If Not You Then Who? Why seizing the opportunities that come your way is so important

We’ve all had the emails arrive with requests. We are looking for a new member of X committee, a training rep for X group or would you like to give a lecture to Y. For many year when these dropped into my inbox I ignored them. They were being sent to everyone and so ‘they’ weren’t actually looking for someone like me. I wasn’t experienced enough knowledgeable enough, connected enough to ever find success in replying to something like this. Then one year I took a chance and replied. I volunteered to become the HSST lead for the Microbiology Professionals Committee of the Association of Biochemistry and Laboratory Medicine (a LOT of letters I know). They couldn’t reply fast enough with how happy they were I’d replied.

Don’t get me wrong, the ACB weren’t particularly excited that I’d replied……..more they were excited that anyone had. What I’ve learnt since from sending out these emails myself, is that hardly anyone does. The world is full of people who doubt that they would succeed and so don’t put themselves out there and give it a shot. So today I want to talk about all the reasons why, when that email arrives, you should click reply, open the next door in your career and step through it boldly.

You never know where these things will lead

When I sent that email I had no idea where it would lead. Now I know it was the first in a series of steps that took me from where I started to being considered a leader within my profession. At each step I never could have predicted what the one a couple of steps down further down the road would involve. What I do know is that each one I took, I took with purpose. Sometimes I wanted to give back, sometimes I wanted to increase my skills and sometimes I wanted to gain experience. The choices are your own but also not taking those steps and being purposeful is also a choice.

What I hadn’t realised back then is that people frequently ask people they know to get things done, not necessarily because they are the best person but because they are the person they can identify. This means that visibility and being part of networks is key to getting some of the opportunities that would benefit you and your profession.

In my case, that application to be a HSST rep emboldened me to apply for a bursary to attend my first overseas conference in Denver (see pic). After attending my first SHEA conference I was encouraged to apply to their international ambassador scheme, and became the first UK Ambassador. That then led to them paying for me to attend a conference at Disney in Florida, which was not only amazing, but meant I made the connections to sort out a 2 month sabbatical at Boston Childrens Hospital. This helped my NIHR Clinical Lectureship application. That progression helped give me the confidence and experience to apply to become Trust Lead Healthcare Scientist and to become a Clinical Academic.

Gain experience you won’t get in the day job

There are many reasons why it can be difficult to get the kind of experience that volunteering for professional bodies/guideline groups/any external responsibility can provide:

  • Sometimes its hard to be seen in a different way if we’ve been in post for a while, and therefore it can be hard to get identified for opportunities internally
  • Internal committees may find it difficult to accommodate extra people under existing terms of reference
  • Concepts linked to hierarchy may matter more for exisiting structures versus new groups/committees
  • External groups are often specifically looking to engage new people, garner new views and so it can be easier to align personal desires to be exposed to new experiences with the needs of these groups
  • Experienced provided by external groups may just not be provided internally i.e. experience of being a charity trustee

The activities linked to these groups may provide a lower stakes way to get experience. This can include chairing your first meetings, making decisions linked to the success of small pots of grant funding, inputting into a strategic plan. When doing this as part of our day jobs this can feel high stakes and be daunting. If you can gain experience of similar processes in a lower stakes environment you can participate in the learning without some of the stress and anxiety which might otherwise be present.

Often the experience isn’t limited to the activity itself but the experience of working with new people from different backgrounds. This experience helps make us more rounded professionals as well as supporting us in expanding our networks.

Progression is a series of steps

As I described in ‘not knowing where things will lead’ it is often hard to see where taking a series of these smaller steps will take you to. Frequently engaging in these activities is not about ticking off part of a big life plan but about making small progressions that support the whole. If you are a trainee it can be a really nice way of ticking off competencies, if you are already registered it can bring some variety to your CPD for the year. Meeting new people and making new friends is a benefit in itself.

One of the wonderful things about seeing these encounters as small steps is that you don’t have to feel overwhelmed by the big picture, in fact you don’t have to know what that big picture will look like. I talk a lot about having goals in mind, and I stand by that, but there is also joy in taking small steps into the unknown where you just enjoy and value the step in itself. Where you focus on the learning and the experience of that encounter for what it’s offering you in the moment. Taking multiples of these small steps combine to lead to big changes but the little steps have value in themselves and should be appreciated as such.

Don’t be afraid to be seen

I think on some level we all fear being visible, of sticking our heads above the parapet. It feeds into imposter syndrome and our fear that we aren’t ‘enough’. Fear of failure, of not getting chosen, is embedded in most of us from standing in lines to be picked at school if nothing else. I know and understand these fears. Fear is OK, it’s natural, in some cases in the right amount it can even be helpful. The problem comes when it overwhelms, or when we pay it too much heed and therefore we let it stop us from becoming all that we can. I feel this is especially true if it stops us learning, either from the experience itself or from even engaging in the opportunity to start with.

I often sit in my fear for a bit when I’m trying to move forward. This may sound like a strange phrase or a strange thing to do, but sometimes I need to experience the fear to understand it. I don’t dismiss it as I’ve never been able to make that work, instead I allow myself to feel and to ask myself ‘if this fear is real what is the worst that will happen’. What are the worst case scenarios. Then I ask myself, ‘what does this worst case scenario actually mean for me?’. Is the worst case that someone doesn’t pick me? In which case I’ll be a bit bummed out for a few days but there will be more opportunities. Is the worst case that I will make myself look like a bit of an idiot? To be honest I’ve been there before and whether its for this specific reason or not I am likely to be there again. One thing I’ve learnt it that you and your behaviour/embarrassment has way more longevity in your mind than in others. To be frank you are simply not important enough to most other people for them to remember a stupid comment in 6 months time, and those that you are important enough to probably won’t care. Most of the time when I do this I realise that even in the worst case scenarios the event would have little meaning in my life a few months down the line. Therefore the potential cost is still worth it. I don’t talk myself out of fear, I embrace it and that way it doesn’t control me.

Help your community

Finally, and I think this is so important. Our communities survive because of the fact that we engage as part of them. Guidelines don’t get written if people don’t volunteer to write them, events don’t get organised, outreach doesn’t get undertaken and manuscripts don’t get published. It really is a case of trying to make the sum greater than the parts.

As well as learning experiences in themselves, these opportunities are vital for both our profession and our patients. So much of what we do isn’t ‘paid’ as such, so much of our impact is based on the community choosing to engage and work together towards making things different, and hopefully better than they are today. We reap the benefits from the work of this community whether we volunteer or not, but we benefit so much more if we are part of the process. As each one of us steps forward to support our communities the output benefits, as the contribution comes from a more varied group of people and stands a better chance of therefore representing the society/community it is linked to. So instead of seeing your application as a way to benefit you and feeling stressed or worried about how it is received, see it for what it is, something that will benefit those receiving it and something they will be grateful to open.

Since sending that first email asking to be considered I’ve travelled the world, met amazing people and opened up a world of opportunities I just couldn’t have imagined, just because I hit reply and YES. So give yourself the gift of believing in yourself the way that you believe in others, you deserve it!

All opinions on this blog are my own

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