‘Baby CEO’ – Being a Young Leader & Burning Out

Grace considers her time as CEO of PAPER Arts CIC, a Bristol organisation offering support to young creatives 

I had grand plans for this year. As CEO of PAPER Arts CIC, I planned to develop the organisation into a vibrant community, serving the needs of young creatives trying to make their way in this turbulent world. This was a chance to facilitate the structures needed to ensure more young creatives were able to make it within the creative industries, but 12 months later I’m burnt out. I have no energy left.

I saw my purpose being to take up space, so others similar to me could see ‘people like us’ in leadership roles and having influence within the creative industries.

When I was in primary and secondary school, I loved art. I enjoyed painting, making, and creating – signing cards with ‘Graciefullymade,’ which is what I named the CIC I later set up when I left school in 2015. Being into arts and crafts was praised at that time. I attended workshops and craft days and signed up to arts activities whenever I could. I studied speech and drama, receiving Distinctions in most exams, and loving every part of it. As a shy child, I found my voice in words others had written.

Through secondary school my creative endeavours continued, and then the time came to pick A-Levels. And thus, I began my farewell to the creative industries. Led by some strange sense of what was best, I chose Biology, English Literature and History. The school system put no stress on the importance of the creative industries, which left me on the wrong path. My mental health suffered immensely. I’m not saying I would’ve been the next Picasso, or Oscar Wilde – or indeed the next Parys Gardner or Vanessa Kisuule – but I could’ve been something, had I had the time and opportunity to try.

I’m not saying I would’ve been the next Picasso, or Oscar Wilde – or indeed the next Parys Gardner or Vanessa Kisuule – but I could’ve been something, had I had the time and opportunity to try.

When the opportunity came to lead PAPER Arts CIC, it felt like I had a chance to influence this very issue. At the beginning of this year, I spent weeks collating an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion strategy that would enable our organisation to be as inclusive as possible, and to reach those who needed our help and support the most. Inevitably, these were those hardest to access. In my role, I saw my purpose being to take up space, so others similar to me could see ‘people like us’ in leadership roles and having influence within the creative industries. I want to be the person that has an answer for the parents and guardians and teachers who say, ‘well what job will you get with that?’ There is so much untapped talent out there, and so many individuals not able to do what makes their heart sing because they were stopped before they were given a chance. Art and music are a blessing to all of us, and we need to put the work in to ensure we reap the benefits. Needless to say, the news and threats of recent arts cuts is devastating.

Indeed, it’s partly because of these arts cuts that this CEO role didn’t work out. PAPER Arts needed to be funded through a vital research period to redesign a service centring our community, and we ran out of time. For a while I kept asking myself – “could I have done more?” Surely as the leader, it was my responsibility, and so I was at fault.

The thing is, I literally couldn’t have done any more. My passion was there, my purpose was there, but I burnt out. I had given so much, centring our community in everything I did, that I had neglected my own needs. It was too late before I realised what kind of support I needed and was lacking, and the structures I needed weren’t in place to support me. This is part of a much larger issue about Governance within the third sector and the barriers young leaders face – a research topic I hope to investigate as I begin my Master’s in Social Innovation at the University of Cambridge this October.

Young leaders are so important – particularly in the involvement of helping other young people – and yet the system doesn’t work in their favour. So often I have felt misunderstood, undermined, and brushed aside with mutters of a lack of experience. I considered taking a pay cut when taking on this role, due to being ‘only’ 24, and it was only thanks to a mentor that I realised that the value I was bringing to the organisation, and the energy I was going to give, was worth the full salary. As young leaders we need mentors and advisors and the resource to enable us to take up space. We need to be believed in, not to have our wings clipped, and in return we provide innovative solutions and refreshing insights.

The thing is, I literally couldn’t have done any more. My passion was there, my purpose was there, but I burnt out. I had given so much, centring our community in everything I did, that I had neglected my own needs.

I am sad that I burnt out and was not able to make my vision into a reality, and I have been going through a grieving process of sorts since deciding to leave this role. Upon reflection I realised my burning out was not due to my own weakness, but a symptom of the lack of resource available both for young leaders and for the creative industries currently.

For those who have contributed to the arts cuts I say, what would you do without books? What about illustrations in children’s books you so fondly remember? What about your favourite song – the one that comforts you when you’re feeling blue? Or the advertisements that bring business in to pay your salary? Remember that time you went to the theatre, and were able to escape the stresses of life? Or that time you heard some spoken word which encapsulated exactly how you felt but couldn’t put into words yourself? What about art that shows us our history? The tapestries, the paintings, the political cartoons? What would our lives be without any of that? Who would we be, without any of that?

And as for leaving PAPER, and for all the young leaders out there, this is my personal goodbye. Here goes:

“Hi PAPER. It’s been quite the 12 months, hasn’t it? You and me, together, have been on quite the journey. We’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve danced with joy and facepalmed with exasperation. You’ve given me the most amazing opportunity to gain a whirlwind of experience. I’ve challenged myself, I’ve surprised myself and I’ve learnt that actually, the most important thing is to look after yourself. Sometimes, there’s only so much you can do. I learnt what it is to respect myself and how to set boundaries. You’ve taught me the importance of surrounding myself with those who love and support me, and finding ‘my people.’ But perhaps, the greatest lesson of all is that you’ve taught me that nothing is ever certain in life and the key to contentment is finding comfort in ambiguity. Life ebbs and flows and people and opportunities come and go, and there’s only so much we have control over. The best thing we can do is stay true to ourselves, find the people and things that lift us up, and be brave enough to carry on. If in doubt, the best place to start is with a piece of PAPER.”

Read PAPER Art’s goodbye post on the website.

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