29 Apr Sarah Lesniewski – Lawyer Turned Arts & Culture Producer
Sarah Lesniewski’s background spans Law, Communications, Arts and Culture production, NGO’s, Politics, sharing hallways with the British PM and Swiss Chocolate. I sat down with Sarah to get an idea of how she navigated all these changes in her evolving career, what’s next for her (check out Zeitgeist Paradise), and her advice for anyone manoeuvring similar roadblocks.
You have such a great professional background – from training as a lawyer to moving abroad and working in Communications to shifting trajectories to entrepreneurship. Can you take me through your career journey and how that has evolved.?
I started my career as a lawyer and really harboured fantasies of having a sexy international human rights career. All of the job postings I looked at wanted an advanced law degree or a Master’s of law, so I decided to do one [a Master’s] after my call to the bar. When I finished it was one of these moments in life where I realised I was either going to go back to Toronto and be a lawyer, or I was going to try to send myself overseas, which is the route I chose. I moved to Geneva where a lot of NGOs are headquartered. I had never been to Switzerland before. I didn’t know anybody in Geneva, but I took the risk that I would use that as my base and apply for jobs all over the world until my savings ran out. I ended up getting a job in London for a small women and economics think tank called the Women’s Budget Group. My work in that role moved me into a sort of Campaigns, Advocacy, Policy and Communications space very broadly. I ended up working across that whole spectrum for the next 10 or 15 years. I ended up having a really interesting career in the UK, working in the not for profit sector, dabbling a little bit in arts and cultural production, and then ultimately moving into government consultancy where I had some amazing experiences, working for the British Foreign Office and working for the Prime Minister’s Office: 10 Downing Street.
It was absolutely an amazing experience, but at that point, I made a very hard decision to move myself and my partner back to Canada. I continued in Communications, but the field is very thankless. There are a lot of very toxic Communications jobs and unfortunately that has been my experience as well.
Why do you think that is? Why do you think Communications is such a toxic field?
As somebody who’s worked across the public, private and nonprofit sectors, bad leadership is a problem everywhere and when you work in Communications, your job very often is to work directly with bad leaders, your job becomes to disguise or polish bad leadership. For example, during the early days of the pandemic a lot of people talked about how poor the Communications were,. but I knew right away that it wasn’t a Communications problem.; it was a strategic leadership problem. Our leaders had no idea what they were doing, and they were trying to disguise that fact with Communications.
There’s no place to hide when you are dealing with poor leadership and that makes it especially toxic. So I landed in a few different toxic jobs and after a particularly toxic job I started thinking about whether this is what I even want to really do – and what I was putting up with all this for.
I was a parent of a young child at this point and had the idea to do parties for kids. Baby raves are popular everywhere but Toronto it seemed, and it was the sort of party that I wanted to go to as a parent except that it didn’t even exist here. And so I realized I would have to do it myself.
How did you eventually come to that idea though? I imagine you went through a bit of a reflection and process period. What was that like for you?
I actually went back to an exercise provided to me from a former colleague. She had gone to a leadership retreat and came back wanting to share her learnings with the team. The exercise asked all these questions about your childhood – what were the things that made you happy, what were the things that gave you pleasure, and how did you see yourself as a child, etc. When I wrote down my answers, it actually made me emotional because as a child, I was really into music and dancing and dressing up. Thinking of that awakened something in me and made me realise that there was a part of me that was suppressed.
I’m curious now, do you feel like it was your choice to initially go into Law? There are so many things you can do in a creative field, did you intentionally make the choice to move away from it?
Yes, I think we lean into what we feel we’re good at. I was a mouthy kid and I really liked arguing. Going into law seemed like a natural extension of that. So it was my choice. I think I felt very intimidated by Arts and Culture. I think a lot of people do,particularly in Canada and Toronto, Arts and Culture isn’t open to people. I think people who aren’t raised in it feel like outsiders and feel like there’s no entry points.
Now you’re preparing for your first event, Disco Descendants. Take me through what a day in your life is like for you currently.
Things are very busy and the fun part is that I’m all over the place. This morning I was putting up posters, and last night I was putting together a Facebook ad. I’m going to source some party decorations and I have to email the venue to finalise a few things with planning. No two days are alike.
What has been most encouraging is seeing people embrace the idea and buying tickets. Because that’s ultimately why I’m doing this. Somebody said to me recently, “what you’re doing is very hard because ultimately it’s culture change”. I’m trying to create a space in Toronto for parents to connect back with their pre-child’s self.
How have other people responded to your career changes? Have you found that people have been supportive, or have you ever encountered naysayers?
In my move from Communications to Cultural Production people have absolutely been supportive. I’ve got to give a shout out to my partner who has been incredibly supportive. My family has also been incredibly supportive. I think people understood that that Communications wasn’t fulfilling for me anymore. But there are some people that have never gotten over me moving out of Law. People still ask me all the time, ‘do you ever think you’ll go back to being a Lawyer’? And I haven’t practised for almost 20 years!
Why do you think some people have such a hard time accepting you are not going back to the Law?
In popular culture, people think of being a lawyer as a successful, stable, prosperous profession. The idea of walking away from that to something that is uncertain and undefined… it’s seen as incredibly risky and foolish.
I’m curious what your advice would be to people that are looking to make changes as you have done. To all the people out there unhappy with what they’re doing, they want to make a change but don’t know what that is. What would you say to that individual?
There is no rulebook and people are always going to be threatened by others that carve their own paths and do something different: difference is always threatening, but you absolutely have to do it. Life is too short. My advice would be to create good relationships because there will be a time that you’re going to need to pull in favours. Also, learn as much as you can and build as many skills as you can. I’ve had to learnhow to use accounting software and become an expert at Squarespace. But there is a YouTube video for everything. You’ve got to believe in yourself and prioritise your own happiness and well being. It feels hard in the moment, but it is also extremely liberating. That feeling of liberation for me is absolutely motivating. And being responsible and true to yourself, it carries you through those difficult times.
Can you tell me more about that liberation piece? What do you mean by that?
I think a lot of people’s career paths are chosen for them because of society’s expectations or family’s expectations. Or, people take these career tests that are meant to give them the answer of what their career choices should be. Sometimes that works, I guess. But I think I’ve always known that I had to listen to that voice that goes from a whisper to a scream, ‘this isn’t right, this isn’t for you. This situation is not putting your talents to good use. You are bigger than this. You are better than this. There are other things out there’. I think if I didn’t have faith in myself, I never would have picked up and moved to Switzerland. I never would have moved to London. I never would have made all the career changes I did. But I feel great at the moment. I feel very good,I’m very excited. As silly as it is, stapling those posters up in the city, seeing something out there in the wild – I’m making something happen. It feels incredibly powerful.
It’s interesting listening to you right now – people put a lot of emphasis on things like career tests and identifying a concrete answer for their decisions, which is valid. But I wonder if people forget to pay attention to the feeling.
Human beings are creatures of habit. I’m definitely a creature of habit. But you do need to stop and pay attention. I am grateful for that colleague taking the time to lead us through that exercise. I think sometimes it’s only when you pause and interrogate your feelings with these thought provoking questions that you really dig deeper and start to peel back the layers of what makes you feel happy or fulfilled.