6 Tips for Having Agency Over Your Life with Alka Joshi

We recently had the great pleasure of talking with Alka Joshi, bestselling novelist and Owner/Director of a PR and Marketing Agency, who revealed some useful tips for becoming fully in control of your life’s path. 

Starting as a copywriter at McCann Erickson, Joshi became frustrated after a decade in advertising feeling undervalued and being paid less than her male counterparts.  She decided to start her own marketing and PR agency, billing $400K in her first year.  “I couldn’t wait for everyone else to believe in me; I had to start  believing in myself,” she explains.

Letting go of something good, even when it appears “fabulous and shiny”, can be hugely liberating, when you’re reaching for something potentially even more worthwhile.  You don’t need to fulfil anyone else’s expectations of you, Joshi believes.  She asks, rhetorically, “whose life are you living?”

Despite her successes in advertising, at the age of 51, during the 2008 mortgage recession, Joshi made another bold career move.  Knowing that her business would be adversely affected by the economic crash, she decided to take some time to focus on the creative writing she’d always had a passion for, completing a two-year MFA. 

Honing her fiction writing skills, Joshi ended up writing two best-selling, semi-autobiographical novels, based on her childhood growing up in Rajasthan. For research, Joshi made many research trips to India, a country she hadn’t lived in since she was nine years’ old.  In her writing, Joshi finds the colors, sensations, and contrasts of Jaipur immensely fascinating and inspiring.

Joshi’s books, including The Henna Artist and The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, have built up a loyal following, in part because Joshi engages eagerly with her readers, including making over 600 book group appearances.  The Secret Keeper is now a Reece Witherspoon Book Club selection, and The Henna Artist is being developed for a TV series with Miramax and Netflix. 

With all of these life changes, Joshi always made sure she “planned for calamity as well as success” and had enough resources to ensure that if things went wrong, she’d be alright.  Mentors and role models were important too, although Joshi had trouble recogniszing the role of her formative mentors at first.  Her own mother provided hugely inspiring, and she based Lakshmi, the character in The Henna Artist, on her mother’s example of standing up to authority (her mother-in-law).

Joshi’s first tip is for women to stop being the caretakers of their entire family.  Women must carve out time for themselves, pushing some responsibility back onto colleagues or family members.  Don’t claim ownership or blame for things which are outside your control, she advises. 

In her working life, Joshi had to deliver an ultimatum to one client who was lax in paying her invoices, yet still expected her to keep working for him.  She held firm, and eventually secured the money she was owed.  Although it was stressful, maintaining integrity was more important than keeping this particular client.

Her second piece of advice is to buck convention and go it alone.  Joshi has even encoded this message on her business cards.  Conformity actually limits the appeal of whatever you are offering, she believes.  Delivering the unexpected makes people pay attention and allows you to stand out as an individual.

Thirdly, according to Joshi, trying new things and having new experiences is vital to developing individual agency and remaining at the top of your game.  When she decided to start her own agency, promoted by a question she received from a colleague at a dinner party, that was a hugely affirmative moment for her. 

However, prioritizing is also vital.  Now that she’s focused on creative writing, Joshi made a conscious decision not to grow her agency into a large-scale business that would pull her away from what she loves best.  Similarly, despite her attempts to enjoy skiing, it proved futile; sometimes it’s okay to demur.

Embrace the lessons, rather than fight them, is Joshi’s fourth piece of advice.  From the example of maintaining integrity in the face of a recalcitrant client, Joshi learned not to be lax about her own principles.  She thinks that admitting her mistakes and moving on was important too.

Being kind to oneself is an underrated quality and is Joshi’s next tip.  Women tend to be very hard on themselves because we are highly ambitious and wonder why our goals prove so challenging.  We’re self-critical when we can’t achieve something because we haven’t admitted just how difficult the end goal is to reach.  On the flipside, we can become addicted to positive praise, but when it doesn’t come, it’s important to just keep going.

Joshi’s self-care regime has several elements – exercise, yoga, creativity – and each of these contribute to a sense of wellbeing that sustains her through difficult times.

Lastly, taking stock of values upon occasion will allow one to prioritize.  It’s always better to work with heartfelt beliefs and values than against them.  First identify what you find most important, Joshi advises, then think how best to live out those values.

Joshi’s own top personal values are working hard (making your own good luck) and the importance of laughter and light relief.  She suggests that this can be obtained through something as simple as spending time with a pet, going for a run, or enjoying time with your partner.  Joshi recommends changing gear during the working day to rejuvenate one’s energy levels.

Her own story provided as many twists, turns and moments of inspiration as Joshi’s novels, and these six tips proved highly illuminating too.