You can't pour from an empty cup, by Beth Alden


There are times at work I am so overwhelmed with the things I need to do that, instead of achieving something, I simply dither and struggle to be either constructive or thoughtful. It’s not a wonderful place to be. I’ve been feeling like this recently; work is always busy and with summer holidays with staff off and family pressures it built up. So, by the end of the summer I was struggling to get anything done.

The Prosper scheme meant I had a few extra things to do; I had a meeting with my mentor and I’d signed up to a half-day session in Oxford. I had tonnes of work to get through, and I wondered whether two days away from the office was the best thing for me or the organisation; would it be the straw that broke the camel’s back? I wondered if signing up to Prosper was just another commitment on top of my workload and that I shouldn’t have taken it on.

Then I looked at it a different way. There is a phrase that I’m fond of, ‘You can’t pour from an empty cup’. I love working in the arts, but it can be hard to deliver the programme quality you want to achieve on the small budget you have, and my tendency has been to bridge this gap myself, by putting in longer hours. The result is always this feeling of being overwhelmed. So, I realised that what I needed to do was not work all hours and push myself to the point of exhaustion. What I really needed to do was to slow down, treat myself, learn something new and think about things clearly. I saw the two days out of the office as a vital chance to hit the pause button and to go and fill up my cup.

My mentor, Jan Miller, and I live on opposite sides of Bath - it’s a lovely city and I love spending time there. The Holburne Museum is always a joy to visit. It’s a museum I remember fondly as my father used to take me there as a child to visit the Crafts Study Centre which was once based there. Even better there was an exhibition of Tapestry on at the Holburne which I’d been meaning to get to. So, rather than rushing a meeting with my mentor, we decided to meet half-way at the Holburne in Bath and to spend time together followed by a visit to the exhibition. The mentoring session not only involved some great coffee and cake in a beautiful setting, it helped me to look at a focused area of strategic work that in my busy summer I hadn’t dwelt on. My mentor comes from a different sector, and so where my thinking had become stale and I was unable to move forwards, her take on my problem was fresh and perceptive. We talked about ideas, and ways forwards, about new people to try and partner, about new ways to reach out – I felt refreshed by this thinking. At the end of our session we went to visit the exhibition (Tapestry Here and Now, a touring exhibition from the NCCD); seeing exhibitions is one of my favourite things to do and it was a surprising show, especially in the light of the conversation I’d been having with my mentor. It wasn’t just the work that sparked by interest, but it was the way the museum had gone about the exhibition and had managed the production that I looked at; there were ideas from the exhibition I could take away with me. My cup wasn’t empty any more; I had taken some time and effort to top myself up and, although I knew the pile of work was still waiting for me at work, I had more energy to take it on and a more objective state of mind with which to tackle it.


The next working day was my other Prosper session. Two days away from the office felt a bit of a self-indulgent luxury, but I still felt I could do with putting more in to my own self to give anything meaningful to my work. The drive cross-country to Oxford blew away the cobwebs of the weekend and I arrived at Modern Art Oxford ready to give all my attention to thinking about the vision, mission and values of New Brewery Arts and how we can articulate these clearly.

Sometimes when you are over-busy it’s even more important to go back to the start, back to the foundations, to the ‘why do we do this’. The vision, mission and values of the organisation not only help you decide what to do, but also what not to do, what is a diversion – and when you are overwhelmed this is exactly what needed, to remember to hit your own reset button. The small group in the session made conversations easy, and the session leader Mairead O'Rourke (Mairead rhymes with parade) was knowledgeable and clear about the subject. As with all such sessions, the most rewarding bit came at the end when we all gave a short ‘elevator pitch’ about our organisation or business. I used the opportunity to rehearse a talk I’ve given in the past, but this time I could ask for feedback from the group, it was a chance to get objective comments and to understand how what we do, and the way I articulate this, is received. As with my Prosper mentor two day before, this time for self-reflection, feedback and new understanding helped to refill my cup, leaving me able to go back to my organisation with clarity and focus, a better leader of the team, and with renewed enthusiasm for our purpose.

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Next time I feel overwhelmed by it all, I need to remember everything I have learnt from these two days with Prosper; to take a step away from the minutia of the day-to-day jobs around me; to find perspective through taking advice and understanding other points of view or ways forwards and to let myself be inspired by the work of other organisations, and the creativity of artists and makers. After all, ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup.’

Beth Alden is CEO at New Brewery Arts.