When you get a big hug from Michelle Obama, you must be doing something right.
Keren Taylor is the Executive Director of WriteGirl, a creative writing and mentoring non-profit organization in Los Angeles that promotes creativity, critical thinking and leadership skills to empower teen girls.
In 2015 alone, with Keren’s leadership, WritGirl launched its 15th season, hosted 30 writing workshops and events, published 2 award-winning anthologies, and served more than 500 teens with the help of 200 dedicated volunteers. 100% of high school seniors in the WriteGirl core program went on to college, many as the first in their families. WriteGirl also trained men writers for the very first time to support the newly-launched Bold In Writers program which expands classroom work with pregnant, parenting and incarcerated teens.
Keren is a mentor to anyone who meets her (including me) and is one of the most inspiring people I know. I wanted to hear her take on doing meaningful work and finding balance. We met up near the WriteGirl offices in downtown L.A for a conversation over Rose wine.
M: How did you identify your passions and follow your dreams?
K: I’m always one to listen to my gut, to listen to the voice in my head that says, “I want to do more of this.” The impetus for starting WriteGirl was doing some songwriting workshops for young people in New York, and wanting to do more of that.
I also got lucky in a way in that when I was laid off and had that feeling that I could do anything I wanted to do, it was right after 9/11. That call to service was strong: knowing how fragile life is, wanting to do something of meaning.
The corporate world was the most awful place for me. It felt so wrong, and I felt everything I did was wrong.
I think it’s a very hierarchal environment. You start at a lower rung, you keep your head down, do your job, network like crazy and work your way up. The ‘keep your head down and do your work’– that didn’t work for me. I wanted to be in charge. I wanted to produce something. I think you don’t become a leader. You either are a leader or you aren’t. A leader is someone with a great desire to do something, and a greater ego perhaps [laughs].
The greater ego to believe you can do something?
The ego to say, “I want to do something, and you need to help me.”
I spend all day asking people to do things. I ask all day long, every day, “How can you help?” It’s really hard sometimes, but I know what I’m asking for is really valuable, and that makes it easier. But it is a challenge, and you have to be able to take rejection all the time.
What does the term “work-life balance” mean to you?
There are lots of different ways I think about it.
- Learn to Ride the Waves
I was talking to a new staff member who was feeling overwhelmed by our event schedule. I told her, it’s a little bit like the ocean: Things have a swell. There’s pressure, and then it breaks at the shore and flows. It gets easier. You have to learn to ride the waves and be willing to let your energy be up for when things are on deadline and a lot is happening, and then you have to take a breath and enjoy the breaks in between.
2. Take a Leap of Faith
I think the other part of it is the willingness to take a leap of faith and go on vacation, or work from home for a day, or not work for a day– and know it’s going to be OK.
3. Decompress Through Hobbies — Find Your Own Outlets
The other thing is, I make jewelry on the side, and mosaic art… I have my studio in my house set up. So I can walk in there any time, and it’s been really great to make a necklace, a bracelet, not having to use my analytical brain, thinking about staffing or planning an upcoming event or anything related to WriteGirl.
I think America has this view of what decompression is: you have to relax in the downtime or get a massage, and I don’t think that’s what decompression is for me. I’m a high energy person. When I think of getting a massage, that isn’t going to relax me sometimes because of all the thoughts rattling in my brain. But going in the studio, or gardening, or cooking, or being in nature, doing physical things that connect me to the earth and food, that’s very decompressing to me.
Do you think “work-life balance” is possible?
Yes, but I would say we have to banish the phrase because if you’re doing work you love, there is no separation. If you do work you love, and if you find a way to embrace all your passions in life, I think balance will find you. I think it would be really impossible to find work-life balance if you hate your work.
But having said that — that’s kind of a cheeky answer isn’t it? [laughs] — the work I do is still work. I do need to shut off my WriteGirl brain sometimes, because I am better for WriteGirl if I do connect with nature, friends, my art, music, the things I love. I can bring more energy and creativity to WriteGirl. So I know that even though I love my work, I do need to balance and be mindful of how I manage my time.
That’s hard because I do have standards for what I want to accomplish with WriteGirl. You always want more for the girls– and that’s not a bad thing, but it can be if you’re not enjoying what you’re doing. I’m all for striving for the future, but also, let’s enjoy what we did achieve, let’s celebrate that.
The striving is good. I don’t think the answer is not to have expectations or goals. Keep your striving, keep your goals, keep aiming high, but also learn to be present with what’s happening.
I like the analogy that your mind is like a horse. When you’re riding the horse, if you pull too tightly on the reigns, you will stop things. But if you’re too loose with the reigns, you will run wild. That’s the definition of balance to me: hold on loosely to your goals.
What do you wish you do different in how you manage your time and day? What do you feel you don’t have enough time for, or wish you could tackle better?
So many things. I always wanna spend more time with friends. I always wanna spend more time with family. I am filled with want and things I want to do more of all the time. I just have to live with that feeling of want.
Do you have advice for someone starting a new endeavor and grappling with issues of following their passions, doing meaningful work and making a difference, while managing their time so they can find their “balance” (whatever their definition may be)?
1. Surround yourself with people that will support you. Get rid of the naysayers.
2. Write about it, because putting it on paper is the first way to make it real Make a plan. Make lists. Use colored paper. Use post-its. Use writing to solidify it and make it visible in the world, before it is in another way. The power of writing is really important, especially in the formative phase of starting something new.
3. And use different kinds of writing. Writing a business plan is really different from writing a vision statement, which is different form writing a list of supplies you might need, which is different from writing a persuasive letter for someone to help. Write your fears down. Write a budget and narrative to go with it. Writing is so key to helping declare it, define it, finding support for it.
You’ve inspired me to ask a bonus question. If you had to design a writing exercise, like the ones you often lead at WriteGirl workshops, to help us find work/life balance, what would it be?
Oh, well this is really fun.
Take 5 sheets of paper, and on the top of each sheet of paper, write the area of your life you’d like to divide your time in between. Example: work, nature, family, sports, art, travel… What are the buckets of things you want in your life? If you don’t identify the buckets, you can’t have balance.
Then, see if you can list out a few activities in each of those categories.
Rank the sheets in 2 ways. First of all, rank them in the way you’re currently doing them, and not just in order of time but emphasis: What you are giving the most energy to and the least energy to?
And then reorder them based on how you’d like to be spending your time and energy.
Write down how you can shift your life. Be solution oriented: You can do something, even if you can change your whole life. Sometimes the littlest shift can make a huge difference.
Edited for clarity and length. Images from WriteGirl.org.