Unconventional Mentor no. 31 - Eileen Gray

“To create, one must first question everything.”

Quote: “To create, one must first question everything.” - Eileen Gray

Quote: “To create, one must first question everything.” - Eileen Gray

I’ve been going on holiday to The South of France for over 20 years and one of the reasons I keep going back is because there is so much to explore down there. Every time I go I find a new place to visit, and a new person I didn’t know about. A few years ago, I heard about E1027, the villa that was designed by Eileen Gray who I hadn’t heard of. Researching her and visiting the villa I discovered a wonderfully talented woman, whose work and contribution to the world of architecture and design have been massively underrated.

Visiting E1027 in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, South of France

Visiting E1027 in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, South of France

If you know anything about modern furniture design then you will probably recognise her work, the Bibendum Chair and the E1027 adjustable table are very well known and still being sold by the store Aram today. In the 1970s, Zeev Aram met with Eileen Gray to discuss her work and they now hold the worldwide rights to manufacture her designs. I used to work for The Conran Shop, and I know these pieces of furniture, but despite that I didn’t know anything of their designer and the obscurity of her work was one of Eileen Gray’s biggest frustrations in her lifetime.

Eileen Gray was born in County Wexford, Ireland in 1878. She went to The Slade School of Art in London when she was 22 and shortly after she moved to Paris. Her design career began by making furniture using the technique of lacquer that she learnt from the celebrated Japanese artist Seizo Sugawara. In 1922 she opened her own gallery, Jean Désert, where she sold her designs Over time Gray moved from furniture to interior design to finally studying architecture. She never formally trained as an architect but received tuition from the man who would also become her lover, Jean Badovici.

Villa E1027 and the view from the garden

Villa E1027 and the view from the garden

“A house is not a machine to live in. It is the shell of man, his extension, his release, his spiritual emanation.”

E1027 is one of the three buildings she designed that were built and it is a modest villa (by The South of France standards) that is situated right on the coast of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. The building was designed for two people (Eileen Gray and Badovici) to live there and the rooms make the most of the views and the light. The house was owned by Badovici, so when the relationship between him and Eileen Gray broke down, she moved out to live in another house she was building, Tempe à Pailla just further round the coast at Menton.

The building may not have been known about today had it not been for its controversial visitor, the architect Le Corbusier. He was friends with Badovici who invited him to come to the stay in the house that Eileen Gray had designed, and he encouraged him to paint murals on the wall. This was hugely disrespectful to Eileen Gray, as part of her philosophy was that the wall of the building and the use of the furniture were designed together. So if she hadn’t designed a mural on the wall, there wasn’t meant to be one there. If you read up about the house you will find that Le Corbusier greatly admired the work of Eileen Gray so it was a complete act of vandalism and ego on his part to think that he could just paint huge murals on the wall. If that wasn’t bad enough, when an article featuring the murals was published in a design magazine, the murals were credited to Le Corbusier, but the design of the house wasn’t credited to Eileen Gray. It was assumed that either Le Corbusier or Badovici had designed it and neither of them corrected the error. After she left E1027 Eileen Gray became more and more reclusive and possibly even agoraphobic. Her removal from the public eye and the lack of proper crediting of her work may have contributed to her being less well known. In an odd twist of fait, Le Corbusier died in 1965 swimming off the coast of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin so it is likely that the last thing he saw was E1027.

“We must ask nothing of artists but to be of their own time.”

Eileen Gray was very much ahead of her time in her design, always experimenting with new materials and techniques. In the 1970s she was experimenting with celluloid, and just before her death was working on a shocking pink screen that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the punk era. Despite her working all through her life, there was a huge gap in her work being known, which started after Badovici died and ended when she was re-discovered in the 1970s after Joseph Rykwert published an article about her. Her work is getting the prominence it deserves today.

“The future projects light, the past only clouds”

E1027 has been saved from ruin and is being restored by the Cap Moderne group. This year marks 100 years since the villa was built and I am so pleased that it has been saved and is being restored. I am hoping to go out to the South of France again this year so I will be making a trip back to the Villa to see how the restoration is coming along. If you have a few ££ to spare then you can buy a piece of Eileen Gray’s work from Aram.

Mentor advice: Make sure you get the credit your work deserves.

The advice that I take from Eileen Gray is to not be afraid to take credit for the work that you do. Eileen Gray was a very talented designer and her work stands up to the test of time, but her reputation didn’t match the quality of her work. There were numerous times where her work was not given the prominence it deserved or appropriated by other people, and her story isn’t a one off. Many of the women I have featured in this project have not received the credit they were due. This wasn’t the fault of Eileen Gray and it is so frustrating that it has happened to so many women and is watch out to learn from.

I am not doing work that has the significance that Eileen Gray’s has, but I do owe it to myself to make sure that I am credited for the work that I do. This means that I need to make sure that I celebrate my work, and not be afraid to take credit for it. No one else is invested in my career as I am, so I need to make sure that I am controlling the stories about my work and telling people what I am good at and the contribution I have made. In the past I have thought that if I do good work, it will speak for itself but what I have come to realise is that I also need to tell people how good the work is. In my coaching business this means asking people for testimonials for how my coaching has helped them and not being afraid to share that with potential new clients. In an office situation it might look like highlighting your successes to your manager and making it really clear about the impact that you have. Wherever you do your work, make sure that you get the credit you deserve.

To find out more about Eileen Gray visit the website about her here and her villa E1027 here

Unconventional Mentor no. 30 - Dr Amanda Foreman

“I believe that any history of the world that excludes women, or simply pushes them to the margins, isn’t just a distortion, but an untruth that must be challenged.”

Quote: “I believe that any history of the world that excludes women, or simply pushes them to the margins, isn’t just a distortion, but an untruth that must be challenged.” - Dr Amanda Foreman

Quote: “I believe that any history of the world that excludes women, or simply pushes them to the margins, isn’t just a distortion, but an untruth that must be challenged.” - Dr Amanda Foreman

The TV mini-series, the Ascent of Woman, was one of the major sources of inspiration for this project. Growing up I had this belief that it was in the 20th Century that women finally got the chance to succeed in areas outside of the home on a large scale. I knew about the suffragettes, and the women’s movement in the 1960s and I assumed that because almost all of my history lessons featured mostly men (apart from a few select Queens and because I grew up in Suffolk, Boudica) that women just hadn’t been given the chance to do great things. That in the 1980s, when I was growing up, it was the first time that women really could do anything. Over the years I have come to realise that whilst there have been many limitations placed on what women have been able to do, the bigger problem has been that the history of the lives of women just hasn’t been recorded and celebrated in the same way that the lives of men has. I just didn’t realise to what extent this history had been hidden from me.

The Ascent of Woman completely challenged my ideas of the successes and opportunities that women had in the past. Despite continually coming across women doing amazing things in all sorts of different fields, I still assumed that this was a relatively new thing for the last 300 hundred years. What this programmed showed me is that women have been playing a major role in shaping the history of the world for thousands of years, both inside and out of the home, but their story wasn’t being told. If the majority of women have been restricted to the home, the stories of these women has never been written down, their achievements weren’t considered worthy of being recorded. Those that did succeed in the wider world have often had their stories lost, hidden or stolen. What this series starts to do is to shine a light on all the women that have made a mark on history and it also highlights the fact that the history we are taught in schools is very much a select history that is told from a male viewpoint.

This is why most of the Unconventional Mentors that I feature in this project are women. The male point of view and male voices are everywhere. Pick any point in the history of the world and you are guaranteed to find a male voice. If you want to know what women were doing and thinking at the same time, you would have to dig a little deeper and may not find any record at all. I want to make a contribution to the voices of women being put front and centre of the conversation.

“There has never been a better time to be born a woman. There are more female heads of government , and more women leading organisations and running businesses than at any other time in history. Yet, in many parts of the world, women do not enjoy the same legal rights as men”

Back to Amanda Foreman, she is a best selling author, columnist TV presenter and historian. In 1998 she wrote the bestselling book, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire which was turned into a film staring Keira Knightley. I came to know her through her documentary The Ascent of Woman and I’m excited to say that her next book, The World Made by Women is due out later this year. She divides her time between London and New York and has 5 children. I don’t know how she fits all of her work in.

I really love Amanda’s style in The Ascent of Woman. This documentary isn’t just a factual account of all the women who have been left out of history, it is a very personal project as can be seen from the passion that Amanda gives to her delivery. There is the slightest hint of exasperation in her tone in episode 2 when she is talking about the way that men have treated women for centuries, mostly I suspect because it still continues today. The most moving moment is when she is in Japan and she gets to see Murasaki Shikibu’s inkwell. Murasaki Shikibu was an author born in 978 AD who was thought to have written the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji. Amanda describes the moment of seeing this inkwell as the most moving experience of her life, and she is in awe at the significance it holds both in women’s history, but also in the history of writing.

“Part of what it meant to be civilised, also meant the regulation and control of women, which varied according to the worlds in which they lived.”

I believe the title, The Ascent of Woman, is a play on words of the 1973 documentary The Ascent of Man, which was a 13-part tv series presented by Jacob Bronowski. I haven’t seen the documentary, but I am guessing that the word man was used here to mean all people, but in reality, probably only concentrated on the men and their achievements. It is a shame that the Ascent of Woman wasn’t a 13-part series, as one of my only criticisms of it is that some elements of the women featured was too brief, but how do you cram 10,000 years of history into four 1-hour programmes without cutting people out? Interestingly, The Ascent of Women does mention quite a few men in the four episodes. This not only gives it some context for the history that we already know, but more importantly highlights the attitudes of the men who didn’t want women to succeed. I came away from watching the programmes wondering why men hate women so much? One of the most depressing things about the whole series was that any time a story of women having equality and freedom was mentioned it was often followed by the news that women’s rights in the period that followed often reverted back to what they were before, or worse were even more restrictive. This is a timely reminder that the hard-won rights of women today are not necessarily secure, you only have to look at how abortion laws are changing in America to see that today.

The reason I am featuring Dr Amanda Foreman this week is that a few weeks ago she announced that the whole series of The Ascent of Woman was available on her Vimeo channel, so I have been able to watch it again, and it was just as powerful the second time round. You can find all four episodes here.

Mentor advice: Challenge the status quo

The advice that I take from Dr Amanda Foreman is to challenge the status quo. History has always been told from a male view point and until women are able to take up positions of power and influence to change the world and influence the story that is being told this will stay the same. The Ascent of Woman even being commissioned shows that we are making progress in changing this narrative, but we still have a long way to go. In academia, women make up about 25% of all professors, although even more worrying is the huge lack of racial diversity in that group, with 84% of the workforce being white and there being just 25 black female professors across the whole UK in all subjects.

In my work life, a phrase that I often hear is “but we’ve always done it that way” and it is the most frustrating phrase. Just because something has always been done the same way, doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do now. That doesn’t mean that the way we have always done something is wrong, but it fails to acknowledge that things change, technology, people, social norms all change and in our work, we need to change with the times. I always try to ask myself, am I doing this piece of work because it is the right solution to the problem I am trying to solve or is it because I have always done it this way? Is there a better way to approach this problem?

I have loved re-watching The Ascent of Woman and I would encourage you to watch it to. You can find it here and you can find out more about Dr Amanda Foreman on her website here

Unconventional Mentor no. 29 - Anna Airy

“I am sorry that the committee does not like the picture. I am afraid that I cannot do more to better it, or I should have done so before I sent it in!”

Quote: “I am sorry that the committee does not like the picture. I am afraid that I cannot do more to better it, or I should have done so before I sent it in!” - Anna Airy

Quote: “I am sorry that the committee does not like the picture. I am afraid that I cannot do more to better it, or I should have done so before I sent it in!” - Anna Airy

Last weekend I went to the Women 100 exhibition at the Ipswich Art Gallery, which is a project to showcase 100 pieces of Art by women. One of the women featured was Anna Airy. I was particularly taken with her portrait of Mrs Monica Burnand, who is pictured wearing a fabulous rainbow coloured sash.

© the copyright holder. Photo credit- Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service- Ipswich Borough Council Collection

© the copyright holder. Photo credit- Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service- Ipswich Borough Council Collection

I hadn’t heard about Anna before the exhibition, but I loved her work and started to look into more about her life. Luckily my mum had a copy of a book by Andrew Casey, produced in 2014 to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Anna Airy award for young Suffolk artists. I say luckily, because there isn’t very much about her online.

Anna was one of the first women to be commissioned as a war artist during the first world war and she became the first woman to be President of the Ipswich Art Society in 1945, a role that she would continue in for 20 years. She was a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition and was well known as a painter in her day. Along with the other women who were commissioned as artists during the first world war, her work has become less well known, but with the Women 100 project and a renewed focus on the war 100 years later with the Lives of the First World War project, I hope that her work will become more well known.

Born to a wealthy family in 1882, it was her family’s wealth that allowed her to study art and to make a career out of it. Speaking of her father, Anna said “I can remember him saying to me that if I persisted in going in for art when I left school that he would give me the finest art education either in this country or on the Continent that could be had at the time, after which I must stand on my own two feet.” Anna studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London and made a name for herself at the Royal Academy. Her work was often of “everyday” scenes, and she often made trips to less fancy haunts than she would normally reside in along the Thames, where she painted scenes from gambling games and boxing matches.

In 1916 she was asked to make a painting for Canadian Government to mark the participation of the Canadians in the first world war. She was then asked to take part in the British version of the scheme set up by Lord Beaverbrook. She wasn’t able to go to the front line but was instead allocated various ammunitions factories to visit and paint, having to deal with the effect the hot working conditions had on her paints and avoiding being hit by stray bits of metal and hot shell cases.

Anna Airy married Geoffrey Buckingham Pocock in 1916 although the couple never had any children. I wonder if this is part of the reason that her work was forgotten. Women often have to work that much harder in their lifetime to have their work recognised, and if there is no one to carry that job on when they die their work is more easily forgotten. Anna’s husband died 4 years before she did and her only surviving relative was a cousin. I’m glad that I have discovered the work of Anna Airy and I will enjoy doing some more digging to finding out more about her.

Mentor Advice: Know the value of your work and don’t let other people tell you otherwise.

The advice that I take from Anna Airy is to know the value of your work and don’t let other people tell you otherwise. The quote I have used for this piece is taken from a letter to the British War Memorials Committee who had commissioned Anna to paint a munitions factory that was being run by women. It was the only quote I could find attributed to Anna and I think it says something about the confidence Anna had about her own work. Anna had only submitted the painting when she thought it was finished, so to be told that the work looked unfinished and needed to be worked on was a huge insult to Anna. Rather than pandering to the needs of the committee she stuck to her guns and refused to make any changes. According to a letter she wrote to Alfred Yockney in 1919 she went on to tear up the painting and put it in the bin.

I wouldn’t suggest going so far as to bin the work that you have done just because someone else doesn’t like it, but I do like the idea that if you are happy with your work, if you believe it to be the best it can be, then stick to your guns about not changing it. We are often taught that there are hierarchies in work to be adhered to, but more and more people are throwing out the rule book when it comes to work. Good feedback from the right people can be invaluable, I am always happy to take comments and suggestions from people if I think it will improve when I am doing, but there comes a point when you have to know that you have produced the best you can and you have to believe that for yourself.

The Women 100 exhibition is on until the beginning of May, so if you are in Ipswich do go and check it out here. A huge thank you to Andrew Casey whose book on Anna Airy had so much information on her life and works, you can buy a copy here.

Unconventional Mentor no. 28 Rebecca Solnit

“Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible.”

Quote: “Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible.” - Rebecca Solnit

Quote: “Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible.” - Rebecca Solnit

If you have ever experienced the phenomenon that is mansplaining, then you will love the collection of essays by Rebecca Solnit called Men Explain Things To Me, which includes the essay that inspired the term. In the essay, Solnit recounts the time a man interrupted her talking about her new book on Edward Muybridge, to tell her all about a new book about Edward Muybridge which was, you guessed it, the very same one written by her. It took her friend saying three times, “she wrote it” for this man to be quiet and realise the error of his way. I’ve never been mansplained to in quite this way, but I have lost count of the number of times when a man has confidently launched into a monologue at me about something that I am more qualified than him to talk about and not be able to get a word in edgeways.

Men Explain Things to me was the first book by Rebecca Solnit that I read, and I instantly fell in love with her style of writing. I love reading fiction, and being transported into another world, but there is a different sort of pleasure that comes from reading a non-fiction essay. It’s the pleasure of seeing the thoughts that you have expressed so eloquently by someone else, the discovery of new ideas and a connection with someone who you have never met.

In her 2015 essay The Mother of All Questions Solnit reflects on the question that I’m sure all women have been asked, the question enquiring about whether or not they have or are going to have children. The essay starts with Solnit recalling her experience on a panel talking about Virginia Woolf (A future Unconventional Mentor who I am more than a little bit obsessed with) and she was asked whether or not Woolf should have had children. It infuriated her so much that eventually she just responded with “fuck this shit”. She had been asked to talk about Woolf’s writing so why were they discussing children? The whole essay is a thoughtful reflection on what motherhood means in our society and the way that women, regardless of whether or not they have children, have that aspect of their lives publicly dissected in a way that men don’t.

“Society’s recipes for fulfilment seem to cause a great deal of unhappiness, both in those who are stigamtized for being unable or unwilling to carry them out and in those who obey but don’t find happiness.”

I had felt that a lot of Solnit’s work resonated with me before I read this essay, but reading it made me feel even more of a connection with her. A woman who hasn’t married and had children through choice and is, gasp, happy, is a rare thing indeed and to find such a brilliant role model was wonderful. The essay is a really wonderful piece, concluding that the desire to ask people these rude and intrusive questions centres around our beliefs about what happiness is. If we think marriage and children are the secret to happiness, then we are curious as to why someone wouldn’t want to be happy. It is very thought provoking and well worth a read.

Solnit’s writing covers so many different topics and it seems odd to have to put her into any one category. A lot of her writing is feminist, and she writes extensively about human rights, the environment and everything to do with the human condition. The last book of hers that I read was A Field Guide to Getting Lost and I absolutely loved it. From the back of the book “In this investigation into loss, losing and being lost, Rebecca Solnit explores the challenges of living with uncertainty.”

I’m so pleased that I have found the work of Rebecca Solnit, her writing really speaks to me but at the same time it leaves me feeling very inarticulate about the important topics of life. Not in a bad way, it makes me want to learn and read more.

Mentor advice: Focus on getting things done rather than focussing on getting things perfect.

The advice that I take from Rebecca Solnit is to focus on getting things done rather than focussing on getting things perfect. I know that I can be guilty of delaying starting do a project or not starting all together because I can’t see how I am going to be successful at doing it. I set these high expectations for what something has to be and then feel that I can’t measure up to it. I am beating the possible with my perfection stick. What I have come to learn is that it is ok for me to just get started and allow myself the time to develop my work into something good.

I was talking to someone I coach this week about this same thing. We had both been in situations when something was new to us and felt crap because we weren’t getting everything right first time and were receiving feedback on what we were needing to do to improve. I have learnt that in these situations I need to give myself a break, and to realise that getting things wrong is the way that you learn how to do them right. If I can embrace errors, failures and having to write multiple drafts to get something right then I am giving myself the opportunity to learn and to explore the possible.

To find out more about Rebecca Solnit and her writing visit her website here

Unconventional Mentor no. 27 - Iris Apfel

"To me, the worst fashion faux pas is to look in the mirror, and not see yourself."

Quote: "To me, the worst fashion faux pas is to look in the mirror, and not see yourself." - Iris Apfel

Quote: "To me, the worst fashion faux pas is to look in the mirror, and not see yourself." - Iris Apfel

I’ve decided to stay in world of style and clothing for this week’s Unconventional Mentor and feature an unlikely star of fashion. At 97, Iris Apfel is an inspiring woman. Not only does she have an incredible personal style, with her trademark round glasses and copious amounts of bangles and necklaces, but she has an amazing attitude to life too. I first discovered Iris Apfel when I watched the 2014 documentary Iris and was completely taken by her from the first moment she appears on the camera.

"Life is gray and dull; you might as well have a little fun when you dress."

Iris was born in Queens, New York in 1921 to parents who owned a glass and mirror business and a fashion boutique, so is it any wonder that she grew up to be interested in fashion. She married her husband Carl Apfel in 1948 and they remained together for the rest of his life, he sadly died in August 2015 not long after the documentary about her was released. They are the cutest couple and a shining example of a supportive and lasting relationship. They ran a textile business together from the 1950s until the 1990s and amongst their many clients were a whole host of presidents when they were doing work at The White House. Well known in the fashion and textiles industry (she had a costume exhibition at The Met in New York in 2005), it wasn’t until 2014 when Albert Maysles made the documentary Iris, that she became a worldwide star. In the last 10 years, from her late 80s onwards, she has had a Barbie Doll made in her image (the oldest person to do so) launched a range of lipsticks with MAC, been part of the window display at Bergdorf Goodman, and this year, Iris has signed a modelling contract with the global agency IMG.

“I'm just inspired by being alive and breathing and meeting people and talking to people and doing things and absorbing what's happening. I think if more people did that, there would be better fashion. "

As a society we are obsessed with youth, we celebrate the achievements of the young with 30 under 30 lists and have goals and milestones we are expected to hit by the time we are 25, 30, 40… The achievements of someone young are not to be dismissed because of their age, there are some amazing people doing incredible work out there, but the focus we have on age and success together is damaging. The pressure that it puts on people can be crushing, which is why it is so refreshing to have someone in their nineties be the star of a documentary and to be continuing to develop new projects well into their 90s. What the documentary shows to me, along with another documentary Advanced Style by Ari Seth Cohen, is that we have our whole lives to figure things out and not to be so focused on the age at which we are doing things. I am not one of those people who had everything figured out at 25. For one reason or another I feel that I only really started to feel comfortable in my own skin once I turned 30 and even in the last 12 months, I have found more confidence than I have ever had. I don’t want to look at someone who is the same age as me and compare notes on what I have or haven’t achieved, I want to look at people who are 50 years older than me and see what is possible.

"Fashion you can buy, but style you possess. The key to style is learning who you are, which takes years. There's no how-to road map to style. It's about self-expression and, above all, attitude."

Whilst she has an incredible eye for clothes and accessories it isn’t this that inspires me most about Iris, it is her approach to life. She sees the clothes she wears as an extension of herself, as a way to express who she is as a person and to tell the world about herself. In interviews she comes across as incredibly self-assured and genuinely excited to be sharing her story with people. She comes across as a person who has grasped every opportunity that has come her way and made the most out of every situation. Whether this is turning a scrap of beautiful fabric into a new outfit or saying yes to offers of museum exhibitions and collaborations. Speaking after her husband died, she said “He really pushed me into this. So I decided I wouldn’t just stay at home and cry all day. I’m working harder than I ever did in my life.”

Iris Apfel is continuing to work on new projects. This month she launched a new collaboration with the luxury glassware brand Nude, and I hope that she continues to work and inspired us all for many years to come

Mentor advice: Cultivate your own sense of style

The advice that I take from Iris Apfel is to cultivate your own sense of style. And by style, I don’t just mean the clothes that you wear, it is so much more than that. It is the attitude that you take to life, how you behave towards other people and generally how you show up in the world. The clothes that you wear are a reflection of who you are, not the things that make you. The quote from Iris Apfel, "To me, the worst fashion faux pas is to look in the mirror, and not see yourself" shows how important it is to work on your inner self of sense, rather than focusing on what you look like on the outside. I know that I am happier at work than I have ever been because I know who I am as a person and how I want to show up in the world. I absolutely want to do a good job on all of the projects I am involved in, but for me the most important thing is that I empower and enable the team around me. If my team tell me that they enjoy coming to work because they feel rewarded, challenged and that they are working towards a meaningful goal then I know and I am doing the right things. I also know that a statement necklace does wonders for my confidence, so I might have to get a bit more adventurous this year and think more Iris when I go shopping.

To find out more about what Iris Apfel is up to, be sure to follow her on Instagram

Unconventional Mentors - The Halfway Point

Who would your ideal mentor be?

Who would your ideal mentor be?

Unconventional Mentors – The half way point

When I started this project last year, I decided that I would do it for 12 months, and this week marks the half way point. I thought it would be a good chance to take stock of the people that I have mentioned so far and have a look at the advice I have been taking from my Unconventional Mentors.

The project is quite simple, each week I pick a person that has influenced my life, an Unconventional Mentor, and I talk about how they have inspired me and the advice that I have chosen to take from them.

These are the 26 people I have written about so far

Lee Miller

Hedy Lamarr

Kate Bolick

Hannah Gadsby

Nicole Antoinette

Millicent Fawcett

Ava DuVernay

Brene Brown

Marie Colvin

Emily Warren Roebling

Marin Alsop

Amelia Earhart

Sylvia Plath

Ninette de Valois

Marjorie Hillis

Candice Braithwaite

Beth Chatto

Ella Fitzgerald

Daphne Du Maurier

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Dorothy Parker

404 Ink

Judy Garland

Moira Stuart

Edith Head

As well as writing about these people who have inspired and motivated me in my work, I have also sought out quotes from people who have something in common with my main Unconventional Mentor, which means that I have featured a further 130 people. This is possibly my favourite part of this project as I have discovered lots of new and interesting people that I had never heard of before, but who have achieved incredible things and, in many cases, not had their work widely shared.

What do my Unconventional Mentors have in common? They are all women, they have often been pioneering in the work that they do or challenging the norms of what was expected for them. They are definitely not afraid to be different and they all held a passionate belief that the work they were doing was important and that their voice needed to be heard. They have all approached their challenges in different ways and I have taken all sorts of different advice and inspiration from them.

It’s hard to have favourites, as each of these women have inspired me in different ways at different times in my life, but I have selected my Top 5 Unconventional Mentors that I have posted so far and reflected on the advice that I have taken from them.

“Other people tend to value you the way you value yourself” - Lee Miller

Lee Miller was the first person that I featured, and she is someone who I keep returning back to. I’m planning a couple of visits to her house, Farley’s Farm House, later this year and I’m continuing to be inspired by her as I forge a new career and work identity for myself. The way that she reinvented herself from model, to photographer, to mother, to society hostess, to chef made me realise that I can change my career as many times as I like and it doesn’t make me a failure.

The advice I take from Lee Miller is that you can change your mind about who you want to be. The quote I chose for her post “other people tend to value you the way you value yourself” is at the heart of the advice that I take from Lee Miller, and also this project. It is so easy to get hung up about what other people think about you, or what the right thing to do is, that you can forget that you need to do what is right for you. No-one else is going to put you first if you don’t even put yourself first. If you know your own self-worth, if you value yourself then the choices you make in life will always be right for you.  

“Bravery is not being afraid to be afraid.” - Marie Colvin

Since writing about Marie Colvin back in November of last year I have watched the incredibly moving documentary about her, Under the Wire, by Paul Conroy who was with her in Syria when she was killed. The film brought me to tears at how horrific the situation in Baba Amr was and just how determined Marie Colvin was to tell these people’s stories. It gave me a whole new level of appreciation for the work that she did and that many journalists continue to do today reporting on conflicts around the world.

The advice that I take from Marie Colvin is that you need to take risks for the things you believe in. It is hard not to be inspired by Marie and want to put yourself out into the world a bit more when you look at how she lived her life. It makes you realise that it is no good staying at home and hoping that things will change, you have to get out into the world and risk things not working out. The risks I take in my career are nothing like the risk of going into a war zone, they might just make me a bit uncomfortable. The risk of saying aloud something I want to achieve and failing to be successful. The risk of asking someone to get involved in project and them saying no. The risk of putting my work out into the world and it being critiqued, disliked or just ignored. None of these things are pleasant and they are a possibility, but they are not the end of the world and the successes I might achieve from taking a risk could be huge. The next time I am worried about taking a risk I will think of Marie and just go for it.

“I hate writing, I love having written.” - Dorothy Parker

This quote from Dorothy Parker really resonated with me. There are many parts of the work that I do that I am slow to get started on because I just don’t like doing them, but I love having done them. It was really reassuring to read that a great writer like Dorothy Parker didn’t always enjoy the process too.

The advice I take from Dorothy Parker is to focus on the outcome of your work, not the act of doing it. Sitting down to write, or to do anything that will take your career and business forward isn’t always going to feel good. In fact, a lot of the time it will feel like a struggle, hard work, difficult, scary or even just boring. This quote “I hate writing, I love having written.” really captures the feeling that I have about so many things I work on. I don’t always like doing them in the moment, but I love the feeling of having done them. If we only ever did work that we really enjoyed, then we would likely not achieve very much at all. I also find this quote helpful as we are often encouraged to do work that we love and to find something we are passionate about. This implies that we should always enjoy what we do and love every part of it. That is an unrealistic expectation to have, but knowing that it won’t always feel great, and you might even hate it, can be the encouragement you need to push through to do the work and be able to look back and love having done it.

“It helps to have those that look like you occupying all spaces and doing all things to genuinely galvanise you into believing that you too can do something.” - Candice Brathwaite

Candice Brathwaite continues to be one of my favourite Instagram accounts to follow. The year has only just begun and already Candice has achieved some incredible things this year, speaking on panels, doing paid promotions with brands and all the while being honest with her followers about what feels good and what is challenging.

The advice that I take from Candice Brathwaite is that you have to believe in yourself, even when things seem to be going against you. Candice talks about her big goals and dreams, even when things don’t work out quite how she had hoped. Two of her recent posts really sum this up. The first is a post on Instagram about her being turned down for a blue tick, being told she wasn’t important enough. Instead of seeing this as a failure, Candice took it as a call to work harder. The second post was from her blog where Candice reflected on her two Tea Time live events that took place a year apart. One was in the basement of a venue in Crystal Palace, the other, held a year later, at Mortimer House, a very swanky venue in central London. Candice took the energy from the success of her first event, knew that she could make it bigger and better and worked towards doing it. She was gracious about the things that she hadn’t done well or could have done differently, and she used these to make a plan. Believing in her vision and putting the work in to make that second event a huge success. I love this approach Candice has towards to her work and I hope to channel a little bit of it for myself in 2019.

"There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself" - Hannah Gadsby

One of my favourite Unconventional Mentors is Hannah Gadsby, who I featured right back at the beginning of this project in September last year. Her show Nanette was one of the most powerful things I have watched, and it makes me cry every time I rewatch it. Excitingly, she has written a new show called Douglas, “Who is Douglas? Well, apparently, Gadsby thinks he is the only one who can help her follow up on the trail blazed by her last show: Nanette.” I’ve signed up to be notified when the UK dates are announced and I’m so excited to see what she does next.

The advice that I take from Hannah Gadsby is that your story has value and should be told. The whole premise of Nanette (without spoiling it for you) is that for a long time Hannah’s comedy has been rooted in being self-deprecating, but this really isn’t a healthy thing to do. The big reveal of the show is that Hannah has been telling the stories of her life as jokes, but only sharing half of the story and this has come to define her. Rather than dealing with the trauma she has faced, she turned it into a joke, and she is now realising that this is not serving her. Towards the end of the show she shares the true outcomes of the jokes she had shared at the start and it reduced me to tears. I don’t cry much at films or TV programmes, but her story hit me so hard I just burst into tears. Hannah has realised that her story has value, that it deserves to be heard. She tells us that all of our stories deserve to be heard, particularly as there may be someone out there who relates to our story and upon hearing it, seeing how we live our lives, they might just feel less alone.

Those are my top 5 Unconventional Mentors so far. I have another 26 people to write about and to share with you the advice that I take from. I’d love to hear who your Unconventional Mentors are, who the people that you take advice and inspiration from that might not seem like an obvious person to be influenced by?

Unconventional Mentor no. 26 - Edith Head

“You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it”

Quote: “You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it” - Edith Head

Quote: “You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it” - Edith Head

If you are a fan of classic Hollywood cinema then you have probably seen the work of the costume designer Edith Head on the silver screen. I know her work from the Hitchcock movies she worked on, as well as All About Eve, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Funny Face, amongst many others. She was nominated for 35 Academy Awards, and won 8, which is the most for any costume designer. Her first award was for All About Eve in 1950 and her last win in 1973 for The Sting, and she continued to receive nominations right up until 1977, just 4 years before her death. She was working right up until her death in 1981, and she even made a cameo appearance in an episode of Columbo with Anne Baxter.

“What we do is a cross between magic and camouflage”

The work of a costume designer is an unusual one. The clothes help to tell a story and for the audience to imagine that the very well-known actor playing a part is no longer themselves, but the character they are portraying. A costume not only tells you something about the time in which the film is set, but it can be an extension of the character and tell as much of the story as the actors do. So, whilst the job of the costume designer is to provide people with amazing outfits, it is also about being part of the whole team that makes the film, so that the costume neither stands out too much or you don’t notice it at all.

Edith Head biography by Jay Jorgensen

Edith Head biography by Jay Jorgensen

I have a wonderful biography of Edith Head by Jay Jorgensen, that is filled with pictures, not only of the costumes she designed and the actors who wore them, but also of her at her work and in her own publicity shots. Early photos of her show her to be a little plain, but with a very striking blunt fringe. I suppose it is rather hard to look anything but plain when you are next to some of Hollywood’s beautiful leading ladies. In the early days of film making she used to wear dark glasses so that she could see what her costumes would look like in black and white, but as colour became the norm, she retained her trademark look and it is probably this image of Edith Head that you will think of when you hear her name. You can even buy a pin badge of her and this iconic look.

“Your dresses should be tight enough to show you're a woman and loose enough to show you're a lady.”


Edith wasn’t always just behind the cameras. In 1951 Paramount made a film called The Costume Designer that showcased Edith’s creative process and she also had many TV appearances and radio pieces too. She very much became a household name and was known for her witty remarks like the one above. Her work is still very much valued today, a sketch of that amazing little black dress that Audrey Hepburn wore in Breakfast At Tiffany’s was sold by Christie’s for £22,500 in 2011.

“Building a proper wardrobe is like building a home. Indeed, you should think of it like a home, because it is something, you're going to live in. It must be comfortable and suit all your needs.”

Researching Edith Head for this piece and reading her biography again has really inspired me to explore my own relationship with clothes. I have never loved fashion or been passionate about the clothes I wear, but that is more to do with my own self esteem rather than not being interested in it. I have loved seeing the costumes that Edith Head and many others have produced for the big screen and how they can change the impression you have of a person. One of the challenges that feminism faces, and this has definitely been a part of my own relationship with clothes amongst other things, is that being interested in fashion is somehow at odds with being a feminist. If I am interested in clothes, fashion and my appearance, does that mean that I am not serious about other issues? Fashion is often seen as frivolous, which I think is just another way to criticise the work that is mostly done or enjoyed by women. Fashion is a huge part of the economy, and every fashion brand is a business. According to the British Fashion Council the UK fashion business is worth £32 billion which is not frivolous at all. Why should these businesses be taken less seriously or deemed less important than any other? Edith Head showed the importance of clothes in the making of films and she made a career out of them, so why shouldn’t I enjoy them?

Mentor advice: Dress for the part you want to play in life

The advice that I take from Edith Head is to dress for the part you want to play in life. I love the idea that you can imagine the life you want for yourself and start to make that happen by the clothes that you wear. Because clothes aren’t just clothes, you are thinking of the attributes you have that you want to tell other people about and you can use your choice of outfit to do that. By focusing on the attributes you want to show people, you will believe in yourself more and develop them even further. The outfits that we chose to wear say something about us. A bold jacket and bright lipstick are something that confident women wear. An arty tunic and a large chunky necklace show off your creativity. It’s not just picking out a good outfit but dedicating time to how you want to be at work and using the way that you dress to start to behave that way. How can you use the clothes that you wear for work to help you to define who you want to be?

To find out more about Edith Head have a look at this video from Made 2 Measure that looks back at her career.

Unconventional Mentor no. 25 - Moira Stuart

“I have just always wanted to be invisible, I was so shy when I was growing up, I couldn’t look at people.”

Quote “I have just always wanted to be invisible, I was so shy when I was growing up, I couldn’t look at people.” - Moira Stuart

Quote “I have just always wanted to be invisible, I was so shy when I was growing up, I couldn’t look at people.” - Moira Stuart

I have three very vivid memories about watching the TV growing up in the 1980s; the shoulder pads of Dallas and Dynasty, eating peas in the pod watching Wimbledon and the Six O’clock news. It came on after Neighbours and I always thought it was the most grown up thing in the world. The blue titles and opening music were so serious and the newsreaders on that programme have become synonymous with all things grown up for me. I didn’t really understand what was being reported, but lots of things sunk in. My mum likes to tell the story about when she had to ask me if I was aware that someone we knew had been stealing, without asking me any leading questions. She had been advised to ask me if I knew any bad people and I confidently replied “yes, Pol Pot” I must have picked that up from the Six O’clock news and the memories of it and its reporters Sue Lawley, Nicholas Witchell, Peter Sissons and of course Moira Stuart are very vivid for me.

Moira Stuart is a presenter and broadcaster who has been bringing the news to Britain for the last 38 years. She began her career in radio and in 1981 when she started to present the BBC news, she was the first African-Caribbean woman to be a newsreader on television. She was famously dropped from BBC TV in 2007, much to the dismay of many viewers, and she has since continued her career in radio.

“My whole approach to being a newsreader is to try not to intrude and to be a conduit”

It has been difficult to find a quote by Moira Stuart as she has shared very little about her private life and her own views on the world. She has only given a handful of interviews across her career and is very deliberate about being the “conduit” for a story and not making the story about her. I lost track of her career when she stopped being on the TV, but it seems that reading the news for Chris Evans on radio 2 has allowed her to relax a bit more about allowing her personality to come across. This episode in particular shows her enjoying herself with David Walliams.

It is such a shame that she isn’t on our screens more and I hope that her move to Classic FM this month might mark a change in her being more visible. She is presenting the news on the breakfast show, but from July this year she will also present her own show on Saturday afternoon’s called Moira Stuart’s Hall of Fame Concert.

I loved watching Moira Stuart read the news when I was growing up. Her voice was so confident and reassuring and she always looked so sophisticated and glamourous. Seeing Moira Stuart read the news was so empowering for me. I was too young to really know what it meant that she read the news, but I got the feeling that she represented possibility for women in the working world. I don’t remember being aware of the impact of her being a black woman might have for other black women, but I somehow knew that her being a newsreader meant something.

Growing up in the 1980s I took for granted that sexism and racism were a thing of the past. That it was something that happened in the 1970s and whilst there were hints of it when I was growing up (in my white middle-class, Suffolk bubble), I was taught that these were the exception not the rule. That it wasn’t ok to be racist or sexist anymore and things had changed for the better. I was taught to not see the colour of people’s skin and told that women were capable of anything. I took part in “take your daughters to work” initiatives which encouraged me to find out about the possibilities for women in the workplace, there were no barriers to what my success could be.

I now realise how naïve those beliefs were and I am learning every day that I hold so may privileged ideas about how racism and sexism have (or rather haven’t) changed over time. The days of comedians making awful jokes on the TV might have gone, but the institutional racism and sexism that prevents people achieving equality are still very much present. Nothing has really changed except what it is acceptable to say in public spaces. Even that is taking a step back with the invention of social media and people with the most abhorrent views now having a world-wide platform from which to shout their hate.

I am so pleased that Moira Stuart is continuing to develop her broadcasting career. Now that I am driving to work, I can listen to the radio in the morning so I will be catching her reading the news on Classic FM and I will be seeking out her radio programme when it launches later this year.

Mentor advice: It’s not about how you feel about doing something it’s how you do it

It fascinates me that such outwardly confident people can be incredibly shy on the inside. I don’t know how someone who wants to be invisible to other people can put themselves forward to read the news, on the television, on the programme that was the most watched in Britain at the time. Knowing just how shy Moira Stuart is, despite her outward confidence and self-assuredness is a reminder that you don’t need to feel confident, you just need to act confidently.

Your measure of success shouldn’t be how you feel about doing something, but how you come across. You might feel really nervous giving a presentation to your whole department, but if you have rehearsed your lines and prepared brilliant content that educates your audience then that is a success. You don’t need to feel comfortable pitching for new business with a potential client, but if your pitch meets your clients’ needs and they sign up with you then this is a what is important. If you focus on feeling good about doing these things, you are unlikely to ever do them, but if you recognise that the outcome is more important than how you feel about doing it, that you might feel nervous or shy, then you are more likely to succeed. You may also discover that over time these things do get easier and that your shyness or lack of confidence melts away.

Unconventional Mentor no. 24 - Judy Garland

“Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.”

Quote “Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.” - Judy Garland

Quote “Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.” - Judy Garland

I don’t remember the first time I watched The Wizard of Oz. It is one of those films that I have just always known and even still I am mesmerised by Judy Garland in the role of Dorothy. I never wanted to be an actress or solo singer, I’m far too shy to have that much attention on me, but there was something about Judy Garland playing Dorothy that I wanted to be.

For a long time, I didn’t see Judy Garland in any other films, and she was immortalised in my head as 17-year-old Dorothy Gale from Kansas. I still remember the feeling of shock I had when I found out that in later life, she struggled with drug addiction and that she had died at the relatively young age of 47. I saw Dorothy’s dress and her ruby slippers at the V&A costume exhibition a few years ago and got quite teared up. The Wizard of Oz and the glamor of Hollywood was such a big part of my childhood, and here right in front of me was an item that I had seen 100s of times on screen, the very same shoes and dress that Judy Garland had worn.

“Everything you were looking for was right there with you all along.”

Dorothy is a great strong female character to have as a role model and it is perhaps Judy Garland playing her that is what inspires me. She is adventurous and determined, running away on her own. She is a great leader, taking her three companions under her wing to help them find their brains, their heart and their courage. She faces fear and reflects on her own vulnerability. After all the adventures and searching that she does she realizes that everything she ever wanted she already had and that “there’s no place like home.”

“In the silence of night, I have often wished for just a few words of love from one man, rather than the applause of thousands of people.”

I’ve not really looked much into the rest of Judy Garlands life as I know that it was so troubled. I didn’t know that she had been married five times, but I did know that she struggled with alcohol and prescription medicine which would eventually lead to her death. I think I wanted to ignore the troubled life that she led, to maintain the image of her as Dorothy, a happy young girl who had an amazing adventure and then found her way home.

“I truly have a great love for an audience, and I used to want to prove it to them by giving them blood.”

I never thought that I would have shared the same stage as Judy Garland, but that happened in 2018 when I performed Mozart’s Requiem at Carnegie Hall. She had sung there 57 years before I did, in one of her most celebrated performances which was called “The greatest night in show business history”. It must have been an incredible concert to attend, with the crowd applauding and giving her standing ovations right the way through the convert. This New York Times review gives you something of an idea about how much people enjoyed this convert By this stage in her career, she had numerous health problems, with a diagnosis of hepatitis in 1959 and had been told that she had less than five years to live and would probably not sing again. The strain that she was under was shown by her supposed reaction to this by saying “the pressure was off me for the first time in my life.” So to perform at Carnegie Hall two years later and to live for another 8 was nothing short of a miracle.

Mentor Advice: Do things your own way

The advice that I take from Judy Garland is the quote that I used at the start of this piece, “Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.” No matter what was going on in her life, Judy Garland knew how to give a performance and she always pulled out the stops to make it a good one. She never tried to imitate other people, but she did things her own way, with her own unique style to the best of her ability. One of the things I want to do with this project is to look at how you can take advice and inspiration from other people without imitating them. We can use the way that people have approached problems in their life to reflect on ways that we can approach problems in our own life. We can look at the attitude that someone takes to adversity and use the same attitude to deal with setbacks in our own careers. I will always strive to do the best that I can, to be a first rate version of myself and to do it my way not try to imitate other people.

Unconventional Mentor no. 23 - 404 Ink

“With intolerance and inequality increasingly normalised by the day, it’s more important than ever to share real experiences and hold the truth to account”

Quote “With intolerance and inequality increasingly normalised by the day, it’s more important than ever to share real experiences and hold the truth to account” - 404 Ink

Quote “With intolerance and inequality increasingly normalised by the day, it’s more important than ever to share real experiences and hold the truth to account” - 404 Ink

My Unconventional Mentor this week is the independent publisher 404 Ink, which was set up by two brilliant women, Laura Jones and Heather McDaid in 2016.

I bought their first book Nasty Women as soon as I heard about it as I knew that I wanted to read the stories of the women they were featuring, and I also wanted to support a publisher that was doing something a bit different.

Laura and Heather set up the publisher to fill a gap in that market. They didn’t think that existing publishers used social media well and that many publishers were very London focused (they are based in Edinburgh.) Laura has a background in publishing and typesetting, whilst Heather began her career as a music journalist. They were working together on The Saltire Society's virtual book festival #ScotLitFest when they realised that they had the same values towards the traditional publishing world, and they decided to start their own publisher.

Their first book, Nasty Women, is a collection of essays about what it is like to be a woman in the 21st century. The authors come from all different walks of life and have chosen a variety of different topics to talk about. The opening piece is called Independence Day by Katie Muriel which is a very raw account of dealing with Donald Trump being elected President of The United States and the disbelief that many people felt.

I really loved Black Feminism Online: Claiming Digital Space by Claire L Heuchan. I was instantly captivated by her writing, talking about her experiences of being a black woman in Scotland and how she found her voice online. I started following her on twitter the moment I finished her essay (@ClaireShrugged ) and she is one of my favourite accounts to follow.

404 Ink have gone on to publish many more books as well as producing a magazine. In an interview on the podcast Scots Whay Hae! you can hear them talk about how they want to ensure that they are reaching a wider audience than that of people who would identify as readers. Their magazine publishes interviews with musicians alongside comics and their pieces about their books.

Whilst the successes of 404 Ink might seem to be huge, Laura and Heather have been very open about how difficult it has been to set up and run a new publisher, and their brutally honest blog post We are tired AF gives something of an insight into how tough it is.

Despite all of these challenges they are going from strength to strength, with a really interesting selection of published authors. In May 2018 they published The Goldblum Variations by Helen McClory which is a collection of short stories imagining what would happen if Geoff Goldblum travelled across the universe, both known and unknown. The whole thing got very surreal when Geoff Goldblum did an impromptu reading which you can see here. I’m not sure what is so appealing about Geoff Goldblum but I have ordered this book as I really want to find out what Helen thinks he might get up to. They are about to publish their first fiction book, Animals Eat Each Other by Elle Nash which comes out in May 2019 this year.

Mentor Advice: The most important thing is to get started.

The advice that I take from 404 Ink is that the most important thing is to get started. Laura and Heather were at the beginnings of their careers when they decided to start 404 Ink. They both knew that they had a good idea and weren’t afraid to try and make a success of it. The desire to get the voices of the authors they have chosen to support heard has driven them to work through tough times, with financial and personal difficulties, but they haven’t given up. The story of Heather and Laura setting up 404 Ink, as told on the Scots Whay Hae! podcast is one of not just saying you would love to do something, but actually putting a plan together to make it happen. They didn’t have enough money to publish Nasty Women so they started a Kickstarter campaign and were completely blown away by the response and have gone from strength to strength. In your career or business there will be lots of great ideas that you want to take forward. Sometimes you won’t quite know how things are going to work out, but the most important thing is to get started. Say that idea out loud to someone else and commit to taking an action to make it happen, you never know where it might lead you. Laura and Heather did just that and look where they are now. What is your big idea that you need to get started on?

You can find out more about 404 Ink and buy their wonderful books here

Unconventional Mentor no. 22 - Dorothy Parker

“I hate writing, I love having written.”

Quote: “I hate writing, I love having written.” - Dorothy Parker

Quote: “I hate writing, I love having written.” - Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker was a woman who knew how to write. I really struggled to pick a quote to use for this piece as there are so many brilliant, witty things that she said. She began her career as a poet but she also wrote for Vogue, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and Life magazine among others. You can be sure to find a Dorothy Parker quote for most situations…

On being busy

“Tell him I was too fucking busy-- or vice versa.” 

On beauty

“Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.”

On money

“I don't know much about being a millionaire, but I'll bet I'd be darling at it.”

On sexuality

“Heterosexuality is not normal, it is just common.”

On love

“By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying -
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying."

On life

“That would be a good thing for them to cut on my tombstone: Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.”

I’m tempted to do a whole week on her! Dorothy Parker was a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, and instead I will be featuring other members of this group across the week. The group was known “for its scathing wit and intellectual commentary.” The group would meet up at The Algonquin Hotel in New York and discuss those in the literary scene. They were called The Vicious Circle as they didn’t hold back in criticising their peers.

In the 1930s and 1940s Dorothy Parker moved to Hollywood to be a screenwriter, along with her husband Alan Campbell, she wrote the screenplay for the 1937 film A Star is Born, which she won an Academy Award for. Dorothy Parker was a supporter of Civil Rights in America and she left her literary estate to Martin Luther King jnr. When he was assassinated just a few months after her death in June 1967, her estate passed to the NAACP. Dr King was surprised at this gift as he had never met Dorothy Parker, and the NAACP still have the literary rights to her work today. In 1927 she wrote a short story called Arrangement in Black and White which was mocking white people who claimed not to be racist but exhibited prejudice and condescension in their actions. There is a great article on NPR about how her final resting place came to be Baltimore and not the city she lived in, New York.

Dorothy Parker’s legendary status lives on today, and The Dorothy Parker Society celebrates her life and works with a website that lists her works, the apartments she lived in and places that she used to go to. The even organise tours of New York, The Algonquin Round Table tour takes attendees on a tour of 40 landmarks in New York associated with the group and finishes up with cocktails at The Algonquin. You can even buy Dorothy Parker American gin

Mentor advice: Focus on the outcome of your work, not the act of doing it.

The advice I take from Dorothy Parker is to focus on the outcome of your work, not the act of doing it. Sitting down to write, or to do anything that will take your career and business forward isn’t always going to feel good. In fact, a lot of the time it will feel like a struggle, hard work, difficult, scary or even just boring. This quote “I hate writing, I love having written.” really captures the feeling that I have about so many things I work on. I don’t always like doing them in the moment, but I love the feeling of having done them.

When I was doing my coaching qualification, I had to write about my coaching sessions, reflecting on my own abilities of coach and how I had helped my clients. I found it really hard to do, so much so that I put it off quite a lot, but the results of doing it were huge. I identified the ways that my own behaviour impacted on my clients and understanding this allowed me to improve as a coach. I’m so glad I did it and I now continue to take the time to reflect on my own behaviour as a coach as I know it makes a real difference.

If we only ever did work that we really enjoyed, then we would likely not achieve very much at all. I also find this quote helpful as we are often encouraged to do work that we love and to find something we are passionate about. This implies that we should always enjoy what we do and love every part of it. That is an unrealistic expectation to have, but knowing that it won’t always feel great, and you might even hate it, can be the encouragement you need to push through to do the work and be able to look back and love having done it.

I hated writing this piece, but I love that I have written it

Unconventional Mentor no. 21 - Jocelyn Bell Burnell

“The more diverse a research group or a business, the more robust it is, the more flexible it is, and the better it succeeds.”

Quote “The more diverse a research group or a business, the more robust it is, the more flexible it is, and the better it succeeds.” - Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Quote “The more diverse a research group or a business, the more robust it is, the more flexible it is, and the better it succeeds.” - Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Jocelyn Bell Burnell is an incredibly inspiring woman. Not only did she make her career in a very male dominated field, but when she missed out on a Nobel Prize (her discovery of the first radio pulsars was written up as a paper by her supervisor and an astronomer, and they got the credit) she refused to speak out against the Nobel Prize decision and instead noted that it was very rare for research students to be awarded the prize. In 2018 she won Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics which has a £2.3 million prize, which she has given to The Institute of Physics to set up a fund for underrepresented students in the field.

“If you get a Nobel prize you have this fantastic week and then nobody gives you anything else. If you don’t get a Nobel prize you get everything that moves. Almost every year there’s been some sort of party because I’ve got another award. That’s much more fun.”

I absolutely love the attitude that Jocelyn has taken to missing out on a Nobel Prize. This quote shows that she sees it very much as a positive thing. That despite it seeming to be one of the most prestigious prizes, her career and recognition has actually been better for not having won it.

I’ve read several interviews with Jocelyn to write this piece and what comes across is how humble she is about her discovery and how excited she gets about her work. Her discovery of pulsars in the 1960s was revolutionary and it has been the foundation of a whole new area of astrophysics and yet she speaks about it in a very humble way. She also talks a lot about her insecurities and the things that have held her back with openness. Her words are always so positive, and she is quite softly spoken, yet at the same time her words can be quite cutting and critical about the state of diversity and representation in her field.

“Throughout my working life, I've been either one of very few women or the most senior woman in the place.”


The 1960s was a very challenging time to be a female scientist. Jocelyn talks about the press of the day not knowing what to make of her. “It was clear they didn't know how to handle a young woman scientist. Photographers would say, "Could you undo some buttons on your jacket, please?" Journalists asked how many boyfriends I had.” She also talks about having to take time out of her career to have a child and the impact that part time working has had on her career.

As a women now in her 70s, I love that Jocelyn is speaking out about being a woman in the world of physics and continuing to tell her story. She is paving the way for a more diverse workforce and the possibility to make discoveries as revolutionary as her own.

Mentor Advice: Look for the opportunity in a disappointing situation

The advice that I take from Jocelyn Bell Burnell is to look for the opportunity in situations which don’t seem to have gone your way. It must have been a huge disappointment to have made such a breakthrough discovery only to have the credit for that discovery go to someone else. Jocelyn didn’t let that stop her doing more work in her field and she has gone on to have an incredible career in astrophysics. Career highlights include becoming the first female president of the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Edinburgh as well as numerous teaching positions and awards. Perhaps because of her experience with the Nobel Prize, or just being a woman working in a male dominated field, she has always worked to make physics accessible to people who are underrepresented in the field, supporting the Athena SWAN programme and donating her recent prize money to support a new wave of students.

When you have an idea of how you want a project at work or you career path to go, it can be disappointing and demoralising not to succeed, particularly if someone else has taken credit for your work. If you can look for the opportunity in disappointment, then you will direct the energy and passion you have for your work into trying again, trying something different, rather than feeling frustrated and disheartened.

You can find out more about Jocelyn Bell Burnell and her work here.

Unconventional Mentor no. 20 - Daphne du Maurier

“There is no going back in life. There is no return. No second chance.”

Quote: “There is no going back in life. There is no return. No second chance.” - Daphne du Maurier

Quote: “There is no going back in life. There is no return. No second chance.” - Daphne du Maurier

I don’t remember if it was Rebecca or The Birds that I first read of Daphne du Maurier, but I do remember getting to the end of both of these books convinced that there was another chapter to go and my book must have pages missing. I had already sped through each of these stories, getting more and more excited with each chapter and being completely swept up with the characters and what was going to happen to them, it was a shock to get to such an abrupt ending with no resolution. I have gone back to those stories many times and I have also been working my way through the other brilliant books and short stories that she wrote. Each of them is different and unique in their own way, but that feeling of wanting to race on to the next chapter and that abrupt ending, often a realisation of horror, is present in each one.

Daphne du Maurier began writing in in the 1930s and continued to write up until her death in 1989. She was born into wealthy family, the daughter of actor-manager Sir Gerald du Maurier and actress Muriel Beaumont. Her family connections helped to kick start her career, and along with her marriage in 1932 to Frederick Browning, meant that she lived a comfortable and privileged life at her home Menabilly in Cornwall. Many of her books have been turned into films, with Alfred Hitchcock making Rebecca and The Birds and Don’t Look Now being made by Nicolas Roeg and starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. Her work is also celebrated in Fowey each year, the town she lived just outside of in her house Menabilly, with the Fowey Festival of Arts and Literature.

“Happiness is not a possession to be prized, it is a quality of thought, a state of mind.”

I don’t particularly look to Daphne du Maurier herself for inspiration in my career as there are so many things about her life and work that I just can’t relate to. What I do get from her writing is a way to relax and switch off from my work. Reading a Daphne du Maurier book is a great form of escapism as I find myself not wanting to put her books down and I rattle through the chapters. I find that after I have read one of her books I can come at my work with a fresh pair of eyes and a renewed energy. That said, there are moments in her books that make me think about my work and life in a different way. This quote from Rebecca, and a theme throughout that book, is that happiness is something you experience and there are no possessions you can buy that will make you happy. Even if to the outside world it seems that you are happy, there can be many things going on behind the scenes that people just wouldn’t know about.

I think the inspiration I take from Daphne du Maurier is also partly about the imagination that her books stir up in me. I wonder what it would be like to live in a big house like Manderley (probably very cold) or to travel on a ship across the channel in Fisherman’s Creek or to be able to take a potion that allows you to travel back in time like in The House on the Strand. Her last novel, Rule Britannia, was written in 1972 about what would happen if the UK withdrew from the EEC. It didn’t get a good reception when it was written, and was considered silly, but it could almost be a work of non-fiction today with everything that is going on with Brexit. I’m not sure even Daphne du Maurier’s imagination could have predicted what we are experiencing with that.

I’m currently reading her book of long stories, Not after midnight and other stories and it is so nice to put my phone down at 9pm, and sit down with a book and get completely lost in it, rather than mindlessly scrolling through social media.

Mentor advice: Be careful about how you put yourself out into the world.

The advice that I take from Daphne du Maurier is to remember that you can’t take back something you have said or done once it has happened, so you need to be careful about how you put yourself out into the world. This quote is taken from My Cousin Rachel, and it goes on to say that “I cannot call back the spoken word or the accomplished deed, sitting here, alive and in my own home, any more than poor Tom Jenkyn could, swinging in his chains.” It is a reminder to try to be kind, rather than to say something cruel, to do the difficult task that will move your project on, rather than taking the easy way out. It’s about trying to live without regrets. We only get one life to live and we can all be more mindful about the decisions we make every day and the impact that they have on the world around us.

To find out more about Daphne du Maurier visit the website of her estate here

Unconventional Mentor no. 19 Ella Fitzgerald

"Just don't give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don't think you can go wrong."

Quote: "Just don't give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don't think you can go wrong." - Ella Fitzgerald

Quote: "Just don't give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don't think you can go wrong." - Ella Fitzgerald

I have had a twenty plus year love affair with Ella Fitzgerald. I can’t remember the first time I heard her voice or what the song was, but I do remember being amazed that someone could make such a rich, warm and emotion invoking sound with their voice. At the time I was singing as a chorister where my high, angelic voice sounded nothing like the sound that Ella was making, and I couldn’t work out how she could do it. I sing along to her now when I am listening at home and I can’t even get close to the sound she made or the versatility her voice had.

“It isn’t where you came from; it’s where you’re going that counts.”

Ella Fitzgerald didn’t have the easiest starts in life. Her biological father left her mother soon after Ella was born. She lived with her mother, stepfather and half-sister in Yonkers, NY until her mother was tragically killed in a car crash when Ella was 15 years old, and her stepfather died not long after too and she was brought up by her aunt. This time in her life was difficult, after skipping school and getting into trouble with the police she ended up at a reform school. Her escape came in 1934 when she took part in an Amateur night at The Apollo, singing quite by chance but discovering a talent. From here she entered every talent show going until she finally got a record label.

"The only thing better than singing is more singing."

Throughout her life Ella Fitzgerald worked incredibly hard, performing all over the world and selling millions of records. As well as dealing with the struggles that come with being a singer who toured constantly, her relationships were strained by her singing commitments, Ella also faced discrimination as a black artist in a time in America when segregation was widespread. On one occasion in Dallas she was arrested, with the police having the audacity to ask for an autograph at the police station. According to her website, Marilyn Monroe was a huge supporter of her and helped to further her career…

"I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt," Ella later said. "It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the '50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him - and it was true, due to Marilyn's superstar status - that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman - a little ahead of her times. And she didn't know it."

I love that Marilyn Monroe used her power and influence as a white woman to provide an opportunity for a black singer, a real example of women supporting women and building each other up.

"I know I'm no glamour girl, and it's not easy for me to get up in front of a crowd of people. It used to bother me a lot, but now I've got it figured out that God gave me this talent to use, so I just stand there and sing."

I was surprised that Ella Fitzgerald struggled with her appearance and her confidence. Her voice sounds so assured and she looks so glamorous in the pictures I have seen of her. In her singing Ella sounds so confident, but in the few video clips I can find of her she seems quietly confident but a bit uncomfortable being in front of the camera. I guess it goes to show that how people appear to the world and how they actually feel might be two different things.

"I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them" - Ira Gershwin

In 2017 I went to the Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie Prom at The Royal Albert Hall in London, celebrating 100 years since their birth. The songs were sung by Dianne Reeves who is an incredible vocalist (the trumpet was played by James Morrison who was just as talented) and it was wonderful to hear the music that Ella sang brought to life. What it would have been like to see her in concert!! You can see highlights of the concert here.

In 1993 Ella created The Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation to use her success to help others less fortunate than her. The foundation still exists today and provides support in education for children, supporting music students, providing food, shelter and healthcare for those in need, and providing medical care and research for diabetes and heart disease which Ella suffered from.

Ella Fitzgerald’s music continues to live on today. The 100th year of her birth saw concerts celebrating her life and albums released to celebrate her work. I know that I will continue to listen to Ella Fitzgerald for many years to come.

Mentor advice: Don’t give up trying

The advice that I take from Ella Fitzgerald is don’t give up trying at making your dreams a reality. Ella faced many challenges in her life, from grief and loss in her childhood, to discrimination as an established artist, but she never gave up on her dreams. She showed up, put the work in and believed in what she was doing. When you have a dream for your career or business you are not going to get there on the first attempt, and it may take you time, but you can guarantee you won’t get there unless you keep on trying. Don’t give up, find the love and inspiration to keep you going and try again until you do succeed. I am also reminded that just because someone looks confident and that they have everything figured out, it doesn’t mean that they feel that way. Putting on a confident performance and feeling confident about your abilities are two different things and you don’t necessarily need to have to feel confident to give a confident performance.

To find out more about Ella Fitzgerald visit the official website here.

Unconventional Mentor no. 18 - Beth Chatto

“Plants, like people, have their preferences and don't like being thrust into the nearest available hole.”

Quote: “Plants, like people, have their preferences and don't like being thrust into the nearest available hole.” - Beth Chatto

Quote: “Plants, like people, have their preferences and don't like being thrust into the nearest available hole.” - Beth Chatto

The garden that Beth Chatto created at her home in Essex is one of my favourite gardens. I don’t know if it is her 1960s house or because being in Essex it reminds me of the landscape I grew up in (just over the border in Suffolk) but it really is a beautiful space. I only realised last year how much I love and appreciate gardens. During the interview for my current job at Perennial, the only charity in the UK that supports horticulturalists during times of need, I put together a presentation about why I thought I was well suited to the organisation. Looking back at photos from me as a child with my grandparents and even on my holidays now, I realised that visiting a garden is top of my list of things to do. I’m not the best at keeping plants alive, but my little garden here in Maidstone in Kent is starting to come together, and I think with a bit more care and attention it will really start to feel like a proper garden. Working at Perennial has certainly reinvigorated my love of gardens and I’m very lucky to be getting to work with some of the best horticulturalists in the industry and will be running at trade stand at the Chelsea flower show this year, I can’t wait!

In preparing for the year ahead I have been looking at the gardens, and garden shops, that inspire me, and I keep coming back to Beth Chatto. Beth Chatto was born in the 1920s and from the 1950s onwards, as she married and started a family, she began to bring plants into her life. She was heavily involved in The Flower Club movement and then in the 1960s, she started to develop what would become the Beth Chatto garden.

“We may all have the same palette, but we paint a different picture.”

Beth Chatto credits part of her approach to gardening being inspired by her husband Andrew, who had done a huge amount of research into plants and what their natural environment was like, which helped her to select “the right plant for the right place.” She also took inspiration from her artist friend Cedric Morris who was also a keen gardener. He inspired in her a sense of developing her own style when it came to make her garden, to paint her own picture with the plants. She was a pioneer of using species plants in her garden, rather than the traditional cultivar garden plants and her influence continues in the gardening world today.

“The right plant for the right place”

At the root of Beth Chatto’s gardening philosophy is choosing the right plant for the right place. A plant will thrive when it lives in the conditions in which it was meant to be grown in, if you put it in a place in which the conditions aren’t what it needs then it will shrivel and die. She knew that in her gravel garden, she needed to find plants that would tolerate extreme drought and heat to survive in this space. Throughout her garden she sought out the plants that would work in the conditions she had, to make the most of every inch of space.

Beth Chatto died in May 2018 at the grand old age of 94. Her legacy lives on in the books she wrote, and of course the garden and nursery that she established in Elmstead Market.

Mentor advice: Know the conditions under which you thrive and do your best to make those conditions happen.

The advice I take from Beth Chatto is to know the conditions under which you thrive and do your best to make those conditions happen. Over the last two years I have had regular coaching sessions which have caused me to do a lot of reflecting on my own needs and behaviour. I have come to understand the conditions under which I thrive and do my best work, and those in which I become bored or frustrated and stagnate in my career. For me, doing work that I feel has a greater purpose and positive impact on the world, and being able to have the autonomy to do that is top of the list. When either of these things aren’t available to me, or worse taken away, I start to become frustrated and don’t do my best work. This project came about because I want to inspire people to take big, bold steps in their careers and businesses, and to bring their ideas into the world. Being able to work on this project on my own, being responsible for everything from who to feature to putting the copy and images together, is what makes me excited and I have really thrived by doing it. What are the conditions that you need to thrive in your career?

You can find out more about Beth Chatto and visiting the gardens here, and you can also hear her speak about how life and gardening in these wonderful videos. To find out more about Perennial and the work we do to visit Horticulturalists visit their website.

Unconventional Mentor no. 17 - Candice Brathwaite

“It helps to have those that look like you occupying all spaces and doing all things to genuinely galvanise you into believing that you too can do something.”

Quote - “It helps to have those that look like you occupying all spaces and doing all things to genuinely galvanise you into believing that you too can do something.” - Candice Brathwaite

Quote - “It helps to have those that look like you occupying all spaces and doing all things to genuinely galvanise you into believing that you too can do something.” - Candice Brathwaite

For my final Unconventional Mentor post of the year I wanted to feature someone who I have found through Instagram, as I have had so much inspiration from this platform over the last 12 months. Seeing people be themselves and share their stories has been a huge help in building my confidence and allowed me to put myself out there. It was hard to choose just one person (and I will be featuring other people on my feed this week) but when I thought about it, I just knew who it had to be…

I first started following Candice Brathwaite earlier this year, just after the birth of her second child RJ when she was talking about how her body was feeling after giving birth. I was immediately drawn to her confidence, positivity and honesty in everything that she spoke about. I love it when Candice pops up on stories, she has an amazing smile that radiates confidence and kindness. From her writing I know how hard she works at everything she does, so that confidence is earned, it doesn’t just happen, but it sure makes me think I can up my game and try to put myself out into the world that confidently.

I’m not a mother by choice, but I am the biggest champion of women being able to mother confidently and with the support they need, so Candice’s project Make Motherhood Diverse is something that I am so pleased exists. Along with her co-founders Nicola Washington and Sarah Gregory Candice has created a space that challenges the ideas we hold about what it is to be a mother, showcasing the stories of all the different types of mothers, making this space a place that is inclusive for all.

“Because when we look at representations of motherhood in our society awareness demands we ask, where are the black mums, the brown mums, the differently-abled mums? Where are those caring for children with additional needs? Where are those with tattoos and piercings, pink hair or those who just don’t care about their appearance? Where are the gay mums, the fat mums, the working-class mums? Where are the mums who might tick several or all of these boxes?

You’re all out there, but ask yourself how many times do we see your faces or hear your stories?”

Following Candice and Make Motherhood Diverse over this last year has opened my eyes to so many different experiences that people have that I just wasn’t aware of. One of the most moving things Candice has spoken about this year is the rise of knife crime in London and how dangerous it is to be a black boy in London. She talks about her fears for her own family and has shared the story of Rachel Webb whose son Kyron who was killed in an unprovoked knife attack in Manchester in 2017. Her story on MMD is heartbreaking to read.

“All women but black women especially need to see themselves enjoying exercise outside of trying to win gold at the Olympics.”

I’ve also been really inspired by Candice talking about the lack of representation of black women in sport (and in life in general) and how she has pushed past her own discomfort to embrace exercise. She featured on an advert for Samsung wearable technology, made by Kevin Morosky, running whilst only being part way through the couch to 5K programme. I was so excited when I saw Candice in the advert, knowing how much work had gone in to her getting to that point.

I can’t write about Candice without mentioning her partner Papa B who features regularly on her Instagram and who she presents her podcast “Pillow Talk” with every week. They are a great couple and they show the work and effort that goes in to having a strong relationship. He is a fantastic role model for young men and dads everywhere and he even has his own Instagram account.

I saw Candice speak at the Stylist Live event in November and she is just as brilliant in person as she is on her Instagram. I really wanted her to have the stage to herself as she has so much to say about being a mother and her views on life. I felt that the host moved on far too quickly when she highlighted that the maternal death rate for black mothers is five times higher in the UK than for other women. FIVE TIMES! I was surprised that the host didn’t want to dive into this more and ask what can be done about it. Candice has written about that shocking statistic for Huffington Post. The fact that I find this statistic shocking is a reflection of how ignorant I am about the experiences of black women, this is not an issue that gets regular media coverage. Black women are all too aware of the racial bias they experience when seeking healthcare, so to have a study with statistics to back it up hopefully means that it can be talked about and dealt with. I am incredibly thankful for Candice writing this piece. I know that 2019 is going to be a big year for Candice and her voice will get heard even more and I can’t wait to hear what she has to say.

Mentor advice: Believe in yourself and your vision and you will make it happen

The advice that I take from Candice Brathwaite is that you have to believe in yourself, even when things seem to be going against you. Candice talks about her big goals and dreams, even when things don’t work out quite how she had hoped. Two of her recent posts really sum this up. The first is a post on Instagram about her being turned down for a blue tick, being told she wasn’t important enough. Instead of seeing this as a failure, Candice took it as a call to work harder.

“There is no rhyme nor reason to someone bestowing you with their version of well done but I’m learning that in the search of acclaim from others, I have to truly work hard to ensure that the things are create have the ability to verify themselves.”

The second post was from her blog where Candice reflected on her two Tea Time live events that took place a year apart. One was in the basement of a venue in Crystal Palace, the other, held a year later, at Mortimer House, a very swanky venue in central London. Candice took the energy from the success of her first event, knew that she could make it bigger and better and worked towards doing it. She was gracious about the things that she hadn’t done well or could have done differently, and she used these to make a plan. Believing in her vision and putting the work in to make that second event a huge success. I love this approach Candice has towards to her work and I hope to channel a little bit of it for myself in 2019.

Candice is going to be speaking at Pregnant Then Screwed Live on 19th January with Papa B talking about their relationship and she is also chairing a talk on mental health, more info can be found here.

To find out more about Candice head to her website and follow her on Instagram.

Unconventional Mentor no. 16 - Marjorie Hillis

“You have got to decide what kind of a life you want and then make it for yourself.”

“You have got to decide what kind of a life you want and then make it for yourself.” - Marjorie Hillis

“You have got to decide what kind of a life you want and then make it for yourself.” - Marjorie Hillis

I started this project to turn how we look at mentors on its head. Rather than seeing mentors as people that we needed to meet with and for them to give us their advice, we can in fact seek out people from all places and times and choose what advice we take from them. My Unconventional Mentors are people from all walks of life who, when I learn about their careers and lives, I take advice and inspiration from that I can apply to my own. Most of the advice that I write about is focused on work and careers, but this week I want to feature someone that has inspired how I live my life when I am not working, as who we are when we are not at work can have a huge impact on our careers.

Marjorie Hillis is one of my Unconventional Mentors who speaks to me through time and space. She worked for many years at Vogue in New York and in the 1930s wrote the book ‘Live Alone and Like It’ which was a guide for women “settling down to a solitary existence.” Marjorie makes it clear that the books isn’t particularly for or against living on your own, but that it is likely that you will do it at some point.

“The chances are that at some time in your life, possibly only now and then between husbands, you will find yourself settling down to a solitary existence.”

I have lived on my own for the last seven years, and whilst this is my choice and for the most part, I love my life, there are certain things that I have found hard. Just because we have chosen to do something doesn’t mean that it will always be easy or that we will be happy all of the time. This book has been a great source of guidance and inspiration on how to live well on your own when I have been doubting my choice. I found it at a time when I was very much not liking living alone and there was something about the bracing 1930s tone and sound advice that helped me through my doubt.

The book is full of really good practical advice that, despite the vintage language and references is still really relevant today. There is a whole chapter on saving money and being financially secure as well as decorating your living space and planning your social arrangements. There is advice about making an effort with yourself and your surroundings, even if you are not doing it for someone else, you should be worth doing it for. I hadn’t realised how much I had been taking the view that “it’s only me, so I don’t need to make an effort” approach to so many things, and this in turn was fuelling my low self-esteem and my doubt about living on my own.

“There is a technique about living alone successfully, as there is about doing anything really well.”

The overriding message that Marjorie makes in the book is that you have to make an effort to live alone well. When you live with people there is ready made company and you are often invited to social events with the person you live with. When you live alone, “parties won’t happen unless you plan them, and there won’t be many guests unless you invite them.” The advice from the book includes planning out your weekends, even if that means that you are going to stay home alone, as you will want to make sure you have good food and a good book at hand for company. Each chapter includes examples of lone women who are either living alone very well, or who find themselves rather miserable and act as a warning of what might happen if you don’t follow Marjorie’s advice.

Despite living over 80 years later than when Marjorie was writing her book, it still feels different to be living alone by choice, even though more and more of us are doing it than ever before. There is still the assumption that being paired up and living with someone is best, and there is still a slight unease about socialising with a lone woman. People like you to come as a pair. The book was originally titled ‘Live Alone and Like It - a guide for the extra woman’ and whilst the world we live in today is less formal, couple privilege is very much still a thing. Check out Laura Jane Williams post about it here.

I am not the only one who has been inspired by Marjorie Hillis, Joanna Scutts discovered her book whilst studying at university. She went on to write her dissertation about Marjorie and has now written a book about her and the generation of women who lived alone and liked it. You can find out more about her book here.

Mentor advice: If you want to be good at something you have to work at it

The advice that I take from Marjorie Hillis is that if you want something in life, then you have to work at making it happen. Living alone can be fabulous, but that won’t happen by accident, you have to work at it like you would anything else that you want to be accomplished at.

“The basis of successful living alone is determination to make it successful”

The book is very much focused on living alone, but I think this determined attitude is just as applicable to your work and your career. There has to be that internal drive and determination to succeed at something that makes you put in the hours when you would rather go home and watch TV, that makes you step outside of your comfort zone to take you to the next level. In order to be determined to make something a success you have to have thought about what success looks like and strive for it. This book lives on my bedside table and it has helped me to live alone and love it!

Unconventional Mentor no. 15 - Ninette de Valois

“Hardly any generation wants to take the whole of the last generation, it just wants to take its best bits.”

“Hardly any generation wants to take the whole of the last generation, it just wants to take its best bits.” - Ninette de Valois

“Hardly any generation wants to take the whole of the last generation, it just wants to take its best bits.” - Ninette de Valois

One of my favourite things to do at this time of year is to go to the ballet. The Nutcracker is particularly festive, but I would happily see Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty too. There is something special about getting dressed up, travelling up to London, and going into the very decadent Royal Opera House to see these beautiful, graceful and strong dancers tell a story without words.

Ballet seems to be one of those timeless things that has been around for ever, and whilst it was popular in Europe from the 1600s, the form that we know it today only really took off in the 20th Century when Diaghilev and the Ballet Russe returned to France in 1907. In the UK, ballet didn’t really become popular for most people until the 1930s and 1940s following the establishment of what would become The Royal Ballet by Ninette De Valois. In fact, it was the second world war which would propel this company to fame. They toured the country as The Vic-Wells ballet, keeping up morale and trying to perform in London whilst the city was literally crumbling around them during the blitz. The visionary who made this company was the formidable Ninette de Valois.

Ninette de Valois was born Edris Stannus in Co. Wicklow, Ireland in 1898. From a young age she was a dancer, and by the time she became the principal dancer of the Beecham Opera at age 21 in 1919 she had renamed herself Ninette de Valois.

“Tenacious, far-sighted, and immensely professional, she showed ruthless dedication in realising her ambition to create a great ballet company in Britain.”

This quote from her obituary shows the determination that Ninette de Valois had to make her dream succeed. She looks like a very stern and determined woman in the photos of her from the 1940s and she lived to be 102, which takes a bit of determination.

I am fascinated by ballet dancers. They have to be so strong and develop complete control over their bodies, often forcing themselves into painful unnatural positions with an expression of serenity. The performance they give is one of beauty but the behind the scenes is a lot of hard work, grit, determination and pain. For me, ballet is a reminder that when things look effortless there is usually a lot of effort that has gone in to it. The person who stands up to speak and gives engaging presentations has probably spent hours honing their words and practising their delivery. The person who mingles around a room full of people making connections has spent time honing their networking skills. Things that look effortless rarely are.

Mentor advice: Build on what has come before you

The advice that I take from Ninette de Valois is to build on the foundation of work that has come before you, “take it’s best bits” and create something new. In her productions with her ballet company, de Valois mixed the traditional repertoire (Swan Lake, Giselle, The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty) with new ballets that she choreographed herself such as Job, The Rake’s Progress and Checkmate. It wasn’t that the new was better than the old, but she chose to take forward things which worked and build on them.

In the different areas I work there are lots of ways of working that have gone before me. One of the phrases I hear a lot is “we’ve always done it like this” which is a red flag for stagnation and resistance to change. It’s important to recognise the work that has gone before, but also to incorporate it with new ways of thinking. I am currently shifting from a traditional charity retail career to being a coach. I have noticed in the organisations that I am working in that people are choosing to leave behind the hierarchical tell approach of previous generations and encouraging a coaching culture. Rather than telling employees what to do, managers are setting out their vision for their team and coaching staff to think for themselves and problem solve. The result of this shift is a more empowered and confident workforce who are all working towards the same goal, rather than relying on a few exceptional managers to drive the business forward. Businesses are building on the strong foundations of the past but choosing to cherry pick the best bits to create something new.

You will be lucky to get tickets to see The Nutcracker at The Royal Ballet this year, but have a look here for a taster.

Unconventional Mentor no. 14 - Sylvia Plath

“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”

“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” - Sylvia Plath

“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” - Sylvia Plath

This week The Book of the Week on Radio 4 has been The Letters of Sylvia Plath volume 2, written between 1956 and 1963. I often catch bits of Book of the Week if I can’t sleep (it’s on just after midnight) and this week I’ve been thinking a lot about Sylvia Plath and her life. I first read her book The Bell Jar when I was at university. I remember being jarred by the downward spiral of the protagonist in the story. It starts out so glamorous in 1950s New York and ends up with everything falling apart. I’ve never been much into reading poetry, I find it very hard, but I am really interested in the diaries and letters that people write so I will be getting this and the first volume of letters, so I can find out more about this fascinating woman.

Sylvia Plath was a complex character, but she wrote so eloquently about it drawing on her life to inform her work. The Bell Jar was semi-autobiographical and her best most well-known poetry collection Ariel was written in the aftermath of discovering her husband’s infidelity. It is hard to believe that she was only 30 when she died, and it is such a loss to the world that she didn’t get to live a long life and write about all of her those experiences.

Interest in Sylvia Plath continues today. With the leaking of the letters to her psychiatrist (which are included in volume 2 of her letters) the press went wild with speculation that Ted Hughes was physically violent towards her and caused her to suffer a miscarriage. There are numerous websites dedicated to her, and you can even read a list of all of the books that she had in her library. I also found a brilliant site by Gail Crowther and I really want to read her biography “Sylvia Plath in Devon, A Year’s Turning” written in conjunction with Plath’s friend Elizabeth Sigmud. It is a look at one year in Sylvia Plath’s life when she was living in Devon and writing her poems for Ariel.

“What is my life for and what am I going to do with it? I don't know and I'm afraid. I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want.” 

I think there is something inspiring about the honesty that Sylvia Plath brought to her writing. This quote is from her journal, but I think this feeling comes across in all of her writing, she draws on the feelings of doubt an uncertainty that we all feel about our lives.

Sylvia Plath is very well known today, I remember learning about her a bit in high school but interestingly she is considered overlooked and has been featured in The New York Times Overlooked obituaries project. With her letters and work continuing to be published today she is now getting the recognition that she may not have had in her lifetime.

Mentor advice: Trust your work and push through any feelings of self-doubt.

The advice that I take from Sylvia Plath is to not be afraid of your own story, to trust that your work is good and push through any doubt that you might have. Sylvia Plath’s short life could be seen as tragic, that she experienced loss and infidelity, dealt with crippling depression and ultimately took her own life. And yet she inspires so many people 55 years after her death. Despite all of that difficulty she found a way to keep writing and doing her work. Sylvia used her experiences of her husband’s infidelity to write some of her best poetry. The fuller version of the wrote I used at the beginning of this piece gives a greater insight into how she approached self-doubt

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”


I love that “the outgoing guts to do it and the imagination to improvise” are what you need to get you through. At 36 I am finding that I am getting more confident and comfortable being myself. I am experiencing self-doubt less in part because I am comparing myself less to other people, not worrying what other people think and learning that I can be resourceful in improvising when I need to. I also know that when I experience self-doubt it is not good for anything, so I need to ignore it and maybe re-read my own advice from my blog about imposter syndrome!

To find out more about Sylvia Plath and everything about her check out this very detailed website

Unconventional Mentor no. 13 - Amelia Earhart

“The most effective way to do it is to do it.”

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I am the sort of person that likes to do things “right” and the idea of failing makes me feel a bit sick. I want to know all the information I can about anything I am doing. If I have a project or a presentation, I want to do all the research I can and feel fully prepared before I take something on. Whilst being prepared is a good thing, there comes a time when, as Amelia Earhart said, “the most effective way to do it is to do it.”

Amelia Earhart was not someone who was afraid of failure or of taking on a challenge. Reading about her to write this piece I get the sense that she didn’t see failure as being unsuccessful, but just part of the process of trying to reach for something really huge. She is known for being the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic and went missing in 1937 during an attempt to fly around the world. Given that only 4% of commercial pilots today are women, this must have seen like a huge risk for a woman to take in the 1920s and 1930s.

Amelia was born in Kansas, USA in 1897. According to the official Amelia Earhart website she “kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about successful women in predominantly male-oriented fields, including film direction and production, law, advertising, management, and mechanical engineering.” It seems like she was always going to strive for things that weren’t expected of her as a woman, and I love that she surrounded herself with role models, Unconventional Mentors you might say, who she looked up to and drew inspiration from. Amelia was drawn to aviation from a young age and at 23 she had her first flight, after which she was hooked and determined to learn to fly.

“I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”

I love the idea that “failure must be but a challenge to others” and not the end of something. I think that we often hold up women to higher standards in society and when they fail, it is seen as a failure of all women and not just that individual. When there are so few women in positions of real power, their failures are magnified and scrutinised even more. How great would it be if we saw an individuals failure as a rallying cry for others to give things a go?

Amelia Earhart has become a feminist icon and many of her quotes feature her thoughts on how women should be independent of men…

“Women should do for themselves what men have already done—occasionally what men have not done—thereby establishing themselves as persons, and perhaps encouraging other women toward greater independence of thought and action.”

She has been featured in the Little People, Big Dreams children’s book series and was even immortalised as a Barbie as part of their Inspiring Women series, and she is such a fantastic role model for young girls (and boys) to have. Her determination to take on the world of aviation, which was so dominated by men, is so inspiring. It wasn’t just in the world of flying that Amelia was a pioneer, when she married George Putnam in 1931, she didn’t take his name, but kept her own. She referred to their marriage as “a partnership with dual control” and she only accepted George’s proposal of marriage after he had asked her six times.

“Never interrupt someone doing something you said couldn’t be done.”

On the official website of Amelia Earhart there is a whole collection of her quotes which you can see here and there were so many I wanted to include, but this one in particular really spoke to me. It is something that comes up a lot from people who are doing things which are not the norm, particularly people who are becoming entrepreneurs and setting up their own businesses. Many of their friends and family will criticise their choices and tell them that their idea won’t work, but more often than not people do make things work despite what these negative people say. They would be advised to take Amelia’s advice and keep their thoughts to themselves.

Mentor Advice: Just give things a go, it is the best way to learn.

The advice that I take from Amelia Earhart is to just give things a go and you will learn so much from the doing. I know that I can be reluctant to do something until I feel that I am fully prepared, done all the reading and made more lists than you can count, but it is the doing where I often get the most learning. I know this! I know that I won’t be able to get better at doing stories on Instagram unless I record stories on Instagram. I know that I won’t get better at supporting coaching clients with different needs unless I coach lots of people with different needs. I know that I won’t know what it is like to run an online course unless I run an online course (I have an idea planned for next year so watch this space)! I’m so preoccupied with being prepared to take on these challenges that I lose sight of the learning that can be gained from the doing. I need to stop thinking about failure as a bad thing or something that can be stopped if I just prepare enough, and I need to start seeing failure as a challenge to myself to try again, use what I have learnt from the doing and make it better. Amelia Earhart literally set the bar high for herself, soaring up to 18,415 feet (setting the women’s autogiro altitude record) and continuing to go for new records even when her attempts at doing so failed. My goals are nowhere near as dangerous as Amelia’s, so I think I can do a bit more of the doing and enjoy the views from soaring high towards my goals.

To find out more about this wonderfully adventurous woman then visit the Official Amelia Earhart website here.