“Shaking the snow globe” -Embracing the chaos of newness
“When life starts to stagnate, shake it like a snow globe.” Balloon ICS Team Leader Ali Whiting on the impact Balloon had on her life, and on the entrepreneurs with whom we work.
Before joining Balloon, I had lived and worked in London for two years. However, despite living in one of the biggest cities on earth, as time passed my own world seemed to be rapidly shrinking. My consistent routine offered the same people and places each day, in turn feeding me a regular stream of matching perspectives and experiences. The city I once thought so dynamic and invigorating had shrivelled to a size not much bigger than myself: my creative ideas dried up, my adventurous spirit waned, and, frankly, I got boring. I’d built myself a little bubble, and mooched around in it aimlessly. By February 2016 I’d had enough; I gave myself forty days to find the pin to burst the bubble, and set about researching with haste. I looked at other jobs, some university courses, various hobbies I could take up, but none of them seemed sharp enough.
Over time I started to see life a bit like a snow globe. I existed, like anyone else, within the constraints of the world, but all my variables had sat like stale snow in the same place for too long. A snow globe can sit on a shelf looking completely lovely, but it always has the potential for change, to be purposefully picked up and shaken, its contents thrown into a flurry of activity before settling back down again but in an entirely new formation. I knew that by shifting my life only a little, the possibilities for change were limited. I needed to deliberately and vigorously shake my life, accepting that, for a brief period at least, I must embrace the chaos of newness in order to watch my life resettle anew. So on the Monday after Easter, I applied to be a Team Leader on the Balloon ICS programme and, three months later, I left London for Kenya.
Over the two months I’ve been here, I’ve come to understand the necessity of embracing intense periods of change, not only for individuals, but for young businesses as well. I’ve watched our entrepreneurs, volunteers and myself, overcome inherent cautiousness by running at newness with open arms; where thoughts of ‘I can’t/shouldn’t/won’t’ are challenged on a daily basis. It’s only through this process that I’ve learnt that shaking the snow globe requires three actions: rejecting fears, seizing opportunities, and merging perspectives, accepting all the possible outcomes.
On the Monday after training finished, I stood on the corner of a courtyard looking out at a sea of entrepreneurs. They were mingling with each other and the volunteers, but I stood solidly in my safe space just watching. I’ve always avoided these situations, meeting swarms of new people overwhelms me and networking makes my palms sweat and, with this crowd in particular, I felt an even greater pressure to impress. I thought of all the embarrassing things I could say and awkwardness that might ensue, but, accepting that my fears could only subside by embracing them and their consequences, I shrugged them off, puffed myself up with false confidence, and strode into the crowd. Making my way towards a forgiving-looking woman chatting with one of the volunteers, I edged between them, waited for a pause, smiled broadly, and shook her hand. I learnt that Nancy had written a book about epilepsy, and was finishing one about cerebral palsy, and was hoping to print more books to sell to new customers with our help. I also came to learn than Donald wanted to open a car wash; Gideon wanted to expand his movie shop; and Lovince wanted a new salon. By stridently shaking my safe space and facing the fears in front of me, I dislodged irrationalities that had consistently held me back in the past, and set myself up for three months of squaring up to my own fear.
On my fourth Tuesday in Kenya I stood terrified inside a small, mirrored room waiting for aerobics class to start. Where in London it had taken me a year to try yoga, my vigorous life-shaking had led my non-athletic self to seize aerobics in Kenya. It started well, and I jumped from side to side following the instructions of the man at the front. But suddenly, everyone else span around and I didn’t, and I smacked square into the man in front of me, and, by the time I realised, everyone had changed direction and were bounding sideways towards me. Rather than instructing the class, the man at the front merely shouted futile motivations, as I found myself stranded amid a very complex dance routine. An hour later, I had learnt very little aerobics. But, as I dragged my sweaty self from the room, I shook hands with the woman who’d helped me out when I was stuck, took a selfie with the friend who had laughed alongside me, and smiled with all the endorphins that come with exercise. Whilst these were not the outcomes I was expecting, aerobics had been much more fun than I’d anticipated.
Seizing new opportunities in Kenya has not always had the intended results: my first solo tuk tuk journey left me lost at night on a lamp-less road; attempts to haggle at the market left me with a very expensive second-hand Primark jumper; and my participation in an egg tossing contest made laundry night more complicated than usual. But the countless new things I have encountered here have led to numerous positive experiences – not only do I have a bank of story-worthy memories, but the various skills, and the knowledge I have gained are expectantly waiting to be utilised in my post-Kenya life.
In the two months I’ve been here, I’ve also watched the incredible ways that Balloon Ventures is itself shaking the snow globe in Kenya. In a market filled with low youth unemployment, limited success for new entrepreneurs and streams of identical businesses, the Balloon programme injects each participant with a fresh outlook, uniting them with young people with varying perspectives to shake their businesses into growth. As a Team Leader, I’ve been able to witness all twenty-four of our entrepreneurs swim in a sea of new ideas, and some of the amazing developments which have sprung from them. Nancy has taken her epilepsy advice onto the radio, and her book has recently spawned a pamphlet designed by some of the volunteers. Donald realised that his passions lie in baking rather than car washing, and the volunteers have spent mornings in his kitchen crafting bread and cakes to sell to the village shops. Lovince’s new salon means she’s no longer cutting hair in customers’ kitchens, and the fresh paint, colourful sign and newly purchased ear-piercing gun ensure Serenity Salon is the place to be. And Gideon’s movie shop now has a logo and a loyalty card, and the volunteers have watched his profits increase by the day.
As with my own experiences of the Balloon programme, the injection of newness for the entrepreneurs has often been unpredictable, but it’s only through this chaos that the best ideas have grown. The work by the volunteers and entrepreneurs over the last two months has demonstrated the impact of merging diverse perspectives as a means of infusing change, where, even without loans, the transformations to these businesses are remarkable.
Before coming to Kenya, I used the snow globe analogy to explain to those questioning me about why I made the decision I did; but it’s only through being here that I’ve understood how truly impactful the attitude can be. New ideas, perspectives and experiences rarely just come to us; instead we have to deliberately run at them. It’s all too easy for anyone to sit in their safe space, but the inevitable consequence of this, for both individuals and businesses, is stagnation. Whilst newness may be overwhelming, it is through actively embracing periods filled with fear-facing, opportunity-seizing and perspective-merging, that groundbreaking changes arise. So, as I look upon my final weeks here, I prepare to put the snow globe down. Soon, I’ll be back in London and the entrepreneurs to their daily routines, but the Balloon programme will continue to resonate for all of us, amidst a fresh blanket of snow.