Letter to my 20 something year old self

By Husnara Begum, Warwick Alumna, Associate Career Coach and Contributing Editor of CheekyLittleCareers a careers and lifestyle website.  

Looking back to 20 years ago I feel a huge sense of relief, thankful that the Millennium Bug didn’t as we all feared trigger the accidental launch of a nuclear missile and wipe out mankind. Indeed, as existential crises go the Y2K Bug pales into insignificance when I think about some of the issues we’re currently having to contend with – Covid19, economic collapse, climate change, Brexit – the list goes on.

Career-wise, meanwhile, the dawn of the 21stCentury coincided with the end of my six-year long journey to qualify as a solicitor. This was a big deal for me because I was diagnosed with very severe Rheumatoid Arthritis at aged nine, and by the time I reached my 14thbirthday I had to be lifted on and off the toilet and relied on a wheelchair full-time. Suffice to say, the endless hospital and physio appointments resulted in my schooling being disrupted throughout the rest of my childhood (and indeed early 20s). That of course meant my chances of making it to university were pretty slim. After all, given nobody else in my family had progressed their education beyond Sixth Form why would the ‘disabled’ sister/daughter fare any better? I also recall someone telling me, during a legal work experience placement, that as I had a disability my ambitions to train as a lawyer were unrealistic. Yes, you read that correctly!

Despite the endless obstacles, including several major operations, I was one of the lucky ones because my passage into law was in the end pretty straightforward. I did well in my A-Levels and landed a place to study law at the University of Warwick, which then and still does have a reputation for being a finishing school for City lawyers. So, it came as no surprise that I bagged a coveted training contract with a magic circle law firm before progressing to my final year, meaning I no longer had to worry about the eye-watering cost of the Legal Practice Course.

But I’m embarrassed to say it also meant that rather than following my heart and pursuing the non-commercial route into law, which might’ve meant I actually helped others I followed the money. That said, it wasn’t all bad because though I ended up quitting law a few years after qualification it gave me a fantastic platform to pursue an alternative path into journalism. Having a magic circle firm on my CV has also opened so many doors, enabling me to set up my consultancy and career coaching business. It may have taken two career changes, but I finally got there. Finding career fulfilment by doing work that genuinely makes a positive impact on the lives of others.

If you want to find out how I got here, you’ll have to look out for future blogs. In the meantime, I want to take you back to the earlier years of my career.

I eventually qualified as a City solicitor in September 1999, the tail end of the dotcom boom, and having chosen to specialise in equity capital markets I advised a string of online start-ups on their stock market debuts.

But just as I started to get my head around the Listing Rules – BANG! The bubble burst, the stock markets came crashing down and what followed wasn’t pretty. And if I’m being brutally honest, I was sh&t scared, especially as I had vivid memories of the 1990s recession which almost resulted in the collapse of my dad’s Indian restaurant in St Albans, Hertfordshire (incidentally, I grew up on the other side of the tracks in Luton). Words alone cannot describe what losing the restaurant would’ve done to my dad and indeed our entire family.

Not only did my dad work his socks off to fulfil his dreams of launching his own business but our family restaurant is what made me the confident entrepreneurial adult I eventually turned into. Throughout my late teens during the months I wasn’t in hospital I spent every Sunday helping my dad with his book-keeping, which gave me the perfect anecdote for answering those pesky commercial awareness questions that featured in all my training contract applications. I may not have had the experience of interrailing around Europe during a gap year, but I’d definitely developed a keen eye for business.

My dad’s restaurant (St Albans Tandoori) was also the source of my first insight into the world of commercial law. A regular diner was a partner at legacy law firm Denton Wilde Sapte (now Dentons) and he kindly gave my dad his business card. And though I didn’t have the courage to make contact with the partner I did do some research into his firm and my mind was made up. I wanted to work in a shiny City skyscraper and earn lots of money (apologies – I appreciate that sounds very shallow and a far cry from fighting for justice – but I was young).

Our family fought on and thankfully St Albans Tandoori survived the recession. Meanwhile, my plans to qualify as a lawyer gathered pace and it wasn’t long before I moved to London just like Dick Whittington to start my training.

As we all brace ourselves for yet another period of economic uncertainty, and I imagine myself as a 20 something year old again, what do I know now that I didn’t back then?

  1. Resilience and self-belief are two of my biggest assets. I’ve had my fair share of knock backs, but they’ve all served to make me stronger and have given me the self-belief that anything is possible. But you also reap what you sow.
  2. Be versatile and accept change. I’ve been referred to as a “Queen of Re-Invention” by many of my contacts and it’s helped me ride out a fair few recessions. So, rather than resisting or fearing change, especially if it’s forced, embrace it. But remember only focus on change that’s 100% within your control. And though it’s sensible to have a long-term plan it’s worthwhile building some flexibility into it. After all, we’ll never always know what’s just around the corner.
  3. I owe my parents the world. I’ve already mentioned my dad. but my mum has also been just as amazing, caring for me when my health was going downhill and not once making me feel guilty. But I wish I had showed them more appreciation and not just taken them for granted.
  4. Most of us will make poor career choices or indeed mistakes. But rather than dwell on your blunders or look for a scapegoat, get back on the horse and learn from all that went wrong. Heightened self-awareness is a vital ingredient for emotional intelligence, which is also another key life skill.
  5. Like it or loathe it. Networking will always play an important part in your career. Always stay alive to the idea of meeting new people, even if at first glance you can’t see any merit in starting a conversation with certain individuals.

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