Archive for March, 2015

Six degrees of separation

IMG_3235Yesterday, my daughter, her friend and I spent five hours sitting at Canberra airport, waiting.

It’s not your average way to spend a Sunday (or your most enjoyable), but we knew that their favourite YouTube celebrity, American comedian Colleen Ballinger, had performed at the Melbourne Comedy Festival the night before, and was performing in Canberra last night. She had to be flying in at some stage, but we didn’t know when. And why not try to catch a glimpse of her?

The girls dressed in costume as her alter ego, Miranda Sings, and we sat in the arrivals lounge. ‘Lounge’ is a strong word to describe the plastic seating we perched on for hours, disappointed every time another flight came in without her on it.

Meanwhile, they were stared at, photographed and even approached by the police at one point. Quietly lurking for hours in Miranda’s trademark red track pants with ‘haters back off’ printed on the backside, stripy mens’ business shirts and too much red lipstick is bound to attract attention.

Eventually we reached that exhausted point, by early afternoon, where we just wanted to go home. It was reminiscent of the transition stage of labour. Everyone had trundled down the escalator off the last flight from Melbourne for hours. Stamina was flagging.

Of course that’s exactly when it happened. We looked up and there she was, walking through the doors with her family and straight into the girls’ arms for a hug. She thanked them for coming to meet her, posed for photos, told them she’d follow them on Instagram and apologised for the wait.

Did what we did change the world? Did it make a difference?

Only in the lives of two teenage fans. But that’s okay, because sometimes we get to do fun things for the sake of it.

The day before we’d heard the wonderful news that Zoe Marshall and her family had managed to deliver 125 kilograms of rice and 125 litres of water by helicopter to the remote island in Vanuatu where Zoe was volunteering before the cyclone hit—and which she was airlifted from in an ADF rescue just over a week ago.

We’d helped the family make this happen, by doing some media stuff to spread the word to urgently raise the funds, and by finding a connection (quite miraculously and unexpectedly) who could quickly get the aid there from Australia. It felt amazing to be a small cog in the big wheel that allowed an Australian teenager to make a huge difference in the lives of desperate people.

So amazing, in fact, that I decided to create a new community on Facebook called ‘Six Degrees of Separation’. It’s a non-profit place for people to connect and make a difference by putting strangers in touch with people they know—collectively solving challenges together. I just know it’s going to be a wonderful thing to be involved in and I urge you to join the fun!

We can’t always wait for the world to deliver magic. We need to make the magic happen. Negative news bombards us almost everywhere we turn, and we can sometimes feel like victims of a sad world where awful things happen.

How much more empowering does it become when we decide to be change-makers and fairy-godmothers and risk-takers who believe it’s possible to do big things when we band together? Because it really is. I’ve seen it.

We’re all in this together.

Not everything has to be a giant leap

shutterstock_57851353For a worryingly long time in the last few days, my friends’ 18-year-old daughter, Zoë, was unaccounted for in Vanuatu. Category 5 Super Cyclone Pam had ripped through and destroyed much of the country, including the village in which she was volunteering on the remote island of Pentecost, during her self-funded gap year.

Zoë’s final text to her parents, Alison and Rob, apologised for the early hour and let them know she’d received a ‘Cat 5 warning’ that should ‘hit us tonight’.

After that—nothing.

For eight of the longest days of Alison and Rob’s life—no contact. As a friend, it was almost unbearably painful to watch.

When disasters happen, people rise to the occasion. Strangers open their hearts. People feel deep empathy for the families. They do everything they can to help, even if that’s just to share a news article with everyone they know in the hope that someone will be able to make a difference.

The news worsened when we learned that the in-country coordinator for Lattitude (the volunteer organisation to which Zoë and eighteen other teens are attached) had lost his home and all of his belongings. His wife and two children under five were living in an emergency shelter.

I don’t know a soul in Vanuatu, and have never visited, but I believe strongly in the power of human connection. I believe in six degrees of separation. Without a belief in these bonds between strangers, we wouldn’t have ended up with a worn bandana from Harry Styles late last year to give to my daughter’s best friend as she battled leukaemia.

And I believe very strongly in asking for help.

Minutes after sharing Zoë’s plight with my friends, one of the women in my online mums’ group sent a message. Her parents own a house in Vanuatu. It was still standing—and they wanted the Lattitude organisation to use it. They instructed the caretaker to ‘do everything you can to help these people’.

This couple—complete strangers—comforted Alison over the phone, on several occasions. The volunteer coordinator and his family now had a roof over their heads, but there was still no news of Zoë.

It wasn’t until a week after the cyclone had hit that an Australian Defence Force helicopter was able to fly over the island and find and rescue five of the volunteers. Zoë wasn’t amongst them.

Then, later that night came beautiful news that the chopper crew had spotted Zoë and her friend Courtney, from New Zealand, but the girls were too close to a cliff in very rugged terrain, so the helicopter was unable to land. A note was dropped, with instructions on where to hike the next morning to a clearing where they could be rescued. At this stage they’d been over a week with dwindling supplies and no shelter, and two full days without food or water.

The news the next day that her elated parents had finally heard Zoë’s voice is one of life’s sweetest moments. It was as beautiful as the time an Instagram pic popped up on Christmas Eve last year, with an image of my daughter’s friend holding a poster proclaiming that she was cancer-free.

It can be so easy to feel overwhelmed by the world’s problems. So easy to feel helpless. But we forget that not everything we do needs to be a ‘giant leap for mankind’. Small steps matter just as much. A caring text message. Some home-made soup. Somewhere to stay.

After their rescue, Zoë and the other volunteers were given the option of returning home. They wouldn’t have it.

“There’s so much to be done here,” she explained to her proud parents.

Zoë will continue to see out her gap-year experience in Vanuatu, making a difference for some of the poorest families in the world. Families who had very little when she first arrived, and now have even less.

To them, she’ll be the angel who helped rebuild their lives when they needed help the most. The young girl who faced Vanuatu’s second strongest storm and stood firm.

And which was the strongest storm on record?

Cyclone Zoë, of course… Had to be.

“Though she be little, she is fierce” – William Shakespeare

To our 16-year-old selves…

shutterstock_15711025I recently had an opportunity to read through several women’s thoughts on life, career and success.

One of the questions that jumped out at me is the advice they would give to their sixteen-year-old selves. I notice that question as a mum of a sixteen-year-old daughter, and because I still have my diaries from that age.

Here are some of their answers:

  • Actually, you can do it! No matter how often you think you can’t, sometimes you just knuckle down and do it.
  • Dream big and never give up. Every obstacle is there for a reason. It’s a blessing in disguise.
  • Don’t waste time worrying about trying to impress people. Work hard and be generous and open to learn from the people around you.
  • Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Get out and have more fun.
  • If you really want to do something, go for it. Make the most of all your opportunities—you can’t turn back the clock.
  • Back yourself.
  • Never worry about being different. Ultimately it will be your greatest strength.

It got me thinking about my own advice, and I didn’t have to think too hard, because it’s the same advice I give my kids right now:

It’s okay not to know where you’re going yet. Nothing is locked in. Change your mind if that means staying true to yourself, and enjoy the process. Dream really big. You’ll fail sometimes, and it’s best to fail fast, learn what you need and get going again, rather than to wonder and perfect and agonise about ‘getting things right’. Don’t wait to feel confident enough. Courage isn’t about an absence of fear—it’s about doing things afraid, because what’s the worst that can happen? Take risks. Don’t settle. Find what you love and make a lot of space for it in your life. Explore. Be real. Own your differences. Listen to your heart.


Passions gone?

March 15th, 2015 | Comments Off on Passions gone?

shutterstock_63008989“It would be great to be able to indulge my passions, but who has time for that?”

We hear it a lot, and the answer is, the people who make time for it have time for it.

For the last five years, every Wednesday night for two or three months per year, I sat in front of the television and watched Offspring. Nothing and nobody got between me and the Proudman family.

That’s 66 episodes over five years. Sixty six hours of my time. In fact, last year I was given the boxed set for my birthday and I’ve watched that right through too. So there’s 132 hours of time (or five and a half days of of my life) that I’ve devoted to ONE TV show. And that’s before we start on Downton Abbey and Outlander and Say Yes To the Dress Atlanta.

Before 2007, none of us really had Facebook. Social media has become so entrenched in our lives it’s hard to remember what it was like when there wasn’t a temptation to socialise online. The other night a group of friends and I spent 45 minutes talking on Facebook how much we have to do, and lack of time. Forty-five minutes!

Time isn’t the problem. Interest is.

For many of us, it’s been so long since we’ve made time for hobbies or other interests that we’ve fallen out of love with them. We can’t remember what it feels like to do them. Or even what they are…

Remember a time when you first fell in love? You’d move mountains to see that person. You’d meet up, even if if was only for five minutes. You’d say ‘no’ to other things. You’d power through your schoolwork or your ‘work’ work in order to be able to leave on time. You were suddenly completely motivated to be as efficient as humanly possible.

It was easy, then, to prioritise effortlessly. It’s only when we have a burning reason to find an extra hour a day for something we love, that the time will magically present itself. It’s only then that we’ll start to control our use of time, instead of the other way around.

It’s then that we’ll turn off the TV or computer. It’s then that we’ll say ‘no’ to other things. It’s then that we’ll squeeze our passion in around other commitments.

The key is lighting that fire in the first place. It’s having a reason, other than productivity itself, to be more efficient.

Best-selling author and social work professor, Brene Brown, has something important to say about ‘play’ as adults:

“Researcher Stuart Brown, MD, describes play as time spent without purpose. To me this sounds like the definition of an anxiety attack. I feel behind if I’m not using every last moment to be productive, whether that means working, cleaning the house or taking my son to baseball practice. But I can’t ignore what the research (mine and others’) tells us: Play—doing things just because they’re fun and not because they’ll help achieve a goal—is vital to human development. Play is at the core of creativity and innovation. Play can mean snorkelling, scrapbooking or solving crossword puzzles; it’s anything that makes us lose track of time and self-consciousness, creating the clearing where ideas are born.”

The clearing where ideas are born…

Could we need a more perfect excuse to go out and start flirting with a new hobby?

Why the second video mattered more

shutterstock_25977553The first time American ‘YouTuber’ Colleen Ballinger uploaded a video of herself in character as Miranda Sings, her mum cried and thought no-one would ever take her seriously in her career (she’d recently graduated from university with a major in ‘vocal performance’). Colleen’s dad phoned and told her to take the video down.

She didn’t.

Six million social media followers later, she’s now on a world tour as a comedian and, last Thursday announced that Simon & Schuster would publish her first book in July. One day later, with the book not even available yet, she became an Amazon best seller. Not only did the book skyrocket to the top of its category—it became the 3rd top selling book of all books on Amazon. Overnight.

There are three things required to become an ‘overnight success story’.

The first is belief in yourself and what you’re doing, even when those closest to you can’t see it…

The second is years of hard work.

Colleen’s first ‘Miranda’ video was posted in 2008. Seven years of twice-weekly videos and social-media engagement later, she had developed such a dedicated fan base that she only had to post a three-minute video about her first book and she immediately became a best-selling author.

Her family is completely behind her now. Her brother helped write the book and her sister and parents appear in some of her videos. Sometimes people can’t see your vision at first, particularly if it’s a big departure from what they know, or from what you’ve done before. That’s when you have to be a leader.

Around the time that Miranda started posting videos, I left a ten-year career in the public service. I came from a family background where stability and loyalty are highly valued, and it was an incredibly angst-ridden decision to quit a relatively ‘secure’ career path and create something else, from scratch.

Building something like a business, or a comedy career, or anything ‘new’ takes time. The people who truly do achieve big things ‘overnight’ are rare—and I think chance often plays a large part in their success.

It’s persistence, hard work and relationship-building that pays off in the end. When you’re ready to launch something or step up or take a risk, there’s no guarantee of success. You have to be okay with that uncertainty. More than that, you have to embrace it.

And as you shape and tweak what you’re doing by listening to feedback from your ‘audience’, you start to get better at it. It’s only by wading around in something new that we learn what works.

The third factor for success is FUN. If you don’t love something, you won’t stick at it. If you don’t stick at it, it won’t work.

Colleen created Miranda as an in-joke with her college friends. She didn’t set out to conquer YouTube or Amazon—that’s a by-product of doing what she loved for a few years, listening to her audience and taking risks.

When I take my daughter to Miranda’s sold-out Canberra performance in a few weeks, the teens will applaud the humour. I’ll applaud the fact that Colleen didn’t listen to her parents, and posted a second video.