Features
Xenia Taliotis 5 Sep 2018 04:06pm

A day in the life: Julia Webb-Harvey

From accountant to psychotherapist and now writer and student, Julia Webb-Harvey tells Xenia Taliotis how all her skills are connected

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Caption: Photography by Ben Mostyn

How I changed career

Change is intrinsic to my nature, so I knew I’d never be a life-long accountant, or a life-long anything – other than perhaps an eternal learner. After I graduated – in geography – I went to a careers fair, which is where accountancy found me. I started at Coopers & Lybrand the day it merged with Deloitte.

I loved the structured career path and the opportunities the profession offered, and I took full advantage of them. I progressed quickly and spent several years in Poland, helping Coopers build its Warsaw practice.

I returned to the UK and worked in Newcastle, Birmingham and then London but, after 16 years as an accountant, I was weary. I needed to rest and to do something different, so I took a sabbatical to train as a psychotherapist. I started working with women who’d experienced domestic violence and families affected by childhood sexual abuse, and I knew instantly that there was no going back. I joined Mosac, the charity that supports non-abusing parents and carers of violated kids, as a counseller in 2005.

I worked closely with the organisation on a book, Hurt: The Harrowing Stories of Parents Whose Children Were Sexually Abused. This was initially rejected by every publisher, but finally released through a selfassisted publication deal with LiveIt Publishing, with all proceeds going to Mosac.

In 2010, my husband Peter, a partner at PwC, retired and suggested we take a year out to sail Whinchat, our Rustler 42 yacht. Again, this was only meant to be a temporary thing, but once we left London that was it. We were in Sussex for three years, and then moved to Cornwall, where we’ve been ever since. We’re very much part of the community – I’m involved with Cornish pilot gig rowing, and Pete with sailing.

I charted our sailing adventures in a blog, Whinchatter, which got me thinking more seriously about trying to make a go of writing. I started my MA in Professional Writing at Falmouth University last September and I love it.

The challenges I’ve overcome

My father died in 1997 and that challenged me emotionally. I dealt with the grief partly by taking up running, which became a very important part of my life. Doing the Race for Life and the longer Great South Run was very therapeutic. Being physically fit is empowering, so when my left lung collapsed in 2016, I floundered, mentally and physically. I went from being strong and full of vitality to not being able to move. The surgery I had was brutal – I was in hospital for three weeks and when I left, could only walk 30 steps. I hadn’t appreciated how closely aligned my physical and mental strength were, nor how long it would take to recover.

It’s only since starting my MA that I’ve regained focus – aided by a professionalism and rigour earned through having been an accountant. Getting my book published was also challenging. The stories were traumatising. It wasn’t what would sell. I finally managed it, but it wasn’t easy.

My responsibilities

Since my surgery, I realise that my main responsibility is to make the most of life. Being successful is important to me, so that is a key responsibility. I’m also the treasurer and trustee of my local gig rowing club. I like giving back, and this is where I can make a difference. Gig rowing is a hazardous sport and it was vital that the club dumped its risky status as an unincorporated association to become a charitable incorporated organisation (CIO). I managed the process and dealt with the admin. I’m proud of that.

My typical day

My body broke, and that changed my perspective on life. I feel even more motivated to do things that are important to me. There are certain elements that are typical to every day – a long walk with my labrador, Bessie, most often with sea views, writing and working on my MA, but over and above that is the commitment never to fritter away days or opportunities. I want to compete at the Gig Rowing World Championships next year, so I have to be match-fit. I’ve started running again and my first milestone will be 5km. My left lung is now stuck to my chest wall, which makes physical exertion difficult, but exercise is essential to my stress management, creativity and problem-solving.

Industry quirks

Where to start? First, there’s the isolation. Writing is a wholly creative process – it’s you and your thoughts, and it’s so subjective. You don’t know if you’ve got it ‘right’ until people say you have. Second, is the realisation that you can’t wait for the creativity to descend. Your bottom has got to be on that seat, and your fingers on that keyboard and you have to push through your reluctance, your foggy brain, your lack of inspiration. Third, and this came as a complete surprise to me, publishing is really corporate.

I went to the London Book Fair this year and I found it so impersonal. I had this notion that publishing was fuelled by passion, by a love of words, but in fact it’s just a huge money machine. The personal doesn’t come in until your book is read and your readers form a relationship with you and/or your characters.

How the ACA helped my career

I plan every piece of work I do as if it were an accountancy project, by which I mean I work to a timeframe with strict hours. I was already disciplined, but the ACA honed those skills. It also made me very adept at problem-solving. I’m rarely thwarted, because my training has taught me that there is always a solution. It may not be immediately apparent, but it’s there somewhere. There isn’t a day goes by when I don’t bring into play what I learned as an accountant.

The habits of an accountant

Accountants can assimilate a lot of knowledge in very little time, processing information quickly. We’re highly skilled at sifting through what’s useful and what’s not. We’re curious. We like to know how and why things work because we have to make sense of everything. That’s our job, to make sense of our clients’ affairs, however messy they are, and to work out ways of helping businesses reach their optimum efficiency. Accountants are actually creative, although I know that’s a word that makes us twitchy.

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