Oh how I love to teach but boy, it really is tiring!
I was lucky enough to spend some time in Melbourne last week teaching cosmetic chemistry as part of a three-day course with New Directions and my work colleague and all-round lovely person Mel who came along to run her ‘Private Label Interactive’ day as part of the package. All up it was a wonderful but exhausting experience that I’m eager to repeat!
Teaching is great for me as a consultant as it keeps me on my toes and in touch with what people really want – what they want to know, what they feel, what they fear and what they aspire to become. I just love playing a small part in that process and am always excited when someone who I met at the very beginning of their journey gets back in contact with me down the track to tell me all about it.
Anyway, after reflecting over the last few days I thought I’d share just a little of what teaching these courses makes me feel so that you might understand that you and me are in this together as maybe then it won’t feel quite so daunting. Here goes!
So I introduce myself and I’m aware that I may be the first ‘chemist’ that you’ve ever met – well, the first ‘cosmetic chemist’ anyway. Not many people know we exist (cosmetic chemists that is), sure we know what pharmacists do and industrial chemists make pollution don’t they but cosmetic chemistry? Isn’t it all just fluff and bubbles. OK so you might not think that but if my time in these circles has taught me anything it’s that some people do think that this is all just a case of mix, mix, add sparkle and a dash of yummy aroma. I’m here to tell you that is not the case and I know, deep in the pit of my stomach that the reality of what we are about to embark on will shake your world right up.
‘It’s not rocket science but….’ I start, keep not to lose any participants along the way, eager to maintain alertness, eye contact and engagement as I get past the stuff you can clearly see and into the realms of your imagination (emulsifiers, solubilisers, fairy dust, solubilised vitamins and Aloe Powder and so on). I use words like ‘hugging’ and ‘relationships’ to trigger thought patterns within you, to enable you to build your own connections, to visualise the wonderful world of micelles, dispersed phases and rheological modifiers. I hand you my imaginary glasses that help you see through white lotions and explain why the blue hue on the toner is evil. You stay awake, I notice sparks of excitement tinged with terror as the reality sinks further in that this is a subject that requires some research.
Research, you tell me you have done your research. I hear that so many times and I know exactly what it means although I chastise myself for jumping to conclusions. Google isn’t research, chances are that forum you are a part of isn’t research either (unless it’s on Chemists corner and you’ve been fishing for some starting point advice). I feel sick in my stomach again as I don’t want to be disrespectful but there is just so much dross out there. The blind leading the blind. Instead of having my ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ list I refer to the fact that cosmetic chemistry is an ‘APPLIED’ chemistry, that advice has to relate to your formula, your manufacturing environment, your desired outcomes and that there are no absolutes. I hope that this helps you become more discerning in your ‘research’ choices, I hope that it helps you to ask better questions and get reasonable answers – it is possible to get answers that work if you ask the right questions…..
As I show you how to put the theory into practice I feel slightly bad for you, knowing that really you want to have a go but you can’t. I learn by doing too so I get it, I do, but we have so much to go through it would take another three or four days if we had to wait for everyone to find each ingredient, weigh it out and mix it. Now if you were all 13 it would take 5 minutes, 13 year olds guess a lot and don’t read instructions. You are not 13 and that’s a good thing (even though being 13 is also cool) but it does mean that you have to listen rather than do. Trust me, you will learn more this way but nevertheless I’m sorry.
I love that you ask questions, questions about the detail, about how to prove that the formula is good, about stability, micro, ingredient safety, origin and skin – where do all of these ingredients end up? I love that you think like that! The truth is that I don’t know everything, I tell you what I know, well as much as time will allow and hope that is motivation enough to do more research (that word again) but this time I advise you to go to the websites ‘Deep Dyvve’ or ‘Google Scholar’. I advise you to read the science carefully and to ask if you don’t understand the experimental parameters or conclusions – it isn’t always easy to after all.
We get to the end of day two and I’m exhausted, exhausted but excited too, excited by the prospect that maybe one or two of you, maybe more have gained a fresh perspective after the two days, that the time has somehow brought cosmetic science to life, at least a little. I know that some of you will decide it is too hard and that is good, good that you can now move on to areas that you can excel in, areas that will ultimately make your business more profitable and your brand more alive – not everyone is an ingredient junkie. I remind you of that.
I want you to know that I am not a guru, that I am not ‘she who knows it all’. I don’t consider myself to know the half of it but that doesn’t bother me and I try to make sure you know that. I want you to really understand that you will have to be prepared to go out into the world with less than 100% of the facts, that you must be comfortable living with the unknown, that cosmetic science is a bit like that, especially when you first start out and can’t afford to do all of the testing on a formula. I want you to know that you are not alone, you aren’t the first and won’t be the last. Know that the best brands just go for it and fill in the gaps as they go. I want you to be one of the best brands.
You know by now that I am not a conspiracy queen and don’t feel that ‘big business’ is out to get you, to make rules that trip you up and make it hard. But do you know that I know this because I understand that big business was once just like you? Was once just a person with a good idea that made it big. I hope you make it big and when you do I hope that the little people don’t scorn you. I hope they will look up and see a brand worth aspiring too or a brand that just did the best they could with the tools they had at the time. I hope you are kind and open-hearted brand owners but I also hope that you are not naive, this is business after all. And on that note I should remind you that while the cosmetic industry is nice it is still an industry of ‘work’, a business, not everyone will be your friend but don’t take that personally. Forge ahead with partnerships, deals, networking and idea-sharing but do it with a clear head, professionally and with strong boundaries. All too often I see people break down when something falls over because ‘I thought she was my friend’. Friendships don’t get the mortgage paid and THAT’s the bottom line.
And then we finish and I note the rush to make yourself heard, to get your question answered and I try to listen, to be present, to understand. I wish to remind you to do the same, to take on board new information with an open and questioning mind. To remain fascinated, intrigued and passionate about the subject. To not let your ego close any doors or your focus be narrow because you are scared to pan out, don’t be scared to pan out. I want to encourage you to mix with other brand types – to talk organics with budget-store anything goes brands, to discuss powerful anti-ageing ingredients with aromatherapists, to talk baby brands to those dealing with aged care. Explore your discomfort until it is no longer painful or distasteful, just not quite your taste. Build bridges.
I take two days to come back down to earth, to decompress and restore myself for my consulting work. I take a long walk out amongst the trees and notice my head, alive with chatter like that of a classroom filled with kids kept in on a wet day while the teacher has popped out to take a phone call, manic, noisy, stuffy even. I let the pace of my feet take over my whole body and after a while I notice with what seems like the flick of a switch that my mind chatter has stilled, that I can hear the silence then the birds, then buzzing, then rustles from snakes and lizards as I pass. I know that in a few miles I’ll be restored and ready to do it all again but not before I process every last drop, every question, every concern and every niggle that I’ve taken on board from my group as it is only then that I can really feel like my work here is complete.
My work has left scars in the form of cold sores on my lips, partly from the exertion and partly because of the artificial air in the hotel – nature deficit disorder maybe? These scars will heal but as they work their way out of my system I am reminded physically of the pain of learning new things, of taking on new ideas, of being challenged and I know instinctively that everything will be OK.
Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. Kahlil Gibran.