I would argue the juxtaposition of being British and Asian a difficult one to live with. Don’t get me wrong, having two cultures intertwined has its benefits. You can swear in more than one language, enjoy amazing delicacies, and don’t even get me started on Bollywood. But it skewers the ability to clearly define an identity. Every time you try, there is always someone that asks ‘but where are you really from?’.
British South Asians are a resilient bunch. We are continuously trying to find our place in a society that recently seems to not really want us around. I think our resilience comes from our parents’ generation. The ones who were expelled from Uganda by the evil Idi Amin in the 70s, or those that came from small villages in rural Gujarat to make a better life from themselves. You always hear the stories of the defiant individuals who came here with approximately £5 in their pockets and only the clothes on their backs, worked their socks off and succeeded.
Creating that foundation of safety, we are born into a world of education, voting, English and the ability to work. We’re very lucky we have so much, but when it comes to choices about what our futures should look like, it seems our elder generation is still a bit hesitant to let go of the fear of our potential, well, ‘failure’.
I wanted to write originally to moan about the fact that the measure of success of us British Asians is still whether we have a ‘Dr’ before our first name, and a stethoscope around our necks or how much we are earning. But I want to use this opportunity to reassure the generation above us, that we are made of the same resilience that they have, and we will succeed – whatever career path we choose.
I recently went to a talk at Asia House with Nikesh Shukla in conversation with Nish Kumar; both absolute legends who are in careers that aren’t ‘the norm’ but are really successful. Speaking about his new book, ‘The One Who Wrote Destiny’, Nikesh spoke about resilience in stand up comedians and cited the example of Nish’s show on the night of the Brexit vote where he suffered some racist abuse. Nikesh and Nish talked about how in the show it can be laughed off, but the true strength is shown when the audience has gone and the comedian is left on his/her own to deal with it. It made me think about the creative industries a bit deeper.
I worked in the sector for a while. It is a great sector with so much going on, but I always felt a bit out of place. When I looked up, there was no one really that I could relate to. My passion is arts, but it’s intimidating. How sad is it then that this is a sector that needs different cultures within it, but doesn’t have it because it’s not a normal career path in our community. I believe truly that we risk losing artists, musicians, and dancers because of the notion that it doesn’t mean success, and those who do delve into the sector, having been defiant and resilient in their communities, have to face the lack of diversity and difference once they get there.
The secret is that arts will save the world. Why? Because arts is about expression, about difference, and the acceptance of that difference. When we accept difference, we don’t differentiate. If the arts and creative industries were more diverse, Brexit, for one, would never have happened. A big statement, but Brexit in my view has come about because of a fear of difference ‘ruining’ Britain.
If the elder generation were more informed about the facts of the arts and creative industries, maybe, just maybe, they’d see it differently. We are often told that films, arts, creative careers have no real security because ‘you won’t always get a film’ or maybe ‘no one will buy your painting’. It’s not just about acting or painting.
The Creative Industries Federation notes that there are more than 2 million (2,008,000) jobs in the creative industries. Creative jobs have increased by 28.6% since 2011. The creative economy accounts for 1 in 11 jobs across the UK and employ 700,000 more people than the financial services. In 2016, over 3 million (3,034,000) people worked in the creative economy. Creative jobs are future-proof jobs: 87% of creative jobs are at low or no risk of automation. I would say that is a pretty secure sector.
We are almost always judged on money as a form of success. If we want to talk money, the the Federation also noted that in 2016, the sector contributed £91.8bn gross value added (GVA), which was bigger than the automotive, life sciences, aerospace, oil and gas sectors combined. 68.6% of creative industries businesses have a turnover of less than £100,000, which is higher than the 55.2% for UK businesses a whole. Of the creative workers in the sector, 35% are self-employed, compared with 15% across the workforce as whole. Freelancers make up a significant portion of self-employed workers in the creative industries.
I get it, some don’t earn as much as a doctor possibly if they are freelancing. And some creative jobs pay less. But Reed state that the average a media, digital & creative salary in the UK is around £38,950. That’s a pretty good statistic in my view.
So this is the second part of my plea to our elder generation. Please don’t measure success by monetary terms. Measure success by how your children feel or even how you feel when there’s a standing ovation at their inaugural dance performance, or at the opening of their first exhibition. Measure success by the networks they build and the confidence they develop, not only to take on their career paths, but subsequently by all aspects of life. That faith in them will ensure they win every battle they face. As I said, they’re made of the same resilience you are made of.
It isn’t just about creative industries. I read intently an article by Co-Founder of RNT Fitness, Akash Vaghela about social stigmas in Asian culture. I know everyone like me would have been screaming ‘yes’ at each point in that article. Akash hit on two pertinent points. His frustration at the comments a lot of his Asian clients have received from family members of how different they looked after their bodies changed, but in a negative way, with comments such as ‘are you eating properly?’ or ‘you look ill’, and the fact that his choice of creating a business for personal training and fitness wasn’t viewed as the norm in our culture.
I’ll explain a little story here about myself of the last time I went to India in 2016. I was at my heaviest in weight. There is a long story of how I got to this state which I won’t go into here. That is saved for another time, but the amount of comments I got from family members was completely disheartening. Many asked ‘what the hell has happened to you?’ or ‘what atta have you been eating?’. None of the comments I received were ever in private, more they were very, very public. What made it worse was my Mum and I were hosting a religious event for eight days and my entire family was there.
This year, I joined RNT. Remembering the frustration I had back in 2016, and the long journey I have been on since some turbulence I had a few years ago, I made a very strong decision to change. Within a few weeks I have changed. Positively. People are noticing, and for the first time, ever, I own the situation I am in. It’s the best feeling, and I have full faith it will only get stronger. This is what my personal trainer Kunal’s, Akash’s and RNT’s success is defined by.
Reading Akash’s article where other clients of his received comments of them ‘looking ill’, however, is no surprise. I can’t speak for other cultures, but South Asians will comment regardless of what state you are in. A lot of this may come from extended family members. I’m sure I will get it too when all the changes kick in and you know what, this is where the resilience kicks in. Face it and deal with it, but the plea to our parents, don’t be a part of it. Support us in our changes. My mum has always been different, and brilliant. Her one rule ‘Do it for you Puja, don’t chase or change for anyone’. That’s enough advice for me to keep going and succeeding.
The second clear frustration was about his career choice. Setting up your own business and following your passion is difficult enough. You need a very strong mindset and a lot of support to succeed. Being an entrepreneur is a very lonely thing. Your vision is your drive and you need to find people who get it and will help you deliver it, but the support of your nearest and dearest is what matters most. If they have doubts and fears, it seeps into the mindset of us. It will make us doubt ourselves, and will make it harder to pursue what we want in an already difficult situation. I will reiterate what I said at the start, we are made of the same resilience you are. Have the faith.
Entrepreneurship isn’t always understood. Some would question how someone can call themselves entrepreneurs and would judge on monetary terms.
Entrepreneurial success, in my view, isn’t about the money. It’s about being a visionary and delivering on that vision to change the world. Whether it’s a product, service or even a feeling, entrepreneurs are ‘out of the box’ game changers and disruptors. Those that think differently to the norm. So how can they fit into a 9-5 scenario at all?
To the elder generation, to those of you who set up businesses on arrival to this country and worked all hours to give your families security, you are entrepreneurs. You would be able to give talks on success and struggles in your journey I can guarantee. So let us be entrepreneurs too. Let us follow our vision and deliver it, let us in years to come give talks about our entrepreneurial journey.
Through all of this, it’s about fear. Suraj Sodha recently posted a video about our generation changing the norm about following our passion and doing the things we love. In ‘the Problem with Asian Parents’ (controversial) he said the elder generation wanted us to have a better life than they did – not to get stuck in that 9-5 rat race in an unfulfilled job and coming home without a sense of achievement. So they made us choose career paths they may not have had the chance to choose themselves and low and behold some of us have ended up in the ‘9-5 rat race in an unfulfilling job’. This is their fear. Fear that success means only these career paths, and if they couldn’t do it, we needed to. But what about our passions and our visions?
When I went to Suraj’s first talk #EntrepreneurJam, I met a young guy who said to me his parents wanted him to become an accountant but his passion was music. My first thought was this is a typical scenario for a lot of people in our community, my second thought was that music companies need accountants. But my strongest feeling when talking to him was we’ll lose a superstar if he doesn’t add a layer of grit and resilience to himself soon and if his family doesn’t support him in his passion.
All in all, it’s my generation that has the opportunity to change things and we are. We need to be the strongest and most resilient, so that future generations can choose their paths and can have the support systems they need to succeed. Success in my eyes, if I ever have children, will not be the money in their bank accounts. It will be the face they pull when I’m screaming ‘encore’ at the top of my voice amongst a standing ovation at their dance show, or when I get people coming up to me asking if I’m their mother.
I define success very differently, and so my plea to our elders, from now, please do the same.