Finding a trusted tribe to share all the highs and lows of professional life has made all the difference for urban planner and founder of Urbanistas Sydney, April McCabe.
Dear 22-year-old, self-conscious, introverted, enthusiastic, kind of quirky self,
It’s certainly been a long time and while many things have changed, a lot has stayed the same. Congrats on landing your first ‘proper’ job. I know the move from Newcastle to Sydney was a big one (but it won’t be the biggest). I also know you still aren’t sure if it was the right move, but don’t worry. You’ll love living in Sydney … and Dublin … and London … but Canberra, not so much. Sydney will very quickly become the only place you can imagine living in (well, maybe Amsterdam, but that is a more recent revelation).
I can’t say that the coming years will be easy. There will be days when things get a bit overwhelming. I still have those days when those self-doubt gremlins telling me “I’m not good enough” get rather loud; where perfectionist tendencies stop me from suggesting that idea or being brave enough to speak up in meetings. And the anxiety means I just can’t perform at my best sometimes – but it’s really OK, because I’ve learnt how to manage this … and I promise so will you.
What I can tell you is this. Being an urban planner is fantastic! I know you think there is a map to guide you via the most efficient route to your career destination. While there is some wayfinding, it’s the jobs, connections and opportunities that you find off the beaten track that become the most rewarding. All these life experiences will shape you as a planner and a person.
You’ll be surprised to hear this, but your sense of humour is a massive asset. Don’t be afraid to let that laugh rise up and explode out. Embrace your enthusiasm and never hide that cheeky (but always respectful) personality, which does offset that blunt ‘calling a spade, a spade’ approach. Importantly, don’t underestimate the power of your ingrained qualities, such as stamina, determination, diligence and strength. All these go a long way in gaining the trust and respect of those around you. Trust me when I say you don’t have to be the loudest person in the room for others to take notice and to value your contributions.
Given you are just starting on your career journey, I thought that you might appreciate a few tips and tricks about what you should find and what you should strive to be to help you along the way.
1. Find the smart, hard-working and passionate people in the room – watch them closely and take notes
I know you’re a bit of an overachiever, but stop comparing your abilities to the person with 10 years experience. Take a look around and find the smart people that you respect. You’ll be able to easily spot them. They’re the ones who are passionate, share your principles, and have a similar work ethic. If they are the type of person that you want to be when you grow up, then get to know them. Seek out opportunities to work with them, watch them and take notes. You will be incredibly lucky to work with some passionate, smart and hardworking people – and, importantly – a lot of them will be strong and brilliant women. Learn from them and try to reflect those characteristics that you admire, like being collaborative, having empathy and integrity, being honest, being a rational thinker, being positive and energetic and resourceful, and always having a sense of curiosity. All these qualities are in part what makes them respected in their profession (not all in the built environment); excellent as managers and just great all-round human beings. This is not to say that they are perfect. We all have flaws. But even now I still seek out these people who I respect and admire, so I can ask them for help and learn from them.
2. Find your trusted tribe
One of the most difficult things to navigate in your working life will be the toxic people who can be disruptive or make you feel humiliated or manipulated. They can so easily impact on your self-confidence and mental health. It’s tough to work with these people but the reality is that they aren’t going to change. All you can control is how you act and respond to their negativity. The best way to insulate yourself from these people is finding your trusted tribe. These are the people who will have your back. These are the people who respond with honesty and zero judgement when things aren’t going your way. They are also the ones who turn up with the champagne to celebrate the successes. My trusted tribe are the ones in ‘the arena’ whose opinions matter and critiques I will listen to. I know your instinct when things get rough is to just work harder, but take a step back, talk to your trusted tribe and ask for help instead. What I have learnt – and wish I knew this earlier – is if you’re a toxic type or ‘you aren’t one of those people who is in the arena also getting your arse kicked, then I’m not interested in your feedback’ (credit for this quote goes to Brene Brown).
3. Find the opportunities and jump in with gusto
I can’t emphasise enough the importance of ‘giving things a crack’. It’s not comfortable at times and I have agonised, overthought and lost sleep over having to do new things or take on jobs that weren’t in my area of expertise. You will make mistakes and the job may not be perfect, but you will also find things you enjoy and have an unexpected aptitude for. That map I was telling you about – well, the path that has led me here has been quite the meandering and bumpy journey. I started out as a strategic land use planner, then a place maker and I’m now a policy and political advisor. I’ve taken opportunities and chosen to live and work overseas. I’ve travelled and met amazing people, accepted invites to be on panels and spoken at events (even though it was uncomfortable). I’ve jumped into jobs because they sounded interesting, always worked outside the confines of a job description, and done work that creates a meaningful existence. All of this has led me to where I am right now.
4. Find what inspires you and let it feed your energy
We all need a break to recharge the batteries, particularly when work is intense and busy. I’ve found that getting out from under a project or problem by doing things I enjoy has restorative qualities and is great for my mental health and general wellbeing. So, search hard for the things that centre you, that make you question things, and remind you that you are part of something bigger. Travel to other cities and see how they do things, take photos, read books, go to talks and events, and network with other city and design nerds. Something that absolutely inspires me and feeds my energy is the women’s network group I started called Urbanistas Sydney. This was born out of the idea that if you can’t find a group that works for you, then just make up one yourself. Connecting with intelligent women from a variety of backgrounds and interests that are passionate about cities and want to share their ideas has been one of the most rewarding things that I have done. Through this group, I’ve never felt so connected to my ‘tribe’, so much so that people tell me that it has become my ‘drug of choice’. It actually makes me chuckle to imagine your contorted face of disbelief right now at the very thought of all this networking. But the value of making these connections and finding those things that inspire you is priceless, and is at the core of creating a meaningful professional existence. It also makes life in general pretty fun too!
Strive to …
5. BE and embrace your authentic self
I know that you don’t quite ‘get you’ right now, but you will – and it will be a relief to finally feel comfortable in your own skin. (Just a heads-up – there will be hard work and some pretty low points). Once you do, you’ll embrace being a smart, curious, political, gay, anxious, can’t sit still, overthinking, perfectionist, enthusiastic, opinionated, goofy, sporty, nerd, creative, chatterbox type. I’ve found that authenticity and a willingness to roll up your sleeves is a strong foundation to build trust – something that takes time and hard work to gain and is very easily lost. But it’s a critical asset to influence people and deliver great projects. So, as Taylor Swift says, ‘the haters gonna hate, hate, hate hate hate and the fakers gonna fake fake fake fake fake … I shake it off, I shake it off’ (that song will be playing in your head for days after Mardi Gras 2015).
6. BE Brave
I’m reading this great book at the moment and I came across this – ‘Courage is contagious. Every time we choose courage, we make everyone around us a little better and the world a little braver’. It’s tough to be the brave person in the room and it might be easier to just agree with the majority or stay silent, but acting with integrity and honesty are the things that count. Remember, bravery comes in different forms. It’s not just about the extraordinary; it’s also the small, everyday acts. It’s about being brave to voice your ideas and opinions, about being brave to ask for help and saying ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out’. It’s about pushing yourself to do things that make you uncomfortable so you get better (you’re thinking about public speaking right now, aren’t you?). Brave is embracing your idiosyncrasies and turning them into strengths. It’s about valuing your expertise and contributions to both the successes (without being arrogant) but also the failures. Being brave is showing up.
7. BE Generous
First and foremost, be generous to your self. I still have to work hard to do this, to create a work/life balance, and give myself a break. You will get caught up in the whirlwind of life and the dramas (both real and confected) that it can create. So, be conscious of your actions and be generous to:
- your trusted tribe;
- the mentors and those you respect who are willing to give you their time, energy and share their experience to help you navigate your path;
- people – both at work and outside – that are also showing up and getting their arses kicked;
- anyone willing to put themselves forward and be brave;
- the brave souls who aren’t perfect but striving to be their authentic self; and
anyone that asks for and/or needs your help and support (and remember sometimes people can’t ask but just need someone to offer).
You may not be ready for this advice right now or have faith that you will achieve some great things (I know you will). You won’t be perfect all the time, so try to relax and don’t be afraid to try new things. I know that you will spend a lot of time planning things and formulating Plan B through F, so do me a favour. Remember to breathe, realise you don’t have to change the world tomorrow, continue to find things that inspire and excite you, and enjoy the ride once in a while.
your 39 (& ¾) year old self
April is an urban planner and is currently the Policy Manager for the Lord Mayor of Sydney, overseeing a varied portfolio including city planning, design, housing and transport as well as night-time economy, education, and gender equality. Prior to working with the Lord Mayor, April worked as a strategic urban planner and placemaker in both government and consultancy in Sydney, Canberra and overseas in London and Dublin. April is a keen photographer, self-confessed urban sociologist and as the founder of Urbanistas Sydney – part of a women-led global network – she is passionate about amplifying the voice of women in cities.