Nicole Singh: I’m a Woman of Colour, and This Is the Career Advice I Wish I Knew Sooner

POPSUGAR Australia is dedicating the month of September to featuring the next generation of inspired thinkers and courageous individuals who are building and manifesting a brighter future — because the next gen is unstoppable. We will deliver personal essays from young Australians who are making a name for themselves, as well as inspiring thought pieces and interviews with rising talent across different industries throughout the month. Find all of our pieces here, and if there’s someone you think is missing, email our editor so we can share their story — [email protected].

To be unstoppable against all the odds. That is the ultimate goal, right?

To superfluously move through life with graceful determinism and conviction. So, what does it take to be unstoppable in our careers? There’s plenty of advice that will tell you, “anything is possible if you put your mind to it,” to embrace the hustle, and to ignore the internal dialogue of imposter syndrome. To preface, this is not that type of advice.

What makes me unstoppable? A relentless mission to place self-care first and everything else second.

I am a content strategist based in Sydney who works within the booming tech start-up industry. I originally built my career in journalism, creating articles for global glossy titles like Harper’s Bazaar, Elle and Girlboss. But building a career that I’m proud of and one that serves my intrinsic needs hasn’t always been easy. In fact, it meant ignoring most of the advice I ever received.

You’ve likely been told at some point that in your dream career, your job prospects are slender, and you’ll have to prove your ambition against plenty of competition. The antidote? A hustle mindset, paired with low-employer expectations. You should “just be thankful you have a job,” right?

As women enter the workforce, we begin to see quickly how the odds are stacked even further against us — and even more so for those who belong to minority groups. The sweaty shudder comes with the weight of working for a system that doesn’t work for us. And so we take the unpaid internships and the low-paying jobs that promise to “accelerate our careers“. We hide our empty bank accounts and play the part.

When I speak of the term radical self-care, I don’t mean bubble baths and wine (but, oh how I love them). I mean the messy stuff, the pay-rise negotiations for your time, the therapy sessions that require deep self-awareness, finding a mentor who will have the courageous conversations with you, or stepping away from toxic friendships. It’s why I started an entire platform dedicated to it, called Real Talk.

Feminist and author, Audre Lorde, famously teaches us: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” This is how I will continue to cultivate the life I desire. As a woman of colour (WOC), I’ve learned about the art of self-care the hard way. It wasn’t until I got sick (really sick) and burnt out that I started to look at my career — and my wellness — with a more holistic lens.

2020 served as a call-to-arms era for minority groups and their allies. From the Black Lives Matters movement to the call for accountability of leaders within the fashion and beauty industry, it seemed like there was a collective shift towards advancement. And perhaps this is true.

For WOC around the world — and for this article’s purposes, in Australia — there is still institutional work to be done that falls outside the individual’s capacity to change. But first, let’s paint a picture: In an annual survey of Australian WOC, 60% of respondents had reported experiencing workplace discrimination. 43% also believed their identity as a WOC was not valued in the workplace. 57% had said they also faced challenges in the workplace related to their identity as a WOC.

As we patiently (read: painstakingly) wait for those with power to wake up to the benefits of authentically embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion, the act of self-preservation serves as an unstoppable tool for longevity and mental health.

Here are three lessons I wish I learned sooner:

There is power in leaning out

When I first read Sheryl Sanberg’s acclaimed book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, I was offended. I was already ambitious, skilled and knew I could do the job. I didn’t need to be told how to act in a board room, I just needed to get into the room.

Woman of Colour Australia’s survey shows that only 6.58% had a woman of colour leader. And it’s a sad trend that I’ve also seen in my career across many industries and specialties. You will likely encounter many different types of organisations, managers, and colleagues in your own career. Some will empower you to do your best work and reward you for it. Others won’t. You will have moments where your career is your ride-or-die friend and
others, where your personal life needs to take a front seat instead.

The key to thriving within the rollercoaster? Knowing when it’s time to lean in, and in fact, lean out. In an interview, one of Australia’s leading career coaches, Sarah Nanclares, reflects on the myth of having it all, all the time.

“There is a delusion that I can have it all. That’s the first place to have a sobering conversation with yourself… you can’t. Something will break. And typically, the things that will break are your marriage… your career… your family… or it will be your own mental health… So take your pick.”

Alternatively, she recommends regularly assessing what you need to thrive in each chapter and doing that. And let’s be honest, it’s never burning yourself out.

Define your success by your values

In school, we are taught about our strengths and weaknesses and what we should pursue (hello, aptitude tests). But, in hindsight, I would’ve saved a lot of heartache and tears if I spent time focusing on my values and how I can create alignment between these and my career. I value fairness, vulnerability, and wellness. It’s these values that I carry into every career decision I make.

In an interview, business psychologist Dianah Ward teaches professionals how to work more aligned with their values and cultivate more successful careers. “Sometimes there are situations where it feels off; that’s good feedback to say that this doesn’t sit well with me from a values perspective. Understanding what your values are is really important… then getting concrete about what that means to you in your career.”

Find your community

The famous quip “no man is an island” very much applies to building resilience within your career. This is especially important when it comes to remedying the impacts of racial and gendered micro-aggressions.

Through some of my most demanding challenges, finding colleagues and mentors who have shared similar encounters and offering support has been integral to protecting my mental health. In my current community, we encourage each other to take mental-health days, drop off food packages in lockdowns, send flowers, proofread strategy documents and give each other much-needed confidence boosters.

Dr. Tina Opie reflects on the power of sisterhood: “[It] allows us to share struggles together, realise that we’re not alone, that the pain we’re going through is something bigger than us.” In short, find the people who want to see you succeed and keep them close.

I would like to acknowledge my privilege as I write this article. I am born in Australia, university educated, come from a supportive family, and have a job supporting me and my needs. This is not a reality for many. Self-care in itself is a privilege, and I do not take that for granted.

You can follow Nicole Singh on Instagram.

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