Sometimes I get sucked into dissatisfaction. It’s not a pleasant place. I get taken there unconsciously and unceremoniously. And, often via a medium (facebook) that paradoxically brings me great pleasure and connection. It’s those photos that suck me in – the beautiful people, fairy lights, boho-chic, rustic alters, dancing in the moonlight sparkly unicorn-ness. I love all that you know. I love knowing people who embody this. And sometimes I just enjoy the beauty of it all. And then, sometimes I contrast my life and end up in that suck-filled pit of dissatisfaction I alluded to in my first sentence. And that does suck.
When I get in this place, I compare my life and find it lacking. I think of the lonely solo string of fairy lights in the house that rarely gets switched on. I can’t recall the last time I wandered in the woods in a long floaty dress, barefoot with a unicorn horn on my head (okay that has never happened). I think of my life, a busy life, filled with a corporate job, family, commutes, work travel, juggling childcare, kids sport practices, kids sports games, my overwhelming “to read” pile, the mountain of clean washing awaiting sorting, grocery shopping, paying bills, cleaning toilets, a smidgen of creating art and a splattering of a yoga and meditation practice. And when you think of that as an Instagram image, it doesn’t really look all that magical. In fact it kind of looks mundane.
The thing is, once I haul myself out of this pit, is that I like my life. I actually love my corporate job – I get to do interesting work that provides intellectual stimulation and emotional satisfaction. I see fantastic people daily that I get paid to hang out with and work with. I get paid to go travel to interesting countries! If I won the lottery tomorrow, I wouldn’t resign. And while working full-time means my kids go to after-school care and we don’t wander the hills every afternoon picking daisies and learning herb lore, we have damn good quality time together. There is magic in the lullaby that my 7 and 8 year old still want to be sung each night in bed. In fact if they are offered the choice to stay up later but forego the lullaby, they will choose bed and lullaby every time.
Fresh sheets on the bed, especially when they have been dried by the sun, there isn’t much of a greater pleasure that that. Except perhaps in winter when it is soft flannelette sheets and the electric blanket warms my feet so I can sleep well and deep. Tell me there is no magic in that? And those sheets don’t care if they came straight from the washing mountain instead of being folded nicely in the linen cupboard.
The voicemail I listen to after missing a call from a friend when she tells me that she nailed a presentation that she was worried about and thanked me for the small part I somehow held in helping her prep for this. That this awesome talented woman owned her awesome-ness and delivered – that is pretty damn magical.
That I have friends that I can truly count as the “move the body friends” (the ones that you know you could call at any time of day or night and they would be there, no problem). That I get to be one of those friends too! And while I don’t spend as much time painting and creating art as I’d like, I still make art, and happily potter in my studio space in the weekends. That I have a studio space – with great natural light – now that is damn magical. That I still call my husband my bestest friend. And that he is the person that I can comfortably fart, burp and cry in front of. I think that is pretty magical too.
So while my house may get frantically tidied just before visitors are due to arrive (but not for those that are in “move the body” status – I figure they don’t care), and the washing is all folded about once a year, and the lonely string of fairy lights stays lonely (and switched off), I’m pretty okay with all of that. And next time I start stepping down that staircase of contrast and comparison, I’m going to try catch myself and remember, that while my life isn’t perfect, that this is the path I’ve chosen and I see magic if I look.
“The reasonable (hu)man adapts him(her)self to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to him(her)self. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable (hu)man” – George Bernard Shaw
“I understand the paradox of advising women to change the world by adhering to biased rules and expectations” – Sheryl Sandberg
I’ve been trying to get my head around what I think about Lean In. It’s a book that has polarised many from those recommending that every women in business reads it, to those who see Sheryl Sandberg as advocating to play the games inside the structure and then try and change it from within.
To be honest, I have a paradoxal view of this book. Firstly, I actually really like her as I read this. I like her openness and vulnerability around the insecurities she has felt and her own personal experiences. I am a big believer in stories as a communication tool and to read business books that incorporate personal stories really resonate with me. It’s an compelling read as well; I’ve sat down to read just a couple of pages and half an hour later realised I am still sitting on the couch and now half way through the book. It is well-researched and the studies she refers to are completely relevant and scare me to realise we are still at such a stage of gender bias within business. And there is some great advice around things like owning your experience and worth and stepping up to the table instead of hanging back around the sidelines.
And as someone who has spent a number of years in large corporates, I get her advice and how meaningful this would be for women looking to build careers within the corporate structure. I like how she talks about the “feeling like a fraud” and how hard we judge our performance and let this sense of lack of self-worth impact our decisions about going for promotions and even deciding what we are capable of doing. (Well I don’t actually like that this is the case, but this resonated with me and my experiences and those of other women that I have spoken with about this topic).
One of the studies that Sheryl refers to in her book is a study done at the Columbia Business School where an experiment was run to test perceptions of men and women in the workplace. They used a case study about an entrepreneur who became a successful venture capitalist by using his/her “outgoing personality….. and vast personal and professional network”. Half the students were given this case study with the name Howard, the other with the name Heidi. The students ranked both Heidi and Howard as equally competent which makes sense given it was the same data. However, they saw Howard as being more “appealing and likable” whereas Heidi was seen as “selfish and not the type of person you would want to hire or work for”. So basically, success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. To go right down to the basics, if a woman is successful she is less likely to be liked by both men and women.
And that’s a bit of an issue for us of the female gender who have pretty much been trained and socialised to be likable and agreeable our whole lives. There are stacks of research that shows how this starts in early childhood, how even the best intentioned parents still parent their children through lens of gender bias. So as Sheryl states “In order to protect ourselves from being disliked, we question our abilities and downplay our achievements especially in the presence of others. We put ourselves down before others can.”
So the paradox for me. Well, basically her quote at the top sums it up for me. I get what she is saying, that we need to work with the system to get to the positions that then have the power to change things. But part of me still feels like these systems are wrong, these gender biases are hurting the potential fulfillment of generations of women. It reminds me of studying Women’s Studies at university when we discussed the liberal feminists who wanted to change things from within, whereas the radical feminists were all about pulling down the patriarchal structures, making an outcry that couldn’t be ignored.
And it is the radical feminists that probably made such a fuss that has caused the improvements in gender equality in the workplace over the past 40 years. Yet, our global business structure is still geared to reward and promote the “masculine” characteristics of business and this is still pervasive and impacts us today from the small percentage of women who reach the “top” jobs through to the fact that we earn less. And in 2011 a Mckinsey report noted that men are promoted based on potential, while women are promoted based on past achievement.
The other area that interests me which she doesn’t really cover is around how self-employment is creating new opportunities for women outside the corporate structure. There are options to step outside and create a career and work-life that doesn’t rely on “playing the game”. Recent research is starting to take note of how women entrepreneurs are changing what opportunities and options can look like. A recent white paper from Barclays states that “In entrepreneurship, the pay gap is reversed, which suggests that women will tend to achieve greater financial success in an environment that is purely market-driven, rather than a more traditional job in which pay must be negotiated.”.
So, for me it was worth reading. I take the approach that if I can get 2 things out of a book that I can implement to make a positive change to my life, then it’s worth it. And I definitely got that.
In the summer of 2011, a 9 year old boy named Caine spent his summer holiday hanging out in his Dad’s used auto parts store building an arcade. What was different, was that this was completely built out of cardboard boxes. All summer long, Caine sat outside the door, inviting people to play the games in his arcade. Nobody did. That is until a young filmmaker named Nirvan Mullick came into the store to buy a door handle for his 96 Corrolla. Nirvan bought a Fun Pass. It was great value, 500 turns for $2. And that small decision, to stop and support a child has changed lives.
Nirvan ended up speaking to Caine’s Dad who told him that he was the only person to play in Caine’s arcade. Nirvan decided to set up a “surprise party” and try and get as many people as possible in LA to turn up and play. This went viral via Facebook, made the major news stations and in October 2011, a flash mob gathered and thousands of people came to play in Caine’s Arcade and made a boy’s day.
A short film was made (see above – spend the 10 minutes watching this – it is worth it) and launched in April 2012 and started a movement. Within 2 days nearly 1.5 million people had watched this video and shortly after, the Imagination Foundation was formed with the mission of “to find, foster and fund creativity and entrepreneurship in children around the world to raise a new generation of innovators and problem solvers who have the tools they need to build the world they imagine”.
Since then over $230,000 has been raised for Caine’s college fund, people like Jack Black have brought their children to play in the arcade (and play themselves) and last October there was a global event called the Cardboard Challenge which had children participating from over 41 countries a year to the day that the “surprise party” had occurred to make Caine’s day. Caine himself has grown in confidence, his stuttering has disappeared and he is doing heaps better at school.
But this story isn’t just about a child’s imagination. No, this is about one person taking a moment to believe in someone’s dream. In the follow up film, Caine’s Dad says about Nirvan, “He saw something in my son that nobody else saw”. How easily would it have been for that summer to finish with not one person really seeing Caine and his dream. How likely would it be that the arcade would have been packed up, the cardboard recycled and Caine to go back to normal life at school.
But that didn’t happen. Nirven saw Caine, he saw Caine’s dream and he believed in this child and changed Caine’s life, his own life and has positively impacted thousands of others. All from one short moment where he decided to believe in a child and his dream.
My background is in Human Resources and a conversation I have had with so many people managers and leaders is that they have a huge responsibility in how they impact their people’s lives. When a parent, teacher or manager believes in us (or not), this can change the trajectory of our lives. We are human beings, we are built for connection and having another person really see who we are and to back our dream or our vision is potentially one of the most powerful connections with the biggest impact. Our words and actions have weight. And we don’t often realise that something we say or do have the power to change lives.
How often do we fling away a comment without thinking about what we are saying or the impact. Sometimes we find out, like the time my husband met a guy who had worked for him a decade prior. Sometimes we may never know.
But think back now about who believed in you; either as a child or an adult. Remember what that meant, how that felt, how that inspired you and gave your courage. And today, I challenge us all, who can we really “see” today. Who is sitting somewhere with their dream that only needs one person to take one moment to believe in it for them.
Dave Grohl is the lead singer from the Foo Fighters. He is also widely considered to be “The Nicest Man in Rock” . Recently he was the keynote speaker at the 2013 SXSW conference and festival. Watch it here or read a transcript here. This is an annual festival held in Austin, Texas, a convergence of emerging technologies along with original and independent music and films. But what Dave Grohl really talked about, was not what he was doing at the moment or about the music industry, but instead was a call for us all to find Our Voice through sharing his story about how he found his.
It was one moment as a child that changed Dave Grohl’s life. He and his sister had convinced his mother to buy them the 1975 Blockbuster compilation record that they played on a public-school turntable that his mother would bring home on weekends from school (she was a teacher ). Dave Grohl would have been 6 years old in 1975. On this record, along with the hits that year like “That’s the way I like it” and “Fly Robin Fly”, there was one piece of music that was entirely instrumental, no vocals at all. It was Edgar Winter’s Frankenstein . For a young Dave it was like he could hear the Voice of each musician expressing themselves. This piece of music was the first clear call of purpose in Dave’s life. This was the first call “that made me want to jump in a van with my friends and leave the world behind for music”.
If our purpose is about being who we are meant to be and bringing our gifts and talents to make the world a better place, a good place to start is at the beginning, when we were children. If we were given the space to explore who we are and what we loved to do as a child, it is likely that we came across something that triggered a deeper yearning, that had the potential to change the course of our lives. If we followed that call. If we had the support to follow that call. These are our threshold moments.
For a young Dave Grohl, he picked up his absent father’s old guitar and in his words “it instantly became my obsession”. His mother supported this, buying him a Beatles songbook and paying for lessons until he gave those up after a year because he wasn’t so keen on lessons or direction. Instead, he was left to his own devices and he devoted everything to making music. He set up pillows in the formation of a drum set and played them to his records. He figured out that with two cassette players, he could multi-track his own songs at 12 years old. It not long after, that his second threshold moment came.
When Dave was 13, his mother took them on a family trip to Chicago. What Dave didn’t know was that his older cousin Tracey, had turned into a punk rocker. They arrived and “I heard her coming down the stairs. The clanking of chains, the stomping of heavy boots, the sound of a fresh leather jacket creaking like an old ship. And then …. I saw her. Shaved head, bondage pants, torn Anti-Pasti T-shirt ….. she was a f**king superhero come to life”.
Tracey introduced Dave to her record collection. He listened to them all. He said “This was the first day of the rest of my life”. She took him to his first concert; a punk rock band in a dingy hole. 13 year old Dave Grohl was in heaven.
But it wasn’t the music itself that inspired Dave, “it was the blissful removal of these bands from any source of conventional, popular corporate structure, and the underground network that supported the music’s independence that was totally inspiring to me…. At 13 years old, I realized that I could start my own band, I could write my own songs, I could record my own record, I could start my own label, I could release my own record, I could book my own shows, I could write and publish my own fanzine, …….I could do all of this myself. There was no right or wrong, because it was all mine”. Dave Grohl had found his Why.
Dave Grohl never lost his voice. Two key moments at different stages of childhood opened up paths of possibility for him. He felt something, was drawn to something become obsessed with it. And he had the support of a parental figure. At age 17 when he was given the option to tour as a drummer with a band, his mother gave him her blessing to drop out of high school. When he was making music and learning to make music in his bedroom, she let him be. Apparently she got so used to the noise that it just didn’t bother her. Dave Grohl was able to develop his voice and how he shared this in the world from childhood. He was left to his own devices and look what happened.
What was your obsession in childhood? Where are your threshold moments? Did you follow them or do what so many of us do, stumble instead down the wide path of accepted planned living instead of following that call and sharing our voice. And if you did, you do know its not too late.
I am sitting at a small table by a large window with the sea breeze gently caressing my face. This small table is at a new café that has just opened down the road from me. The aesthetics are pleasing; warm yet modern, the music audible but not over-powering and there is a hum of customer conversation as the tables fill up.
It all looks good from here; plenty of staff who seem keen and willing to serve. I’ve heard that this café is owned by the same people who run another café the next bay over, probably less than a kilometer away. That is a place I would go to more often if I could be guaranteed a seat. It’s that popular. This new one is about three times the size and within the last week, it was dropped into 3 conversations that I was having. People are talking about it.
So it looks good. There seems to be a high likelihood that this café will be as successful and popular as the other ones owned by the same people. On my second visit, I hit lunchtime and are were people lined up waiting for a spare table. Literally meters away, there are another 3 cafes, all with a variety of empty tables. They all look straight out on the local beach. What is the difference? How have the owners of this café created this response? Why have they gone into this business? What is their purpose? How has that been translated to their people; both employees and customers?
That’s what I’m really interested in as I sit and write these words. Because it is easy to see what is in their favor: beachside location, great menu, excellent coffee. But I can say the same thing for the cafes along the same stretch of road. But I have never seen people line up waiting for a table at any of the others.
I get a hint when I get up to pour myself a water; a waitress hurries over to me and apologises; “I should be doing that for you” she says. An employee who cares, who wants to serve. Who seems genuinely pleased to be working in this job, who really wants to do a great job. And every employee at this café seems to be cut from this same mould. In the hospitality industry which is notorious for low pay and young workers who treat it as a stop gap, I’m getting some pretty exceptional service. Something more is at play.
I don’t know what that is yet for this particular workplace and for these people that are bringing me my coffee. But this is why I am undertaking The Purpose Project, because I would like to explore this. I’ll be contacting these owners and asking them if they would be interested in a conversation with me (fingers crossed they say yes). It’s not just owners of successful local cafes that I want to talk with though; I am interested in what purpose means to us all, from stay at home mums to CEO’s of large corporations. How does purpose (or lack of) impact our lives and our work? How does our purpose impact others?
Conversations are kicking off this week. If you are reading this and would be interested in talking with me, exploring what purpose means to you, I’d love to hear from you. And it doesn’t matter where abouts in the world you are, thanks to the wonderfulness of the internet, we can still connect. I am so excited about this. I’ll keep you informed!
“I know that I’m not my body, and I also know you’re not yours. And then it no longer matters what you look like, where you come from or what you do for a living. All that matters is that we continue to fan the flame of humanity by living our lives as the ultimate creative expression of who we really are” – Janine Shepard
Janine Shepard was training to represent her country at the winter Olympics when she was hit by a truck, breaking most of her body, including both her neck and back and losing 5 litres of blood. She spent 10 days hovering between life and death (and aware of that) before making a decision to return to her broken body. She spent over 6 months in a spinal ward, was told that she would never be able to move normally again and to expect a lifetime of health issues from this experience. She was told to expect to be depressed, never to have children and that life would never be the same.
And it wasn’t. As she felt the sunlight on her face for the first time after being in the spinal unit for 6 months she asked herself “How could I ever have taken this for granted?”. She looked up in the sky one day, saw a plane and decided, well if I can’t walk, I can fly. She turned up at the local flying school in a body cast, unable to use her legs, asked them to teach her to fly. Determined to pass the medical, she learnt to walk again. Passed her medical, passed all the tests until she was a flight instructor (who could walk) at the same school where she turned up as a partial paraplegic a mere 18 months previously. And since then she has also had 3 children.
Janine Shepard transformed her life. From preparing to compete at the Olympics to facing what could be seen by a young athlete as the cruelest outcome of losing the ability to walk and use your body. To a realisation that who she really was and her true purpose, was not about what she did or what she looked like. It was about living who she really was.
Her experience, and her technique of creating meaning (using the goal of flying to re-learn how to walk which led to a whole new relationship with life and purpose), reminded me of the work by Viktor E. Frankl. Dr Frankl was a pyschiatrist who was imprisoned in the Nazi death camps during WWII. After his release, he wrote a small book which he published in 1946 called ‘Man’s Search for Meaning”. This small book now has over 20 million copies around the world.
In the midst of the most immense horror, Dr Frankl was able to first hand observe and experience what kept people alive in the most extenuating circumstances. What he found was that the way a prisoner imagined the future, affected how long he stayed alive. He observed how fellow inmates, convinced that on a certain date they would be saved, would survive until the day after that date, their sense of meaning and purpose gone.
From his experiences, Dr Frankl determined that this sense of meaning is the primary motivation for life. He describes this as “This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone”. He also states “For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself”.
Although Dr Frankl and Janine Shepard use different words to express these concepts, I believe they are coming from the same place. That we all have both the gift and responsibility of being an unique being with a set of talents and skills and way of interacting with the world that belongs only to us. That our purpose is to express and live who we really are. That who we really are is far vaster and incredible than our physical brains can comprehend. We know we are made of atoms and quantum physicists are continuing to prove how deeply we are connected, not just with other human beings, but with all life on earth. That we are part of something far bigger than an individual self.
So how do we move from being inspired by stories of incredible beings like Janine Shepard and Dr Frankl, to understanding and knowing that we too have this ability to be incredible, to live who we really are. How can we go through such a transformation of how we interact with life without having to go through tragedy ?
I’ll leave you with Janine’s TEDx talk (which is amazing) along with those questions. I’d love to know any thoughts you have about this, feel free to contact me directly or leave a comment below.