Stars can’t shine without darkness…

A few months ago I had a horrible incident at work, where I was verbally attacked, and my professional and personal character assassinated in front of other colleagues. Thankfully the incident itself was taken very seriously by my employer, but it still had a significant effect on me personally and left me reeling and riddled with self-doubt.

Stars can't shine without darkness - black and white print by Coconut Lane in conjunction with Maddie Bruce for World Mental Health Day 2016.

I bought myself this little black and white print as an impulse buy to try and build myself back up.

The print itself is from Coconut Lane. It was designed in collaboration with YouTuber Maddie Bruce, as part of a project to raise awareness of mental health issues.

As well as pretty black and white typography, the phrase itself resonated with me.

It encourages working towards being the best you can be, doing the best you can and shining as bright as you can, despite any darkness you face within yourself or from others. However it does still acknowledge the presence of that darkness, of problems, issues, human failings we face every day, and serves as a reminder that without darkness, nobody would be able to really shine. In your darkest times, hard as they are, you are given the opportunity to show what you are really made of, to grow, to adapt, to turn a negative experience into something positive.

This is something that I think applies in a professional and career context too.  I certainly aspire to be considered a ‘star’ in my career one day, and to shine as bright as possible along the way. But trying to shine bright can bring unanticipated consequences: competition, jealousy, and just plain dislike.

You know the feeling. The instant irritation that comes over you when the teacher’s pet at work gets it right yet again, and you have to look away to keep from rolling your eyes. The hairs on the back of your neck rising when another young colleague achieves something amazing and, while you are pleased for them, you feel that slight threat of competition in the periphery of your mind. The uncertainty of assessing a new member of staff to see whether they are going to be friend or foe, whether they will help you get where you want to be, or whether they’ll try and beat you to it.

Having this print up on my wall got me thinking – why do I instinctively feel this way sometimes? Why does the presence of brightness from others make me feel as though mine is being threatened?

Perhaps part of it stems from what my generation has been through over the past decade. In 2008, around the time we were finishing school and thinking about uni, careers and futures, the financial crisis hit. Overnight, the shiny happy world of entry level jobs (with potential), internships (that were paid), and graduate progression schemes (that you could actually get a place on)… disappeared. Youth unemployment soared. Competition for even the most junior and basic of jobs was often in the region of over a thousand applicants to one place.

The resulting constant and intense competition with between us and our peers to get a job, any job, in the first place, has had a lasting impact. When you’ve spent months, even years battling against literally a thousand other people to grab a toehold on any opportunity, it’s difficult to let go and shift your mindset away from feeling like your peers are your competition, and towards thinking of them as allies. Towards understanding that other stars in the sky aren’t going to stop you shining bright.

For us millennial girls, having grown up with stories of mean ugly sisters, evil step-mothers and jealous queens who banish the beautiful and talented fairytale princesses that threaten their status, the sense that other girls are always competition is doubly hard to shake off.

Almost a decade on from the darkness of the financial crisis however, the job situation for young people is slowly starting to get better. While there is still intense competition, most of us are managing to eventually get a foot in the door of professional employment (albeit after spending a double digit number of months sending off a triple digit number of applications… And sometimes after getting one or two extra degrees… And maybe working for free for a while…). But once we’re in, and people start to see what we can contribute, we have the opportunity we’ve been waiting for to shine.

And, thanks to our pioneering female predecessors (i.e. people like my fully fledged girl boss working mum), young women do now have a mostly equal footing in terms of getting and keeping jobs. Alongside other protected groups we also have the benefit of equalities legislation and anti-discrimination rights on our side. While this isn’t perfect yet, and doesn’t necessarily help everyone, it does give us a significant advantage in terms of making sure we are treated equally and fairly.

It’s easy to let ourselves believe that the fewer stars we have around us, the brighter we’ll seem. But actually, while a bit of instinctive competitiveness might be hardwired into us as human beings, and reinforced by our society and previous life experience, there’s no reason why we can’t see past it and look at the bigger picture. In all of this, in work and in life, having allies makes us stronger, not weaker. We can and should support each other to find great jobs, and build each other up in the workplace to help each other do the best we can.

When I bought this print I was in tears, devastated by the words of another person, questioning everything about myself, and trying to keep the obsessive thoughts about the unkind things that had been said to me at bay. But I went back to work the next day. And my colleagues hugged me and checked that I was okay and reassured me I had nothing to worry about.

Helping someone else shine brighter won’t make you shine any less. In fact it’s more than likely it will help you too.

I can’t promise much expert guidance or particularly insightful advice on this blog, just my experiences and thoughts. I hope that through sharing these I might in some way help someone else. If we can get past our inherent fear of the dark and try to build each other up, then maybe we can all shine a little brighter together.

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