Inspired by: Women of the future

Back in 1986, when Whitney Houston sang about children being our future, I paid little attention. It was the year I turned 17 and I was busy casting off the shackles of childhood. As far as I was concerned, the future was all about me and what I was going to be in it.

It took thirty years and the words of another powerhouse woman, Miriam González Durántez, before I got the point: I may be the ‘now’ but the future is in the hands of those much younger and specifically those who inhabit our education system. Whilst I’m not interested in being a school teacher, Miriam’s words made me see that there was another way to contribute.

In the weeks that followed, I signed up for Inspiring the Future, an initiative connecting schools with the world of work and before long I was involved as a business volunteer with the Barnet Business and Education Partnership. For the last year, I’ve been in secondary schools supporting programs like presentation skills, interview skills and how to make the most of work experience that help students prepare for life ‘beyond school’. Participating in this way has been really motivating. It’s also got me thinking about how we prepare young adults to tackle life’s challenges outside their academic curriculum.

What other things can we do to help them to be resilient, resourceful and responsible in their adult life?

Earlier this year, I returned to the Inspiring the Future website to tick an additional box flagging my interest in being a school governor. I didn’t know that this would be the right thing for me but I knew I felt passionately about the contribution to be made and wanted to explore this further. In the words of change leadership guru Deborah Rowland (who I met in March)…

” …having set up these initial conditions for emergence, you have to let the change come towards you, not go chasing it.”

Still Moving: How to Lead Mindful Change by Deborah Rowland

…so I ticked the box and went on with life, continuing to explore a range of other interesting opportunities that had been emerging.

On June 4th, I attended the TEDx London conference and among the lineup of inspiring speakers was Teach First’s Executive Director of Delivery Ndidi Okezie who spoke about ending educational inequality and creating a world where all children have an “equalising educational experience”. Okezie spoke of feeling overwhelmed by the scale of change required but insisted that “a change must come”. Did you know that the proportion of UK children who go on to attend Oxbridge is roughly 1:20 but in poorer schools that this opportunity falls to 1:1,500? Teach First has over 10,000 ambassadors in schools creating equal educational experiences for all children, regardless of their socioeconomic circumstances.

As I listened to Okezie speak, I was taken back to my school years where a couple of teachers were particularly instrumental in helping me navigate the path to adulthood. Back then I was preparing to take flight into a world that, despite my insistence to the contrary, I didn’t really know much about. I was embarking on a new phase – just as I am now. I jotted a few notes down as the talk came to a close, thinking that they might come in useful at some point. One of the things life has taught me is that you never know which pieces of the puzzle might eventually come together.

And how timely this was. Less than a month later, I joined the Board of Governors for a local secondary school, becoming part of their Educational Standards Committee and also the link-governor for the school’s performing arts curriculum.

Needless to say there’s a lot to learn and a lot of work to be done. But I’m really looking forward to working with this team of passionate and committed governors and teachers. I’m also excited about ensuring that the student community – these women of the future – are equipped and empowered for the adventure ahead.

I’m stunned by how quickly these pieces fell into place.

I once heard it said that when you take responsibility for your own happiness, life shows up as a gift. I drew deeply on my reserves of resilience and resourcefulness as I struggled to build a new life in London over 13 years ago. And after last year’s work changes, I decided to take some time to explore how I wanted the next stage of my life to look. Whilst the full picture is still emerging, I’m feeling happy, fulfilled and excited to be on the brink of new possibilities.

So I feel passionately about encouraging the development of these qualities through my role as a Governor:

  • Resilience – in the face of life’s challenges;
  • Resourcefulness – in spite of what might stand in the way;
  • Responsibility – for stewarding themselves and the world through tumultuous times and inspiring the generations to follow to be the authors of their own success, whatever that may be.

Three more R’s to supplement the three – reading, [w]riting, and [a]rithmetic – that began their education over a dozen years ago.

My life is undeniably the sum of all of the people and experiences that have left their mark on me and it was another speaker from the TEDx London conference in June – a bloke from the world of policing and forensics no less – that captured this perfectly:

“Every contact leaves a trace.” John Sutherland

Here’s to leaving a positive and worthwhile mark on the generations to follow.

Think Fantastic Try Hope

Inspiration forms part of the window display of the Fendi store in New Bond Street, London (June 2017)

2017: A space odyssey

There has been so much going on over the last few months that I’ve struggled to know where to start. Normally I find the inspiration for posts everywhere but it feels as if watching in silence (frequently the stunned kind) and listening (versus spouting off) has been the order of the day. Democracy has certainly shown us the power that the disenfranchised and unheard hold in their hands and the last six months has revealed the world to be a much more uncertain place than a whole lot of us thought it was.

Uncertainty prevails closer to home too. Back in June I posted about the changes at work and this week it will be my turn to say my goodbyes. After almost six years, the people and projects that have shaped a large proportion of my life will disappear and while there will be some friendships that endure, I will be left with quite a large space in my life.

(Actually what’s immediately next is a packed two weeks of pre-Christmas catch-ups before a sojourn in Thailand and a family Christmas Down Under…but I digress.)

The saying goes that nature abhors a vacuum and human nature is no exception. We are driven to achieve instead of discover, stillness must be filled with doing and silence is shattered with noise and words rather than peace and understanding.

Space – finding it and holding on to it – is a tricky thing to manage.

design-museum-atrium

This photograph was taken yesterday as I stood on the second floor of the atrium in the Design Museum‘s new home, the old Commonwealth Institute building in Kensington. It’s a great example of the paradox of ‘holding the space’ – the challenges in maintaining the listed hyperbolic parabaloid roof versus the striking effect of the sweeping curves of the atrium ceiling. Is the former really worth the latter?

My journey into this new space is not unexpected and for some time, I’ve had a general idea of what’s next and how I aim to build some different life choices into the next 8-10 years. Over the last year, I have been working on several things that may become pieces of this future but the really specific parts are not yet fully formed. It’s hugely exciting…and uncomfortable.

Space – and uncertainty – is scary.

When people ask me about what’s next, I feel the urge to explain it all, to define it and lay out the way forward. I jumped out of a plane about 15 years ago and it’s that same feeling – perched at the open door, looking out over the landscape sprawled below and questioning whether I was brave or stupid to be doing this. Then leaping out into the void, trusting that the agreed plan I’d learnt in my pre-jump training (as well as the parachute instructor strapped onto my back) would result in my landing on my feet again.

And I felt it when I arrived at Heathrow Airport almost 13 years ago, with nothing before me except the chance to build a new life. In both cases there was much ungainly sprawling and innumerable dents to my ego. But what an education I’ve had.

I’ve learnt that I am resilient and resourceful – over and over again. (They do say that life keeps giving you the lesson you need until you’ve learned what it’s meant to teach you.)

I’ve created opportunities to be generous and inspire others, something that really speaks to my heart.

And I’ve developed a knack for making the space to explore, to reflect, to trust that what I want is okay and to find the quiet moments (mainly during my regular swim sessions) when the voices in my head get opinionated and shout-y.

So as I say my goodbyes next week, I will be embarking on the next phase of my odyssey taking all of these good things with me. Who knows what lessons will be next but when they land and I get a little ‘stuck’, I will take myself back to a lesson from childhood and the immortal words of Christopher Robin to his beloved friend, Winnie-the-Pooh:

You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. 

(Please feel free to remind me of this post when things get ‘sticky’…)

Timing is everything

The last few weeks has seen my work life taking revised shape under our new owners. There have been calls and meetings with a variety of people as we work together to take next steps – confirming where documentation is available, discussing projects’ status and making a start on connecting the right people across the new organisation.

There’s also been the additional challenge of extracting both the knowledge from being in the business for five and a half years and what I’ve learnt in my role over the last two and a half years. You don’t realise how much you know and do in your job until you are asked to share it.

But just as things were getting on a roll, I was struck down with a stomach bug and have spent most of last week feeling unwell, sorry for myself and a bit frustrated.

My intention in sharing this is not to elicit sympathy (although any offered is always gratefully received). Rather it’s to set the scene for what happened next.

After a couple of especially unpleasant days, I’d managed to get myself to the doctor to confirm that it was just a bug and that it would pass. My first venture out in three days left me feeling shattered and I was just looking forward to lying down in the coolness of my flat again. As I opened the front door and prepared to step over the post, thinking I’d get to it later, I noticed a small yellow envelope on the door mat.

Intrigued, I picked it up and opened it to find a card inside.

IMAG5031 (640x640)

It was from Mum and had travelled all the way from Australia – with its poignant and perfectly worded message – to arrive on my door mat at the very moment I needed it.

It took me back to a post I wrote last year about what I like to call The Butterfly Principle – about being ready to emerge and take flight despite an uncertain future – and it reminded me to cut myself some slack and use this time to restore myself to full health. After all, when the next opportunity comes calling, I want to be ready to make the most of it. And as it’s not clear exactly what it will look like, I need to stay curious and energised as it takes shape.

Because quite frankly peeps, I’m rather feeling partial to something fabulous.

The hole in the ground

‘Refuse collection day’ in my borough falls on a Friday and lately, as I have begun my daily commute with its regular 10 minute walk to the station, I’ve noticed that the local recycling trucks have had a bit of a spruce up.

barnet recycle truck

You might think that this is a weird thing to notice but recycling is something that’s close to my heart and it’s come a long way since my arrival in London more than eleven years ago. Back then, I was shocked by the absence of the kerb-side collection infrastructure I had been used to in Melbourne, where I happily separated my rubbish into separate bins and blithely ‘left it out the front’ for weekly collection.

When I arrived in New Cross in 2004, there was no kerb-side recycling in place and for the year I lived in Brentford, I spent much of the time cleaning up the ‘burst’ rubbish bags from the pavement right outside our front door (the efforts of either foxes or patrons of the pub down the road). My six and a half years in Kingston-Upon-Thames saw the arrival of a ‘recycling bank’ at the local Sainsbury’s supermarket (which would have been bit of a nuisance without a car) followed by the gradual introduction of a kerb-side service, the footpaths on ‘rubbish day’ becoming cluttered with all manner of bins and bags (with about five different containers supplied to separate all of the different materials in). 

In England we recycled, reused or composted just 43.5% of our waste in the year up to November 2014, a measly 0.3 percentage point increase over the prior year. That means that more than half of what we throw away ends up in a big hole in the ground (aka landfill) and if the new truck livery is to be believed, Barnet (my local area) has been behind the pack at 40%.

So it was a heartening sign for me to see the commitment to a significant 25% improvement from the Borough. But it’s not just the council who has to stack and separate the myriad of recyclables from week to week but all of us who live in the community. And that’s why I am loving the smart simplicity of their message.

I saw the ‘50% by 2016’ on a street poster by the tube station entrance earlier this year and then snapped the trucks – out and about on local streets week after week – about 7 weeks ago. And then this week, walking home from the tube, I saw this on the main road…

Barnet recycling street poster July 2015

Granted, this only addresses the rubbish at home and I am struggling to remember where I’ve seen any bins for separating rubbish ‘types’ while out and about but to my mind, a concerted effort in any area can only contribute towards lessening that big hole in the ground.

In checking out the current statistics Down Under, I noticed that Australia’s recycling rate of 64.2%, one of the highest recycling rates in the world (in Europe, Austria leads with 63%) has plateaued over the last couple of years so even our best is still leaving more than a third of the waste we generate for the planet to ‘deal with’.

There’s quite a lot of noise around Zero Waste (to landfill) initiatives in the business world and given the stats I’ve looked at as background to this post, I’m not sure how on earth we’d ever be able to extend that philosophy out into the general community. But this truck that trundles down my street each week has reminded me that every little bit makes a difference and I have resolved to renew my efforts in not just recycling what I use, but also to look at using ‘less’ in the first place.

How does one become a butterfly?

Yesterday I went to see the movie Selma. It’s about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement’s defining march from Selma, Alabama to the state’s capital, Montgomery in 1965. It was hard to watch in places – the barbarity of humankind is a confronting thing to see – but at the same time, I also learned a thing or two and was particularly inspired by LBJ‘s involvement in getting the Civil Rights Act of 1968 through Congress. I had no idea that he actually did this thing that made such an enormous difference in his time as President of the United States (1963 to 1969).

Earlier this year, my boss confirmed that I had been selected to participate in our Leadership Development Programme and this week, I received a couple of books to read on Go MAD thinking (MAD stands for Making A Difference) as part of the preparation. Having arrived home from the cinema feeling somewhat sober and reflective, reading something called Go MAD: the art of making a difference really hit the right note.

So I’m reading Principle One: Have a strong reason why you want to go MAD, and on page 38 I read this:

How does one become a butterfly?

You must want to fly so much,

that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.

It pulled me up short. I let my gaze hover over the words and felt my heart swell. It made me think of another quote I read years ago (attributed controversially to Guillaume Apollinaire) that over the years, I have scrawled on the inside covers of notebooks and scraps of paper at speaker events and conferences. It goes like this:

 Come to the edge, he said.

They said, we are afraid.

Come to the edge, he said.

They came.

He pushed them…and they flew.

There’s something about ‘flying’ that provokes feelings of being free for me. I jumped out of a perfectly good plane once – albeit attached to the front of someone more expert at it than myself – and during the exhilaration of the free fall, experienced an overwhelming sense of freedom and peace that I never wanted to end.

You could argue that I did this – flew that is – at least once more when I left my comfortable life in Australia and built this one here in London that I love so much. Strange accent aside, some might not see so many changes but deep down I know myself very differently from the 34-year-old who left Melbourne in 2004.

So how does one become a butterfly?

The butterfly doesn’t know exactly how the world outside its chrysalis will be. It just knows it needs to spread its wings to survive and thrive in whatever lies ahead. Over the last 6 months, I have also had a sense of a change coming. I haven’t known quite what this might be – a bit like the butterfly – but my gut is telling me to be ready. And by ready I really mean being open – to new ideas, ambitions and possibilities.

I’m calling this the Butterfly Principle – this preparing to take flight despite an unknown, uncertain future. It is fluttering gently around my thoughts and making me wonder what path I will carve out next. Will it be a continuation of the current one with a change just around the corner? Or will there be a fork in the road?

So I’m off to explore how I want to spread my wings and take flight. Who knows what’s going to be next? All I know is that I’m looking forward to finding out. And I’d love to hear what inspires you to fly.

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