Photo by Ivan Bandura on Unsplash

Life can be dispiriting at times. We put huge effort into an endeavour (art, music, love, work) for it to go nowhere at all. Or we find ourselves toiling away, creating, building, refining, and then have only a modicum of success. Neither seems to match the blood, sweat and tears we’ve expended.

I was reminded of this when I came across a receipt for concrete. I know, not an obvious wellspring of inspiration. Some years ago my husband and I built a kitchen extension. It wasn’t big, but enough to drain our finances for some time. Extensions need foundations and foundations need holes. Ours was dug by hand by a heroic man, whose name I can’t even remember. Don’t ask why we couldn’t use a mechanical digger — I’ll just rant about impossible neighbours.

The poor builder spent three days digging an enormous hole with just his muscles, a spade and buckets of tea for assistance. Then, once the job was done, he simply filled it up again with concrete and we were back where we started. The cost? £5,000. At the time I was incredulous. How much to dig a hole and fill it? It seemed like there was nothing to see for his efforts, or our money.

Disappointingly no one expressed any interest in our kitchen foundations. I suppose it’s because we can’t see them once a building is up and, more importantly, foundations aren’t exactly exciting. Spend £5000 on new furniture, or put in a new bathroom, and you’ll get oohs and ahs. Build a set of foundations? Nada. They feel like a waste of money. There’s no joy to be gleaned from a thick layer of concrete.

But house foundations are like foundations in life — they’re vital for our endeavour to stand the test of time. Never acknowledged, never praised, foundations don’t see the light of day. Yet groundworks are a prerequisite for any new undertaking — we need them to create a business, develop a relationship, or build a life. I’ve recently read a good book called “The Idea In You.” It’s about how to find ideas and turn them into a business and one of the chapters is titled “Laying The Groundwork.”

We avoid building foundations, or want to speed them up, because we’re impatient. Trust me, I’m at the head of the queue as I can barely wait for a kettle to boil. I think we expect time to fast forward — instant results and immediate gratification. But life is more subtle than this. It sneaks the reward into our pocket much later, whilst we’re looking the other way.

Social media doesn’t help. We’re fed a diet of achievement — singers, footballers, entrepreneurs (and normal people like ourselves) making it big, making it rich. What we don’t see are years of toil, the hard graft, foundations being built.

I’ve interviewed over 100 people going through changes in their lives and many talked about firm footings. Esme worked her socks off to create good foundations in her career. Most of her effort was never seen, but she needed to have this discipline so she could have a good base. “I’ve achieved success in my career by working really hard. I am really organised and good at multitasking and can get through an awful lot of things just by being really efficient.”

Mark’s boss could be “quite a dominating interfering character. He had very clear opinions on how things should be done. He wanted to do things in a certain way.” He would develop “grand ideas” but wouldn’t think them through. Mark used to think “hang on you’re trying to put the antenna on the roof when we’re just about building the foundations. Marrying up all these wonderful ideas with the reality of where we were on a project would end up creating conflict.”

We need to build foundations in relationships too. Developing a good rapport, building trust, it all takes time and effort. But it can pay dividends later on. Adeola stood out as a young Nigerian woman working in Engineering. Nearly all her colleagues were men. She talked a lot about authentic relationships and how they were vital to her career.

I’d done a presentation to the Exec and it had gone really well. And then I went to do a similar presentation to his peers (who were my peers in age) and it just went so badly wrong.” Adeola was pretty upset by it and asked a trusted colleague for advice. His response was not what she expected. “What’s your problem with white middle-aged men? Those people you messed up in front of are just a bunch of men behaving like bullies in the playground. So why can’t you see that?’”

For Adeola it was a turning point. “A huge shroud lifted off of my head. Because he was talking about the reality of what it was. There was trust in our relationship that allowed him to voice what he saw. There was a maturity in our relationship that enabled that.” This really helped Adeola make a big shift and take “a perspective that I hadn’t seen before. And suddenly it was liberating.” The strength of her relationship with her colleague underpinned that.

Amy’s relationship with her husband and son helped her through her career change. “My husband has been really supportive. He never questioned that I should leave.” Going through this has “really shown me the people who have my back. The thing that made me do the really difficult stuff and really push me out of my comfort zone was my family — my son and my husband.” Together they have really assisted Amy in moving on. “I never want to go back to that place I was in two years ago. I never want to go back.”

Often, we don’t realise how important it is to build foundations until we’re in a difficult spot. The hard graft comes into its own when everything is shifting — problems at work, challenges with a new business venture, or issues in our relationships. The solid base keeps us steady in turbulent seas.

This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Why not also take a look at my latest venture: guest writer on The Room Psy.

Second photo copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

Psychologist, coach, writer, photographer… juggling them all but often dropping balls.

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