Today is my Nameday – a day of celebrations of my personal identity and my relationship with my Dad (we used to celebrate our first names together). This is one of the few most important days in my calendar, so I tend to make it special. This year it is really important to me because it marks an important step in my life journey. I would like to use this day as an opportunity to launch a new edition of my business, Voxel Hub. This blog post contains an update on how I have arrived at this point in my professional life and why I think digital wellbeing is the next core focus of my work. I have posted quite a while ago about my luck in professional life. Most of my jobs were excellent. I worked in innovative industries, with fantastic leaders who showed me the way to grow but also to ask myself the right questions in regards to my life – private or professional. All those experiences and skills I have acquired along the way, shaped me into a person who seeks new challenges all the time. However, that constant need for movement and growth does not feel too heavy – it helps me grow, learn and help others. So today I would like to explain to my friends and colleagues why I have arrived at the point in life when Voxel Hub feels like the natural next step.
Whether you work for yourself or others, you are probably making career choices almost daily. Every single task and stuff you get done leads to your future direction in life. If you pay attention to your life, you can shape it into something rather extraordinary. That is precisely what has happened to me in the last decade of my life. I started my UK career in the first social media agency in the country, but as it grew and moved to London, I decided that living in London was too noisy for my young son. I was a single mum, so I had limited choices, but that did not stop me. I was told a startup was in the making in Oxford, so I reached out to them, and thus NFP Voice was born to support charities with social media work. I was deeply involved in digital for charities and really loved it, but I felt restless. The industry was changing and so doing social externally as an agency became a challenge to our beliefs – that people and organisations should be embedding social into their internal structures. So our work shifted to individual consultancy, and I suddenly became a business owner myself. It took me a few years to figure out the work-life balance and learn how to run a business, but I had brilliant support from my family, friends and colleagues. Only that working from home and running it, running a business and raising a child in a small and hostile town started affecting my overall mental health. Social media became my life-line, and until today, I strongly believe in the positive impact of online connections. Access to courses and life hacks also helped me a lot. I got involved in a few local causes, to balance out my inability to join other mums for a coffee during school hours. I made a few good friends to fill the loss of those lost to the ever-busy life of digital marketing in London.
I was incredibly stuck, though, and I did not know why. On the one hand, my actual circumstances were pretty good – a good job, a loving family, great location… On the other hand, something was bubbling up in me – a realisation that something around us was changing too. Our town became more and more hostile, on some occasions, racist. My son’s school turned into an academy and stopped caring for children – moved to care for results. The cues to the local GP practice grew, and all around me, people became more anxious and more lonely. I was feeling very lonely too. And in late 2015, I started noticing worrying trends online. Six months in the lead up to the Brexit Referendum I got seriously ill. Each time I sat to work int he morning, I would experience severe bellyache. My GP could find no other reason than stress. Only that my life was rather good, balanced… I did not understand what was going on. Something was really bothering me still…
The night of the Referendum vote I got an hour of sleep. I was worried, sick. For a person working in trends, I could see the results coming – I was genuinely not surprised. I was just really shocked that very few of us did see it coming. Next morning, before school run, I receive a message from a mum who after months of weekly visits to my house with her sons positioned herself as my best friend (actually best-mum-friend would be a more suitable term) saying: “I talked to my husband. He is certain that your husband will not get a job in the UK now”. I was experiencing racism and profound cruelty but also an astonishing level of entitlement and bias, which I did not see until then. The same afternoon another mum stopped me and said: ”I honestly did not know if I can text you or not so I decided to share this in person – I am so sorry for what you are going through right now.” And that reaction made me feel very curious. It is evident that everyone in the UK that day was suddenly to take a side and renegotiate their relationships. Still, it was also quite clear that cruelty was loud and forceful, while kindness was too quiet and too polite. At least in my experience, this was the trend I was experiencing in weeks and months in advance.
That day my husband and I decided to leave the small town. Pending our residency application, we would move to Bristol or Italy. Our residency application came through in two weeks, and it was backdated, so clearly we not just welcome but destined to stay. We started working on our plans to move to Bristol while I was processing my learnings from those early Brexit days concerning my profession – social media marketing. It was pretty apparent that the vote was hacked and today we also know how it was done. But I was more interested in two areas: people’s ignorance and general lack of civic engagement (and by extension engagement in the way they work with technology) but also the lack of active resilience and resistance in the times of rising hostility. I spent most of my time since summer 2016 figuring out what was it that bothered me about it all. I did not wake up one day with a brilliant idea of opening a new business and educating people on digital wellbeing. No, I did not.
The idea of Voxel Hub was born out of years of confusion (offline social isolation and thriving online connections) and active search for answers to new emerging questions. On that journey, I have promised myself a few things: to trust myself, to listen to people, to learn and never to assume anything.
I sat back and took time off work. I spent a few months switching off entirely. I was ill due to Brexit news, so I stopped reading news and focussed on my self-care a lot. I got a dog, went back to gardening (perfect time for listening to podcasts) and moved my blogging back to my quiet journaling on paper. It felt like I lost my public voice, but I know now that I was merely in need of quiet time. Time to think. I was confused but curious to explore the more human side of technology.
Next, I went back to my clients for more feedback on my work. I was always curious about social media ethics but their feedback clarified a more significant perspective on my passion – my deep curiosity in the human aspect of social media. It was my clients who made me realise the truth about my work – I was helping them with social media but also with their actual perspectives and feelings about it. One client made it pretty clear that I was her coach and a counsellor too. And that I was pretty good at it. But I was also aware of one problem: I had basics of psychology from my teacher training and books I read, but I was not qualified to do counselling so I was out of my depth! I had to go back to school.
I spent a few weeks learning to hack my life to make space for studies. I designed the family and home running around it and recruited all family members to help me with my new goals. My husband sat and planned it all with me, promised his support all the way. So I started learning a lot. First, I took all available online courses on human psychology, cyberpsychology, coaching and counselling. I learned about systemic challenges to mental health and a lot about personal ones too. I studied biases and learned more about echo chambers – before they were even a mainstream term. I studied leadership and collective thinking. Then I went back to university. At the same time, I dived deep into the practical work of counsellors – I still study and gradually start supporting people myself too.
Additionally, I have stopped assuming things. I explored and questioned every step of my way. I was confident in my skills, but I wasn’t sure about the stuff that was going on for my clients. So I stopped looking at things from my little box and worked hard on my own story and my individual assumptions. I spent over a year in personal therapy (study requirement but also a way of growing personally). I cannot tell you how many times I have shed the layers of my culture, upbringing, past religions and other systems. It is and always will be the most painful and formative part of this process, but it’s worth it. Instead of assuming, I was testing. I tested the idea of a tech hub for young children and their families. I tested running of a local art initiative for collective benefit. I tested online courses, coaching and one-to-one support around digital wellbeing. I started building in my learnings into my daily work too.
As the world started talking about the positive side of mental health and technology I was already in the space where a balanced view on both was not just new, it was a basic human need. I wanted to explore it, but I did not have a term for it, so I was forced to look at academic work around the impact of the Internet on our lives. I found it in London, Cardiff, Birmingham and…yes, in Bristol at the University of West England. At the same campus as their counselling studies. And that was the point when all my explorations started to align themselves into a consistent picture. Moving to Bristol made sense. People were friendly here, so it also helped me heal from my experience of racism and local hostility. I moved beyond my newly acquired anxieties towards a more courageous life. I even jumped out of a plane to celebrate that!
In those last two years of our life here, I started working on the idea of Voxel Hub and my new work-life balance. I joined the oldest youth counselling service in Bristol and continued with my social media consultancy to maintain the right balance between technology and mental health. I continued with my studies. Cyberpsychology is not new, but it took its time to enter the public discourse. 2018 welcomed first positive conversations around mental health and also more balanced research into the impact of social media. Google launched digital wellbeing tools, thus coining the term. Apple introduced screen time tools, and so the idea of wellbeing around technology became relevant to all. Digital resilience, the term which applied to the information security of company systems, starts to be used for the human element of those too. In education, contextual safeguarding is finally implemented with young people actively involved in the process. In the online rights movement, access to information is now the topic too. We even start to research and question the bias in academic research around the impact of social media on humanity. You can now learn some aspects of digital wellbeing online. Digital wellbeing frameworks emerge in a specific context, here’s one for academia. The Internet is 50 years old, but in our daily conversations, we are still repeating the myths (“social media is negatively impacting our lives” or “screens are damaging to our health”). There is so much work to be done! Slowly, the shift is happening though, so now is the time for Voxel Hub to open its doors.
I do have to admit this: the last five years of my life were challenging. I lost both parents. Due to all the stress, I became pre-menopausal and moved to a new biological age (experiencing a hormonal balance for the first time in my life was a bit of a shock to the system). I have lost some significant friends and leaders. I also lost two countries – not a day goes by that I do not grieve for Polish and British democratic process the way it used to be. At the same time, the losses created space for the new. I have chosen to make a difference to the systems around us in the way I am best equipped to do – through my experience and skills. I am celebrating my new family daily – it remains to be my core priority. I am making new friends and welcome new leaders. I am looking at both countries with the hope of young people who are angry but also determined to act and built a better future for us. I am moving away from certainty into a world of unknown. I learn to live with the uncertain, exploring instead of arriving at specific destinations.
Symbolically, launching a new business in the middle of Brexit crisis in the UK is a reminder for me to stay steady and prepared for the unexpected. I can only achieve it by reminding myself to be kind, open, resisting the power and welcoming the change. Always critically questioning the status quo. In my case and in my small way, I will be here to help others explore their individual and collective relationship with technology. I will study our humanity in this digital age. And I hope that you will join me – actively involved or watching, but prepared to point out mistakes and hold me accountable for my assumptions too.
So on my forty-second Nameday, I would like to introduce you to the Voxel Hub – a safe space for digital wellbeing explorations. You are welcome. I hope you can join me.
I have spent the last six months working on the core of Voxel Hub articulating the mission, core services and branding to create a calm space aligned with my values and what I think my clients need. I described it in the brand guidelines and the website’s about section. I have developed a core model of support which combined digital marketing principles with core approaches in mental health support. There is not much large scale research into this area, but what is out there, I have included in the Voxel Hub methodology. I will spend the next six months working with my close and trusted friends on a series of affordable online courses. You will see topics ranging from the language around mental health for online journalists, resilience in the digital age to leadership topics and management of online crisis with appropriate self-care. I have published one free course already and signalled other courses I am working on this winter.
As I continue building the core of the business with digital consultancy and digital wellbeing support, I will also be testing coaching and counselling support, training and corporate packages. All of this will have to happen slowly, as I do not want to change my current commitments, but I am really excited about it all. I hope to have a core of my business work finished by March 2020 (after October, the second most significant month in mental health calendar) for a larger launch here in Bristol.
I remain committed to all my current commitments as they perfectly complement each other, but you will see me writing and talking more about digital wellbeing from now on. I hope you will find those explorations useful.
I am eternally grateful to each and every single person who was there to support me in this journey – you know who you are. Also, for those of you who were experiencing my quiet blog – thank you for waiting, reading and joining in. Voxel Hub would not be possible without you.
(Digital wellbeing is new, and so I hope many will be inspired to take it and make it their own. However, in the Voxel Hub format, it feels precious to me, so I would like to take the liberty to dedicate it to the men who shaped me: my Dad, my Brother, my Husband and my Son. I love you all with all my heart.)