You can’t pour from an empty cup

You can’t pour from an empty cup

By Beth Alden


Beth Alden is CEO at New Brewery Arts in Cirencester, an arts organisation with a craft focus. She is taking part in Creative United's Prosper programme.

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 in the 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.

Taking part in the Prosper programme 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 work load that I shouldn’t have taken 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 a feeling of being overwhelmed. So, I decided I needed to not work all hours and push myself to the point of exhaustion. What I really needed to do was to slow down, 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, so we decided to meet half-way at the The Holburne Museum and to spend time together followed by a visit to the Tapestry Here and Now exhibition, which I'd been meaning to get to. 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 forward, her take on my problem was fresh and perceptive. We talked about ideas, new people to try and partner with, about new ways to reach out – I felt refreshed by this thinking. At the end of our session we went to visit the exhibition. 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 my interest, there were ideas from the exhibition I could take away with me. My cup wasn’t empty anymore, 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 at my desk, 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 is needed, to remember to hit your own reset button. The small group made conversations easy, and the session leader Mairead O'Rourke 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 days 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.

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 and to let myself be inspired by the work of other organisations. After all, “you can’t pour from an empty cup”.

There are places available on Prosper training events in the coming months – find something to suit you on the Prosper website.

Images courtesy of Beth Alden.

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Resource type: | Published: 2017