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Lessons I learnt running a University Society

While I experienced many of the benefits of running a society at university, the position was not without its bad sides. A university curriculum and the social life that goes with it can be pretty packed. To top it off, I was working weekends at a local café to help pay my living expenses. At the busiest times, I would do university work all day, society work in the evenings and then café work on the weekends. This often left me feeling spread a bit thin and taught me some valuable lessons. I have shared four of them below. 

Lesson 1: The basics come first

It’s fairly common to think that there aren’t enough hours in the day. Many people (me included) think that a nifty way to get around this is to dip into our eating and sleeping time to get our hands on some extra work hours. We think we are geniuses – that we have finally solved the productivity problem. Then we fall asleep at 2pm during a lecture. On many occasions I skipped meals or worked late when I knew I had an early start, feeling almost proud that I was so dedicated to work that I was prepared to give up my basic needs. The reality however is that dipping into my eating and sleeping time hindered me in the long-run. It made it hard for me to focus and caused me to be tired and irritable during the day. From that, I learned to always put my basic needs first and do everything I can to respect them. Of course, late nights are sometimes unavoidable as a trainee but I now make a point of not working late unless it is absolutely necessary.

Lesson 2: Everything is negotiable (almost)

Another thing I learnt running a society was the difference between academic deadlines and real-life deadlines. Most academic deadlines are pretty black and white. If I don’t submit my essay by x time, I don’t get the grade. Real-life deadlines are much less predictable. People (myself included) often have a habit of thinking that their thing is the most urgent thing of all and that everything needs to be done as soon as possible.

The reality is that, while we might want everything to be done quickly, there are simply too many things to be done for that to be possible. From this I learnt the importance of negotiating deadlines when necessary, rather than taking them at face value and then ending up missing them. The flipside of this was understanding that the deadlines I gave to my fellow committee members were not set in stone either. Understanding the importance of open, honest negotiation when it comes to deadlines has helped me avoid a great deal of stress either trying to meet impossible deadlines or giving others deadlines they cannot meet.

Lesson 3: If you write it down, you can’t forget it

I have a terrible memory. One of the most common things I say to friends is “have I told you this story already?” and the answer is usually something like “yes Ali, you told me this story yesterday”. Yet, there I was managing information coming in from all angles, often in hurried telephone conversations. Forgetting a story you told to a friend is one thing but letting someone down who was relying on you is a terrible feeling. To top it off, the stress of having hundreds of things crammed into your head can itself cause you to lose focus and enjoy your work less. Something I had to learn quickly through university and society work was the importance of writing things down, especially for someone like me. For me, this has developed over time into having (1) a place for short-term things and (2) a place for longer-term things. The point here for me was to get information out of my brain and stored somewhere else so I could trust it is there when I need it.

As I write this, I have a notebook on my desk full of slightly crazy-looking short-term notes, scribbles and drawings. These are things I write down when someone calls me or asks me to do something in passing. It’s there when I need it and allows me to both record and read back information without having to store anything in my head. Then, I have a mid to long-term to-do list that is linked to my Outlook and has loads of boring things like colour-coded categories, deadlines and prioritisation. While I would absolutely love to take you through my geeky to-do list the point is that writing things down made it much more difficult to forget things and greatly reduced the stress placed on me. For me, having separate lists for long and short-term tasks works well but there are countless ways of writing things down. Some popular methods are the Getting Things Done method and the Bullet Journal method.

Lesson 4: Step back, take a breath

When I put lots of time and effort into a particular society project, to me it seemed to be the only thing in the world worth caring about. At times, I would even take it personally that someone didn’t share the same enthusiasm for a project as I did. Similarly, if individuals or third parties let me down, I would take it as a personal insult, often reacting with emotion more than anything else. Society work can be a great example of people achieving really impressive things just out of enthusiasm. No one is getting paid and people are just doing things out of their own enthusiasm. The flipside to this is that, because everyone is a volunteer, it is unreasonable to expect the same commitment of them as a paid worker.

What this taught me is that things invariably go wrong and you will very likely be let down by someone or something. In a pressurised situation, this can lead to a knee-jerk reaction that is fuelled by emotion and not really very well thought out. You might offend someone you didn’t mean to offend or make a bad decision. What I learnt is to practice recognising reactions that are emotional for what they are: reactions. While an emotional reaction is a perfectly natural thing, it has no real thought or logic behind it. So, if ever I feel there is a chance my reaction is emotional or influenced by stress, I try to step back, take a breath and consciously consider my response.

Conclusion

Running or helping run a society can be extremely rewarding and, at least in my case, taught me a lot of things that I will use throughout my career. I should add that these are called lessons and not rules for a good reason. As I progressed from law school into my training contract, particularly during a pandemic, I have learnt that working life is anything but predictable. While I shared these lessons to help students considering society work, I hope they will be able to adapt them to suit them and their situation, and hopefully in the process learn some lessons of their own.