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.

Unconventional Mentor no.12 - Marin Alsop

“I want to say to all the young women out there, as I say to all young people: believe in yourselves, follow your passion and never give up, because you will create a future filled with possibility.”

Marin Alsop quote

Marin Alsop quote

This Saturday I sang in what was the first of five concerts I am performing in between now and Christmas, so I thought it was appropriate to pick an Unconventional Mentor this week from the world of classical music, and I have chosen a superb leader in women’s music, the conductor Marin Alsop.

Marin Alsop is an American conductor who studied at the Julliard School and had Leonard Bernstein as a mentor. She is based in Baltimore, where she conducts the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, but she conducts all over the world. In 2012 she was appointed as the principle conductor of the Sao Paulo State Symphony Orchestra as well as being appointed as the chief conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in January this year, a post she will take up in September 2019.

Marin is a wonderfully vibrant conductor and she certainly isn’t afraid to take on a challenge, one of the biggest being the lack of female conductors, and women in general in leadership positions in the classical music world. It is hard to believe that in the last 5 years, Marin’s career has included two big firsts for women. In 2013 she was the first female conductor of the BBC's Last Night of the Proms. The first in its 118-year history, and no other woman has conducted it since (Marin did return in 2015). Her appointment in January of this year as director of Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra is the first appointment of a woman in its entire history. It is shocking to think that in 2018 there are so few women in influential leadership positions in the classical music world, but Marin has commented that this is just a reflection of society today.

“I think it has more to do with a lack of opportunity and then a comfort level in society of seeing women in certain roles.”

Not only is Marin Alsop an incredibly talented conductor, but she also champions young people getting in to classical music and ensuring that it is accessible to them. In 2008 Marin, along with two others provided seed funding for OrchKids, an organisation that promotes music to all of the communities in Baltimore and ensuring there are no barriers to taking up an interest in music by providing “music education, instruments, academic instruction, meals, as well as performance and mentorship opportunities at no cost to students and families”. It is a fantastic initiative and to date children involved in this group have performed to over half a million audience members.

Mentor Advice: Dream beyond what you see in the world today

The advice that I take from Marin Alsop is to not let the current state of the world put you off dreaming big. In her lifetime, Marin has achieved some huge firsts, but as she said in her conductor’s address in the 2013 Last Night of the Proms, she looks forward to the day when we aren’t celebrating the first woman but many of the other women who have taken up that baton.

“What excites me is that now is that we’re going to see the third, the fifth , the tenth, the one hundredth woman to follow me because we have to work towards a more just and equal playing field for women.”

Classical music is such a wonderful interest to have. To be able to play an instrument, to sing, or to conduct allows you to take part in a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. It gives you a shared language, you can pick up a piece of sheet music with a group of strangers and instantly make music. Music is a way to express human emotions that can’t be put into words, but that can only be felt. It is something I feel so lucky to have in my life and it frustrates me so much that it is perceived as something for only a certain group of people (well off, white people mostly) and that even once you get over that perception there are still huge barriers to a more diverse group of people getting involved. You only have to look at an orchestra to see that it is mostly men (less so playing, but conducting and composing) and most of the faces you see are white. The firsts that Marin has seen in her career are not uncommon. Despite girl choristers becoming more popular in the 1990s (I remember Wells Cathedral getting girl choristers in the 1990s as my friend Vicky was one of them) it was only in 2014 that Canterbury Cathedral accepted girl choristers and some traditionalists are still very much opposed to it. There is some debate about the quality of the sound a girl can make compared to a boy treble, but all I can see is the huge lack of opportunity that is denied to girls by not getting this experience. Many of today’s great choral composers (Howard Goodall, John Rutter, Bob Chilcott) all had the boy chorister experience. I was very lucky to sing in a small parish church choir with the amazing choir master Mr Parry (father of musician Ben Parry) and the music and tradition I learnt every Thursday evening has allowed me to enjoy a lifetime of classical music. I am encouraged that things are changing, and with Marin Alsop leading the way things can only improve.

To find out more about Marin and her work you can visit her website here and her speech from the last night is also available to watch here

Unconventional Mentor no. 11 - Emily Warren Roebling

“I have more brains, common sense and know-how generally than have any two engineers, civil or uncivil, and but for me the Brooklyn Bridge would never have had the name Roebling in any way connected with it!”

Emily Warren Roebling quote

Emily Warren Roebling quote

This week I had the pleasure of going to Stylist live in London and heard the wonderful Hayley Atwell speak. (I must feature her as an Unconventional Mentor in the future as she is just fabulous.) During her talk, the interviewer mentioned Stylist’s Visible Women campaign and asked Hayley to share some of the women she thought should have more of a presence in our society and one of the women she mentioned was Emily Warren Roebling. I have heard of her, but only because I was on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York earlier this year and spotted the plaque dedicated to her on the bridge.

Emily Warren Roebling plaque on Brooklyn Bridge, NY

Emily Warren Roebling plaque on Brooklyn Bridge, NY

Described by her husband as “A woman of infinite tact and wisest counsel” it was the work of Emily Warren Roebling that got the bridge built. She had married Washington Roebling in 1867 and travelled to Europe with him where he was studying about the use of caissons in bridges. The Brooklyn Bridge was started by his father, but just a few days into construction his foot was crushed, he contracted Tetanus and died. Washington Roebling took over as chief engineer, but he too was injured during the building of the bridge and had to take a back seat, literally, and he spent most of the remainder of the construction sat in a chair looking at the bridge through a telescope from his house. Emily took on the project management of the bridge, liaising with all of the key people involved in building it and generally keeping the project on track.

"Back of every great work we can find the self-sacrificing devotion of a woman.”

Although she isn’t hugely well known today, the contribution of Emily Warren Roebling was recognised at the time. The Times Newspaper reported “How the Wife of the Brooklyn Bridge Engineer Has Assisted Her Husband.” There is also a plaque on the bridge celebrating her contribution with the quote "back of every great work we can find the self-sacrificing devotion of a woman.”. She was the first person to cross when it opened and by all accounts was greatly respected by all who she worked with.

Brooklyn Bridge

In later life, Emily went on to study Law and during her graduation ceremony read out her essay entitled “A Wife’s Disabilities” in which she discussed how the law was prejudiced against women and that “favouritism of women was a pretty compliment which had little foundation on facts.”

Emily died in 1903 at the age of 59, just a few short years before women got the vote, and I’m sure her name would be better known today had she lived longer.

I think Emily is a fantastic role model for women who want to be engineers today, an industry that is still very much dominated by men. The hashtag #ilooklikeanengineer took off in 2015 when Isis Anchalee was featured in a recruitment poster for her employer and people suggested she didn’t look like an engineer, and many women still continue to drop out of STEM subjects at degree level.

Mentor Advice: Step up to the challenge

When her husband took ill, it could have been very easy for Emily to console him, to tell him that he wouldn’t be able to continue his father’s project and encourage him to recuperate and move on. Instead, she ventured out into a male dominated world and took up the challenge to make sure that bridge was built in his name. Not only did she build a bridge, but once she had done that AND raised her son, she furthered her own education and fought for the rights of women to be represented in the law. I just love that when faced with this challenge Emily rolled up her sleeves and got stuck in to the work in ways that weren’t even expected of her. Just think what we could all achieve if we took that approach to some of the challenges in the world today.

To find out more about the work of Emily Roebling check out this brilliant article by the New York Times about overlooked obituaries of women

And do check out Isis Anchalee’s blog too

Unconventional Mentor no. 10 - Marie Colvin

“Bravery is not being afraid to be afraid.”

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With the recent publication of In Extremis by Lindsey Hilsum, I thought that I would feature Marie Colvin as my Unconventional Mentor this week. I haven’t got a copy of the book yet, but it is going to be the Book of the Week on Radio 4 this week, so I will be able to listen along to it this week.

I first mentioned this quote by Marie Colvin back when I started this project to talk about Gerda Taro, a war photographer who died during the Spanish civil war and whose legacy and life story was almost completely lost. The quote really resonated with people. Although we don’t all venture out into war zones every day, we do face challenges and obstacles that scare us and learning to be brave and doing things despite the fact that they scare us is the only way to develop.

“Simply: There’s no way to cover war properly without risk”

I didn’t know who Marie Colvin was until after she died, and it is a loss for the world that she was killed. Marie died in Syria in 2012 reporting on the situation in Homs, killed alongside a French photographer Rémi Ochlik. Her death wasn’t accidental. She was targeted by Syrian forces who didn’t want her to be reporting on the situation there and her family have filed a civil action against the Syrian government.

She had spoken before about the risks that journalists take to report on war zones.Marie was badly injured when reporting in Sri Lanka, a solider launched a grenade at her and the shrapnel entered her face and chest causing her to lose an eye. She didn’t let this stop her reporting and instead donned her iconic eye patch and continued to report from places of conflict all over the world.

“ Our mission is to speak the truth to power.”

She truly believed that the risk to her own safety was worth it to tell the stories that needed to be told. Her career spanned over 30 years and during that time she reported on conflicts in the Middle East, Chechnya, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and East Timor. As a journalist she won many awards including The British Press Awards Foreign Reporter of the Year three times,

At a time when journalism is under threat (with the death of Jamal Khashoggi currently in the news) Marie’s story is a reminder of the great personal risk journalists put themselves through to ensure that the truth of these horrific situations is told.

Mentor Advice: Take risks for the things you believe in

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

There are several books and films that have recently been released about the life of Marie Colvin. Paul Conroy, the photographer who was injured in Syria when she was killed has made a documentary about her work called Under the Wire which you can watch here. Lindsey Hilsum’s book was published by Penguin Books on 1st November and you can find out more about that here. A Private War is a film starting Rosalind Pike about the life of Marie Colvin which was released in February 2018, you can see the trailer here. For more information about Marie and her own words about war and the risks journalists take then do visit this website.

Unconventional Mentor no. 9 - Brené Brown

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren't always comfortable, but they're never weakness.”

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About 5 years ago I discovered coaching and as a result of that learnt that personal development was a thing. That I wasn’t limited by the skills, talents or circumstances I was in, but I could dream big, set myself goals and work to develop myself to achieve them. It was a complete revelation and looking back I can’t believe that I didn’t know this before. I have done so much in my career and in my personal life over the last 5 years, and I’m not sure that the person I was 5 years ago would be able to believe it.

One of the most inspiring people who has helped me on that journey is Brené Brown. I can’t remember where I found out about Brené Brown, but I do remember the first time I watched her TED talk. Her Texan accent is warm and inviting, she is proud of her academic work and doesn’t hide how much a part of her identity it is, and she is funny, funny about very intimate vulnerable moments in her life.

“Maybe stories are just data with a soul”

At the core of Brene’s work is the feelings of shame and vulnerability. I watched that TED talk and knew that I wanted to find out more about this woman. In the talk, Brené opens up about how the findings of her research, the vulnerability is central to living a whole-hearted life, caused her to have a breakdown and need to go for therapy to understand how this would impact her life.

“I woke up the morning after I gave that talk with the worst vulnerability hangover of my life”

In her second TED talk, Listening to Shame, Brene’ confesses that she woke up the day after giving her first talk and couldn’t believe what she had shared to 500 people. She goes on to say that she hadn’t got a plan for what would happen when it went on YouTube and got 4 million views. That was in 2012, since then the talk has reached 36.7M views.

Her books got me thinking about my career and my life in completely different ways. I started with Daring Greatly, which is about putting yourself into the world and taking risks, and very quickly followed that up with Rising Strong which is all about how to deal with failure and disappointment which, if we have dared greatly, is inevitable.

“We can’t practice compassion with other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly”

Her books have helped me to become a better manager and a better colleague in my work. I have learnt how to have compassion for other people and to see things from their point of view. I have also learnt to be kind to myself.

Her latest book Dare to Lead, has just been published and it takes all of the research from her books and turns it into a guide for how to lead in the workplace. I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy

Mentor advice: “Vulnerability is not weakness”

The advice that I take from Brene’ Brown is to embrace vulnerability.

I have learnt that being vulnerable is where my best work happens. When I am not afraid to say I don’t know the answer, or to challenge a popular opinion or just stick to what I know to be true for me, even when everyone else around me wants to do things differently. That is when I do my best work and also feel like my best self while doing it. I have learnt that failure is not just ok, but it is a sign that I am trying really hard to break new ground and do big things. I got so much from reading Brene’ Brown 5 years ago, I had actually forgotten just how much I learnt. At this point in my career, when I am making a big transition which requires me to put myself out there and be vulnerable, I think I need to go back and re-read some of her work. Watching her TED talks to write this piece has really got my energised about what I can do in the next 5 years.

To find out more about Brene’ Brown visit her website or watch her TED talks here and here.

Unconventional Mentor no. 8 - Nicola Beauman

"I get bored very easily! When I read I need an interest, a theme, an intensity. Our books aren't for everyone. You either like them or you don't. But I can live with that."

Persephone Books, Lamb’s conduit Street, London.

Persephone Books, Lamb’s conduit Street, London.

The Persephone Books shop in Lambs Conduit Street is one of my favourite places in the world. The grey shop front always has window displays that take you back to the 1930s and 40s and hint at what might be inside, where you will find hydrangeas, bentwood chairs, worn textiles and hundreds of books all with the same distinctive grey cover.

Each book is made with so much thought. The covers might be the same, but the end papers are taken from beautiful fabrics that were made in the year that the book was published. There is also a bookmark that comes with each book that includes a snippet of what is inside to entice you to start reading it immediately.

Inside Persephone Books, Lamb’s Conduit Street.

Inside Persephone Books, Lamb’s Conduit Street.

This wonderful place on Lamb’s Conduit Street in London is the creation of Nicola Beauman who founded Persephone books in 1998. The idea behind Persephone Books was to publish lost or out of print books and they are mostly from the interwar years and they are mostly by women. The books are all grey “because – well – we really like grey.”

“We also had a vision of a woman who comes home tired from work, and there is a book waiting for her, and it doesn't matter what it looks like because she knows she will enjoy it.”

This is very much a personal vision of Nicola Beauman and she chooses the books that she would like to read, rather than trying to keep up with the current trends. I think this is what readers like about the books. Nicola has worked as a journalist, fiction review and in publishing, and she is also an author in her own right. In 1983 she wrote A Very Great Profession, which looks at the lives of middleclass English women in the interwar years through the writing of the authors of the time. The book was republished by Persephone books 25 years later.

On their website, Nicola’s likes include “brogues, daffodils, mattress ticking and madeira” which are all delightful things. Persephone books creates that nostalgic feel that things were better in the past, that it was a simpler time when the aesthetic of things, fabrics, posters, adverts were all much more pleasing. We all know that this nostalgia isn’t real. The books themselves don’t shy away from the realities of war, death and destruction, but it is packaged up in such a way that we can escape from the harsh news of today with one of these lovely books.

A window display at Persephone Books

A window display at Persephone Books

I love that most of these books are written by or about women. There is something different about reading a book from a woman’s perspective, particularly during the interwar years. It was a time when women’s roles in the world were changing significantly, following the beginnings of rights to vote in 1918 and the impact of both wars on the work that women were able to do. The books also cover the domestic, which is not something that we often get to hear about. The history books often document big events out in the world, but the lives of people, particularly women, are lived in the home and these experiences are just as important to hear about. The books are somewhat limited in the types of women that feature, they are mostly middle-class stories, although there are authors whose lives were disrupted by the second world war including Etty Hillesum wrote An Interrupted Life and died in Auschwitz in 1943. I would be interested to know if there are lesser known authors from working class backgrounds and to hear about the experiences of people of colour in the interwar years in Britain.

If you can’t get to the shop in London, you can experience something of the charm of Persephone Books on their website. The Persephone Post is a daily snippet of pictures and articles that readers might be interested in. In the last few weeks they have featured textiles by Annie Albers, which were used in a book, as there is an exhibition of her work at the Tate Modern at the moment.

The Persephone Forum is where readers write about the books, so if you can’t decide which one you want to buy (which is a very tricky thing to do) you can see what other people thing of the books to help you to make your choice. Once a month you can hear from Nicola directly by reading The Persephone Letter.

2019 marks 20 years since the first Persephone book was published and in the Biannually they have announced that they are planning some changes. I hope that whatever they plan only brings this wonderful place to a wider audience of people.

Mentor advice: Do the work that you believe needs to be done.

The advice I take from Nicola Beauman is to do the work that you believe needs to be done. When she first started Persephone books, Nicola thought it would just be a mail order business and the first book she published didn’t sell out of the 5000 copies she bought. Rather than let that put her off, she continued to publish books that she loved and believed needed to be brought back in to print and over time this approach paid off. The success of Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day was a turning point for the business and today Persephone Books has fans all over the world. 25,000 people get the Persephone Biannually which is the loveliest bit of post you can get. This month’s issue includes details of the new books being published this Autumn, The Call by Edith Ayrton Zangwill about a scientist who leaves her job to become a suffragette sounds brilliant and has gone on to my wish list. There is also reviews, news and extracts from things written by Persephone writers.

It is clear from every aspect of Persephone Books that Nicola has a passion for bringing these lost stories back to life and in such a distinctive way. For me this is a reminder to find the passion in my work and to find my own way to do things, and then keep working at it.

You can find out more about Persephone Books here and Nicola Beauman here

Unconventional Mentor no. 7 - Ava DuVernay

“If your dream is only about you, it's too small.”

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A couple of years ago I discovered the #52filmsbywomen project which was started by the LA based group Women in Films. The challenge was to watch one film a week made by a woman to highlight that, despite there being amazingly talented female film makers, only a tiny % of directors, writers, producers and composers in the film industry are women. I loved the idea of this project as I don’t watch many films, so when I do I’m very particular about what I see and using this as a way to pick things seemed like a good idea.

I’m glad I tried it as it has uncovered some fantastic films that I might otherwise not have seen. Some of my favourites are:

Mustang directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven

Divines directed by Houda Benyamina

Stories We Tell directed by Sarah Polley

Whatever happened to Miss Simone directed by Liz Garbus

Of all the women I discovered through this project, Ava DuVernay is someone who I have gone on to find out more about and look to for inspiration and advice. Choosing a quote to represent Ava was really hard because she speaks out about so many topics and champions lots of different people.

“I want more girls to be able to see themselves behind the camera creating images we all enjoy, and I want to call attention to the fact that women directors are here all over the world.”

Ava is passionate about ensuring that women and girls are represented in film, both in front of and behind the camera. Most of her films are centred on young black female protagonists and she portrays a breadth of characters in the other parts.

It’s not just her films that I love, but her whole approach to the film industry and how she champions women. Ava grew up in Compton, American where access to cinemas was very limited and it was her aunt who used to take her on trips out where she found a love of art and cinema. She talks about how she has had to challenge the patriarchy of the film industry, that we internalise the truth of the stories we see in film and when these stories are only from one perspective, usually a white male perspective, our view of the world is skewed.

Across the three series of the TV show Queen Sugar which she has produced, and Oprah Winfrey is executive producer, Ava DuVernay has selected 25 women to direct the episodes. Many of the women she has chosen were first time TV makers and having this opportunity has led to many of them getting other roles on hit TV shows.

“I made my first film when I was 35, so I firmly believe that you don't have to be one thing in life. If you're doing something, and you have a desire to do something different, give it a try.”

Before embarking on her film making career, Ava had worked as a journalist and set up her own PR firm DVAPR. It was only after several years running this business that she made her first film. As someone who is starting a new chapter in their career at 36, to see what Ava has done over the last 10 years really encourages me to dream a bit bigger than I might have done. If I set myself some big ambitious goals, then where might I be in 10 years’ time?

“When we're talking about diversity, it's not a box to check. It is a reality that should be deeply felt and held and valued by all of us.”

Ava DuVernay is leading the way for how to create a more diverse film industry and telling the stories of people who don’t usually get a main stream voice.

Mentor Advice: Dream big and make a difference in the world

The advice that I take from Ava DuVernay is that when you dream big (and you do the work) then you can produce something that impacts on many people’s lives, improving the world for the better. Ava DuVernay has done so much more than just make great films. She has challenged the norm of the film industry and made films in which underrepresented people can see themselves. She has championed diversity on and off the big screen and the ripple effect of her work and influence is huge.

You can find out more about Ava DuVernay and her work here and for information on the #52filmsbywomen project visit the Women in Film website here.

If you are inspired to take on the #52filmsbywomen challenge there is a great list of films by women that are currently on Netflix here.

Unconventional Mentor no. 6 - Millicent Fawcett

"Courage calls to courage everywhere and its voice cannot be denied"

The statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London

The statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London

I have been planning this project for a long time, and most of the Unconventional Mentors I feature have inspired me for years, but who to post about each week has very much been influenced by what is going on in my own life when I sit down to write. This week I had the complete privilege of attending the Women’s Voices, Women’s Votes Festival for Women in Ipswich so it felt very appropriate to post about one of my Unconventional Mentors who was instrumental in securing women the right to vote. The festival was a celebration of the first women getting the vote 100 years ago, with talks and interactive stands looking at the challenges facing women in the world today and the festival would not have been possible were it not for the work of this week’s Unconventional Mentor Millicent Fawcett.

Votes for Women banner at the Women’s Festival, Ipswich, UK 6th October 2018

Votes for Women banner at the Women’s Festival, Ipswich, UK 6th October 2018

While it is often the work of Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragettes that we associate with women getting the vote, the work of the suffragists was as important if not more important in ensuring that the legislation was changed, and Millicent Fawcett was the leader of this group in her role as president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). I am ashamed to say that this is an area of history that I don’t know much about. Despite studying history to A-level most of my history lessons ignored the history of women, and we certainly never learnt about suffragists, suffragettes or any other of the influential people in the women’s movement over the last 100 years. I am making up for lost time now.

Millicent Fawcett was born in 1848 in Aldeburgh, Suffolk and began her political career at the age of 22. She campaigned for women to be allowed to vote throughout her whole life and was in her 70s when the law that allowed some women to vote was passed in 1918. As well as campaigning for the right to vote, Millicent was also a founder of Newnham College Cambridge which was one of the first universities for women, and she campaigned on many other issues that were adversely impacting women.

The work of Millicent Fawcett has recently been commemorated with a statue in Parliament Square, London, UK, the first of a woman ever to be placed there. It was made by Gillian Wearing and came about because of a petition by Caroline Criado Perez.

When the statue was unveiled I went to see it after work and got very emotional looking at it and all the other women who had come to see it and what it meant for them. A little boy with his mum shouted “International Women’s Day” as if this celebration was now a monthly thing and a little girl was listening to her Mum explain the statue to her. It marks the start of what I hope will be many public monuments to celebrate the amazing women who have made contributions to the UK and beyond. What I also love about the statue is that around the bottom, the names and photographs of many of the other women who contributed to women getting the vote are also remembered, ensuring we remember that it was many people working together that helped to make this change happen. This statue is amazing, but one statue is not enough, we need to tell the stories of all the women who have contributed to our society. We need to remember that when women got the vote it wasn’t all women. That when white women have a platform to talk women of colour often do not. That spaces which you can enter to have you voice heard can be exclusionary to women with disabilities. That your background, your upbringing and your education can mean that your story gets heard over someone else who hasn’t had the opportunities you have. The day the statue was unveiled was a brilliant day for women, but it is just the beginning.

Mentor advice: Stay true to your beliefs and values

The advice that I take from Millicent Fawcett is to trust in what you believe is right and no matter how long it takes your vision to come to fruition, stay true to your beliefs and values.

Millicent attended her first meeting about women’s suffrage in the 1860s when she was 22 and it wasn’t until 1918, when she was in her 70s that women got the vote. Her success was very much a lifetime of work. Throughout all that time Millicent not only continued to champion for women to have the vote, but she refused to undertake or support militant or violent actions like those that the suffragettes were promoting. She didn’t believe that these actions would help the cause, so she stuck to her beliefs.

I feel that today we live in a world where information is available to us instantly, and we expect to progress in our careers and businesses so quickly. There seems to be little value in doing work that takes time and effort to craft. I have spent upwards of 5 years working in the same organisations but have seen people around me come and go in months rather than years, and heard colleagues feel frustration that they aren’t progressing quickly enough. I see people on Instagram frustrated that their numbers aren’t growing quickly enough, or their businesses aren’t where they want them to be with only a few weeks or months work behind them. When this happens, there is a temptation to do the work that will get you the quickest result, the next promotion or the most followers, rather than what is true to your beliefs and values. And it often ends in disappointment. If we look to Millicent Fawcett, and understand that work worth doing will take time, then perhaps we can spend less time worrying about how quickly we are making progress and focus on the quality of the work we are doing instead.

To find out more information about Millicent Fawcett and how her legacy continues to support gender equality and the rights of women then check out The Fawcett Society

Unconventional Mentor no. 5 - Nicole Antoinette

"Where we spend our money is a real time vote for the kind of world we want to live in"

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I can’t remember how long I have been following Nicole Antoinette or how I first found her, but her work has played a huge part in my own personal development journey and has been hugely influential in me making the changes in my life needed to start my journey to quit the 9-5 and work for myself. Through her I have found other inspiring people to follow and learn from, as she brings amazing guests onto her podcast, and every episode includes so many other links to podcasts, films, books and events. It even led to me attending the World Domination Summit in 2016 which has really changed my life (more on that to follow.) She sets herself big goals (she is currently hiking the PCT, you can follow her journey on Instagram) and isn’t afraid to talk about failure or changing her goals when they no longer serve her.

I do remember that the first thing I found was her blog called A Life Less Bullshit and I loved how Nicole got straight to the truth with everything she wrote, and she was really honest with her own experiences too. None more so than when she announced in 2015 that she was not only stopping her blog but deleting everything she had written because it no longer served her. My first reaction to her deleting the blog was one of shock, why would you just delete all your hard work? But now, three years on, Nicole has produced so much more work that I don’t even notice that the blog doesn’t exist anymore and the things she is producing are even better than before. It really was a lesson in letting go to grow!

After deleting her blog Nicole turned her attention to her podcast Real Talk Radio. It was the first podcast that I had ever listened to and it set the bar really high for all other podcasts.

“The goal is for each episode to feel like a sigh of relief, reminding you that we’re all just doing the best we can, and that no matter what we’re in this together.”

In each episode Nicole interviews different people about their lives and focuses on the downs as well as the ups, talking about what has been hard for people to do, what they have had to sacrifice or compromise on and what they have learned about themselves along the way. The truthfulness of the conversations is what I find so inspiring. For the last few years I have been setting myself bigger and bigger goals, and at times I have been struck down with imposter syndrome thinking that I am not good enough to achieve my dreams. Listening to these podcasts I have realised that everyone experiences setbacks and not feeling 100% confident all of the time. Knowing that I am not the only person to doubt myself has been a huge help.

The guests that Nicole features come from all walks of life, and in recent seasons she has tried to include a really diverse range of people. This means that the conversations are so educating about how other people experience the world. I can only know what it is like for me to experience the world, as a white, straight, educated, financially stable, able bodied woman. But I can understand how other people live their lives and the challenges they face that might be different to me, perhaps even things that I take for granted, by listening to their stories, and Nicole does an excellent job of ensuring that the people she brings onto the podcast have many different and diverse stories to tell. It has certainly made me think about the privileges that I have and inspired me to continually look at who I follow on social media to make sure I am not only seeing a narrow view of the world.

What is even more amazing about Nicole’s podcast is that it is 100% listener funded. Nicole has always been really open about how she makes money in her business and funding the podcast has been something she has talked about at length. At first, she sought out sponsors from companies that she believed in to fund the show, but this didn’t feel right and so she decided to set herself the goal of the podcast being 100% listener funded. When she announced this, I decided to sign up right away. It seemed like a no brainer, I had got so much from the conversations that Nicole and her guests were having, so why shouldn’t I pay for that? They have invested time and emotional labour to tell their stories and I am benefiting from that, it just seemed wrong that I should get that for free. In a world where so much content is available for free many people don’t want to pay for it, but I pay for TV programmes on Netflix and articles in magazines, why not podcasts?

Supporters of the podcast pay $8 or more per 8-episode season and get access to the behind the scenes chat on Patreon, a weekly email, a book club and being part of the community. The community even happens in real life, and in August 2017 I attended the first Real Talk: Live! Event in London with some fantastic women. It was amazing to meet Nicole in person and she curated 4 hours of honest conversation and I left feeling inspired and motivated. The Real Talk community really is something special.

Mentor Advice: If you want to change the world you have to do something about it

The advice that I take from Nicole Antoinette is if you want to change the world you have to do something about it. Nicole talks a lot about how "where we spend our money is a real time vote for the kind of world we want to live in" and it is such a simple but effective phrase to remember. Nicole has created an amazing community of Real Talk Radio supporters. You can hear their passion and enthusiasm by listening to the outros of the podcast which feature supporters of the podcast, I’ve done one and it was so much fun. All of us want the podcast to continue so we are supporting Nicole with our $$. At first, Nicole wasn’t sure if she could hit her target of the podcast being 100% listener funded, but she believed that it was an idea worth going for and it paid off. Her current funding goal is to gain enough support to pay all of her guests to appear on the show and I have no doubt that she will achieve it. What Nicole has shown is that each of us can make a small change in the world that collectively has a big effect. Whether it is where we choose to spend our money or our time, or how we decide to interact with someone we work with, every small action we take has an effect on something else, and over time a small act becomes a big one.

You can find out more about Nicole Antoinette on her website and you can find a list of all her podcasts and the show notes (she writes amazing notes of all the things mentioned in each episode) here.

To follow her journey on the PCT then visit her Instagram page

Unconventional Mentor no. 4 - Hannah Gadsby

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

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If you haven’t watched Nanette by Hannah Gadsby then you need to stop reading this right now and watch it. Not only can I not do justice to this fantastic stand up piece in what I am about to write, but it is so powerful and moving that you really just have to watch it for yourself. It is hilariously funny, but also incredibly moving. The first time I watched it I cried, and I cried again watching it to write this piece.

Hannah Gadsby has been a stand-up comedian for over 10 years, but I only came to know who she was earlier this year when her stand up show Nanette was released on Netflix. In the show she talks about her experiences being “a little bit lesbian”, what it was like to grow up in homophobic Tasmania and why she has decided that she needs to quit comedy. The show starts out like an ordinary stand-up routine, with Hannah talking about her life experiences. She shares how when she was growing up she wasn’t sure that she fit in with “her people” the gay community. Upon watching Mardi Gras on the TV her first thought was “where do the quiet gays go?

I’ve never seen anyone quite like Hannah. She has that fantastic Australian turn of phrase, describing western art as men “painting flesh vases for their dick flowers”. The topics she covers includes homophobia, gender identity, her experience as a lesbian, feminism, sexual assault and a particularly poignant rant about how much of a shit Picasso (or as she likes to call him Pablo Picasshole) was. The show is funny, so so funny, but about things which are difficult and problematic.

It is half way through where the show starts to take an unexpected turn, when Hannah announces that she is thinking about quitting comedy. From here on in the show oscillates between the funny jokes she has been telling us before, to poignant moments of truth and realisation from her life. The decision to question comedy is told to us in the definition of joke, which is the release of tension and Hannah continues to build and release the tension for the rest of the show, it really is quite powerful. By the end of the piece you realise that Hannah is the strong woman from the quote I mentioned at the beginning and for me I had definitely found a new Unconventional Mentor.

Mentor Advice: Your story has value

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.

“I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak and I simply won’t do that anymore.”

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.

If you still haven’t watched Nanette then you can find it here and you can also read more about Hannah Gadsby here

Unconventional Mentors no. 3 - Kate Bolick

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Spinster by Kate Bolick

Spinster by Kate Bolick

Kate Bolick is an American journalist who is a contributing editor for The Atlantic, and also writes for The New York Times, Vogue, Slate and other publications. She teaches writing at New York University and since the publication of her book Spinster in 2015 she has become a role model for single women everywhere, reclaiming a once derogatory term into an empowering statement of independence.

Kate Bolick’s book Spinster, is a book that changed how I see my life and also one of the inspirations for me starting this project. The book is part memoir, part commentary on the history of the spinster and part biography of five amazing and interesting women who lived mostly single lives. Kate’s Awakeners, as she calls the five women writers that she features in her book, have been her go to place for guidance and advice about the choices she is making in her life. The book tells the story of Kate’s journey from always being in relationships to forging a life on her own, reclaiming the word Spinster along the way. What I loved about it was the way her work and her life intertwined, one informing the other and together it forms part of her identity. Unconventional Mentors is very much about a project about finding advice and inspiration for your career, but it isn’t always straightforward to compartmentalise your time into work and the rest of your life, everything is intertwined. I also loved the ideas of her Awakeners. I’ve always looked to the stories and lives of women for reassurance in my own choices and for inspiration on how to live a fuller life, so to see it written about so eloquently really spoke to me.

“Those of us who’ve bypassed the exits for marriage and children tend to motor through our thirties like unlicensed drivers, unauthorized grownups.” 

As a woman who hasn’t married and hasn’t had children I often feel that the stories I see in the world around me, on television, in film, in writing, don’t speak to me. To have a whole book about women not doing the two things that society expects us to do is rare and very much needed. I am so happy about my choices and feel that I am living a life that is true to me, but at times, when my choices are not the norm, it can feel like I am the odd one out, so books like this are so important. To ensure the stories of women who have made different choices are told.

Mentor advice: Build the life that you want for yourself

The advice that I take from Kate Bolick is, in your career, in your life, make the choices and build a life that you want for yourself. Kate talks about the choices that she felt that she should make and the realisation that this wasn’t what she wanted and nothing was going to change unless she changed it. Another quote from Spinster is that “few realizations are as demoralizing as knowing that the only thing standing between you and what you want is yourself.” This idea is both scary and empowering at the same time. Kate listened to what was true for her, made a bold choice to leave behind what was expected of her, what she expected of herself and started to live a life true to herself. What could be more rewarding?

You can find out more about Kate Bolick and her book Spinster here and look out on my Instagram account this week for quotes from Kate’s five Awakeners.

Unconventional Mentor no. 2 - Hedy Lamarr

"The brains of people are more interesting than the looks, I think" - Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr quote promoting the film Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

Hedy Lamarr quote promoting the film Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

Growing up I always thought that you could be pretty, or you could be clever but you couldn’t be both. And as I didn’t have looks on my side I opted to try to be clever, to throw myself at books and music and culture and studying rather than my appearance. I got rather a rude awakening when I discovered that you could be both, meeting some very pretty and very clever women at university, I was left feeling lacking all round.  But I had never considered what it would be like to not be taken seriously for your brains because of your beauty. This was a challenge that faced Hedy Lemarr.

Called the “the most beautiful woman in the world” in her day, she was a beautiful and successful film actress who had so much more to offer the world. Her brain whizzed at 100 miles per hour and she was continuously problem solving and inventing. She was signed to MGM in 1937 and made films throughout the 1940s and 50s. During the second world war she wanted to help out with the war effort. She was encouraged to utilise her looks to sell war bonds to thousands of adoring fans but her real passion was in the development of secure radio communication. Along with her friend, the composer and pianist George Antheil, she developed a frequency hopping radio system that they patented in 1942. Her idea was used by the US military during the second world war, but Hedy wasn’t credited for it or paid. 

Bombshell screening.JPG

I was lucky enough to go to a screening of the film Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story early this year, which documents the struggle Hedy faced to be taken seriously for her intelligence and the struggle to get the recognition for her work too. There is an excellent interview with the director Alexandra Dean, where she talks about the challenges making the film and ensuring that Hedy’s voice comes through (see link below). It is an excellent documentary and you get to hear Hedy Lamarr’s own words about her life from an interview she did for Forbes magazine in 1990. 

Hedy was a very sad figure later in life, estranged from her children and secluded from the world. She had undergone a lot of cosmetic surgery to maintain her looks that she was so highly praised for at the height of her career. I can’t help but think that if she had received the recognition for her intellect and her inventions that her looks wouldn’t have been so important and she could have had a much happier later life. 

Mentor advice: Make sure you see the whole person

The advice I take from Hedy Lamar is to not let your judgments and preconceptions about the world get in the way of seeing the potential in others (and yourself). Hedy embraced curiosity, and this led her to discover a technology that exists today in the form of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. So many people just saw her as a beautiful woman with nothing else to offer, but she was incredibly clever and has played a part in the technology you are using today to read this article. If she had listened to her critics and just utilised her looks to sell war bonds the world might be a very different place. As I meet new people at work and in life, it is very easy to make judgements about them based on the superficial things we know about them, but dig a little deeper and people usually have a lot more to offer that might surprise you. 

You can get Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story on itunes and you can find out more about Alexandra Dean here  and read the article here.

Unconventional Mentor no. 1 - Lee Miller

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

Poster for the 2007 exhibition The Art of Lee Miller at The V&A

Poster for the 2007 exhibition The Art of Lee Miller at The V&A

I first found Lee Miller in 2007 when I read an article about her photographs being discovered and an exhibition of her work put on at the V&A in London. Looking at her work now, and how well known she was during her lifetime (she was featured regularly in Vogue, and was one of the first women to report from the front line during the second world war and she even photographed Hitler’s apartment) it’s hard to believe that her work lost all recognition and even her son didn’t know the extent of her work until all her negatives and photographic equipment were found after her death in the 1980s.  Since my first discovery I have been fascinated with Lee Miller, getting to know more about her through reading biographies about her, attending exhibitions of her photographs and visiting her Sussex home Farley’s Farm House.

Born in America in 1907, Lee first became a model for Vogue, before moving to Europe where she studied photography with Man Ray and met many of the great artists of her time. She was friends with Picasso and Jean Cocteau included her in one of his films.  She set up her own photographic studio in New York before getting married to an Egyptian man Aziz Eloui Bey and moving to Cairo. Whilst there she continued to take photographs, including visiting Syria where she took pictures that were used in this book by Robin Fedden that I quite by chance picked up in a charity shop not knowing her work was featured.

Syria by Robin Fedden featuring photography from Lee Miller

Syria by Robin Fedden featuring photography from Lee Miller

At the outbreak of the second world war Lee had left her husband and was living in London with Roland Penrose when she became the war photographer for Vogue. I went to the exhibition “Lee Miller A Woman’s War” at the Imperial War Museum in 2016. It was a fascinating mix of surrealist style photography and images capturing the horror and destruction of war.

Some of my books about Lee Miller

Some of my books about Lee Miller

After the war Lee moved to Farley’s in Sussex with Roland Penrose where she lived for the rest of her life. Her house is now home to her archive and is run by her family today.

Each time I learn something new about Lee Miller I am amazed at how many different sides to her there were and just how much she threw herself into each new project, passion or chapter in her life, and left her previous life behind. Last year I visited Farley’s for a talk by her granddaughter about Lee’s love of cooking and the publication of the cook book she didn’t quite get to publish in her lifetime. Cooking became a passion of hers in later life and she made it a huge part of her life, amassing a collection of over 200 cookbooks, entering competitions, going on cookery-based trips and featuring in magazines.  

Last weekend I was lucky enough to attend a surrealist jazz picnic at her house. It was such a fun evening, with some amazing fancy dress outfits and of course I made some Lee Miller inspired picnic food.

Surrealist picnic at Farley's Farm House

Surrealist picnic at Farley's Farm House

I even got to meet her son Anthony who was our host for the evening. I love that her legacy lives on at Farley’s and if you have a chance to visit I would definitely recommend it.

Meeting Anthony Penrose wearing "Lee's Lips" inspired by the Man Ray painting Observatory Time - The Lovers

Meeting Anthony Penrose wearing "Lee's Lips" inspired by the Man Ray painting Observatory Time - The Lovers

Mentor advice: You can change your mind about how who you want to be

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 this 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.  

What I love most about Lee Miller is how she changed and evolved and wasn’t afraid to let go of something in its entirety to embrace something new and I think that must have come from her wanting to make decisions what were right for her. She found value in each new venture and was able to make each one a success in its own right. This is something that I find particularly hard to do in my career, being able to let go of a project or role to move on to something new. It’s part not wanting to feel I wasted my time on something and part wanting every decision to make sense and hang together. That I need to build on my previous achievements and they have to directly follow on from one another.

What Lee Miller shows me is that you can start something new again and again and it be as valuable and successful as something you have continuously worked on. Not everything has to connect and if you want to do something completely different that is ok to.  It doesn’t mean that the things you did before were wrong, they just aren’t serving you anymore.

For more information about Lee Miller, to see her work or to visit her house visit http://www.leemiller.co.uk/ and  https://www.farleyshouseandgallery.co.uk/