Dear 15-year-old Stella,
You are a passionate teenager, introverted and shy, who feels worthless and stupid. Things at school are difficult, pretty girls bully you, you have very few friends, and eat your lunch alone every day locked up in a toilet. Yet you are a hard worker and study hard, partly to be left alone, partly because you find certain topics fascinating, such as biology and geography, which you feel overlap in an odd way. You love animals, horses specifically, and through your experience and time with them, you ground yourself and develop as a highly aware and perceptive being. You have a vibrant mind, and you plot all the time, organizing and planning events, fundraisers, and projects without knowing it. You invite one of France’s biggest personalities to come to give a talk to your school about climate change, a topic that is slowly generating interest, and that day, on a stage, you feel seen for the first time.
When you feel you can’t go to school another day or face the bullies again, know that you are developing a strong character, building resilience and initiative, which are a huge asset to me, your older self today, and I thank you for it. While everyone else goes to parties where you aren’t invited, your mind is expanding and you are dreaming big amongst the horses you spend so much time with.
Right now you want to be a vet, to be around the animals you love, and know them inside out. Thanks to your pushy dad, you will leave your home country at 17 to study in a foreign language and a foreign country, alone.
You will choose to study Biological Sciences to keep your options open and avoid committing immediately to a career you feel unsure about. Deep about. Deep down you already know what you want to do, and that field doesn’t exist yet in the way it is now. One night, waiting to see the physiotherapist after falling off a horse, you watch a primatologist on television speaking about his work in the field. He is in a remote location amongst lush ferns and works for the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology. Puzzled, you question if studying animals, but not as a vet, is a career option? A few years later, you will do a “career orientation test” with an adviser at Warwick University, who tells you that you don’t really fit in anywhere. Your skills in coordination, your desire to work in the environmental sector, while alleviating poverty at the same time, are not compatible. This feeling of not belonging, of dreaming of an alternative life where you don’t have to pick one thing, where you can exist in various dimensions, will stay with you until your thirties.
After graduating, you will go to Madagascar, the red island. Initially petrified to go to that faraway, unknown country, you will be challenged to your core. This will also mark the beginning of your life as a conservationist. There you see it, this field where scientists have an impact and help local populations by sharing science and redistributing their knowledge. “Conservation”, it is called. You learn to live without electricity or access to water, developing gratitude for the sea each day it brings you fish. You experience a deep connection with people who you can barely communicate with, and you realize just how privileged you have been all your life.
After experiencing life this way, you know it, you have a plan. It isn’t clear yet but something, somewhere, is awaiting you in that country. Against all odds, you start and finish a Masters in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation at one of UK’s top universities, and you start travelling the world working for projects in conservation. You find your tribe of like-minded people, you feel at home anywhere in the world, and you live incredible experiences that you, my younger self, can’t even begin to imagine. Your adaptability and drive make you a cherished team member, yet often you wonder why things aren’t done differently, why leaders can’t manage their staff nicely or communicate better. Each time you cry when you leave your home away from home but come back with a deeper understanding of life as a conservationist.
And then you do it. You will decide to quit a stable job to risk it all and start a project from scratch in that very place that shook you, Madagascar. You start an NGO before you turn 30. You learn to freedive and become a skilled waterwoman. You decide to forgive whatever happened at school and meet again those very people who bullied you. They will have seen you on television and in the newspaper, “the girl who saves the sharks”. Every so often, you will feel you are doing exactly what you were meant to be, and you smile to yourself and feel immensely grateful.
Younger self, I want you to know that you are all you want to be, even if it doesn’t feel that way now. You will find your tribe; people like you who dream big and cherish nature. You will be challenged, many times, but you need to keep at it, to be disciplined and focused, to reinvent yourself, again and again, until you get what you want. As a woman, your path in this field will be even harder. Your life will be atypical, and oftentimes you will suffer, feeling the loneliness of the path you take, and envying other people who have a simpler life. Learn to ride these waves, and know the sun always shines after the rain.
You will need help, mentors in particular, who can direct you and push you, but also correct you when you get it wrong. You are a fast learner and will achieve great things.
But please, never doubt your dreams, and your vision. Always trust your intuition and your gut feeling, you have all the answers within you. Be kind to yourself and don’t work too hard. Learn to unwind and have fun too. We need you as a leader, more than ever.
Love from 32-year-old Stella
Illustrated by Daisy Buckle @naturalcuriositystudio