Last week I was speaking to my sister Alicia who runs her own restaurant in a small town. Alicia completed secondary school but, unlike the rest of us she has not been to college or university. She is not academically-inclined but she has a lot of skills and a true go-getter attitude.
During her final year at school Alicia specialised in fashion and design and embarked on a career as a dressmaker. Later, when cheap clothing from overseas flooded the country she found that she could no longer compete and so she scaled down her business and concentrated on making school uniforms only. This was a seasonal business and she was often without work. In a bid to enhance her career she enrolled in a tailoring programme and learnt to make men’s clothing. Before long it was clear that the tailoring industry was also adversely affected and so she turned her attention to baking and selling her products to the school her children attended. This allowed her to work around her children’s school day and avoid child-care costs. When her children moved on to high school she retrained as a florist and offered her services to events management companies. Later she learnt to decorate cakes and supplied birthday and wedding cakes. When that business slowed she started her own catering business and became a chef, using skills she had learnt from our mother. She has been engaged in this field for the last 10 years and is perfectly happy with her career choice.
The aim of this article is not to relate the story of Alicia’s career but to explore how we could learn from her in our pursuit of success. In keeping her head above water Alicia displayed dogged determination, creativity and uniqueness. Her styles - whether in clothes, cakes, flowers or dinners were always different from those offered by her competitors. For example, during our conversation she shared with me one of her current strategies: She researches various edible herbs and vegetables available locally and apprises herself of the ailments they are used to alleviate. She then shares this information with her customers and offers to supply them with food and drink containing these produce. This has given her a unique advantage that her competitors have failed to match. These herbs and vegetables are already widely consumed, for example, cucumber juice is on the menu - different from the usual popular beverages. Cucumber juice is said to contain a hormone needed by the cells of the pancreas for producing insulin which is beneficial to diabetic patients. It was found that a compound called sterols, in cucumbers may help to reduce cholesterol levels. Cucumbers contain potassium, magnesium and fibre which work effectively for regulating blood pressure; this makes cucumbers good for treating both low and high blood pressure.
This is what we who are trained in business call “create a need and fill it”. The fact that Alicia never studied business or management or had business advice or a mentor makes me think – is this an innate ability that we all have? How did she know that she could do that? She kept ahead of the competition by being inventive and creative and coupled these qualities with great people skills. Because of this quality she has never been broke in her life, a claim that many so called learned people cannot honestly make. She didn’t say that it was easy; in fact many nights she lay thinking what her next move would be. She had to plan her strategy, taking into consideration changing external factors over which she had no control. She was often tired at the end of the day but she achieved all she wanted to accomplish – three educated children, a mortgage-free home, food on her table and a bit of money in the bank. She did this with no help from welfare or from her former husband - the father of her children. She understood clearly what is meant by the French proverb: fais ce qui dois, advienne que pourra (do what you must, come what may).
What can we learn from Alicia? Quite a bit, I’d say: the importance of: 1) being creative 2) being unique; 3) strategic thinking; 4) continuous professional development; 5) market research; 6) maintaining a great attitude to life; 7) flexibility; 8) the willingness to change; 9) relating well to people; 10) time management; 11) effective communication; 12) focus; 13) maintaining good financial management; 14) asking for help when necessary; 15) hard work; 16) resilience; 17) determination; 18) willpower; 19) confidence; 20) thinking outside the box and 21) self belief. When the external looked bleak she looked on the internal and saw natural talent and skills, and coupled with sheer determination she made it work, taking a step backwards in order to go forwards. For it to happen on the outside it needs to happen on the inside first. What do you have on the inside?
There is a Jamaican proverb that says: “Turn your hand and make fashion” which simply means “be creative with what you have”. Sometimes we do not have exactly what we need but if we look at what we do have, chances are we can make it work. There is no point dwelling and lamenting on situations that we cannot change; “where there is a will, there is a way”. What do you have in your hand? I am sure that in Alicia’s life there were often dark clouds but she chose to focus on the silver lining, the light at the end of the tunnel. She often found herself between a rock and a hard place and sometimes she had her cake and wanted to eat it too. There is a Spanish proverb: “A río revuelto, ganancia de Pescadores” - there are those who thrive in difficult, chaotic situations. Are you that person who looks for the opportunity lurking behind the threats?
Alicia is not computer literate – the only piece of technology she masters is her mobile phone. She has not had the benefits of the internet with its vast array of information and opportunities but she thrives nonetheless. Many of us have round-the-clock access to such media, we have access to help from the State, to free training and advice but we are still struggling. What does that say about us? Are we suppressing or sacrificing our innate talents and relying on technology, compromising our creative skills? What do you have in your head?
Challenges often show up in our lives but they are not here to stay. Too many of us focus on the problems causing them to appear bigger than they really are. When Alicia found herself going through in a divorce she did not curl up and die – she reached out for help, took some deep breaths and slowly started to move forwards. We tend to ignore the solutions often creating our own barriers that prevent us from seeing those solutions. When you meet upon a difficult situation you may not be able to control it but you can stop it from getting to you; take advice from Maya Angelou – "If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude." Don’t let the closed doors discourage you; find another way in or create your own door. You may hurt now and again but you shouldn’t allow yourself to remain wounded.
Many of us find ourselves on a treadmill and would love to disembark but we are scared to take the plunge. Sometimes we have to take a step backwards in order to gather momentum to go forwards. It’s not about keeping up with others; it’s about running your own race and being consistent. Alicia has never had a job but she has never been unemployed. Don’t encourage negative voices that tell you that you cannot do it; they will always be there, they are not going anywhere but you are! Everything is but for a time, everything passes. By leveraging the power of positive thinking you’ll ride the waves and in time you’ll direct the waves.
Who dares, wins.