From Redundancy To TEDx Speaker — How Going Freelance Transformed My Life & Mental Health
‘Redundant’ is a label that I perhaps once assumed would never apply to me. This time last year I had a longterm job in the music industry that I enjoyed and was good at, I had even just won a prestigious industry award for my work. After years of self-doubt, imposter syndrome and shyness throughout my 20s, I finally felt like I was proving myself to be a confident and able music industry professional with a bright future. So when I opened the letter, part of me thought it was a joke. It couldn’t be real.
But it was. I was redundant.
That’s how my 2018 started. Completely unexpectedly I didn’t go to work again after that cold and wet January day. A half-eaten pasta salad of mine sat in the office fridge (it’s entirely possible it still does). Some Christmas presents I hadn’t taken home yet lay on my desk. The emails, presumably, kept landing in my inbox. But I wasn’t there. I was redundant.
I think I was in a state of shock at first. As I moved through the long-winded stages of redundancy I felt almost separate from the proceedings. Family members and former colleagues called to offer their support and I told them I was doing fine. I don’t think I cried at any point, but I felt a sort of numb grief. So much of my identity after 13 years at one company was wrapped up in being “Lara from…”, how did I detach from that and who was I otherwise? I honestly didn’t know.
Sitting at home in my pyjamas in the second week of not working, I faced the career black hole in front of me. What was my plan? I didn’t have one. Some days I got out of bed, some days I didn’t bother. I just about managed to feed my cats and myself (not only was I redundant but I was a single 30-something cat lady. Oh joy!). On one particular day I pulled my laptop out and faffed around on the internet for a bit. I don’t remember what led me there or which one it was, but I ended up watching a TED talk on YouTube.
As a keen writer who actively campaigns for gender equality and diversity in the music business, I had placed giving a TED talk on my bucket list some years earlier (right next to writing a book, both of which I was pretty sure I’d actually never get round to doing). Before redundancy I’d watched probably dozens of TED talks sporadically through the years, but as redundancy unfolded I returned over and over to the TED YouTube channel and devoured talk after talk, everything from feminist empowerment to mental wellbeing, spirituality, grief and so much more. It felt like the only way to keep my brain working whilst I didn’t. It was some months later when I recognised the toll redundancy had taken on my mental health and sought therapy via the NHS. In the immediate aftermath of redundancy, those talks were a form of therapy in themselves.
As I sat, still pyjama clad mid-afternoon in a very patient friend’s house and watched Ashley Judd give her phenomenal talk ‘How Online Abuse of Women Has Spiralled Out Of Control’ (check it out, it’s brilliant), not for the first time I thought ‘wouldn’t it be amazing to give a TED talk?’. But I was redundant. Unemployed. About as far from TED material as you can be.
Gradually, over the coming months, with the help of therapy, an army of encouraging friends and inspired by the talks I was devouring, I began to hatch a plan to start my own business. Having led marketing, comms and events for a growing organisation for 13 years, I knew I had skills that I could offer as a consultant, at least until the right job materialised. So one day I decided to actually get dressed and leave the house (this was a big moment believe me), and I began having meetings with practically every contact I had ever made, telling them my business idea. I was at my lowest ebb and I felt the weight of the “redundant” label pressing down on me every day…some 12 months later there are days when it still does. But despite my self-doubt, amazingly roughly half of those I met with followed up with a project they were keen to have me work on, and all were encouraging and positive about my chances of success. Within weeks I had clients and projects. I was really doing this.
On my first two projects I was a nervous wreck. I barely spoke to anyone in the offices of my clients when I went in to work, and I followed every instruction to the most minute detail, terrified that if I didn’t do exactly what was expected I would lose the job. I worked all through weekends, I over served and under charged, so unsure of my abilities and convinced I was doing a terrible job. But gradually I realised things were going well; I was delivering successful events, and my clients liked working with me. My confidence was little by little coming back.
Then last summer to my complete surprise I was invited to speak at the House of Lords about the challenges facing women in the music business and how to overcome them. Making the music industry a more balanced and inclusive place has been a mission of mine for years, since I started a Women in Music event in the early noughties which went on to take place annually and be supported by the Mayor of London. But I was a consultant now out on my own without a well known organisation behind me, and I still felt redundant…surely this was a mistake?
It wasn’t, and as I sat in a fancy chamber in Westminster with many of the women who I most admire from across the music industry, I managed (nervously) to articulate the issues I think most pressing for achieving gender equality in music, in particular the need to ban the use of Non Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) to cover up sexual harassment and assault.
So weeks later when I saw details of a TEDx event taking place at the end of the year in Liverpool, I took a deep breath and emailed the organiser (a wonderful woman named Dr Pragya Agarwal who I managed to track down through a bit of Twitter stalking) and enquired how I might pitch to give a talk on this subject.
When I found out my pitch was successful and I was invited to give a TEDx talk, I was speechless (not a great response really given the nature of the challenge ahead). In December I was to give a talk entitled “After #MeToo: Ending The Power Imbalance in Music”. Oh crap…be careful what you wish for, kids.
So at the end of last year, a year that started with redundancy and pyjamas and a career black hole, I stepped on stage at The Tate in Liverpool and I gave my TEDx talk. I got through it, and actually enjoyed it in the end (the weeks of preparation and imposter syndrome beforehand not so much). My best mate came along in a spice girls t-shirt and cheered me on from the audience. Strangers came up to me afterwards and told me they found the talk inspiring. I awkwardly pointed out the line I’d stumbled on and how shaky my voice was. I absolutely dread watching it back when the video goes up, but we’re all our own worst critics and I do feel incredibly proud. Not just of achieving the bucket list goal of delivering a TED(x) talk, but of everything I achieved in 2018 after what felt like an utterly hopeless start.
So if you’re reading this and you’re going through redundancy, or something happens in early 2019 to take the wind out of your sails and make you feel hopeless, don’t write yourself and your year off. Keep going, don’t let that thing define you, take things day by day. A year is a long time, and you can be standing in a very different place at the end of it.