Last year, Lwando Xaso published Made in South Africa: A Black Woman’s stories of Rage, Resistance and Progress, a series of essays that captured the frustration and uncertainty of navigating post-apartheid South Africa, but also the hope and ambition of our young nation. South Africa could learn something from Xaso about moving through uncertainty and fear to build your own future.
Xaso is a qualified attorney who has clerked for the Constitutional Court before moving on to the country’s largest law firms. Xaso returned to the Constitution Hill as a trustee, and has since founded Including Society, a consultancy advising private and public institutions on how to reimagine their organisations.
Xaso has used her own imagination to push through doubt and create a unique and fulfilling career, but she also used doubt to empower herself and others.
Your career journey has been quite illustrious, but in many ways, it’s also quite unconventional. Whenever we take the path less travelled, we need to overcome our own doubts, and the reservations from others as we charter our own paths. Have you had moments in your career where you have experienced those moments of doubt?
Yes. In fact, I am experiencing doubt right now. I have had a hard month financially and when that happens I sometimes wonder if I should have stayed on the traditional course. In moments of doubt I am tempted to look back at the reliable career that was but I try not to succumb to that.
I sometimes deal with doubt by turning it into excitement over the unknown. I have no idea where I am going but so far the journey outside the conventional legal career has brought so much in my life. I work with amazing people. Every day I get to do what I love at a pace determined by me. Some months I make more money than I did in law and sometimes, like this month, I do not. Not having a long term plan has been a relief for someone like me who has had a plan since I was thirteen. I am grateful for once to be present in the moment instead of looking too far ahead.
The doubt sometimes serves a purpose- it allows me to take stock of the decisions I have made and to reflect on whether I still want to stay the course. Also I believe in God – that helps tremendously knowing that there is an all knowing force bigger than me guiding me.
When you choose an unconventional career or life path, those around you don’t always see the vision or agree, bringing doubt in from the outside. How do you respond to the voices of doubt when they come from your loved ones or friends in your circle?
I take the concerns and opinions of my loved ones seriously. Because they love me I know that their doubts come from a well-meaning place and from a place of their own fears and sense of limitation. Where I feel their doubts are credible and not just fear driven, I will take in the information and sit with it for a while before I do anything. I never take any decisions in the midst of high levels of doubt. At some point my own resolute voice prevails and that’s what I ultimately listen to but of course listening to loved ones is part of my due diligence.
Do you have any specific strategies that you employ to help you overcome your own doubts or the hesitations that come from others when you want to try something new or take a particular direction in your career?
I practice silence. I have a sunny space in my house where I sit and observe my thoughts. The silence allows me to discern what is the fear behind the doubt. I also journal quite a lot and taking that time to think about my journey thus far, what I value and the kind of future I want to live into helps.
I think uncertainty and doubt are a part of life. Sometimes the point is not to overcome doubt as the world shows us constantly that there are things we just can never be sure about. Some doubts are credible and should be considered and then there is paranoia disguised as doubt. I think I practice stillness in order to cultivate the bravery needed to operate in an uncertain world. What I think is virtuous is resisting paralysis from doubt and having the ability to move forward even with doubt.
There’s a link between self-doubt and the imposter syndrome women often feel in the workplace. In many ways, both of these feelings stem from working in environments where you feel like you don’t belong or where your contribution is diminished. What are your thoughts on how we can get women, especially women of colour, to navigate these alienating corporate spaces in order to make a contribution, as opposed to checking out of these spaces altogether?
Personally my bouts of imposter syndrome are caused by my disbelief that I am now the adult in the room. There is something surreal about working your way into the position you always dreamt of. I think it’s only natural to be like “Wow am I really here?” and “Can I really do this?” I think the danger is allowing others to exploit that doubt.
Alienating spaces definitely can amplify it. Navigating alienating spaces is about understanding what you are not willing to compromise on and what you are willing to compromise on. You have to identify your priorities. My view was that as long as I was learning and doing good work than my tolerance for certain things was higher than if I was not learning. Once your non-negotiables are encroached then the price of admission into that organisation is too high. I also dealt with alienating spaces by building my confidence by doing things outside that space.
Personal development is key in building any confidence that may be damaged by an alienating space. That is why I started writing. It was something that I could do that had nothing to do with my work. Being able to achieve something outside of work can help with your confidence in the work place. Finding a mentor or a colleague that can support you is essential.
Sometimes the voice of doubt is cloaked in our own critique and over-analysis and rationalisations, and we very effectively talk ourselves out of taking risks. How have you differentiated between the voice of doubt and self-awareness?
I am an over-thinker and obsessive critic so I have had to deal with that incessant voice all my life. Sometimes it is paralysing but I realised that a lot of doubt comes from my fear of failure. Once I understood that and got comfortable with the idea of failing then it was easier to deal with it. I now have the mentality that sometimes I win some and sometimes I lose some- and that the loss is not a failure but a lesson.
I think doubt can be constructive. It demands that you pause before making a decision. So I have not had the need to differentiate it from self-awareness. In fact, I think my self-awareness allowed me to embrace my doubtful voice and to observe it without allowing it to control me.