When I was old enough to know that magic didn’t exist, I believed in it anyway. So I had to hide while I practiced.
Specifically, I hid behind our summer cottage on Denman Island. When my brother was swimming at the lake with my dad or eating watermelon on the deck, and when my mom was washing dishes in the dark, wood kitchen, I was in the shade of the house, teaching myself to fly. Heart full, I stood on a rock and leaped. Over and over. My logic was this: If I truly, deeply believed in magic, it would happen. I would fly. I’d jump off the rock and find myself not on the ground as usual, but up in the sky. When this glorious moment arrived, I would bank sharply left, to the front of the cabin, and show my family what I had achieved.
Enrolling at Groundswell, I believed that social entrepreneurship might be something like this childhood endeavour. Except, of course, with better results. Heart full, I would practice solo, in secret, and then . . . launch!
Halfway into the program, I can say it is nothing like that. The metaphor could not be worse. Though my business is far from fully fledged, the process to date has been all about interaction with people. Nothing secretive about it. It’s all about learning from and practicing with people. The people taking the program with me, the people mentoring me, and the people out in the real world who give up their precious time to answer questions about my proposed line of work. For a bookish, dreamy introvert, this human-filled experience came as a shock.
My wobbliness showed. “What keeps you up at night?” I asked one of my first interviewees. This question came straight from my experienced, business-like mentor. I expected a business-like response.
My interviewee cried. So did the next one. A third turned away and said she didn’t want to talk about it. I was stunned by the emotional reaction I had produced. These were not the kinds of conversations I’d led before. In fact, leading isn’t my usual role in a conversation. Yes, I ask questions. Yes, I make space. But usually it’s just Americanos and chit-chat. I don’t take responsibility for the directionof the dialogue, and I have no destination in mind. Lastly, I don’t listen with a pen and paper, with my phone recording each awkward silence, and never with the explicit premise that the speaker’s experience will have value to me that will be measured, at least in part, by money.
My first interviewee gave me some advice. “Try letting people know they can set their own boundaries. If they know they can say no, you can ask what you like.” This helped. I changed my business idea from writing eulogies to editing academic papers for international students. This would help, too, I figured. What could be drier?
“My English makes me feel like I’m not good enough. That feeling is never going to go away.” This from a woman immigrant in her 50s whose English is so good that she teaches it for a living. Another woman won first prize in a national writing competition in her country of origin, but found herself unable to participate in class discussions when she first arrived as a PhD student in Canada, she was so embarrassed by her English. “Eventually,” she told me, “I wrote my thoughts down and read them out in class. It wasn’t perfect, but people seemed to like my ideas.” Another interviewee told me that for him, after the weather, the language here was the hardest thing. He added, “But even though it’s super hard, I decided to be here.” Beyond the struggle with English, the other thing all my interviewees have in common is determination to get better.
Even with something as dry as academia, it was impossible, on close questioning, not to bump into people’s hearts. And I could not have been more grateful or humbled for the grace those hearts contained.
I have not said anything here of my classmates and mentors, who have shed tears in my presence and in front of whom I have also let down my single-mom-of-three wall of competency and cried.
Is this business school? Is this the magic I was missing the first time I tried to fly?
Back in that Denman Island summer, I could have enlisted my family. My dad could have made me wings, my mom placed a trampoline, my brother cheer me on.
I am beginning to see that there are a lot of lessons Groundswell has up its sleeves to make us business savvy and leaders in the often modest field of our own making. Here is one: doing something that matters takes people, their support, and it takes caring about what matters to them.
So, I’m working on a new metaphor. Maybe starting a business is more like being a fly, the insect, buzzing around what stinks, what isn’t right in people’s lives. This isn’t as romantic a notion, but then again, romantic notions have failed to catapult me into the air on more than one occasion. Meanwhile, hovering around what hurts takes a different approach to flight. It takes it for granted.