Comedian Ola Labib always knew she didn’t want a blurry boundary between work and home life. But when she chose to be a pharmacist, she quickly realized her career had no ‘off’ button. How do you figure out your career path when you’re always taking your work around with you? The answer was not what Labib expected.
When I didn’t get into medical school, I was devastated. But my brother, who is a doctor, told me, “Ola, it’s a blessing in disguise. Being a doctor isn’t just a job, it takes over your life.” Clear boundaries in terms of work and leisure were something I knew I really wanted. I grew up watching my dad, a secondary school math teacher, existing in an endless cycle of leaving the house with books that needed marking and coming home in the evening with lessons that needed planning. Meanwhile, mum would come home from a 12 hour shift at the factory, varicose veins popping and asking us to massage her feet as a repayment for “bringing you into the world.”
So I thought I’d combine my brother’s advice with my parents’ experience and do a job that seemed chill but involved caring for people: I became a pharmacist. Some may imagine my job entailed picking boxes off shelves, selling lollipops and making people wait unnecessarily long times for life-saving medication. But in reality, I had the lives of people in my hands and one error could be the determining factor of whether someone lives or dies. A straightforward 9-to-5 this was not. I discovered that despite my regular working hours, my brain wasn’t switching to Do Not Disturb Mode as soon as I got home. Instead, I’d be consumed with thoughts about the people I had handed packages of medication over to that day. Did I definitely calculate Mrs X’s diabetes medication right? Did I count the right amount of tablets for Mrs Y? What if something catastrophic had happened as a result of my dishing out the goods?!
The day I made the biggest error of my career was the moment my conscience screamed at me to look for an alternative career path. I worked in an understaffed hospital, working late most nights. I was covering multiple wards and taking on five times the workload—I was on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I had a consultant request a medication history for a patient and I couldn’t say no to a consultant. So I put the mammoth pile of work aside, and found the patient’s file which had a GP print-out of their medication. I thought: God is great. That’s like finding the last creamy Galaxy among a box of humble Bountys. This would save me having to contact the GP.
So I quickly endorsed all the medication on the patient’s drug chart and gave it to the junior doctor to sign off—only to realise the next day that that was the correct medication list…for a completely different patient. I wanted to throw up. The error resulted in the patient getting seriously ill.
At that point, I genuinely didn’t care about my career. All I could think about was the patient. I would obsessively check up on them. I didn’t eat or sleep for days. I was wasting away mentally and physically. I couldn’t do this anymore. From then, as I worked anxiously, I thought: what’s next for Ola Labib?
I always quite fancied becoming an orthopedic surgeon. But after some reflection, what if I cut off a patient’s wrong limb? That would be a cutastrophy. What about being a journalist? The Sudanese Louise Lane of my time. But if there’s a big news flash after the end of my shift, it’s game over.
It wasn’t until I had a bit of a crisis that I was sat down by my brothers, crying that I want a job that I enjoy that consists of a Do Not Disturb button that I can flick. They asked me: forget about careers, what do you enjoy and what do you want from life? That’s easy—I love comedy and beauty and hate taking work home with me. “Then try out stand up comedy then,” my brothers said. “Because you and beauty just don’t go together.” Thanks darling brothers. Before I knew it, a comedy career became a fantasy that I would think about a lot, particularly at my lowest points at work, selling my 12th box of Viagra of the day or with patients coughing into my breathing space.
“Then try out stand up comedy then,” my brothers said. “Because you and beauty just don’t go together.” Thanks darling brothers. Before I knew it, a comedy career became a fantasy that I would think about a lot, particularly at my lowest points at work, selling my 12th box of Viagra of the day or with patients coughing into my breathing space.
One January, when my birthday was looming, I thought, I can’t be one year older and not one step closer to my goal. So I went online and applied for every open mic spot I could in Manchester. Rejection after rejection, until one day on a shift, I got a notification from Jason Cooke who runs a gig called the Comedy Balloon at the Apple and Ape in Manchester. This was the five minute open mic that changed my life.
Now, I’m a huge “Lord of the Rings” fan, and I remember performing one of my classic bangers: “I bet you’ve never seen a hijabi in a pub before. The last time anyone saw a hooded figure in a pub was Frodo at the Prancing Pony.” Half the audience laughed. And by audience I mean two drunk guys. But it happened that the promoter was a fan and asked me to come back again. The word started to spread. Jason told his promoter friends, then the comedians started to talk at their gigs about me and within six months, I found myself doing three to four open mics a week and balancing that with full-time exhausting pharmacy work.
One night I’ll never forget was in October 2018. It was my first ever paid gig in Harrogate for a promoter called Silky. I was going to get a full £30. Sadly, that was also the day that a patient I had become very fond of as she spent a long time on the ward, died suddenly. I was distraught, and because Harrogate was 75 miles away, I had to leave for my gig straight after work. She was all I thought about on my drive there. My Do Not disturb button was activated at that point…from my pharmacy job anyway. But I did it.
To this day that’s what I love about comedy: when you’re about to get on stage, your nerves and adrenaline do not allow you to think about anything else except for that moment. Thankfully I got through that night—and didn’t just survive, but thrived, which resulted in more gigs with him.
After winning my first competition, that’s when the real work started. I was constantly having to come up with writing ideas, do gigs, travel; it was non stop. It was the first time in my life that when the Do Not Disturb button was on, I found myself flicking it off. And that’s when I knew comedy wasn’t just my career. It was part of my life that I never ever wanted to switch off, whatever the day job might hold.