Alaskan Awakening: tapping into self-leadership for global health

Kenai Fjords, Alaska

THE BIRTH OF A CAREER DREAM…

It was an ordinary lecture, on an ordinary day at medical school. As the population science slides flashed along, notes were scribbled amid yawns and whispers.

But something happened as we hit the infant and maternal mortality rates slides…

My brain was seized by curiosity and time stopped for a moment…A number could capture the history, health situation and economic development level of a country? The mathmo geek in me was elated.

A single number could tell what was wrong and what needed to be done in terms of health care services and prevention to save the lives of countless children and women!!!

I was hooked. I wanted to do whatever this discipline of health was — it turned out to be Public Health — and work wherever this work was done — the World Health Organisation was the holy grail…

I was in.

From then, everything I did was designed to get me closer to this miracle.

The first part of my dream was to plan a mission with Médecins Sans Frontières. I wanted to give back and understand what health was about in the most challenging setting.

It took me three years of planning to make sure I could fit everything in: medical jobs, professional exams, training courses, meetings with MSF, a job to return to…

A few travel permits later…

I found myself in a remote village in South Sudan as the only doctor for 50,000 people.

It was one of the most intense experiences of my professional life. The memories are as vivid ten years later as they were then. I learned what survival meant. I learned to lead. I learned humility and compassion.

Yet, it couldn’t last. I had to return to a nice safe job (to train as a public health doctor) and get the right credentials…

Abyei, South Sudan.

RISK-TAKING VERSUS PLANNING

So I pulled off my “MSF dream” on the way to my “WHO dream”.

Could I do it again for the WHO? Needless to say, it took a lot of energy and focus to “make it happen”.

As it turns out, dreams aren’t meant to be manufactured. They are meant to be given space and time to unfold.

Fast forward five years…

It was crunch time and I had to decide what I was going to do with the rest of my career. I’d completed a prestigious PhD and a number of roads were open to me.

Academia or policy? Community public health or global public health? Think tank or government? Boring but well paid job or risky exciting venture?

My brain tried to figure it out. I got stuck in analysis. Either/or; black and white thinking. I asked and consulted the great and the good but every answer I got seemed to add another layer of confusion and frustration.

I had to resign myself…There was no answer. At this point, I couldn’t even remember what my dream was, let alone feel the excitement I had as an idealistic student. All my careful planning had led to a dead-end.

Now what?

Arctic Valley mountain top.

LETTING GO

No amount of planning and analysing could get me to the place of excitement and inspiration that had carried me along my early career.

In fact, inspiration and fulfilment turned out to be not a result of goal achievement, but a way of living. They are the place from which our goals can spring forth as we step into the unknown, guided by our intuition and a deeper intelligence...

This is how I slowly found my way back to my dream. Trusting the deeper intelligence and following the breadcrumbs of intuition in the desert.

I’d stopped looking outside for answers. I knew what I didn’t want (working the wrong job for the sake of security). I started shutting out any advice that wasn’t aligned with my intuition and kept the door open for possibilities I hadn’t thought of.

I also boiled down my aspiration to one statement: “I want to be part of the global conversation on health.” That was it. No job title, no organisation, no nothing. Just a bare naked dream statement born of a childhood wish.

That’s when serendipity kicked in.

One morning, I walked into a lift and met the person who would facilitate the realisation of my aspiration.

At that point, I was so institutionalised I didn’t recognise the opportunity immediately. A lot of risks were attached to it (including the absence of job security thereafter) and I was strongly advised by my boss at the time not to pursue this.

It was only when I found myself in a wood cabin deep in Alaska, cut off from all the usual noise and interference, that the fog cleared fully and I was able to remember what it was all about…

Suddenly, I knew exactly what I needed to do and was prepared to do whatever it took!

I gave myself permission to pursue my dream of being part of the global conversation on health despite all the perceived obstacles and risks.

On my return, I committed to the opportunity that was offered, took steps to complete everything else I was exploring and had the most exhilarating 18 months of my career until then.

I found myself working on projects with the United Nations, the WHO and beyond. One day I looked at my email signature and it said “Consultant in International Public Health” and “Consultant at the Royal Institute of International Affairs”.

I know that I could not have achieved this through logical planning. Interestingly, the titles meant a lot less than the actual journey.

I strongly believe that it was the letting go of planning and certainty, the ability to deal with ambiguity and a willingness to take risks that allowed the goal to happen and my teenage dream to be realised.

This is what I tell anyone I work with — all of whom are high achieving doers, movers and shakers — to make their dreams a reality. A good amount of letting go of old habits and cultural conditioning is required to live the biggest dream they have ever dreamt.

This is always the starting point of the coaching process of creating a career and life they love — a radical declutter!

Rumi said: “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it”. I’m increasingly convinced, from my experience as well as the results I see with my coaching clients, that our work is not to make goals happen but to remove all the barriers within us holding our dream back.

Then, an organic unfolding aided by the masterful use of our energy and imagination can begin.

Of course, once I had fulfilled my global health dream, another one emerged, but that’s another story…

DO YOU HAVE A DREAM?

We all carry the seeds of something extraordinary and unique within us.

Whether in be a secret project idea in your current job, a hidden creative passion, a long held business idea or revolutionary community movement, the music is sitting there in a recess of your heart-mind, probably just under the surface of your day-to-day concerns.

It may even be apparent to others…but only you can write the symphony and play it to the world.

What is your secret dream?.. Don’t let fear hold it back. Let it come through.

To your biggest dream.

Dr Amina Aitsi-Selmi

Coaching to reinvent careers and put more heart into leadership.

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Arctic Valley, Alaska.