Who do you think you are? A guest post by Jane Toft

As a coach, I’ve had the privilege of working with some inspiring people: Jane Toft is one such person.

I coached Jane when she was Editor-in-Chief at Future. Since then, she has gone freelance as a design and editorial consultant, working for clients varying from TED to Comic Relief. We’ve stayed in touch and before Christmas, I was intrigued by a decision she had made. She talked about how much she’d learnt from that decision and I’m delighted that she agreed to write a guest post about it.

Before I hand you over to Jane, if you have any design or editorial work with which you need some expert help, you can contact Jane through Twitter – she’s @JaneToft.


Jane Toft

Last Autumn, I was having a conversation with my teenage son about how I wished I could specialise in branding, an area of design I really love.

“What’s stopping you?”, he replied, in the straightforward manner I have come to expect from him.

“Oh, only enough money to be able to have a couple of months with no income whilst I spend time setting it up.”

Fast forward a few weeks to the end of November when I popped into my local Tesco and saw an advert for ‘temporary Festive Colleagues’. I had a lightbulb moment and realised that I could work part-time stacking supermarket shelves at night and still continue my design day job. The money I earned meant I would be able to take time out this year to build the business I had dreamed of.

Lesson 1. Listen to that friend or family member who challenges your ‘if only’ moments, and be open to solutions you may never have considered

So that’s how I found myself in a Tesco staff room on a cold wet November evening, nervously awaiting the start of my first 10pm-7am shift. The experience proved to be a very valuable one – extra money notwithstanding – on another level. I hadn’t done any similar work for a good 30 years: not since my days as a chambermaid and waitress before I went to art college to do my degree. As the job was temporary and only for a short period, I made the decision to keep my head down and tell people as little about myself as possible.

Having spent the last 30 years in magazine publishing, that was a strange experience. Wherever I have worked, my reputation has preceded me. I was respected for my experience and knowledge of my subject matter. I hope I was looked up to by younger colleagues and acted as a mentor to my teams. When I made the decision to go freelance, I was working in the same industry and still defining myself by my previous job titles.

Now I was totally defined by who I was in the moment. My Tesco colleagues had no back story. I made the decision not to say anything about my day job or past employment. Their perception of me would be based on my words and actions in the following 5 weeks.

It was liberating to free myself from expectations, but scary to be out of my comfort zone. Who was I now I no longer had the shorthand of a job title to introduce myself?

It made me reflect on how much we identify with the labels we give ourselves, whether that be professional or personal, and how much those labels define how we act and react to people and situations. For example, I found it hard to simply answer “yes, will do”, when asked to speed up my shelf-stacking by a night manager. I wasn’t used to being told my work was sub-standard, especially by someone younger than me and someone who didn’t need to show me any respect! The more experienced you become in a profession, the less you get criticised. I learned how it feels to be the one being criticised in spite of doing my best.

Lesson 2. Take time to think about who you are when the labels you regularly use to describe yourself are taken away

I learned that I was physically stronger than I imagined. I can survive on 4 hours sleep (for a short period of time!). My colleagues from Latvia, Romania and Poland were intelligent, helpful and hard working people. I also learned that the free bread and cakes supplied will never taste better than at 3am after stacking an aisle of cereal and biscuits!

I would recommend the experience to everyone.

To summarise Jane’s two lessons: firstly, sometimes we need a change in perspective to challenge our thinking and secondly, we so often attach our sense of self to the labels we give ourselves or are given by others. That last one is particularly thought-provoking so you won’t be surprised to see that I’d like to encourage you to consider it for yourself.

Today’s pebble for you to ponder: imagine the labels you’d usually use to refer to yourself were stripped away. Who are you?


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching.

If you’d like to make progress in your work and life, email me and let’s have a conversation about how we can work together.

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