Back in 2015, Sarah Davidson resigned from her job as a corporate lawyer to work full-time on her new business selling matcha green tea powder. Five years later, she’s leading a business empire that includes Matcha Maiden, the Matcha Mylkbar in Melbourne’s St Kilda and the Seize the Yay podcast.
In this extract from her new book Seize the Yay, Davidson reveals how she discovered her ‘yay’, and how other budding entrepreneurs can do the same.
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When you fancy yourself a hotshot young mergers and acquisitions lawyer, you never expect to find yourself sweating up a storm in a hot, stuffy commercial kitchen late at night wearing nothing but underwear, a tatty shower cap and disposable gloves.
Yet there I was in all my glory, standing next to my then-boyfriend (now-husband), Nic, surrounded by plastic ziplock bags, digital scales, a heat sealer and mountains of precious, delicate powder.
Although I often describe that moment as resembling something out of Breaking Bad, this isn’t a story about how I went on to become a drug kingpin (or queenpin). Rather, it’s a tale of how an ancient superfood unexpectedly changed our lives forever.
In our tiny makeshift production line, Nic and I were weighing out and bagging up portions of pure Japanese matcha green tea powder to sell through our hastily put together online store.
This was the oh-so-glamorous beginning of our entrepreneurial dream.
Fast forward six roller-coaster months, and our little hobby had taken off beyond our wildest expectations, pushing me to say goodbye to a thriving career in corporate law to work full-time on what we could officially call our startup business, Matcha Maiden.
And so, with no relevant qualifications or experience in food, manufacturing or selling a physical product, and despite having no financial backer or even a proper business plan, Nic and I decided to go all-in and I walked away from the safety net of a stable wage and a five-year plan.
This spontaneous and drastic change in direction challenged every part of the highly organised, certainty-loving, risk-averse person I believed myself to be at that time.
But the years since have revived the other side of me — the wildly creative, adventurous and playful side. I’d had these qualities since childhood; I just hadn’t realised I’d allowed them to slowly slip away.
That once-terrifying leap away from what I thought I wanted has revolutionised every area of our lives. Having reconnected with my creative tendencies and great love of puns, I fondly refer to my ensuing (and radical) transformation as going from A-type to ‘yay-type’ and getting back in touch with the things that truly make me ‘yay’.
These days, the question I am asked most often is whether it was hating my job that caused me to leave law, as it is for many others who take a big leap between careers.
Instead, and perhaps more worryingly in hindsight, I was simply ‘fine’ or ‘okay’ in my legal career — blindfolded by the gratification of productivity and my appreciation for having a respectable, stable job in a very tough market.
The next question I’m usually asked is if it was scary to jump towards something so foreign and speculative.
It was, but I think it’s far scarier to think that I could have been too comfortable and grateful in that job to ever consider anything else.
I still get goosebumps when I think of how I might have just settled for okay and never investigated what else was possible or how much better things could be.
I’ve realised through my journey that people generally won’t make a change in their life unless they are actively unhappy. When certain boxes are ticked, we tend not to ask any further questions.
While the age-old saying carpe diem (seize the day) absolutely has its merits when it comes to kicking us into gear, this mindset left me vulnerable to the glorification of busy.
I hopped on what I call the ‘productivity hamster wheel’ in my career, where I mistook movement for direction and productivity for happiness.
It can be a wonderful thing to seize every opportunity afforded you, but not if they aren’t the right ones for you. If they don’t get you any closer to where you want to be, or if they distract you from asking yourself where that is in the first place, as in my case, then they aren’t the right opportunities for you.
Yet this is how I spent the first few years of my working life: seizing the directionless (albeit objectively successful) day but entirely disconnected with what I now call my yay.
It took a momentous happy accident to lead us to start Matcha Maiden and reintroduce me to the immense feeling of excitement and fulfilment that I now get through doing work that is creative, people-focused and dynamically fastpaced.
Starting this new business (plus two others and a podcast since then) highlighted for me how law, by contrast, was not igniting my passions or strengths, and gave me the drive to spark a similar level of reflection in others.
Even though I didn’t actively dislike the work in my law career, I started to ask myself: ‘What’s the point of running yourself into the ground to become busy, wealthy and successful if you’re not also happy, engaged and fulfilled?’
Though I started out measuring my progress in life through objective markers of success or financial indicators, I have now redefined all the metrics I use to evaluate where I’m at in life.
I’ve gradually cultivated new ones based on joy, fulfilment and the delicate interplay between choice, challenge and change.
I have coined this approach to life my ‘seize the yay’ philosophy.
Paving your pathyay
The opening poem of my podcast (also named Seize the Yay) includes these lines: “Busy and happy are not the same thing, we too rarely question what makes the heart sing. We work then we rest, but rarely we play, and often don’t realise there’s more than one way.”
Seizing your yay turns the spotlight away from the busy and productive and back on pure joy and happiness, restoring parts of the unburdened childlike sense of wonder that we somehow let go of as we grow older.
So often, particularly in my case, looking back at our younger selves reveals everything we need to know about what lights us up and helps us feel whole.
As adults, we let layers of obligation, societal expectation and who we think we should be cloud our judgment and dictate our decisions.
And then, we become disgruntled and spend the rest of our life trying to strip those false layers back to find who we always were.
To be clear from the outset, I don’t mean to say that corporate law (or any other corporate career) and seizing your yay are mutually exclusive; for some people, they are one and the same.
My legal career provided me with the most incredible foundation for everything that has come since, but it simply struck the wrong balance between the two sides of me: my fastidious fire and the creative craziness that has dominated my personality since the great Crayon-on-the-wall graffiti incident of 1993.
Though I use my transition into the business world as an example throughout this book, I promise that this isn’t going to be about me convincing you to leave your job just because I left mine (unless you want it to be, of course).
I found my yay in becoming an entrepreneur, but you might find your joy and creativity within your job.
You might be an intrapreneur who switches companies, roles or even countries in pursuit of more satisfaction or happiness. You might find joy outside your work altogether; which, as we’ll discuss, is important even if you love what you do; for some, it’s necessarily where they find yay.
I know people who say that when they take payment or add performance metrics to their passion, it kills the joy they feel for that activity. The lessons and insights in this book apply to any pathway; mine is just an example of one path to joy and fulfilment.
The path to yay (or dare I say, pathyay) will necessarily look different for each of you depending on your strengths, interests and circumstances — this is what makes life so exciting. My goal in this book is to simply encourage you to actively look for it to begin with.
My own experience has made me acutely aware of how easy it is to get swept up by momentum and habit, settling for ‘okay’. Consequently, I’m passionate about helping others break the autopilot circuit of productivity and achievement so they can take control of their life.
I can’t promise that your journey or ‘way to yay’, will be smooth or terribly comfortable — the best ones rarely are.
Advice to just start doing more of what makes you happy sounds painfully obvious, but we are complex beings, so any kind of change will be complex, too. As we will explore, seizing the yay involves striking a delicate balance between dedicated effort and investigation on the one hand, and surrender or acceptance on the other.
Happiness and fulfilment involve navigating the fine line between what happens to you and what you ultimately make of it — what you choose to do.
You will consider and invest time into figuring out how (and if ) your work invigorates you. Even if you find work that you love, we’ll also explore how to find joy and fulfilment outside of your productive identity because relearning how to ‘play’ is a crucial element of seizing the yay.
As with anything new, you may experience discomfort, changes in friendships, setbacks or failures, but I promise it will all be worth it. I have discovered that discomfort is often what makes our biggest breakthroughs possible.
When our business took off, the prospect of embarking on such a dramatic life change (even though it was for the better) sparked intense risk aversion, self-doubt and overthinking.
Writing this book was not my first impostor-syndrome rodeo. So, in the chapters that follow, we will explore in-depth how to navigate the throes of self-doubt, perfectionism paralysis and the many other barriers to yay (which I call ‘nay to yay’).
The past few years have taught me that your scariest, most uncertain and imperfect beginnings can lead to the best moments of your life. Fear and self-doubt are simply self-preservation reflexes. If you give yourself a chance to prove it, in most cases you will find that you are wildly more capable than you could have imagined. Not knowing how things will work out leaves room for them to turn out better than you ever dreamed.
Revolutionising your mindset to allow your happiest life to become a reality is sometimes a gruelling, confronting process, but it can pay dividends beyond your wildest dreams (and I don’t just mean financially).
Ultimately, pushing back against what society expects of us (and what we expect from ourselves) will be scary and hard. So will resisting the many shiny things that distract us on our way to happiness, but doing this can also reveal a path you never knew you were meant to be on.
Investigating what makes you feel most energised and fulfilled is an exercise in experimenting, regularly reflecting, sometimes falling, but then course-correcting as you go.
By sharing my story, as well as stories from some of the people who have inspired or impacted me the most, I hope I can illustrate how non-linear and unexpected the path to happiness can be. Admittedly, I still discover new facets to my pathyay every day.
There may be many chapters in your life that don’t make sense at the time or leave you feeling lost or confused, but later, when you look back on them, you’ll probably be able to see that those times were crucial stepping stones towards finding your yay.
Even times you feel you’re going backwards or failing altogether can turn out to be transformative periods that teach you the lessons and resilience you need for whatever lies ahead.
Life may not turn out exactly as you had planned or envisioned it. But, through seizing your yay, it might just turn out better.
Images and text from Seize the Yay by Sarah Davidson. Murdoch Books RRP $32.99.