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Interviews with Inspirational Women

If you’ve been following my blog for a while you may recall that I run an irregular series of interviews with women that inspire me. It’s been a while since my last one but given that yesterday was International Women’s Day, what better time (other than yesterday, obviously) to add another interview to the pile?

This one is a bit different because it’s with my own lovely daughter, Frances (Franki) Hackett.

The Intrepid Miss Hackett

She has grown into an exceptional young woman and I am delighted to introduce her to you.

I hope when you read her interview you’ll see why I find her so inspiring.

Who are you and how do you spend your time?

I am Franki, I’m your daughter, and I’m just about to finish my undergrad degree in PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) at Oxford.  Largely I spend my time reading, writing, and obsessing over problems that most people would probably think are largely irrelevant.

What’s your philosophy for life?

A friend of mine has the motto ‘the best things in life leave you feeling a little bit sticky’, which I have to admit appears more apt the more one thinks about it.  However, I guess for myself my main philosophy is to try to make wherever I go a better place when I leave than how I found it, and that the only way to solve a problem is to properly understand it.

As far as I can see the only way we can give meaning to our lives is by affecting the lives of others; I try to make a positive difference.

What shaped that philosophy, and how has it changed over the years?

My philosophy has been shaped in part obviously by my upbringing; I was taught very early on that human beings are of equal worth and that all of our differences should be tolerated, if not celebrated.

I hate seeing people suffer and I have trouble ignoring it or forgetting it if I know it’s happening; in all my studies it has only become more clear to me that we have duties to everyone, regardless of our national or local affiliations, or the distances between people: if human suffering is a bad thing it is bad regardless of where it is, and that means we have a duty to do something about it.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been taught by some of the finest minds in the country, and by people who are very aware of their moral situation. I guess my basic philosophy has always been the same, but they’ve taught me how to act on it, and that not acting on it is not an acceptable alternative.

What’s your definition of what it takes to be a successful woman today?

This is a hard question, in part because the word ‘successful’ is so loaded.  The most basic criterion is, I suppose, to be accepting of oneself.

I think we will have achieved a lot as a society when to be a ‘successful woman’ fits within the same bounds as to be a ‘successful man’, but we’re certainly not there yet.  Similarly I don’t think that to be a successful woman you have to have broken through some glass ceiling, although obviously for some people that is a real success.

Each individual is going to have to define success for herself, and it has to be a definition that fits: if you hate mathematics, there’s very little point in deciding to be the chair of the Bank of England. You are the person who can know you best, if you have worked out your true potential in something you love, are following that potential, and can honestly say that, most of the time, you are happy with the choice you made, regardless of what other people might have expected for you, then you are successful.

I think that definition can apply to men as well as to women, but I think it’s harder for women; we are loaded with more guilt for not living up to what others would like us to be.

Facing up to and moving past that guilt is, I think, a real mark of success.

What do you think have been your greatest achievements so far?

I have a tendency to underrate my achievements, on the basis that I am determined not to get complacent: I’m rarely completely happy with the way I perform on the basis that I could always have done better, that’s what drives me to excellence.

But I think that getting to Oxford was a real achievement, no matter how much help I had along the way I had much less help than many of the students here.

And simply working incredibly hard for such a long time to get my degree has been an achievement, like they say it’s a marathon and not a sprint, and as my mother will tell you I had to work against my natural inclinations to run this marathon, as like her I’m definitely not a completer-finisher.

And finally, learning to stand up for myself has been a real achievement; I used to worry that I talked to much in group settings, particularly academically, and I have been very likely to agree to do things even when I didn’t have time because I hate letting people down.

Learning to say ‘no’ to unreasonable demands, and then to stand by that has been a real achievement (I won’t claim to say I’m perfect, some projects are just too tempting!).

At the same time, when I learnt that in group settings men do something like 85% of the talking, and almost 100% of the interrupting, I decided to change that statistic, even if I had to do it on my own.

If I have a reasonable point to make now I make it, even if I have to interrupt to do so, I won’t be broken off unless I’ve finished my point, and if another woman is having trouble getting heard I’ll stop the conversation to give her a chance.

At first I worried that this would make people think I was rude and obnoxious, but I’ve had nothing but complements: men saying how refreshing they found it to have a voice raising a completely different perspective and engaging with them by their own rules, and women saying how nice it was to feel that someone had taken the lead and given them cover to voice their own opinions without seeming ‘shrill’.  That has been a real eye-opener, and I consider it to be an achievement.

And what do you still have left that you want to achieve?

There are many things I still want to achieve, I feel that at the age of 20 that’s the right way to be.

As I summarised my life plan to a tutor a few days ago when he asked me if I was interested in doctoral study, I intend to do my masters, then go out and ensure that every woman in the world has access to decent maternity care, both post- and ante-natal.

Having achieved this and won my Nobel prize, I will then return to University to do my Dphil.

I also hope to have a family at some point, and I’d like to keep an allotment, since it’s the day-to-day maintenance of something like that which is much more of a challenge for me, and I think that growing vegetables is good for the soul.

What’s been the most important learning experience in your life, and what lessons did you take from it?

I can’t pinpoint one exact moment or experience, but several times during my life I have spoken with someone about something which I felt that I understood, and had them reveal an entirely different view of something that was previously very familiar.

The only example I can think of at the moment is my study of power: as a concept we all feel that we understand power and yet no one can really settle on a decent definition.

Most people define it as person A’s being able to get person B to do something which she would otherwise not do.  After centuries of this kind of definition, Foucault came along and said that power is not something that one person has or does to another, it is a set of structures around us which constrain us even if we don’t realise it, particularly in the form of knowledge.

So, for example, as certain ‘abnormal’ behaviours became defined medically rather than simply as ‘deviance’ in the middle of the 19th century they began to be controlled in new ways simply because people understood them as medical conditions, not simply as differences.

Those moments of paradigm shift are very important I think, and it’s a wonderful feeling, suddenly seeing things from a new angle like that.  It’s taught me to keep looking, from perhaps rather surprising angles, at the things I think I know.  That is the essence of creativity in a way, and it’s the only way we have of moving forward.

We celebrated the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day in 2011. What message would you like to give to the next generation of women?

Define yourself.  This is the only way to really achieve success, and if we insist on our own definitions of ourselves, then we are much less likely to be controlled by other people’s definitions.

Top Tips for Troublesome Relationships

We’ve all got them, or had them; relationships that started out well and have somehow ended up in a toxic stinking pile in the corner.

Relationships with parents, siblings, children, partners, friends, colleagues – people that we once liked and loved but can now barely bring ourselves to talk to.

And the guilt! In most of those cases we avoid contact with the other person partly because we want to avoid what we see as inevitable conflict, but also partly from guilt.

These are people we feel that we SHOULD love and like and spend time with.

What kind of a person am I, we ask ourselves, what kind of a daughter/wife/mother/friend am I that I can’t spend time with this person?

Or if the guilt is too much to bear we turn things round the other way and stoke up the fires of anger and resentment against the other person – it’s all their fault, if they weren’t so mean/rude/argumentative/stupid they’d see that it’s all their fault and they’d change and then things would be all right.

But we know that won’t happen, and so the easiest thing to do is to let it slide until years go by and you find yourself divorced or estranged or embittered or any one of the other unhappy circumstances that come about when we don’t take care of our relationships.

People often say that a marriage needs to be worked at if it’s to be a happy one. It’s good advice but it misses the point that actually ALL relationships need to be worked at for them to be happy.

It also fails to explain what “working at a relationship” actually means – so I’ve decided to do it myself.

All of these tips are techniques that good coaches use. If you adopt them as part of the way you go about interacting with the people in your life you’ll be AMAZED at the positive difference it makes to your relationships.

You will change how you think about, talk to and behave with the people in your life and as a result their behaviour and thoughts will change too.

You will find that you are working on your relationships without even really being aware that you’re doing it, and things will change for the better.

There’s no age limit for any of this and in fact if you teach by example your children will grow up with a really good intuitive sense of the best way to treat people and an innate sense of respect for others.

So here are my top tips – go for it!

Start to listen properly to what is said to you.

In day-to-day conversation we don’t really listen to other people because we’re so busy thinking about what we’re going to say next.

In problematic relationships we add on another layer of complexity by not wanting to listen and sometimes assuming we know what’s going to be said.

In order to break that habit, here’s what you do.

  • Give your full, undivided attention to the other person – look at them directly and get rid of other distractions
  • Don’t interrupt
  • Make it clear that you’re listening by nodding and making “I’m listening” sounds
  • Use the “You said/I heard” technique. After they have finished speaking, say to them something along the lines of “You said x“(summarise their words back to them), “and what I heard was y” (which is your understanding of what they meant including any subtext you think was going on). Finish off with “is that right?” This forces you to listen and to examine your own understanding, and ensures that you check out what the speaker ACTUALLY meant. Which brings us on to my next tip:

Check out your assumptions

We all make assumptions – it’s one of the ways we make sense of the world around us. But when things start to go wrong between people our assumptions start to go wrong as well and we can end up constantly assuming the worst about people. What then happens is that we start to look for evidence that our assumptions are correct, and we tend to see that evidence whether it’s there or not. Here’s an example:

Mum: “Hello darling, welcome home, how was school?”

Teenager: “God Mum, you’re ALWAYS on my back, why can’t you stop NAGGING and PRYING and just LEAVE ME ALONE?!” <slam>

(All characters and incidents portrayed are fictitious and in no way meant to represent any incidents in the writer’s own experiences)

Allow yourself the opportunity to be really honest about the assumptions you’ve been making about this individual.

Write them all down – you may find it difficult to get started but once you get going you’ll probably find that the floodgates have opened.

If you find it difficult, try finishing off these sentences in as many different ways as possible:

Person x always…

Person x won’t…

Person x can’t…

Person x thinks…

Change the way you think about them

Uncovering your assumptions gives you a very clear picture of the patterns you’ve fallen into when thinking about this person. You may well be able to spot your over-riding emotions about them as well from what you’ve uncovered, and it’s important to take note of that.

If your assumptions show that you think someone is useless or stupid or cruel or uncaring or whatever else, then you will have been behaving in a way that makes that obvious.

They may not know exactly what you think about them, but they will definitely know that you have a problem with them, and guess what? Their behaviour will have been affected by it.

So to change their behaviour, you first need to find a way to change your behaviour.

And to do that, you need to change the way you think about them.

So take the list of assumptions you made about them and replace them with a set of assumptions written as if you had unconditional love for that person.

So instead of “she always thinks she knows best“, you could write “she tries her best to give me good advice because she cares about me“.

Instead of “he’s always interfering“, you could put “he’s always finding ways to be helpful“.

Now it may be that you don’t want the advice or the help, but it makes it MUCH easier to cope with the behaviour if you have a charitable explanation for what might be causing it…

My final tip for now is:

Remember what it was like at the start of the relationship

Once upon a time you were 2 people who had just fallen in love, or you were a new parent with a beloved, miraculous new-born baby in your arms, or you were a tiny child who thought your parents were infallible gods.

Allow yourself to remember how that felt and to immerse yourself in those feelings.

Allow yourself to acknowledge the things you loved unconditionally about that other person at that time, and the unconditional promises you made to them:

“I’ll always love and look after you”

“I’ll keep you safe”

“I’ll buy a great big house for us all to live in when you’re old so I can look after you” (I haven’t forgotten, kids…)

And now allow yourself to remember the times when you enjoyed each other’s company and had shared interests. Start to look for opportunities, however small, to regain some of those feelings.

Time changes us all, inevitably, and it changes our feelings, but it is possible to remind ourselves of the lovelinesses that have got lost along the way.

Some relationships come to a natural end and some die or are killed by neglect or cruelty. But where there’s the possibility of life or a need for the relationship to be brought back to life, there’s a lot you can do to bring about a recovery.



Are You Ready to Make a Leap of Faith?

When I resigned from my career in the Civil Service to set up on my own it was a Leap of Faith. I had no safety net and no fall-back position.

I still don’t.

What I had then and still have today is a clear understanding that this was the ONLY right thing for me to do – this was my Purpose and if I didn’t follow it I would be dooming myself to a life of regrets and unhappiness.

And so, although it hasn’t always been plain sailing and there continue to be difficult times, I remain convinced that my Leap of Faith was unquestionably the right thing for me to have done.

Despite that Leap into the unknown, it didn’t take very long at all for what once seemed new and thrilling to become habitual and a tiny bit dull, and for me then to fall back into some of my old patterns and ways of behaving. That’s why I’ve recently been seeking out other challenges in an attempt to shock me out of my comfort zone.

(This is where I invite you to make a donation to Mind, the Mental Health Charity, by way of sponsoring me for my parachute jump on July 9th, by the way. All you need to do is click on the link over on the right…)

Susanna Liller, the Heroines’ Coach, spotted what I was up to and asked to interview me for her newsletter as she saw me as “an expert Comfort Zone escaper”.

I was honoured to be asked to contribute, and fascinated when I saw that Susanna was setting her readers a “Comfort Zone Challenge”. So fascinated, in fact, that after a short chat we decided to do it together and create “The Transatlantic Comfort Zone Challenge”!

And so, Dear Reader, here is how YOU can make your own Leap of Faith and challenge yourself out of YOUR Comfort Zone:

  • You do the first part, reminding yourself of the times you already left your comfort zone so that you’ll see that you can do this as you’ve done it before!
  • Then, you’ll fill out the second part—3 things you’ll do by April 30 that are out of your comfort zone (and what fears it brings up—might as well just acknowledge them right up front), then you’ll send it to me by March 24th (Susanna will be doing this at her end.)
  • We’ll let people know what you’ve signed up to do in our respective April Newletters. Yes, it will be public…a motivator—on both sides of the Atlantic!
  • Next, by April 30 you’ll re-port out on how you did with your challenge via an email to me.
  • We’ll report to everyone in our May newsletters and we’ll celebrate!

Susanna and I are really excited about this joint venture, and we hope that as many of you as possible will be tempted to join in.

You never know what you can do until you try it so go on – take your Leap of Faith and see what you can accomplish…

An Interview with Guilt

This morning I was in a room full of businesswomen having a rare old time networking. The amount of noise and laughter was testament to how much we were all enjoying being there and as we went round the room introducing ourselves it was clear that there was a vast amount of skill and talent in that group.

The organisers had asked us each to ask a question of the group to see if any helpful answers were forthcoming.

And this group of apparently strong, bright, independent, feisty women had one big issue that a lot of them were struggling with.

That number 1 issue was Guilt – “I try so hard to be the perfect wife, the perfect mum, the perfect business owner, and I don’t do any of them properly” said one lady, to nods of sympathy and understanding from all around.

“I tend to start work after lunch and then go on till around 10pm”, said another, “but I feel guilty that I’m wasting time in the mornings and  I should be working proper business hours”.

Now, I used to suffer HORRIBLY from Guilt, to the extent that I often thought I should have been Jewish or Catholic and then it would have made sense.

But I made a conscious decision to give up Guilt as a waste of time and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Just this once, and purely in your interests, I’ve decided to invite Guilt back for a visit so that I can interview him and you can get to know him properly and find out what makes him tick.

Me: Guilt, thank you for joining me

Guilt: Well I’ve been waiting long enough for you to call. If you were a real friend you’d have rung ages ago but I suppose you’re too important to bother with little old me any more.

Me: I see you haven’t changed. I’d like to start by finding out a bit about you – what motivates you?

Guilt: I see it as my job to ensure that people abide by society’s morals or ethics, and to keep people in their place. The more things a person feels guilty about, the less he or she is likely to want to rock the boat and step out of line. In order for society to function effectively we need everyone to do as they’re told – you could see my role as a kind of policeman of the conscience, that’s why I’ve had so much consultancy work from a number of organised religions down the centuries.

Me: And why do you feel it’s important to keep people in their place?

Guilt: Well because that’s how society functions, isn’t it? If there are no rules then you quickly descend into anarchy and people get hurt. We can’t have that, can we? So if everyone knows their place and knows what’s expected of them and what is and is not allowed, then we all stay safe.

Me: And who decides what is and is not allowed?

Guilt: Well, the leaders of whichever society you happen to live in. So for example a civilised society will have a law that states that murder is illegal. If someone commits murder, it’s my job to ensure that they suffer an appropriate level of guilt to ensure that they won’t do it again. I ensure that everyone has a clear idea of society’s laws and expectations and I make sure that people operate within the boundaries of those expectations. I like to think of it as a form of public service.

Me: So, if we concentrate on British society in 2011, which laws and expectations are you enforcing by ensuring that so many women feel guilty because they’re not perfect?

Guilt: Eh?

Me: Well, I know lots of women who are continually racked with Guilt because they’re trying to live up to an unrealistic standard of perfection. Who decided that it was appropriate for you to insinuate your way into people’s day to day lives and make them feel guilty for just being who they are, and doing their best?

Guilt: I think you’ll find that what I’m doing is encouraging them to maintain their standards…

Me: Are you really? Encouraging women to maintain their own personal standards by making them continually feel bad about themselves? It’s an interesting take on it and a huge leap from making people feel bad about real wrongdoing isn’t it? And are you really encouraging them to maintain their own standards, or are you really making them feel that they have to maintain impossible, unachievable standards that they will never, realistically, be able to achieve and quite possibly don’t want to anyway?

Guilt: Well now you’re just twisting my words!

Me: Am I? If your function is to stop us from transgressing ancient ethical and moral codes, then what right do you have to come barging into our everyday lives and making us feel bad for wanting to go to work instead of staying at home all day with our kids, or wanting to stay at home with our kids instead of going to work, or wanting to work during the hours when we feel most productive, or wanting to express our own opinions and beliefs? What’s that got to do with maintaining moral and ethical standards?

Guilt: With the greatest of respect, I don’t think you understand. What I’m trying to say is…

Me: Is it not the case that really you’ve just got drunk on your own power, and that, for you, this is now far more about keeping people subjugated? What’s the REAL danger to society if all these vibrant, talented women were to throw off the shackles of guilt, rediscover their self-confidence and go out to realise their true potential? What are you afraid of?

Guilt: But….but….that would be GHASTLY! If I let people do that then they would start calling EVERYTHING into question! They’d start being more demanding of their elected officials, they’d turn on the media, they’d insist on greater equality, they’d do all SORTS of awful things!! We can’t let just ANYBODY start expressing their opinions and changing the world!!!

Me: And there, Ladies and Gentlemen, I think you have it. Most of the time, the only purpose Guilt serves is to deflect you from making the most of yourself and your opportunities. Oh dear. Guilt appears to be…yes, he’s ripping off his microphone and stalking out of the studio…oh dear.

What a shame.

Guilt has left the building.

If he comes knocking at your door, don’t let him in, will you?

Is your voice being heard?

Oh goody, I get to write this blog a second time because the first version somehow got lost in the post – that means this version will be EVEN BETTER than before, you lucky, lucky people!

(In case you don’t know, that’s an example of reframing where you turn something that has the potential to be a real pain in the behind into something wonderful.  So next time the computer gobbles up something you’ve just spent ages creating, try very hard to figure out what good will come of it – and THEN reach for the sledgehammer and the gin…)

So, anyway, have you seen The King’s Speech yet and if not, why not? It is a FANTASTIC film with outstanding performances, photography, direction, costumes and script. It’s laugh out loud funny and will also make you weep silent tears, and IMHO Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush give the performances of their lives.

But none of that is why I think you should go and see it.

I think you should go and see it because it contains some messages that are at the heart of what I believe, and when you hear and see them in the context of this marvellous film they come completely to life.

Those messages are (in no particular order):

  • You don’t need to carry on being frightened of the things you were afraid of when you were 5
  • You have a voice of your own and it has a right to be heard
  • If you’re not allowed to express yourself, sooner or later you will become unable to express yourself

Are you still frightened of things from your past? Are you behaving in particular ways because of something someone said to you a long time ago? Chance remarks made by other people when we were much younger can have a massive impact on how we behave today, and if that’s true for you then you’ll want to ask yourself why you’re still living your life around the opinions of someone who’s no longer in your life.

How often does your real voice get heard? What are you not letting it say to you? What are you afraid of thinking? What thoughts and ideas do you have on a regular basis, that you tell yourself are silly or unrealistic or impossible? Next time those thoughts and ideas come to you, pay attention to them.

REALLY pay attention to them because that’s your True Self trying to get in touch and guide you towards a more fulfilling life.

And if you don’t express yourself because someone else doesn’t want you to – or because you’re FRIGHTENED that someone else doesn’t want you to – it’s time to examine that relationship.

YOU are the only person that has any right to tell you what to think and how to behave, and YOU are the only person who has the right to make decisions about YOUR life and how YOU will choose to live it.

So – is the voice of your True Self being heard, and if not, what are you going to do to let it out?

As always, please comment and let me know what you think.

Achieving the Impossible: Day 24

Hello my lovelies and welcome to Impossible Towers where you’ll find the air is a lot clearer and calmer that it has been of late.

I rose late, refreshed from a  good night’s sleep and made a list of things I needed to do. I started work full of good intentions and within a VERY short space of time found myself demotivated, fiddling around and DEEPLY pissed off as a result of something very innocuous that had come my way.

Interesting, I thought to myself, what’s going on here? Whatever it is it’s not going to be solved by sitting here steaming about it, so maybe it’s time to go and do something different?

I had some errands to run to off I went – 2 lots of hoover bags, a birthday present for my god-daughter and some jiffy bags later (I lead SUCH an exciting life!) I found myself in Cafe Nero with a huge mug of Chai Latte in front of me and a blank notepad, about to write another conversation with the Universe.

This was a long conversation and by the time we’d finished chatting my hand really ached – I don’t know about you but I don’t do much sustained writing anymore and this was VERY sustained.

Oh, the things we talked about! The Universe is a VERY good conversationalist, I’m finding, and a very wise one. I realised that I was uncomfortable with the notion of taking things easy and giving myself a break, because I felt that I should be working at least 10 hours a day. I have been doing just that and I’ve ended up in the state you’ve been reading about this week because I’ve worn myself to a frazzle and lost sight of what’s really important, but there’s still a party of me going “Work, Damn you, Work!” and cracking the whip.

The Universe very helpfully suggested I look at how much of the stuff I’ve been doing for 10 hours a day has actually proven to be useful, and I had to admit that actually a lot of it was either not useful at all, or just reinventing the wheel. Part of the problem is not having a deadline to work to. I’m very pressure-prompted so when I know I have a deadline coming I produce a vast amount of really good stuff on time in a very short space of time. When there’s no deadline, I can footle around till the cows come home, changing things here, reassessing things there and generally not ever actually completing anything. Not helpful really, and certainly not conducive to making me feel like I’m actually achieving anything.

Well, said the Universe (not sounding one little bit like Mr T today) why don’t we think of some deadlines for you? Would that help?

Why yes! I replied, and instantly a deadline hove into view. I’m spending next Tuesday with the lovely Eli, my new Fairy Dust Sprinkler-in-Chief, and I want to have a good solid wedge of stuff to give her to start work on. So that’s the best kind of deadline for me – it’s not too far away, someone else is relying on me and I have something to achieve that I know is important.

Immediately I felt better, and went straight into planning mode. Instead of sitting there for another half hour going through all the other things I could do, and not deciding on any of them, within 5 minutes I had a plan of what I would do and I’d made the decisions I needed to make.

Then I got up, went home and got stuck in to 3 hours of solid work without looking up once.

And that felt like a good days’ work.

Funny really, I’ve always been a believer in the fact that it’s not about how long you spend at work, it’s what you produce that matters. I used to chafe against having to record the number of hours I’d been at work because that doesn’t tell anybody anything – and yet here I’ve been, getting hung up about “not working enough hours”.

I think I shall continue my conversations with the Universe – it’s seemed to me for the last couple of days that the Universe has been coming to me and telling me it’s time for our chat, so I shall keep heeding its call.

For now though, I’m off to heed another call – that of cake, laughter and friends!!