Nikki Butler on Transformative Decisions in Business and Life
Nikki Butler is the Founder of The Autistic Joyologist and Nikki Butler Skin Clinic and took some time out to share the wisdom and experience they gained during pivotal moments in life and in business.
Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your journey as a leader in your industry?
I entered the world of entrepreneurship a decade ago, after leaving corporate life behind after a spectacular burnout at the age of 36.After being diagnosed autistic and ADHD in my mid-forties, I now know that what I experienced was an autistic & ADHD burnout, due to continually struggling to function in working environments that were not designed for me.
After setting up and closing down a handful of hobby businesses, I launched what is now my skin & scar services in 2016 and this was a turning point for me. Having initially trained as a medical tattooist treating breast cancer patients, I quickly became a scar specialist and established myself as one of the go-to practitioners in this field.
Initially, I was guided by the advice of my business coaches and mentors and followed the path that I thought I ‘should’ be following. I was successful, but something didn’t quite feel right for me. I loved being able to help others feel more confident in their skin, but my business often felt like a source of unnecessary anxiety and stress.
When my home-based clinic was forced to close during the pandemic, I was able to step back from the noise of my industry, and I didn’t have access to my coaches and mentors. For the first time, I felt able to breathe and think for myself. The ideas started to flow and whilst many others were sipping G&T’s in the sunshine, I committed to spending 5-6 hours a day working on my business, so that when we were allowed to reopen, I could fly.
As a result of the reflections and work, I streamlined my services, rebranded, and focused on producing valuable content for my clients. I reopened fully booked three months in advance, and tripled my income in the year post Covid, bringing in my highest turnover ever.
The lessons I learned from the pandemic were life-changing and have led me to pivot and change without fear ever since. A skill I was going to need not long after this experience.
What specific experiences or decisions in your journey do you believe have shaped your approach to business and leadership?
The first experience that shifted my mindset and approach to business and leadership was the pandemic. I made a key decision that I was not going to get caught up in catastrophising and I was going to find ways to take positive action. Early in the pandemic I read a book called The Obstacle is The Way by Ryan Holiday, it inspired me to make the pandemic, my obstacle, my way forward. Making the decision to see my greatest challenges as opportunities for change and pivoting has been life-changing, and has shaped every decision and response to challenging situations since.
The second experience was a combination of being left with permanent nerve damage following major spinal surgery, whilst at the same time being diagnosed autistic and ADHD. My spinal nerve pain meant that it was no longer possible for me to work the long hours in my business that I had previously, and some treatments I had to stop altogether, as I was no longer able to sit down without immense pain or lift heavy equipment.
Having time off to recover from surgery, I was able to reflect on my autism and ADHD diagnosis and how my business was not working for and with me, but causing stress and anxiety on many levels. I could also see that I was experiencing regular episodes of overwhelm and burnout, as a result of the pressures I was putting myself under and the hours I was working.
Because of my post-pandemic mindset of seeing my obstacles as the way forward, I focused on how I could pivot my services and life so that it better supported me with my physical abilities and also my autism and ADHD needs. I had proven to myself that challenges can be the greatest gifts and opportunities for change, and I was determined to make that happen again.
I streamlined my services further, reduced my working hours, set up referral systems, and took steps to align my life in a way that worked for me, and felt good. With my new found time on my hands, I developed a deep passion and desire for inspiring other autistic and ADHD entrepreneurs to redefine success on their terms and let go of societal expectations of what success looks like. I became obsessed with the desire to be a catalyst for positive change, to smash apart outdated stereotypes of what autism and ADHD ‘look’ like, especially for females, and as a result, The Autistic Joyologist was born!
I now run both The Autistic Joyologist and my skin & scar clinic. The Autistic Joyologist feels like I have found my purpose in life, shining a spotlight on the extraordinary talents of neurodiverse minds, whilst creating a better future for generations to come. Without experiencing the challenges I have had, and without making the decision to always see my obstacles as the way forward, I wouldn’t be here today.
Can you share a story of a pivotal moment in your career that led to a significant transformation in your business or personal life?
Being diagnosed as autistic and ADHD in my mid-40s hit me like a train.It felt as though my entire life suddenly made sense, and I could reflect back and see my lived experiences through different eyes.My diagnosis also created a feeling of fear and panic that my diagnosis had come too late in my life to make the changes I could see I needed to make. I felt stuck and working with coaches and trying the tips and tools recommended for neurodiverse brains only served to increase the panic, because nothing seemed to work for me. I felt hopeless, as if I was beyond help.
That was until I realised that all of the advice, tools, and guidance I had been trying to put into place, were designed to make my brain work like a neurotypical brain. As I had this realisation, I understood that was never going to work for me, I was never going to be able to change my brain and how it worked. I decided to try a different way, I got curious about my autism and ADHD and looked at how and where it affected me personally. I focused on my strengths and came to deeply understand my challenges. I let go of the shame I had lived with my whole life of not being able to fit in or do what others seemed to do so easily, and I developed self-compassion and acceptance.
From this new viewpoint, I was able to realign my life, both professionally and personally, so that I can play to my strengths, whilst making sure I am supported in areas I find challenging. I have been able to create new ways of working, ask for help, and remove unnecessary triggers and challenges that I don’t need to deal with. And the result was freedom. I felt freer, safer and happier than ever before, and my business started to thrive.This was the catalyst for creating The Autistic Joyologist. Having transformed my life from living in a state of constant stress and anxiety to one of calm and feeling fulfilled, I wanted to help others achieve this too, and to stop unnecessary struggles others were experiencing.
My life is so different now that I have learned to deeply understand and accept myself. I approach everything with loving curiosity, I never apologise for the things I find difficult and I ask for help without judging myself. It’s had a positive impact in all areas of my life, since setting clear boundaries for myself and others, so that I can live a thriving and happy life on my terms.
What factors did you consider when making that critical decision, and how did you weigh the potential risks and rewards?
I always start with whether my decisions align with my core values. When considering decisions from this point, I know instantly if I am moving in the right direction or whether I am following something I think I ‘should’ be doing, or listening to outside noise and pressures.
I am also clear on my goals and vision for my business and also my life. It’s important to me to make sure that the decisions I make are directionally correct for where I want to be, and that if it’s a business decision, it’s going to help support and align with my personal and life goals and vision too. Having a bigger picture of what I’d like for all areas of my life helps to keep me focused and make sure I don’t get caught up in something that will take me out of alignment.
When it comes to risks and rewards, it’s pretty simple for me, if I am honest. I think about whether something aligns with my values, whether it’s directionally correct for my vision for my life and then I think about what I will need to commit to the decision I am about to make. As an entrepreneur who has ADHD, I have to manage impulsivity and risk carefully. I do rely on my gut instinct a lot, but I have business mentors and coaches that I can run things by, which always buys me time to slow down and think. That said, ADHD risk-taking is something I love, because it means I am not afraid to take risks that many others wouldn’t take. I think one of the exciting things about being an entrepreneur is that you get to try new things, you get to innovate, and try new ways of working. Nothing great ever happens without a little risk being involved!
What challenges did you face during this transformative period, and how did you overcome them?
I had to trust in myself and my ability to pivot in a different direction and launch a new business, whilst running my skin and scar clinic, all whilst living in chronic pain.
One of my biggest challenges is wanting to do it all now! Being impulsive, struggling to focus, and charging ahead without a plan. I had this huge vision of what I wanted to achieve and I wanted to get there at record speed!
The secret to managing these challenges was asking for help. I have an amazing support team around me that I can call on to help in areas I am not strong in.
I am also clear on my vision. I wrote a pretend news headline for 5 years, something I wanted to have achieved in 3 years, and then something I’d like to achieve in the next 12 months. Having these visions in mind and sharing them with my support team helps me to work backward and make sure I am always moving in the right direction toward my goals. My team has full permission to call me out on the times when I am sailing off in a totally different direction, or when I am getting over excited and not seeing the steps I need to take to get somewhere.
Trusting my own vision and bringing my team along for the ride is a powerful way of ensuring everything moves in the right direction. It took me a long time to trust others with my businesses, but now I wish I’d asked for help sooner.
Looking back, what advice would you give to your younger self at that time, or to entrepreneurs and business leaders who might find themselves in a similar situation?
Firstly, get really clear on how you want to live your life, in all areas. I find having a vision board where I use pictures to represent my personal, social, and professional life, finances, and goals helpful. Then, when I make a decision, I can see whether it fits the vision I have for my life. Having something like a vision board in place can help you make key decisions, whether it’s that you realise you’re heading in the wrong direction entirely, or that you may have to compromise one area of your life in the short term, knowing it will benefit your longer term.
Secondly, know that life will throw you curve balls and challenges. You can’t plan for everything and some challenges will feel devastating. There’s always a positive way forward. Choose to see the difficult moments as your opportunity to pivot and change, and believe that you can find another way forward.
Thirdly, you’re allowed to make mistakes, it’s how you view them that matters. I don’t believe in failure, I believe in lessons and opportunities for growth. Take some chances, take some risks, and have some fun. You won’t get it right all of the time, but you’ll definitely learn something along the way that will help you in the long term. Then, if you are ever faced with a time when you are forced to make unplanned changes or decisions, you’ll have some confidence in your ability to pivot and manage change.
How has that pivotal moment influenced the way you make decisions today, and what lasting impact has it had on your business?
Combined, the pivotal moment of the pandemic when I decided I would always make my obstacles my way forward and my autism and ADHD diagnosis in my mid-forties have had life-changing effects on all areas of my life.
These days, I always approach decisions from a place of making sure they are aligned to my core values, play to my strengths and are directionally correct in my vision for my life. I check in with myself to make sure I am making choices that feel good for me, rather than falling into the trap of doing what I think I ‘should’ be doing or what’s expected of me.
I’m also not afraid to change my choices and make different decisions if something isn’t working for me. I spent decades forcing myself to do things in a way that was detrimental to my well-being and hindered my success. I have a much deeper trust and respect for my abilities and I am not afraid to say no to something or someone that is not a good fit for me.
Because my life is now built around who I am at my core, I make more aligned decisions that feel good for me. I am not immune to being caught in the ‘shoulds’ and expectations of others, but if I find myself there these days, I will step back, take a breath, and make new choices and decisions. I am always in control of the life I lead.
In your opinion, how important is it for entrepreneurs and business leaders to have these transformative moments, and how can they best prepare for and learn from them?
I honestly believe this is where the magic happens, even though it may not feel like it at the time. Being an entrepreneur is often a combination of exhilaration and terror and much of the initial years can be reactive and unplanned. It’s a rollercoaster where we are like sponges for advice and information and we can often create businesses that are out of alignment with the lives we want to live. I’ve had many conversations with entrepreneurs who describe their businesses as a beast they cannot tame! Myself included!
These transformative and pivotal moments are the moments that can force you to take a step back, take a breath, and reassess where you’re at. These are the moments when you get to choose what you do from here. You might not feel you have a choice that you want, but you will have a choice. Even doing nothing is a choice. I believe these are the moments that create space for positive change and growth, the moments where you can make decisions that align with the life you want to live and the way you want to live it.
And the physiological response to fear is very similar to excitement! I like to think that fear is just excitement that needs an attitude adjustment, and I lean into it now and choose to find ways to create new experiences. And I say this as an autistic entrepreneur, where I do not do well with change!
Remember, you’ll be fine, even if you don’t see it at the moment. Lean in, change your mindset, and get excited about the new direction you get to choose.