Navigating the Twenties: Finding your North Star-By Nonkululeko Zondo

Embark on a journey of undeniable growth and self-discovery with Nonkululeko Zondo , an accomplished Associate in the Energy Transactions and Projects team at Vinson and Elkins.

Embark on a journey of undeniable growth and self-discovery with Nonkululeko Zondo , an accomplished Associate in the Energy Transactions and Projects team at Vinson and Elkins. She has experience in complex, cross-border private and public M&A transactions in the oil and gas, metals and mining industry. Before joining V&E, she was at Freshfields in London and Bowmans in Johannesburg.

Through the vibrant lens of her twenties, Nonku shares a tale filled with career triumphs, cherished friendships, and the audacious pursuit of the ‘next step’. Yet, beneath the surface lies a narrative of resilience, marked by bouts of anxiety, burnout, and imposter syndrome. Join Nonku as she grapples with the expectations of society, family, and faith, and ultimately finds her voice in the pursuit of authenticity. Through the highs and lows, Nonku’s story resonates with the universal quest to be unapologetically oneself, making each step toward self-discovery a step towards truth, love, and accountability.

She holds an LLB degree from the University of Cape Town and is an admitted attorney of South Africa. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town, focusing on the structuring of fiscal terms for oil and gas projects in South Africa, Tanzania, and Ghana.Nonku is an avid opera singer, having trained at the South African College of Music under Professor Virginia Davids and, later, South African soprano Carla Pohl and Sarah Tynan at the Royal College of Music. Nonku has performed in number of productions and was, most recently, a semi-finalist in the Pendine International Voice of the Future competition in Wales.

In this compelling narrative, discover the North Star that guides Nonku through the maze of her twenties, urging her towards the next grand adventure.

 My twenties have been a period of undeniable growth. As a child of the late nineties and early 2000s, I had hoped my twenties would look like a combination of GirlfriendsBrown Sugar and Living Single – filled with a close-knit circle of friends to share life with, RnB, career firsts in a big city, lots of coffee, travel and even more date nights. Unsurprisingly, for all my ambition, I got exactly that – my twenties have been filled with the best friends, a blossoming legal career in Johannesburg and London, copious amounts of coffee and bottomless mimosas. The boon of living in a 90s sitcom – after the 2008 recession, a pandemic and a rapidly changing world – was accompanied by bouts of anxiety, burnout, significant personal loss and imposter syndrome; city girls were down bad. In the words of Fish Go Deep, I have been the cure and the cause (sometimes) of my blues, but something always pulled me forward and urged me to take the next step.

I have always been fascinated by ‘the next’ and, with my penchant for making lists, the next step was always just one to-do list item away. For a large part of my twenties, my next was heavily influenced by what I thought was expected of me by society, my family and the church – you’d have been hard-pressed to find a more agreeable student. At 21, the cracks started to show, and by 25, none of these voices resonated with the person I was becoming. Enter anxiety, stage left, because what would fill the void left behind by the voices that had guided me for so long? The philosopher emerged, and even bigger questions about who I am and who I want to show up as in the world were on a loop. Still, something urged me to the next step.

By my mid-twenties, I had an urge for the ‘next step’ spurred on by an unidentified force, no semblance of a plan to get to the ‘next step’ (other than finish my legal practice articles and finish my PhD thesis) and a more audacious sense of self. I’ve always been audacious, but the audacious woman emerging in response to my search for who I am was new to me. Right on cue, imposter syndrome made its headline appearance. The audacious woman I was becoming spurred me onto opportunities, feats and spaces that an older version of me would have only done when I was perfect – when I met 100% of the criteria or knew everything there was to know. The dissonance between who I was and the audacious woman who had decided to fill the void of my external drivers meant that I was getting the external affirmation of my myriad talents, but I felt like a fraud – someone would catch on that I know absolutely nothing. By ‘knowing absolutely nothing’, I mean that over ten years of classical music training, five years of law school coupled with my well-advanced PhD, two years of articles, and three years of M&A experience in some of the biggest law firms in the world are totally irrelevant and make me an absolute beginner in my art and my legal career. But even if I didn’t have all those experiences, would being an absolute beginner – with no possibility of being a wunderkind in anything I put my mind to – really be so bad? The overachiever in me rebelled at the thought, but there was one small voice – possibly this audacious woman – whispering no and inevitably urging me to the next step.

This time, the urge to take the next step gave me pause. The size of the voice whispering to me and pulling me forward belied its confidence. I was curious about where the confidence came from and started doing the work of unravelling all the influences that seemed to have masked the voice but had not diminished its assurance. I realised that with each imperfect step and less-than-polished action, that voice grew more certain – I can do hard things.

The work of my late twenties has been unravelling, unlearning and unmasking. My desire for outward excellence and validation is slowly becoming a relentless hunt for authenticity – the freedom to be completely myself and show up as myself in all spaces I dare to occupy. The work of showing up authentically is messy, vulnerable, and overwhelming – especially because some parts of me constantly change as I learn and grow into the versions of me that each season of my life demands. The work of authenticity demands community, and each step towards myself has also been a step towards the people that hold me to truth, love and accountability.

No great adventure begins without a compass pointing north – without knowing the way home. Navigating my twenties has been about finding my North Star where it has always been, doing what it was made to do and spurring me onto my next adventure.

Written by: Nonkululeko Zondo

Edited by: Emma Reinecke

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