Entrepreneurs Taking Back Control Of Their Lives Series – Karen Kwong.
The aim of this taking back control of life series is to help you find your own self. Every now and then we experience a period of difficulty, overwhelm and stress, and we feel it is happening to us alone. This series opens your mind to different people from various backgrounds and status, meaning that at every level in life we could meet that moment. Now what matters is setting up strategies on how to cope. And my next guests has so much to teach you.
My next stop for the Entrepreneurs taking back control of their lives is Karen Kwong Co-founder of ILUZ Tattoo Care. In my every interview I like to find out what a person thinks of themselves. Hence, I’ll always asked the question, “Who are you?”
At every time, you find people struggle to decide what angle to sum up who they are. Interestingly enough, Karen is not an exception.
“This is a rather difficult question to answer. The easy ones would be that I am female, Chinese British, one of four children, single with no children, I live in Central London and I have a portfolio career.”
Karen’s career portfolio spans all the way from having worked as a trader in the City then retraining to become an organizational psychologist and executive coach (renoc.co.uk). Alongside working with her coaching clients, she sometimes work with a VC as well as a lot of startups. Additionally, she co-founded ILUZ UK, a premium skincare for tattoos business, with her “amazing German partners” who are deeply interested in tattoos and their proper aftercare. Ms Kwong also is a trustee for a fantastic foundation (Shackleton Foundation) which seed funds charities and social enterprises for the disadvantaged youth of the UK.
“It’s the variety, challenge and helping people get to where they need to be, which keeps me going. Working with people and on things that excite me, such as coaching and ILUZ – that is who I am.”
What does your typical day look like.
My typical day? Due to the really varied nature of my work, I don’t really have a typical day. What is regular is that I get up fairly early and do some form of exercise. It could either be a run (or a slow shuffle in Karen’s running world), a walk, or a HIIT session at the gym, as well as some yoga. I find that no matter how tired (or hungover) I am, some movement really sets me up well for the day. Better than any coffee! Thereafter, it depends on whether I am working on an ILUZ project such as business strategy, marketing or with a client, or if I am coaching clients and so, moving from office to café to office. One way or another, I am usually armed with my smartphone and more often than not, my laptop, to make sure I can catch up on other work in between meetings. I also make it a point to take short walks throughout the day, or find 5 minutes of downtime in a room to practise some mindfulness, throughout the day. Having spent over 15 years working in a hectic environment of 16 hour days, I am trying to be a little bit better about managing my mind and emotions. A chilled out Karen is a better performing Karen!
At times, it can seem rather hectic not having any real structure to my day or week, and it is certainly not for everyone, but I rather like the freedom and lifestyle. As a general rule, I tend to prefer that my working day ends no later than 6pm. At the start of my coaching practice, I found myself eagerly agreeing to fit in with any appointment my client wanted to schedule. So some coaching sessions finished at 8-9pm. At the end of those days, I found it took me a long time for me to wind down and my clients themselves would also arrive overly stressed on their day, and thereby not focusing on themselves – the objective of the coaching sessions. It’s really fortunate that anyone I meet with on ILUZ work, that they generally work normal business hours and days, so I am not conflicted in those areas.
Evenings and weekends, I tend to either meet up with friends for drinks, lunch or dinner, an activity such as a museum/theatre or I have some quiet time. Much as I love seeing and spending time with people, I know that I need a lot of me-time to re-energize and to think.
What has been the most difficult thing that’s come between your job and your family or social?
Spending enough quality time with my friends and family is tough. All members of my family live abroad (Melbourne, Delaware, Manila and LA) and so I have to make sure that I take time out to call them and have proper chats. My sisters and I are on WhatsApp all day long and that helps with the day-to-day chat and banter but nothing beats a quality holiday visit. The fact that they all live in cool places really helps!!
As for my friends, I would say the same thing. For me, my friends are my family in the UK.
In my time in the City, I spent so many hours working that I found myself being wholly consumed by my work and thus losing myself to it. I wasn’t as supportive as I could have been and whilst I didn’t lose any of them, it certainly caused some tensions in good friendships, and it allowed me to form some not so healthy friendships and relationships too.
It is one of the reasons why I’m now a lot more conscious of taking time out for myself and choosing work that suits me better. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my job in the City and miss so much of it, but not the tired and often selfish Karen.
Working with ILUZ and the team has been a breath of fresh air, for we are treated like adults – work when you need to, and do it well. Otherwise, feel free to do whatever you like. Perfect!
Have you experienced any moments of overwhelm? How did you cope?
As someone who is usually quite relaxed about most things, I don’t tend to get overwhelmed. However, three significant occasions come to mind. The first was when I was promoted to head up a new team, having just found out our firm was merging with another. I was the team junior and was in the midst of getting coffees and teas when I was appointed the new head. Not only was I not expecting this, I didn’t even know if I was capable of running a newly merged entity – all the unknowns, being responsible for so much and so many, and in such a high profile position too. On this occasion, I knew that the first thing I had to do was make sure the people on the team, familiar and unfamiliar to me felt that they were being looked after and that the carpet had not been pulled from under their feet. At the same time, we had a job to do and come hell off high water, we were going to do it, so I set out our objectives, worked out our common goals, and with them, we started to achieve those.
The second time was when I left my last job. Although voluntary, I felt a severe loss of identity having worked in my last company for over 15 years. It took awhile to work out what I was going to do from there and it was really frightening. The thing I learnt to do was to think about what I wanted and what I didn’t want and went from there. With a less attached mind (such as I am a City trader therefore I am this kind of person), I allowed myself to explore what truly interested me and what made me tick, in other words, I allowed myself to define me, not a job. I guess you’d say, I’m still a work in progress, but that’s part of the fun. How many times in one’s life are you allowed to just be and to go with the flow, rather than have a job determine who you are, without really knowing why. I’m rather enjoying this adventure, unsettling as it may be at times.
The third time is a more recent one and it’s a personal one. A couple of months ago, my father was killed by a truck in an accident and it was and still is overwhelming. I didn’t really know what to do with this information and I am not entirely sure I still do. My siblings and I rallied around our mother and as a family, I am so proud of us all. This has been a really challenging time for lots of reasons, not just the obvious, and it is ongoing. However, if I have learnt anything in my life, it is that we have to be mindful of our experiences and embrace all our thoughts & feelings, and go with where they take us, and yet not be consumed by them. Have I coped? Who knows? But I know that being surrounded by people who care, as well as looking after myself – it all helps.
Are you in a place where you think you now have your life in control regardless of what responsibilities there are? If so, could you share 3 major ways you have been able to take back your life?
Is my life in control – now you’ve opened a can of worms! Part of my training as a coach was to embark on a wonderful course called Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), a psychological theory & intervention focusing on improving psychological flexibility and emotional agility, to aid people all the way from the depressed and anxious, to helping people perform more effectively at work and to be happier in general. In short, the more one tries to control things and people, the less likely it is to happen, and in fact may lead to more dire and opposite outcomes. I call it the ‘Spanx Effect’. Wearing Spanx is wonderful and it certainly helps give you a flatter stomach for that gorgeous dress which is just that little bit too tight. Problem is that the flab has to go somewhere and it always makes an appearance. The one time I tried it, I had the best abs for miles – sadly, I also looked like I had a boob job gone wrong. So the question for me isn’t about whether or not my life is in control but whether or not I feel that I’m in full flow, and if I am faced with tough challenges, if I can manage them.
I’m all for taking responsibility for oneself and one’s actions. In life, there are lots of ups and downs. Starting a new business such as ILUZ, whilst juggling other responsibilities such as my coaching business, my home stuff and other work can be enormously stressful. Difficult personal and relationships can really make or break things too. However, I try and spend time reflecting on where I am, why I make particular decisions, owning the outcomes – good or bad, and trying to improve on them. There are lots of things in life that are easily blamed on others and circumstances. Many a time, they are things out of our control. However, there is also a lot within our reach that we can manage and we should own that, and not blame others. One of my strengths is that I really relate well to people and for the most part am very empathetic. However, at times, when I am tired or not disciplined with myself, I lower my healthy boundaries and that’s when I allow others to take advantage of me or of others. That causes me enormous stress. By recognizing that in myself and by taking constructive action, such as saying ‘No’ for the right reasons, I take responsibility for myself and for my actions. It helps create a lot less stress and a much healthier me. To be clear, this isn’t about being a b***h or domineering, it’s just about self-respect.
In order to be properly self-aware and to take positive actions from those, one has to be mindful. Mindfulness has had a lot of publicity of late and many are intimidated by it. Fundamentally, it is about being present with your thoughts and feelings, without judgement. We spend much of our lives rushing around worrying about the past and stressing about the future. Being present allows us to really be aware of our current thoughts & feelings, and to appreciate what is going on around us and having healthy relationships with those thoughts & feelings. I am now much more aware of when I am losing sight of the facts and am getting wrapped up in the crazy emotions. I am much better equipped now to deal with said crazy emotions and thoughts. Life is a roller coaster and ACT, with the help of mindfulness (a key component), teaches one to manage one’s thoughts & emotions, not to avoid bad things and tough challenges. Because bad things do happen, and they happen to everyone. Happiness isn’t a thing you either have or you don’t have. It’s about the journey and how one deals with the ups and downs that either bring about happiness or anxiety.
There are many apps out there that are selling like hotcakes and they really do help. However, if you find you can’t sit still or find the quiet downtime intimidating, start small. When you brush your teeth, really notice the bubbles in your mouth, the feel of the toothbrush on your teeth – how is it different on your gums? The taste and texture of the toothpaste – at the beginning of the clean, in the middle, at the end. How does your mouth feel at the beginning, during and at the end?
Lastly, for me, I am reminded time again that I need time out for myself. I am on the surface quite extraverted but in reality, I need a lot of me-time and if I don’t get it, I start to unravel quite quickly and badly. I find myself making better decisions, I am more caring & thoughtful, and I work far more effectively, if I have some good quality time out. I used to have the most packed out diary I found myself just being out of sorts a lot of time. Now, I make sure that my diary has slots for me, and just me. It is for this reason and for me to practise mindfulness that I also enjoy the morning solo exercise.
What singular advice would you give anyone in your business shoes now but not coping?
Find someone to talk to – either a mentor, a business expert or an executive coach. Being an entrepreneur or any leader can be an incredibly lonely place. You may have a phenomenal team, and the best co-founder. Your spouse and best friends may be incredibly supportive but fundamentally, having someone independent who is on your side but has no axe to grind, will be far more helpful to you. A mentor will have industry expertise and access to a network of people who can help. A business expert might be able to help steer you in the right direction with their particular knowledge. An executive coach can work with you and your individual strengths, derailers, increase self-awareness, increase performance and generally help you focus on being a resilient business leader.
One of my bugbears when working with startups, or any business for that matter, is that there is too much focus on things like marketing, sales, financials etc, and yet very little to none on the psychological and emotional state of people. It is absolutely right that those things are key focus and objectives. However, room should also be made for the psychological state and the ‘soft’ stuff that really makes the core of the individual. What good is a sales strategy if the sales person isn’t thinking clearly or isn’t motivated correctly? How can a CEO make good strategic and long-term decisions, if they are too busy stressing about the wrong things and being distracted by ‘noise’? It is amazing how often these things happen. I’ve worked with many a CEO who has been so consumed by stress and anxiety that things that normally would have taken then 2 hours, have taken them weeks to complete. How healthy is that for them and for their business?
Overall, when it comes to work-life balance – I would say, this is very much something for the individual. There will always be times when the balance isn’t quite what you want it to be, but as long as it is temporary, that’s fine. To me, it’s about prioritizing the people and things that are important to you, knowing the difference between noise and genuine importance, and enjoying the journey. Surely that’s why you’re doing what you’re doing? And if not, make the change!