a reasonable courtship before jumping into bed, I wasn’t prepared for the relationship to fail. In hindsight, I remember saying it had been lonely and chaotic, but I’d put it down to the change in environment, culture and the New Year blues. Except it wasn’t about January and three months into this new role, I found myself out in the cold, truly experiencing a Canadian Winter. I can’t discuss the details of the break-up, since this could be litigious, so it is simply referenced as an event in this post, which triggered a period of learning; more than I could have ever hoped for in my emigration plans. 

February was an odd month. Time drudged past in slow motion, the city soundtrack dragged with the gravity of circumstance. I was in my own parallel universe and everything felt hostile. I engaged career consultants and, reached out to a few very trusted sources and began to gauge opinion on how to position these two short job stints. I contacted a few recruiters that I’d met when I first landed, with the exception of one particularly aggressive firm, who I will never work with again. I volunteered at Social Media Week, networked as usual and did my best to survive rounds of questions.

The résumé has been the worst part. Everyone has an opinion on it and there are subtle, yet distinct differences in formatting between Canada and the UK. Some said I needed more character, others said play it safe and in this period of crushed ego, it was very difficult to know how to curate the advice.

March brought response; interviews were steady and for better or for worse, the questions from each meeting stuck to me, archived in my subconscious for process. Sleep was pretty erratic and dreams queued the faces of ex-colleagues for my attention, as they wagged their fingers and whispered “told you so.” I got more involved with Girl Geeks and assumed responsibility for organising speakers. It has been both a distraction and an absolute saving grace, providing definition beyond an employer’s opinion.

I attended Ladies Learning Code workshops, read more books and explored the option of courses to extend my Canadian experience. I started some website builds with friends, took up some freelance copywriting and had a couple of meetings to discuss freelance digital strategy work. For the first month at home, I avoided playing the radio or hoovering during the day, terrified that people would realise I was unemployed. There is a grocery store next door, but I couldn’t use it between 9am and 5pm, because I felt so proud. By month two I was working from cafés and networking with recruiters and by month three, life had begun to accumulate colour and structure once more.

It took me much longer to confess to “industry friends” what had happened and the confessions were reluctant hatchings, though now such friendships are stronger because of this. I was blown away by the kindness of certain individuals to take time out of their weekends, invite me for lunch, dinner or day-trips and really give me a space to explore my concerns. Thank-you.

By May, I’d met around seven recruiters, interviewed at eight companies, completed two psychometric profiles, was at second round with one firm and final round with two others. Most were full-time roles, one was contract and one was freelance. My shortest interview was 40 minutes, the longest just under three hours. One job disappeared due to restructuring, I was shortlisted for two and to date I’ve secured two offers. I’m now working as an Account Director at a spirited boutique agency.

In the midst of all of this shapeshifting, I won a ticket to FITC Toronto, to which I owe a certain amount of inspiration. I took away two insights from this conference:
  • Don’t give up
  • Make your own opportunity
I’ve kept this in mind when pursuing freelance work, jobs, networking, organising Girl Geeks and playing my part in evolving the Awesome Foundation. It’s been very difficult being an outwardly “yes” person, when inside you feel “no”. It’s been an entire year of learning curve and now I desperately seek the opportunity to build, as well as learn. I want somewhere where I can shine; a professional home.

Obviously, I’m nervous about being so frank now and yet still want to pursue “truth”. Toronto is a city of half-truths. It is a sold as a city that welcomes immigrants, but the reality is a lot more complicated. I rarely feel homesick here, but can then be ambushed by emotion if I see someone who likes a friend back home or a frustration with the laws and regulations here. I recall a completely irrational strop (largely internal!) when I couldn’t find an LCBO for alcohol at 9pm on a Saturday night. Tears of fury ran down my face as I quietly muttered “what sort of city is this!?”

Pain and a heck of a lot of hard work aside, I do also appreciate that my Britishness positions me as a privileged immigrant. On the one hand I am foreign, I am not Canadian and I am humble. On the other hand, perhaps with the exception of Americans (note that the very mention of the US is a sensitive reference), Brits have to be the closest cultural fit to Canada. We have much more in common that we do apart. As a few of my immigrant friends continue their struggle to secure employment after six months + of looking, I acknowledge that my heritage, orientation and cultural proximity to Canada give me a considerable head-start.

I’ve argued that after such experiences this year, I will never take anything for granted. The quick hire and fire culture of Toronto has definitely been a learning curve. Even the notice period here is a typically two weeks in Canada, compared to a month in the UK. 

What have I learnt?
  • If your gut says it’s not right, it’s not right
  • Sometimes you have to learn life the hard way
  • Don’t be too proud to reach out
  • Be positive AND be sincere
  • It is your responsibility
  • Don’t be a victim
  • In the absence of feedback, set the direction in writing
  • Management is a two-way process
  • Make your own opportunity
  • Listen to advice and take it with a pinch of salt
  • Recognise a chemistry interview from a “tick-the-box”
  • Don’t just job-hunt, network, be creative, explore, volunteer, offer expertise. Be more than someone else’s opinion
  • Non-job-hunting activity is content. It gives you stories, these can offer insights into places you might want to work, but such stories also help conversational flow in interviews. In short, don’t be boring 
  • When a Torontonian asks if you like the city, the answer is always “I love it”
  • Be open to opportunity (beyond the job ad)

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