As I type this right now, I’m sitting on a flight from London to Abu Dhabi. It’s only a seven-hour flight (which for an Australian isn’t very far) so I’m using this time wisely. Getting work done, clearing my backlog of emails, and watching the right movies.
Consuming fiction is important to me because it’s my main form of cathartic release. I am a very emotional person who feels things deeply. As a teenager up until a few years ago, I experienced ongoing depression and anxiety. Sometimes I couldn’t get out of bed for days. Sometimes I’d drive to a party, sit in my car outside, and then drive home after an hour because I was too afraid to talk to anyone. Sometimes I’d treat people I cared about horribly, in an attempt to push them away and further isolate myself. As silly as it may seem to some, a lot of films can trigger very intense reactions from me, so I need to carefully complement my current emotional state when deciding to watch something. Novels are a lot easier to manage because I can put them down and come back later – I feel like I’m in control when I read. The same logic doesn’t apply when I’m watching something. Only when I’m feeling particularly strong and secure can I handle watching ‘brilliant’, meaningful and artistic films, the kind that leave me introspective, analysing myself and society for days. When I’m feeling run down or vulnerable, I watch something funny or uplifting to balance that out.
I’m not feeling up for heavy content today, so I watched The Intern. Even in a movie as light-hearted as this one, I cried about a dozen times. I couldn’t help it – I found the raw humanity in everything. Robert de Niro’s character, describing his solitude and his need to stay busy after his wife passed, reminded me so much of my own Nanna who was such an important part of my life. Anne Hathaway’s character raised a lot of my own securities about being a successful woman and ‘having it all’. After the film, I sat and contemplated what success and happiness could look like over a lifetime in the modern world, and the fourth industrial revolution, for about an hour. Yep. I got there by watching a Hollywood flick about a retiree doing an internship. Nothing can really be ‘light’ for me – that isn’t how I’m wired.
My emotions used to cripple me, but I didn’t understand any other way to be. Unlike many other people who have depression, I rarely felt there was something wrong with me. Sometimes, when I would feel the weight of my sadness crushing me, I’d look around and instead wonder what was so wrong with everyone else. I felt like I was awake to the world, and being so unhappy was a consequence of having my eyes open to what was going on around me. I felt like the ‘happy’ people were ignorant and didn’t really care about the world. But I also felt like resentment and darkness were consuming me, and I desperately wanted to be someone who was full of light. I wanted to be the person I believed in being, but I felt so crippled and incapable of achieving it.
When I was about nineteen, I felt sustained happiness for the first time. It didn’t last long, but I felt it. And it was so markedly different from how I’d been living before. It was like the sun peeked through the clouds of the perpetual storm I lived within and I finally realised that conscious, caring, and ‘woke’ happiness was possible. I’ve gradually learned how to channel my emotional intensity in positive ways, but it’s a daily journey and it takes work. I always need a creative outlet of some kind. I need to listen to music. I give myself social space - that is, I decline to make plans and I let myself be alone when I need to be. I always search for positives, no matter how hard it is. Every time someone does something kind for me I write it down in my gratitude journal (really) so that when negative voices creep in, I can remember I’m not alone. I work to balance being firm, having strong beliefs and asserting my own boundaries with being warm, compassionate and genuine.
Watching movies and shows helps me keep functioning. Characters in fiction, particularly, give me people to empathise with (without the ‘reality’ becoming too much) and allow me to express my emotions. Instead of my energy spilling out and overwhelming me (and those around me) during particularly big moments – I get angry when there’s a shocking Game of Thrones murder (of which there are obviously many), anxious when Outlander’s Claire and Jamie are attempting to prevent Scottish defeat in the war against the English, and laugh with Kimmy Schmidt and Titus Andromedon. So maybe you understand a little of why it’s hard for me to pick my next in-flight entertainment option… which parts of myself do I want to explore next?
This is the sixth in a series of 52 Memoirs I will be posting weekly until April 2018. Look out for new posts every Wednesday!
As a young kid, there were three careers I was seriously considering: acting, neurosurgery and human rights law, or some combination of the three. Sometimes I envisioned myself as a medical lawyer who did improv. Each option appealed to different parts of my personality. I enjoy talking (as anyone who has ever met me will attest to), helping people and challenging myself. Acting seemed like it would allow me to creatively express myself, and if I was good enough, give me a public platform to advocate for important causes. Medicine seemed difficult which is why it felt like a good challenge to commit to, maybe just to prove I could do it. And human rights law made me feel like I would be a strong and glamorous career woman standing up for the oppressed and stomping around New York with a briefcase, so basically Amal Clooney.
Usually, when I would share my career ideas with people, I’d get backlash. Most thought it was ridiculous to dream so big or to try to carve out such a unique path. (I did a TEDx talk about this exact topic, so I won’t dive into lots of detail in this post: please watch it if you want to!) I always ran up against, and had to resist, ideas of doing something ‘safe’ or reliable, like being a (commercial) lawyer or getting a commerce degree. When I got high enough grades to gain admission to any university course I wanted to, a lot of people were shocked by my decision to study a straight Bachelor of Arts degree and major in anthropology. But I realised pretty early on that if I wanted to live my own life, for myself, I’d have to manifest my own destiny by carving out a fresh path – so maybe others would be inspired to follow suit.
This isn’t a part of my story I’m ready to delve into just yet, but in my late teens when I began working professionally, I had to leave the orthodox university path to work full time and support my single Mum who had stage 4 melanoma. By many conventional measures, I couldn’t have gotten anywhere in life if I had to stop going to campus at 19 and support a household. But I found a way to make it work by getting an admin role at a legal charity for refugees when I was barely 20. I concurrently enrolled in online university courses and cross-credited them to my degree, studying each night and managing to graduate on time. At 21 I was promoted at the charity, helping the new CEO transition into her role. At 21 I also went to graduate school (online again) completing a postgraduate qualification in Australian Migration Law and Practice. The same year, I qualified and registered to practice migration law, and took on a number of refugee clients at low cost or pro bono, many of whom I’m still assisting today. At 22, I started working part-time with a French refugee NGO helping with their communications and strategy, which gave me opportunities to travel in the Asia Pacific region and build up my networks. That year I also founded a non-profit organisation in my hometown, which gained local, national and international media coverage. At 23, I decided to take on full-time Anthropology honours (an optional fourth year of study), and a concurrent Masters degree, then later that year I was interning at the UN in New York. At 24 I moved to London and began heading up digital channels and campaigns for International Peace Day, then I got my current ‘dream role’. At 25 – I’m a marketing manager in London, travelling the world, experiencing things beyond my wildest dreams, and appreciating every second of it.
I've had more roles in six years than many people would in a couple of decades. But this was all a result of me trying to make up for my personal setbacks. I can't say that I’d have achieved so much or pushed myself so hard if at one point I wasn’t afraid that my Mum would die and I’d be bankrupt. But adversity is what forces innovation – not just at a professional level, but a personal one. I am now fearlessly committed to adapting, learning, accepting new challenges, meeting new commitments, and always thinking “what’s next”. Not only what’s next for me, but what’s going to happen next in the world? What’s going to be important? What’s possible?
I tell the younger people I mentor to ignore most of the advice they receive, even from me. That might sound ridiculous (and certainly contradictory), but I believe it’s important. Anyone who thinks they know what will happen in the future is overconfident, lying and/or stupid. None of us know anything concrete, and we need to be ready to adapt to new circumstances. I have ended up focusing my career on a lot of data intensive, digital things that simply didn’t exist when I was a high school student. No career counsellor could have ‘advised’ me into my current occupation. Half of the people that I know who studied law or commerce can’t get jobs. What will I be doing in five years? Who knows. The niche likely hasn’t emerged, and if my mind is too made up right now, I might not be ready to take on the next challenge.
I’ve realised that I can’t plan for a world that doesn’t exist yet. I don’t think you can either, because we are co-creating that world right now. This has been even more hammered into me through recent political events, with Brexit and Trump both making it feel like we’re playing out a dystopian novel. I might have one vision of the world, but some people different to me might have another. The upside to all of this uncertainty is being able to live boldly and help manifest whatever future you want to see.
For me, that’s human development and social impact facilitated by technology. Things that were barely imaginable five years ago – like mobile money being able to distribute cash aid to refugees – are realities right now. In ten or twenty years, who knows? Cynics will say that all of this technological change is terrible for humanity, and that it will make our lives that much worse. What I see every day are commercially-sustainable technological platforms giving the world’s poorest people access to new information and services that are allowing them to transform their own lives. I don’t honestly believe that the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ will leave those people behind, because I see people who are able to adapt already flourishing. With all of the rapid transformation in Africa and Southeast Asia, coupled with booming youth populations relative to the West, my money is on traditionally “poor” societies overtaking us entirely in fifty years.
So let’s try not to pretend more than we do and face each new challenge head on. Let’s not be afraid to work hard or take big risks – because the world is going to change around us anyway, so why not be bold? That way we can co-create our own future, not just be victims of it.
This is the fifth in a series of 52 Memoirs I will be posting weekly until April 2018. Look out for new posts every Wednesday!
I remember a defining moment in my life was going to Cebu, in the Philippines, when I was about eight years old. In the midst of a short holiday away from Singapore where my Mum was working, she took me out to a rural area so I could see first-hand how people in poverty lived. She wanted me to see that there is a depth of human experience, and that a lot of kind and good people were trapped in circumstances beyond their control. This was one of the main triggers, I think, for my lifelong interest in global inequality.
Though to many people I sound quite international, as I come from a mixed ethnic background, was born in the United States and spent a fair chunk of my young-childhood years in Asia, I still grew up with a pretty limited view of the world. As a kid in Western Australia (where I have spent the vast majority of my life) I had limited access to global information, and so did most people around me. I’m young enough to barely remember a time before the internet was everywhere, but this didn’t seem to do much to improve our stereotyping of foreign cultures.
Growing up, I heard a lot of ignorant and hateful comments about foreign places and people, and as an adolescent who believed I was empathetic and politically aware, I sought to negate those at any opportunity. As just one example, after hearing Islamaphobic comments in my early teen years, I became a student of Arabic so that I could then read the Qur’an and understand it myself. Though I’m not religious, I’ve now read it cover-to-cover four times in the decade and a bit since, and try to be an ally for Muslim people by combatting hate with knowledge. And yet – my own subconscious, cognitive biases were (and likely still are) still incredibly powerful, and I have only discovered and overcome some of these by throwing myself head first into unfamiliar situations.
When I was 17, I signed up to spend a few months teaching in Malawi, a small country in Southeastern Africa. As a young person in Australia, I'd seen and heard a lot of simplistic, sometimes hateful, things about Africa (many an erasure of the immense religious, cultural and linguistic diversity of the massive continent), and I wanted to understand some of this for myself. That said, I was unbelievably ignorant at the time. As an anthropology student, I’d been learning about hunter-gatherers and complex (but mostly non-Western) cultures, and expected to find this where I went. I basically expected to be living in a mud hut while smiling children ran around, grateful for my presence, and to come back feeling worldly and good about myself. I ended up teaching advanced maths, chemistry and physics to high school students in a private boarding school, where everyone had mobile phones, drank Coca-Cola and listened to American hip-hop. The complex globalised society I lived in was not the ‘Africa’ I had imagined – but luckily my simplistic stereotypes were smashed when I was still relatively young. I pretty quickly realised the value in going out and actually spending time in places you think you have some idea about, but I’m still learning every day.
Recently, I was offered the opportunity to travel to Ukraine with a group of passionate young people from around the world, and decided to go along. I have never been educated, really, on the history of the Soviet Union, and my current understanding of the Eastern European region is at best mediocre. When I conjured images of Ukraine in my mind (based on a lifetime of media impressions I suppose) they were bleak. I had only heard about war and violence in the nation, and I had pictured lifeless Soviet housing blocks, grey landscapes, and harsh people. In spite of this, I decided to go along with an open heart and mind.
Over the four days I spent in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, I was blown away by breathtaking architecture, excellent food and coffee, ancient historical sites, a passionate social impact scene, a thriving tech economy and an abundant supply of hip bars and back-alley speakeasies. I felt 100% safe walking a kilometre back to my flat downtown at 3am (something that I can't say about most other cities), and I can easily say that the Ukrainian people are the friendliest and most hospitable I've ever met.
It is heart-wrenching to know that the Maidan we spent so much time admiring was the site of a violent revolution and the loss of many lives just a few years ago. It is also hard to Imagine Kyiv as the capital of a country at war, given its warmth, creativity, passion and light. I have left Ukraine with a strong belief in its youth, their devotion to the nation, and their ability to help its light shine even brighter. I am now planning to return to Ukraine again, and have been singing its praises to everyone I see. It’s ridiculous to think I would never have discovered what is probably my favourite city in the world, Kyiv, had I trusted any of the impressions I had of the country.
I can only hope I continue to say yes to new opportunities, meet new people and discover new places, and I recommend anyone else who has the opportunity to do the same. The world can only become a better, more inclusive place, if we each actively try to uncover and deal with these false impressions we carry around with us in the depths of our minds.
This is the fourth in a series of 52 Memoirs I will be posting weekly until April 2018. Look out for new posts every Wednesday!
I’ve always really loved fashion. I don’t say this in an “OMG these latest Kardashian trends” way or a “wow this expensive handbag makes me look plush” way (though no hate for anyone who loves the Kardashians or wants to look luxe – you do you). For me, nothing is more emotionally powerful than connecting with art, all the more if that art is telling a personal, political or social story. Fashion takes this love of art to another, more practical level, as it is the art we carry with us through the world – on our backs, on our feet and on our arms. Through your personal style you can express a mood, a thought or an idea, and present yourself to the world in a way that makes you feel safe and comfortable, or challenges you and those around you. The power is in your hands, and there’s so much you can do and say.
My appreciation of expression through style reached new heights during my school days. I went to a private Anglican girls school (on an academic scholarship mind you) that forced us to wear maroon all day every day. I once got in trouble for having double-rolled socks (even though they’d fallen down on their own because of, you know, walking) that’s how strict our uniform code was. In my teenage life outside of school, I relished any opportunity to express this pent-up creativity. I wore platinum wigs, pirate vests, bright yellow stockings, fedoras, you name it. When I got dressed on the weekend I had fun with it and tried to express a different aspect of what I was thinking or feeling at the time.
To feel so constrained at school, yet so free in my own time, I began to construct a mental division between ‘serious’ and ‘creative’ spaces, but this wasn’t entirely my own machination. At school, it was always framed as though there was no place for free personal expression there. Academic success was constructed as being at odds with displaying individuality, as though the two couldn’t co-exist. But it’s not only my school that felt this way - it’s much of society.
For roughly the last five years of my life, I’ve chosen to shove all of my passion for creative expression into a tiny box and I locked it away. It wasn’t all eliminated at once though. As a young woman beginning my career, a lot of this loud, boisterous fashion still made its way into the office - but only subtly. Maybe I’d wear a patterned shirt, a beaded collar or a bright shade of lipstick. I wasn’t exactly rocking up in a glittery mini dress or a chicken suit, I was still wearing office attire (and always past the knee, because that’s just how I tend to be comfortable). Yet my colleagues always seemed to interpret these as extreme acts. People couldn’t help but comment on what I was wearing, be something as tiny as a scarf, or a clip in my hair, and then link it back to my age, gender and experience level. To scratch the surface, comments like “you’re lucky you are so young so you can pull off that look”, “men’s fashion isn’t as liberal as women’s”, and even “if you want to be a manager one day you won’t be able to wear that” were said to me.
So, I toned it down even more, to the point that I felt I had to be a washed out grey version of myself to be palatable in the office. Why is it that people seem to view creative expression and professionalism as being at odds with one another? Are fun and experimentation linked to immaturity, real or perceived? Or much like the natural afro hair issue, are notions of ‘professionalism’ in Western society largely tied to what old, straight, white, cis-gendered men think is appropriate?
I continue to put a lot of energy into building up a ‘credible’ professional profile, because I know to achieve the impact I want to, I need to be taken seriously. As a young woman of colour, that isn’t something people happily dish out – I have to earn it from every new person I meet who assumes I mustn’t know much because of how I look. Through all of my international experience, working with governments, the private sector and the United Nations, I’ve restricted my outfits to being completely bland, predictable, and devoid of most colour and life. Partially, this is because I expected people not to take me seriously if I did anything else. Yet I’ve seen many people, including women of colour, wearing fabulous and fun outfits in the same spaces, and remember admiring and respecting them – and wondering how they were able to do it.
Only recently have I realise how oppressed I’ve continued to feel, but now the only person enforcing this rule on me, is me. I am now senior enough and respected enough in my professional life not to have to worry so much about how I look (a very real prison many young professional women can find themselves trapped in). I’m extremely lucky to have found a way to combine my creative and intellectual passions, working in multimedia storytelling at the intersection of technology and social impact, so being seen as a ‘creative’ person more than a ‘serious’ person right now will probably only help me. I also can’t negate the impact of my current work environment, which is genuinely supportive of people expressing themselves however they feel appropriate. I know how fortunate I am for this, because not everywhere is as accepting (on paper or in practice). Now it’s time to find a balance and to stop stifling my own creativity. I’m going to get out there, do me, and own it.
This is the third post in a series of 52 Memoirs I will be posting over the next year. Look out for new posts every Wednesday!
For most of my life, I'd always expected that I would do a PhD. As a child, my Nanna called me "Professor", in part because I was a bossy little know-it-all, but also because I absolutely loved learning (in a weird way). I’ve always had a kind of insatiable appetite for knowledge, and most people who know me could attest to the huge and random repository of articles and research I carry around in my head. While other kids were playing games, I’d be sitting at home and trying to memorise all of the articles in my encyclopedia… though I stopped somewhere in the Cs because I became paranoid that my brain would have a finite capacity and all I’d ever know was random trivia about aardvarks and the rise of the bildungsroman.
In my mind, there was no better way to fully absorb and comprehend a topic than to study and earn a PhD, so I had always planned to do one. For me, possessing incredible knowledge (the kind that is validated by the academy and gives you a fancy title for life) was an ultimate goal.
At various points over the past three years I had seriously considered beginning doctoral study, but only recently did I become very close to actually doing it. After completing a course in my master's degree that focused on global inequality, I found myself thinking more and more about the socioeconomic disparity in our world. At the same time, I’d been planning to move to Washington DC, to continue working in the international development space. I found myself growing increasingly critical of the fact that so many workers in DC are seemingly only concerned with ‘far away’ inequality, while DC itself is one of the least equal cities in the Western world. How could people comfortably rake in high salaries serving the ‘poor’ far away, but not feel compelled to address the homelessness and poverty just outside? To be much blunter - how could they feel sympathy for poor black people in Africa but not poor black people a ten-minute drive away? I wanted to find out.
I got serious about the topic. I intended to reflexively examine my own role as researcher, the ethical and practical implications of this kind of research, and the ways that my own social, ethnic and class identities are reflected in these spaces, in order to contribute to the practice of ethnography. I also intended to investigate issues of class identity, political ideology, urban poverty and the ways that both types of residents (the rich and the poor) envision and understand the city in which they live. I uncovered an incredible body of literature that I felt I could contribute to, and secured the support of a world-renowned supervisor at one of the world's best universities. I'd written a top-notch proposal and I'd secured funding. Finally – I’d found a brilliant research topic that I was passionate enough to stick with.
I was more motivated than I’d been in a long time and eventually threw myself so much into my reading and research that my reflexive examination caused me to begin questioning everything. I became acutely aware of the perpetuation of inequality through academia. The vast majority of the world's population aren’t able to afford the cost of higher education, let alone doctoral research, and this inevitably means that ‘the academy’ is constituted by elites. I then asked myself if seeking the validation of these very same elites was going to solve anything. Could it ever, given academia's institutional complicity in sustaining these unequal structures since its incarnation? By conforming to this system, and seeking its approval, was I deeply hypocritical to the point of blocking my own activism goals?
In the end, I realised that the answer to this final question was yes. The hypocrisy was too great to overcome, and I could no longer rationalise my pursuit of doctoral studies. The irony is great, I know. When I was finally at the right time and place in my life to pursue a ‘dream’, it ended up being the wrong choice for me. But I’m glad to have come to this point because now I’m entirely comfortable with the path I'm currently on.
There are many great minds in academia, doing great work for humanity. For this I am grateful and I support them fully. We need people to pursue research at the highest level, and in our modern world, there is no greater endorsement of research ability than being awarded a PhD. That being said, the inequality that has produced the system, and kept it alive, cannot and should not be ignored. In the end, I believe I can achieve greater utility and impact by actively engaging with and trying to support the most marginalised people in the world - rather than being another person studying them, talking about them, and writing about them from afar. And that’s a good spot to finally land in, after all of this time!
This is the second post in a series of 52 Memoirs I will be posting over the next year. Look out for new posts every Wednesday!
My name is Keeya-Lee Ayre, but I go by just Keeya if the context is casual. I'm American-born, Australian-raised, and living in Atlanta after a 2 year stint in London. I work in the humanitarian innovation / tech / social impact space. You can follow me on twitter here!