Felicity Watson reflects on the challenges of navigating career and a complex illness, and the strength that can come from adjusting expectations, exploring new pathways, cultivating passions, and finding comfort in landscape, creativity and community.

A letter to one’s younger self is inevitably a letter to one’s present self. We are made up of all the versions of ourselves that have ever existed. Some parts of us are louder; some quieter. All make us who we are, and should be treated with compassion. As my mind has been turning over the task of reaching back towards a younger me, I have been overwhelmed by the things I wish I had known then. I have felt grief for the versions of me that never had the opportunity to exist, either due to my choices, or circumstances beyond my control. Most of all, I have felt gratitude for all of the parts of me that have brought me to this moment, and this opportunity to contribute to Parlour, a community that has been meaningful to me in the most recent years of my career.

Dear 18-year-old Felicity,

I’m writing from 20 years in the future. There is so much I want you to know. Things I wish you knew when you needed them.

There is more than one right answer

When you were in high school, you got the impression that you were supposed to decide on your profession, pick the corresponding university degree, do that, then work in said profession. It sounded so simple. But you will soon realise that life doesn’t really work that way. The degree you think will set you on your chosen path may not turn out the way you expect. Be open to the unexpected – a seemingly junior role may change your whole perspective. Cultivate your passions and interests, and keep your eyes open to opportunities that speak to them.

Don’t let your high school success define your expectations for what you achieve at university. Juggling studies with work and living independently will not be easy.

Aim for progress, not perfection. If you don’t feel like you’re in the right place, try something different. You might not get it right the first time, and that’s ok.

Focus on building skills through experience – copywriting, editing, proofreading, document formatting, website development, database and collection management. If someone gives you the opportunity to learn it, then do it. While not academic, these skills will be of great value in every job that you ever have. Meanwhile, seek out mentors and colleagues who see something in you that is worthy of encouragement. Make the most of these connections. Keep an open mind and work hard.

Things fall apart

All of us experience adversity and pain at some stage in our lives. For you, Felicity, that will come in the form of a complex mental illness that will escalate over time until it impacts every part of your life. Do not judge yourself harshly for this. Find strength and power in how you survive the things that go terribly wrong, and how those experiences help you to develop resilience and grit.

Know that, sadly, 1 in 5 Australians is estimated to be experiencing a mental health condition at any given time. While the statistics reveal that mental illness is common, our experiences are unique. The pathway to mental health is not always a clear one. It may not always be clear for you.

I wish I could tell you to seek help sooner. That what you will experience is not due to a personal deficiency or weakness, but a pathological illness. Understand that there are things you can do to change the way you think and feel.

Remember, the process of treating and recovering from an illness can be a long one. For every step forward, there may be many steps backwards (and sideways). But through trial and error you can find the right support team and the right treatment. Through these challenging times, you will be sustained by the strong friendships and family relationships that you have nurtured throughout your life.

The pathway to success isn’t a straight line

Fight the urge to base your conceptions of success or failure on what you imagine other people’s expectations of you to be. Whether you are doing what you “should” be doing. Finding your “highest and best use”.

Be prepared to take a professional detour. Having previous measures of success stripped away can be liberating. You may feel lost, but this experience is a gift.

Life can be more satisfying and meaningful if you are driven by your personal values. Start thinking more deeply about this. Explore creative pursuits like writing and photography. Develop new skills and ways of thinking and being. Understand that work isn’t everything. “Unproductive” time has value. Time away from work will not derail your career, but take it in new directions.

Sometimes, when we are unable (or unwilling) to comprehend the future, and trying to quiet the turmoil in our minds, the world seems to shrink. Find comfort in your surroundings: the landscape, watching the way the light falls, looking at buildings, getting involved with community groups. Realise that this interest in the world and the people in it is the source of the curiosity that drives your professional life, and nurture it. Don’t seek fulfilment in a narrow conception of “success”.

Bringing it together

Gradually expand your world and embark on a new phase of your career. The prospect of living with a chronic illness seemingly clashes with a work culture of high expectations, high stress, and long hours. Do not be scared to readjust your expectations of yourself, and set firm boundaries. You will never be the person who pulls all-nighters or works 70-hour weeks. But over time, learn how to manage your illness, and most of the time it will stay in the background.

Look out for supportive employers who value you for your skills and your strengths, and leaders who give you the space and encouragement to push yourself beyond what you think you are capable of. Make a concerted effort in life and in work to surround yourself with people who make you want to be the best version of yourself.

If you are offered the opportunity to move into a leadership role, take it, even if you’re not sure if you are ready. Sometimes others can see something in you that you can’t yet see in yourself. Strive each day to live out your values. See your experience of mental illness as a strength, not a weakness. As a team leader, find ways to encourage excellence while also fostering a culture of psychological safety. Find the courage to speak up for yourself and for what you believe in, even when it feels daunting. Seek out enrichment in your professional community by putting your hand up to pitch in, to learn, and to advocate for what you believe is important.

No matter what the future holds, through connecting with your values, you will always be able to feel grounded, whether it’s by enjoying a walk through your local neighbourhood, or passionately advocating for a cause. Most importantly, whatever happens, you will be ok.

For information on how to find support for depression, anxiety and other mental health issues, visit Beyond Blue.

Felicity Watson is a Melbourne-based heritage expert and advocate who has more than 15 years of cultural heritage experience across consultancy, public history and the not-for-profit sector. Felicity is currently the Executive Manager of Advocacy at the National Trust of Australia (Victoria), and the President of Yarra Pools, a not-for-profit, community-led initiative to reintroduce swimming to the lower reaches of the Yarra Birrarung. She sits on a number of boards and advisory committees, including the Deakin Cultural Heritage & Museum Studies Advisory Board, and the Royal Exhibition Building & Carlton Gardens World Heritage Site Steering Committee.