Solonia Teodros discusses her international moves and shift from working in the PR world to co-founding The Change School, an organization focused on helping people navigate change. We’ll talk about how your cultural upbringing can affect your career choices and the importance of creating boundaries between work and the rest of your life. Afterwards, during today’s Mental Fuel segment, I’ll share a couple ways I maintain my own work/life balance.
Key Career Insights
- Proactively defining your own career narratives helps you manage multiple career changes and maintain a compelling, professional trajectory.
- You can’t please everyone, so if you are going to seek the approval of others, focus only on those people who truly matter the most to you.
- Any major career endeavor can take its toll on you, so you have to make sure you take care of yourself and allow yourself to recharge, recalibrate, and rest.
Tweetables to Share
- I mentioned I love browsing the news to get my mind off my work. I use Flipboard for consuming news, which helps me “check-out” a bit and read about non-career related topics. Solonia loves using Feedly!
- Great Harvard Business Review article on the importance of work-life balance (Mar’17): If You Want to Be Happy at Work, Have a Life Outside of It.
During this episode’s Mental Fuel segment, I talked about the importance of giving yourself an opportunity to take breaks from your work. What’s one quick activity you could commit to doing on a regular basis that allows you step away from your job, rejuvenate, reflect, and recharge?
About Solonia Teodros, co-founder of The Change School
Solonia Teodros is driven by the potential of individuals, organisations and societies to change. Her vision for the world is one where everyone has the courage, confidence and commitment to realise their potential for greatness.
In 2013, she co-founed The Change School, a holistic lifestyle and learning brand for anyone at a cross-roads or pivotal life stage. They create experiential events, retreats and talks designed for conscious individuals and groups committed to continuous learning and growth. They believe, with the right tools, change can be a force for good. Follow them on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
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Episode Interview Transcript
Teaser (first ~15s): Rather than forcing ourselves to do things or be productive or go to that social engagement, it’s also being able to say no when you need to and allowing yourself that space to just realign, recharge, and start over tomorrow.
Joseph: Hello, Solonia. Great to have you here on Career Relaunch. I just got done watching your TEDx Talk, and there are a lot of things I would love to ask you about related to The Change School and global citizenship and growing up in a multicultural family. You’ve got such an interesting background, but I’d like to start by talking about your career. I was wondering if you could kick us off by telling us what you’re focused on right now in your life.
Solonia: It’s quite an interesting time right now, I think both personally and in terms of the work I do. It’s a bit of a transition period. A little bit about what I do is I’m a co-founder of The Change School. At The Change School, we really just help individuals to align their personal values and their life choices. That resonates with me on a personal level as well. Right now and probably always, the focus is really on living and working authentically and practicing what we preach in our personal lives but also using our personal experience to enable others who are struggling with the change or some type of transition.
Joseph: You mentioned the transition in the work you’re doing and also your personal life. Would you mind just giving us a glimpse into what sort of transition you’re wrestling with right now?
Solonia: The Change School is in a transition right now for a couple of reasons. One is we’ve done a bit of a pivot at the start of this year, and we’ve decided to focus more on how we can add value to individuals as well as companies but really focusing more in individuals because we see that, at the end of the day, making a change is very much a personal choice, and by working with individuals, we’re able to make that impact faster and enable them to go further.
My co-founder, Grace, is now a new mom of a beautiful baby girl who’s a month old. That’s an example of a life stage shift that can happen and obviously has an impact on various aspects of Grace’s life and our business. Really going through that journey, I think, is also allowing us to better understand the types of challenges and opportunities that come up when you are shifting through life stage.
What that means for me and the business is that we’re growing, and we’re growing our team. I’m learning to manage a team as opposed to just being a co-founder doing everything. It’s about learning to say no to certain opportunities and learning to say yes to the right ones and also just keeping up with the growing demand in Singapore, which was perhaps a slower market at first for us. Now, I think they’re sort of catching up with the importance of being able to embrace and navigate through change. We’re excited about that.
Joseph: Very cool. I know that you were not always living in Singapore and you weren’t always the founder of The Change School. I would love to go back and go through some of your life transitions. Can you take me back to your time in Boston? If you could tell me a little bit about what you’re working on at the time, professionally what was going on in your life, and then we’ll try to understand how you got to where you are right now.
Solonia: In Boston, that’s where I went to school. I went to Boston University. I studied International Relations, which I kid about this. I say that sometimes that’s a subject for people who don’t really know what they want to do, but I did know that I was interested and always curious about the world and the dynamics of different cultures and politics and economies. That’s sort of why I studied that.
From there, I really felt quite passionate about research and academia, and so my first role coming out of school was working in Global Health Research at Harvard University, which was obviously not related at all to what I studied. I think research was something I realized I was really good at and really enjoyed doing.
In hindsight, I always say I guess I’m a bit of a serial career shifter and sort of hop around from one job to the next, in search of purpose or meaning or even just trying to figure out what it was that drives me and that I really thrive in. After a few years in the academic world, it was really my excitement about New York, which was only four hours away. I used to take weekend trips away and come back and feel like, ‘God, I really love the pulse and energy of that city,’ and I just wanted to be there.
At that time, a lot of the advice I was getting from career counselors or personal mentors, because I’m half Chinese and I speak Mandarin, everyone was always saying, ‘You got to use your language. That’s such a high demand skill. Find a job that lets you use your language.’ Being in such a hurry to move to New York, I decided to take the first opportunity I could that allowed me to use my Mandarin. That was in a product sourcing and supply chain management company. They were really excited to have me, and I was always open to trying new things.
Joseph: What was that transition like for you to go from academia into more of the product world?
Solonia: It was definitely a big shift, and it was a huge learning curve. Again, in hindsight, although it didn’t feel it at the time, I was always really good, I think, at communicating my strengths and demonstrating to a potential employer that while I’m very cognizant of the things I don’t know, I’m a fast learner, always curious about learning new things, and I always ask questions if I’m stuck, and I’m passionate about learning and growing.
That really went a far way throughout my life I think. Even though I was always hopping jobs, I think being able to have that narrative and having that self-awareness and being able to convey that always allowed me actually to hop around in different industries and sectors.
While I was in that job, I did get to use my language, and I did gain a lot of business and project management experience, which was great. However, to be really honest, I was using my Mandarin to come down harder or yell at factories in Shenzhen and Hong Kong. That wasn’t quite how I envisioned adding value with my cultural fluency or even language fluency. Eventually, I decided once again to hop from there.
Actually, one of my clients while I was in that role, asked me to work for him on a freelance basis, and he was a ‘Fortune Magazine’ photographer. He needed a communications manager. Before I knew it, I was working with photo journalists and editors at ‘Time Magazine’ and ‘Fortune Magazine.’ Again, I learned a lot, and I gained a whole new set of skills. That was a really rewarding experience.
The turning point came when the financial crisis hit Wall Street, which was 2008. The publishing industry was taking a hit. Photography as an industry was taking a hit. At that time, I felt very fortunate that because I have a connection to Asia and had gone to school in Singapore at one period in my life, I had an opportunity to move back to Asia where things were really booming and moving, and there was a lot of opportunity.
Joseph: Can you walk us through your thought process in transplanting your life from the US over to Singapore? Because that sounds like quite a leap to completely relocate yourself. How did you go about doing that?
Solonia: On the one hand, I felt like I was going back home. On the other hand, I probably underestimated what later became quite a period of reverse culture shock – coming back to a place that you feel is home, only to realize that you still have a lot to learn, there’s a lot of things you don’t know, and that a lot can change over eight years. I did take some time to travel around Asia when I first moved back just to reorient myself.
Joseph: What surprised you the most in going back there?
Solonia: At that time, I got engaged. During that one two-year period, I was getting ready to get married, and my husband, who’s Indian, he comes from a traditional Indian family. I think in addition to underestimating the reverse culture shock, there was also an adjustment I had to make to being so closely tied to a very different culture that I wasn’t familiar with and I was learning about as I was getting immersed into it.
Another layer on top of that was a bit of an identity shift and crisis, in that you’re going from an independent, free spirit, job-hopping lifestyle to one that really makes you question, who do you want to be as a daughter-in-law? Who do you want to be as a wife? Who do you want to be with in your relationship? Because I see ourselves as such a holistic sort of pie with so many realms. I don’t really look at professional life as one realm, and then relationship as one realm. They all mold into each other at some point. I think that was a very trying and challenging period for me in all ways.
On the career front, coming to Asia, really the big question was, who am I going to be and what value am I going to create here? That took a lot of time for me to work out.
Joseph: You just come from the PR world. Did that cross your mind in terms of just continuing on the track that you were on before?
Solonia: It definitely did. I think one thing I was quite aware of, being in Asia, is that unlike a place, a city like New York for example, where I think there’s so much room to create alternative career paths and less conventional jobs, I was pretty conscious that, in Asia, there wasn’t necessarily all that flexibility. I think to save myself too much stress and uncertainty, I immediately wanted to jump into a PR agency because there were a lot in Hong Kong and Singapore, which were the two cities I was really focusing on in the beginning. Actually, when I came to Singapore, I did end up in a big corporate PR agency.
Joseph: You’re at the PR firm, and you’re back into the world that you were once in. Can you take us through the next transition as you moved away from the PR world?
Solonia: People who come from agency would know, it is very fast-paced. It can be really long hours and really stressful. I think I’m not one to ever shy away from hard work, but I think the only way for that to work well is when you have a supportive company culture, colleagues, mentors, and just a sense of happiness and wellness in whatever role you do.
I think, at some point, the long hours and the fact that our company culture at the time was not necessarily as supportive as I would’ve liked—in fact it was a bit competitive, it was quite at times even toxic—I think the first red signal for me was the impact it was having on my overall happiness, because I pride myself in being quite a positive and generally upbeat person, and my physical health. I was losing energy. I was tired. I wasn’t feeling valued or appreciated. Over a longer time, the role itself just became a job, and it stopped holding much greater meaning or purpose for me.
As I said earlier, I was also going through such a shift in my personal life, and all of this was building up and forcing me to really ask myself, what do I want my life to look like, and what is my definition of work-life balance, and what is my definition of meaningful work? After about two years, when I really started asking myself these questions and more clearly defining my boxes that needed to be ticked, I realized that fewer and fewer boxes were getting ticked, and it was time to move on.
Joseph: I see. I know a lot of people go through this experience, Solonia, of feeling like they’ve had it with work, and it’s not really doing it for them anymore, and they want to get more clarity about what they want to do. That’s where they get stuck. They can’t past that stage. Could you take us through some of the things that you did to gain that clarity that instilled you with enough confidence that it was time to leave and pursue something else?
Solonia: One of the biggest ones was expectations, other people’s expectations and societal expectations. Being that I was living in Asia and half my family is Asian, I think a big fear was facing the music. What am I going to tell my mom? What am I going to tell my grandparents? What are you going to say when I’m giving up a steady paycheck and a job with a great company and no real idea of what’s next? That was something scary.
Obviously, practical concerns were also scary. How am I going to afford not working and for how long? Will I have to have a side hustle? If so, will that distract me from finding my next thing?
I think, also, growing up where most of us are taught that you don’t leave a job, if you have to leave a job, you don’t leave unless you know you have another job lined up, and I didn’t have that either, I definitely spent a few months sitting in the agency, still trying to figure out if I was crazy or if I was thinking about the right move for myself.
I think a few things helped. One is I did really carve out the time and space to spend time and sit down and talk to my mom and also my husband about what I was feeling, what I was thinking, and really trying to make them my allies and to have their support. I think for me, it was also knowing that my mom and my husband’s opinions really mattered the most to me. I think that was good because you can’t please everyone, and it’s actually not up to everyone to approve or support your decision. I think you need to know who your allies are and leverage that support to prop yourself up and forward, but you also have to be able to just shut out the noise and know that it’s not forever.
There was a period where I was a bit probably more insular and not sharing everything with as many people because I needed to be okay with my transition first. I needed to feel like it’s okay. I needed to accept it, because I knew that once I did, that would come through in my interactions and sharings with anybody. So I did take some time to myself.
The other big thing I did during that time was—this did take a lot of work. This wasn’t something that just happened overnight. I think it took me about three months—I traveled and I spent some time looking back at my own career path and journey and really tried to find a common denominator across all these jobs and experiences that I had, and within each of them, ask myself, ‘What did I love about that?’ or, ‘What was I really great at?’ or, ‘What were people praising me about for that?’
Eventually, I identified that common denominator as really, I felt that I was a strong communicator. I felt that I could be persuasive in helping people to feel that they can tackle problems, that they can overcome challenges that they see, and because I guess I’m a natural problem solver, I was always quick to offer help or offer solutions or offer guidance to companies or individuals around how they can get around challenges that they were seeing and reframe challenges as opportunities.
The more I got that clarity, the easier it was for me to recognize the things that I would find purpose and meaning in.
Joseph: The point you made about stepping away from other people, I think, is a really good one, because I know I’ve felt this myself during my transition. I started to become very concerned with a lot of people’s opinions of me. It’s important, as you mentioned, to just focus on who really matters and also remind yourself that, actually, the person you got to look in the mirror every day is actually you. If you can be okay with it and you can reconcile it for yourself, once you’ve convinced yourself, it becomes a lot easier.
You’ve taken some time to reflect on what you want. What happens next for you?
Solonia: I finally left. I got the green light from mom and hubby, and I was feeling great about it. At that point, I did manage to save aside a little money, at least like three months’ worth of buffer to just not have to worry about that. Then I had a very old and close friend of mine who is now my co-founder. We’d reunited in New York, and then we were always wanting to do something together but never wanting to force it.
At that time, Grace’s father had passed away, and so that coincided with me leaving my job. We both found ourselves at this very difficult, challenging crossroads. Even though our triggers were very, very different, we were asking ourselves very similar questions: What is meaningful work for us? What is the vision we have for ourselves for the future? Because we were very close and always sharing with each other, we sat down one day and really tried to distill what was missing from the trajectories, our options we perceived that we had.
We always joke about this and say that the options that you have when you’re stuck, there are two main ones. Generally, a lot of people will either go and get an MBA or continue their education or get some kind of credential, or you go on a yoga retreat because you just want to try and get away from the noise and reconnect with yourself. Those are both great options. I definitely don’t want to undermine those.
I think what we realized was that we were looking for something more holistic. We were wanting something that allowed us to develop ourselves intellectually and spiritually and physically and physiologically. That, we felt, didn’t quite exist.
To distill it even further, we were saying, ‘What is it about that type of experience that would really allow us to move forward?’ We narrowed it down to three main things. One is that we needed the opportunity to learn and develop ourselves, whether that’s learning a new skill or taking up a new hobby, but that ability to sort of advance ourselves personally and professionally.
We were also seeking community. By that, I mean it could be community in the sense of what you find in a co-working community, but it also can be just a group of peers who help to support you, who may mentor you, and who may give you very honest feedback and challenge you to do more and to be more.
The third thing was having a creative space and a learning space that allows you to reflect, allows you to learn, which is always a messy process, and allows you to shut out the noise and shut out the distractions.
With that sort of clarity, we decided to test whether this was something that other people in a similar situation would need. That culminated in a 21-day program that we ran in Bali. We had 17 people from all corners of the world join us, and we really tested our assumptions. We shared worksheets and workbooks and workshops and excursions and activities that we felt would have really impacted us in a positive way.
Joseph: I don’t know if you have this come up, but sometimes, when I talk to people who are navigating change, either on these podcast interviews or elsewhere, I can’t help but think about my own story and my own trajectory. Was there something that you learned about yourself during that time when you were pretty much immersed in this world of trying to inspire change?
Solonia: One part of that experience that was really eye-opening and inspiring for myself was just realizing that entrepreneurship doesn’t have to be about setting up a business that grows and scales quickly and gets investors. A lot of times, the best businesses are built on a problem that we experience ourselves and feel that we can solve better or offer a non-existing solution to.
I always say I kind of stumbled into entrepreneurship because what I was passionate about when we started The Change School wasn’t running a business or being a business owner so much as it was that I knew people were going to go through change always in their lives. Change is the only constant in this highly uncertain world we live in.
It was amazing to discover that I had this genuine passion and ability to really encourage people to do more and inspire people to chase their dreams and to really take a less conventional path if that is where they saw themselves going and to be okay with it. The journey of The Change School is also very much the journey of my own self. It is this exploring and experimenting and realizing and discovering new things about yourself all along the way.
I guess a few other things I noticed is that, through that process, I really finally built much more confidence and courage in myself and my own abilities. I always felt that I was very self-aware, but I didn’t necessarily trust myself enough to take on a whole new venture until I did it and actually saw that things were moving and that people were appreciating what we were offering. That was a very empowering experience.
This is something I have to remind myself always: learning to trust the process and know that you’re not always going to know where something will lead, not every idea you have is great and not ever opportunity becomes something real. I think being very clear about your why and your intentions and the motivations and impact you want to have allows you to just let go of the things that you can’t control and in a sense have a little faith that serendipity and timing will eventually work into your favor.
Joseph: I know that I have this tendency of wanting to be a bit of a control freak with my destiny, so I’m just here laughing as you’re saying those things because I give myself plenty of headaches trying to just manage every individual thing. I think you’re giving us a good reminder that you can’t control everything, and at some point, you just have to try to reground yourself in your original motivations and hope that that will be the guiding light as you continue to move forward with whatever ideas you do have. Very interesting.
You’d mentioned that you were not interested in entrepreneurship originally and that you’ve now moved into this world of entrepreneurship. What’s been the toughest part of being an entrepreneur or co-founder?
Solonia: Sometimes, there is a danger for professionals who work in the corporate environment of falling into what I call autopilot mode, where there are so many structures and systems already set up and in place that, very often, we become doers but not always thinkers and not always problem solvers because so many corporations are structured in a way where we lose the bigger picture I think. That translates into the way we work and the way our levels of curiosity and our levels of being proactive about solving problems.
I think, at least for me personally, that was a big shift, because once you’re running your own company, there is no right or wrong. Everything is a test. Everything could fail or could succeed no matter how much you plan and strategize around it. Developing that resilience is tough, and it takes failure to develop resilience. You can’t really just become resilient without experiencing hardship.
It is really needing to push yourself. People tend to think, ‘You’re a business owner. You set your own hours.’ Actually, my greatest challenge is setting my own off hours because it’s so easy to work through the day and through the night because the only person to answer to is yourself. Setting boundaries has become a really big challenge. Juggling priorities in life and work was a big challenge, it’s a constant challenge, and still being able to nurture relationships, whether it’s business relationships, family relationships, and social relationships, and most importantly, our relationships with ourselves.
Joseph: During those times, when you are trying to balance everything, do you have any advice or do you have any tips or tools or techniques that you used to stay on track during those challenging times?
Solonia: For one thing, I think that word ‘balance’ sometimes is tricky because the idea and the concept of balance, I think, is extremely subjective. What work-life balance looks like to one person could be completely different or even the complete opposite to another person.
I think what’s more important and definitely at The Change School, what we base everything on is really about personal values and really knowing what’s important to you and then almost reverse engineering from there down to the nitty-gritty in terms of how you spend your time, how you create boundaries whether it’s at home or in your social life or even how you set meetings during the week, and also recognizing that we have limited time in a day and we also don’t have boundless energy.
Tied to this is also that idea of self-care and knowing what type of environment you need for focused work, what type of environment you might need to be more productive, what type of setting you need to not be working and to create those boundaries and when you just need some down time.
Actually, we just ran an event two nights ago around career change. One challenge that a participant had shared was exactly that, ‘What happens if you’re without a job and you’re in between jobs, and you just have a really bad day, but I know I’m supposed to be doing something, but I’m not?’ My response was simply, we need to be a bit kinder to ourselves, and we need to understand that some days are going to be, and that’s with everything in life. Rather than forcing ourselves to do things or be productive or go to that social engagement, it’s also being able to say no when you need to and allowing yourself that space to just step away from things and clear your mind and realign, recharge, and start over tomorrow.
Joseph: When you look back on your career change, Solonia, is there something that you wished you had known that you now know, having gone through these transitions?
Solonia: It really is okay to take the road less traveled. I think the onus comes back to us, and we have to really put in more of that self-work to understand who we are, what we believe in, and where we can add value in the world and dare to pursue those opportunities and follow that path despite naysayers, self-limiting beliefs. It’s just acknowledge those things and either ignoring them or working around them. You talked about a guiding light. It’s sort of letting the things we know of ourselves and know of the future we want in the world be the guiding light.
Just know that, again, we can’t control everything, but hard work, self-awareness, and keeping your eye on the prize can go a very, very long way. A lot of things, I think, will just fall into place as you go, provided that you are doing those things.
Joseph: I would love to hear a little bit more about the work you’re doing, especially in the space of global citizenship. I just got done watching your TED Talk, which is really wonderful to watch: ‘Stepping up to Global Citizenship,’ which is a talk you gave with your co-founder, Grace, in 2016. I was just curious if you could wrap us up today by talking a little bit about how your multicultural background has had an impact on your career trajectory and how global citizenship has been at the core of the work that you’re doing.
Solonia: My background is that I’m half Taiwanese and half Ethiopian. I’ll also mention that I have a half-sister who’s Ethiopian-Lebanese and a half-brother who’s full Ethiopian, and as I mentioned earlier, my husband, who’s Indian. The reason I talk about that is because I think that experience, in a way, has allowed me to have a very natural openness to change and adaptation. Things weren’t always smooth in my family in terms of overcoming cultural differences.
I think seeing that and understanding that on a very real and deeper level from a very young age has allowed me to have more compassion for the natural fear or resistance humans have towards the unknown. It’s allowed me to understand why change can be so scary and why the familiar always feels safer. Having that insight and that compassion has allowed me to do my work better.
At The Change School, if you go to our website and see our theory of change, we always talk about being a school that aims to empower and enable more global citizens. While we have shied away from using that term only because people have so many preconceptions of what a global citizen is or means, I think, for us at The Change School, we simply define a global citizen as an individual who can connect the dots between the self-awareness piece to the world beyond them. It’s about personal mastery. It’s about understanding our values and understanding how that translates into the work we do and understanding that each of us has a role to play in global society. It’s important to be self-aware, but it’s also important to realize that the work we do should be much greater than ourselves.
Joseph: Thank you so much, Solonia, for taking us through your career journey and explaining how you gained clarity along the way, the importance of getting the space to reflect, the importance of self-care and setting boundaries, and also just taking us through the importance of how much multiculturalism has played an impact on your own career. I know one of the things that you talked about in your TEDx Talk was the importance of continuous learning and practice and curiosity. If people are curious about learning more about you or The Change School or the retreats that you guys organize, where can they go to learn more?
Solonia: My bio’s up on The Change School website, which is just TheChangeSchool.com. If what I’ve shared resonates with anyone, I’d love for them to also just drop me a mail and connect. I’m at Solonia@TheChangeSchool.com.
Our retreats, we’ve got a few coming up that are actually very suited for any sort of career shifters or relaunchers. We’ve got something on how to be fearless, which is about building confidence and courage. We’ve got a self-care retreat about creating those habits that allow us to be our better selves. All of that can be found on The Change School Facebook page. If they just type in The Change School on Facebook, they should be able to find us.
Joseph: Fantastic, Solonia. We will make sure that we capture all those links in the show notes. I really appreciate you taking the time to share your personal journey. I hope everything continues to go well for you there at The Change School and that people continue to get a ton of value out of your retreats. Thanks a lot.
Solonia: Thanks so much, and thanks for having me.