I finished at 3.30am on my first day as a trainee lawyer in the city of London. The next day was a slight improvement of 1 am. By the third day I was thinking, geez they weren’t half kidding about “anti-social hours!”. Having slept on the sofa of take-away restaurants as a child and seeing how hard my parents have had to work as immigrants when they first moved to this country, I had always believed that what you put in is what you get out, like an imaginary scale that would some-how log every sweat and tear and adjust life’s pathways accordingly. It would be just and fair I thought, and that hard work would pay off (even if eventually!) I later found out this was only a half-truth and what counted was my own attitude towards what I was doing. It was also at this place where I learnt there is no free lunch in this world.
I knew the hours would be tough at that time but, being both young and driven by nature, I wanted to see what I was made of. By and large I did really enjoy my time in the City even though I frequently worked 16/17 hour days and for the 4 years that followed, I averaged 100 hour working weeks (this included additional volunteering duties on the weekends). I frequently would encounter remarks such as “it’s not sustainable, Ruo” and “where do you find the time?”. I later also discovered that you always have time to do the things you enjoy.
I’ve always known since a little girl that when I grew up I wanted a job where I could make a difference and was drawn towards helping the disadvantaged and marginalised, even though that’s not quite how I articulated it at the time. In fact when I was very young, I found it hard to articulate at all as I did not speak a word of English. With my “go-getting” parents setting an example, I went towards what I was drawn to and started volunteering at different charities. I started out at Oxfam at the age of 14. I still remember the smell of donated clothes and second-hand books; I often flicked through those tea-stained pages and inhaled its contents, hoping to extract a whiff of the donor’s life. “Who were they? What do they do for a living?”. It was also a place where I learnt about “fair trade” and “charity” and got used to drinking English breakfast tea with milk. With the topic of mental health increasingly present in the media and the increased scrutiny placed on big corporates and the all-important work (from home)/life balance, it has made me pause on my own experiences and to share this with you.
I am now working in a much smaller regional law firm with a genuine culture of work/ life balance. I’ve been in this role for over 2 years and have achieved things I thought only possible in dreams. If you had said to me that in this time, you’d be promoted to head of practice, set-up Reading’s first free legal charities consultation service and have your own monthly charities and not-for-profit podcast series, I would have more likely referred you to my psychologist sister for an appointment. I’ve also been able to launch my own charity art project where I contribute free art work to (local) charities to hopefully help them to raise more money. I still volunteer on the weekends. I realised in some respects my life has not changed much. Of course my working hours is less than half of what it used to be, but I instead fill some of that time experimenting with other charity related projects, which as it turns out have also helped my day job – a positive virtuous cycle you might say!
I realised in my City days what mattered was my attitude towards what I was doing. Yes you will have to work hard, and yes there will be countless sleepless nights, but if one simply shifts one’s attitude towards helping others, that itself was the “making a difference” at that time in my life. And boy did it make such a difference for myself and ironically, it turns out for my own mental health – it really gave me strength and a sense of purpose. It’s easy these days to complain about our jobs and what we lack, but I’ve always been of the attitude that life is too short to remain unsatisfied and instead I tried to be the change that I wanted to see for myself and celebrated the opportunities each step provided me- no matter how small or insignificant those may have seemed at the time. I still remember laughing to myself at one point for being able to afford living in a plush split level apartment in the centre of London. Yes I have had to work hard for that, but it gave me the insight and comfort to plan my next adventure. Attitude matters so much.
I also found some things cannot be reduced to the simple metric of “doing this means that’ll happen” and ticking off a rigid “what’s in it for me” list before embarking on it. If you find your passion, calling or simply an interest, why not try it out, or see if you can incorporate this with your job some-how if you cannot for whatever reason be in a position to change. Whilst I was motivated to make a difference, I realised this can be done in many ways. I started this initially by helping large corporate clients in the City, to now nurturing my passion of helping charities and not for profit organisations. I still recall one Sunday when I was in the City, it also happened to be Valentine’s Day that year, and already after a 70+ hour work week I had to carry a large box of documents to my client’s office to sign. The signing started at 8am that morning and continued until late evening. During the meeting, my client brought me heart shaped cookies to soften the “inconvenience” of working that day. I felt his good intentions and was motivated to make a difference for him and his company and rolled up my sleeves- even though I had made other plans. The next day, he called my secretary for some assistance. My secretary asked him “how do you know Ruo?” to which he responded, cheekily, “I was with her on Valentine’s Day”.
Ruo Wu is the head of charities and not-for-profit at Field Seymour Parkes LLP. You can get in touch with her by email at [email protected] or by visiting her LinkiedIn page. To see more about her art project “Paintitf0rward”, please visit www.instagram.com/paintitf0rward.