Follow the sparks, they will lead you to your fire

Do you feel unsatisfied or stuck in your life or career? You think you might have taken the wrong path?

That’s exactly how I felt. I thought I wanted to take a certain route and get to a certain destination. However, as the weeks went by, I realized the journey I took was not as fulfilling as I thought it would be. This is the story of how I found new energy and inspiration after feeling stuck and hopeless.

The train was slowly leaving Milan Porta Garibaldi station, then picked up its pace towards its final destination, Malpensa airport. That’s where I was heading.

It was a random Tuesday in February. Everyone was going on with their normal routine, and here I was, sitting on a train on my way to… South-Africa.

I had booked this trip on a whim, a few months prior. One of the girls in the same corporate graduate scheme as me had tagged me on a Facebook post. The post was sharing a really good deal for flights from Milan to Johannesburg, her comment said “Hey Caroline, why don’t you come visit me in South-Africa?” The comment surprised and delighted me, we had never really spoken but regardless, she was offering to host me. I immediately felt a rush of excitement. So I booked it. A break from this new crazy work rhythm was exactly what I needed. Moreover, South-Africa was my target destination for the second year graduate assignment. I thought this trip would be the perfect opportunity to build up a network within the South-African business unit and carve myself a warm seat I could come back to 8 months later. Yes, I thought it would be that easy.

That’s how I ended up on my way to the other side of the hemisphere to meet a girl I didn’t know.

I had just failed big time at work and felt like a fugitive, escaping my newly found responsibilities. This big failure, from my perspective, had proven to my colleagues, local directors and myself that, as suspected, I was not meant for this accelerated track. I was an impostor that had just been uncovered and now I was running away. I packed this failure with me in the form of a heavy black cloud floating above my head, following my every move. On my way to the airport, I was still ruminating what had happened and told myself: “There could not be a worse timing for this trip.”

Actually, there could not have been a better one.

Once the plane took off, I felt a little lighter already. The black cloud had decided to stay on the ground, after all.

As soon as we landed, I went straight to our company’s local office to meet Jurgita. She welcomed me with a big hug and expressed how utterly excited she was for my visit. I felt much better. She suggested we go for lunch with one of her colleagues, Karabo. He is a young high-potential South African working in the finance team.

As we sat down for lunch, his first question was straight to the point: “So are you really passionate about becoming a general manager?” (this was the final career goal we ought to strive for as graduates). I answered honestly “huh.. not really. I’m thinking of working in the area of bottom of the pyramid nutrition someday” To which they both chuckled and answered “We also want to build our own businesses someday”.

Had I said I wanted to set up my own business? Oh well, they must have misunderstood.

That evening Jurgita and I spent time just the two of us. We hit it off immediately. We shared the same interests: healthy lifestyle, adventure, living in different countries and most of all, we loved  talking about our dreams for the future. The girl I didn’t know a week beforehand, turned out to be the friend I was longing for. Jurgita was the most driven human being I had ever met. 

How many times do you think about a great and exciting idea, wonder why nobody had this idea before and then go on with your life? All the time, right? Yeah me too. Jurgita does the opposite. Just like you and me, she has many great ideas. However, as opposed to most of us, she actually selects a few and sets up masterplans to bring them to life.

Let me give you an example she shared with me that evening. Upon Jurgita’s arrival in the South African business unit, she was inspired by one of the general manager’s speeches about how they could only grow by being extremely innovative. Jurgita thought: “Why don’t we organize an internal innovation contest? The best ideas could get funding and be implemented by the winning teams” That’s when I’d typically think I’m a genius then forget about the idea all together. Jurgita is not wired like that. She pitched the idea to the general manager, formed a project team and a few months later she was on stage welcoming everyone to the first edition of the I-lab. We all ought to be a bit more like Jurgita, I believe.

The following weekend, Karabo, who as it turned out was also Jurgita’s boyfriend (did you see that one coming?), took us around Johannesburg’s contrasting neighborhoods, some rich and highly protected, others rudimentary to say the least. Karabo told us how each neighborhood came about. This private tour was truly an out-of-this-world experience. The last neighborhood he brought us to was Soweto, the township he grew up in.

By then, it was already lunchtime, we decided to have lunch there and got to chatting. It turned out that Karabo is a very inspiring person: a hard worker and full of dreams. He even has a kick-ass bucket list he calls the “100 dreams list”. 100 dreams he aims to accomplish in his lifetime.  We got to talking about our career aspirations again. He casually mentioned a social innovation initiative lead by our company. As it turned out, although it was not widely communicated, our company was experimenting with a bottom of the pyramid distribution model in rural and underserved urban areas of Africa.

Right there and then, that’s when the spark ignited. My heart skipped a beat and a bolt of energy rushed through my body at the exact same time. “That’s it” I thought. I knew what I had to do, it was cristal clear: I had to learn as much as possible about this initiative and convince the general manager in South Africa to let me work on this project during my second assignment. Easy. I had it all figured out and was so excited.

A few days later, when the excitement had settled down a little bit, Jurgita and I went for dinner with Gregory, an acquaintance of hers from university. Greg is from Ghana, he was on a business trip to South Africa to meet with some clients. He told us about his enterprise, of which he was the founder and CEO (what else?). He spoke with such passion that it went on for ages. I didn’t understand much of it. The business model was quite complicated. But I nodded politely hoping they would not notice I wasn’t following.

Just like me, Greg had planned a gateway to Cape Town. We agreed to meet again there as we were both traveling alone. And we did, many times, over a short 2 to 3 day period. We had long conversations over brunch, lunch and two dinners. We even made it to the top of Table Mountain (ok by cable car, but still). I finally understood how his business worked. The mission of his company, Mpharma, is to make medicine accessible and affordable across Africa by partnering with payers, providers and drug providers. He had come to South Africa to pitch the concept to a big African insurance firm. 

I was captivated by his drive, courage and visionary thinking. One thing I didn’t understand was, why was this Jeff Bezos of the social business world interested in hanging out with me and why is he asking me so many questions?

One of his questions stood out to me: “Would you like to be an entrepreneur one day?” I answered doubtfully: “no… I couldn’t, I’m not a risk taker and I don’t think I’m meant for it, you know?” to which he just answered his usual answer: “Interesting”. Looking back, I don’t think he believed me. Of course I wanted to be an entrepreneur, I was just too damn scared. After a few days in Cape Town, we parted ways promising we would keep in touch and visit each other sometime.

Did you answer “yes” to the questions at the beginning of this article? You feel unsatisfied, stuck, lost or just like something is missing?

First, let me reassure you, you are not lost. It was all meant to be. It is just time to take a turn. Are you ready to do that? 

Yes but how?

First, take a step back, plan a break from it all. Change the scenery for a bit. Wherever you see a spark, an once of curiosity or a feeling of excitement for something follow it. Do something you always wanted to do but never dared to. It just happened I was curious and excited about South Africa, so I took the leap, even if it didn’t make much sense. Each time you think of something that brings you a feeling of excitement and curiosity, go in that direction. Let yourself be surprised by what happens, who you meet and what you learn. You will gain a new perspective and just might encounter another spark. Follow the sparks, they will lead you to your fire.

The fact that I had no choice but to take a step back, in such a difficult time, just after an ego-crushing event, was the best thing that could have happened to me. Since this trip, I make sure to always listen to this (now familiar) heart-stopping-energy-flowing feeling, each time it pays me a visit. I then make it my soul’s purpose to go towards it

In the meantime, you’re wondering: “That’s all good and well but did she move to South Africa and work on that project in the end?” It’s a long story. As I told you, this adventure is full of ups and downs, but the scenery is stunning all along, don’t forget to stop and take the time to enjoy it. I’ll tell you more very soon. One thing is for sure, I went back to Milan full of inspiration and drive to make my dreams come true. 

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1 thought on “Follow the sparks, they will lead you to your fire

  1. You have begun a lovely journey. You have the ability to help others to look after this beautiful world. Remember the saying “don’t curse the darkness, light a candle” and if everyone did that …. Wow

    Like

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