kitchen_floor

The worn out truth

[With an addendum added 18 May 2013]

This week I was asked, very kindly, to write a short bio about myself that might be pitched to a national paper’s blog. (Thank you, Naomi Kerbel.)

Here’s what I wrote:

Eugenie Teasley is founder and CEO of Spark+Mettle, a youth aspirations agency that builds character strengths, soft skills and networks for marginalised young people. She holds degrees from Oxford University and UC Berkeley. She has taught in south London and has lived and worked in San Francisco. Now aged 32, she lives in Brighton with her husband, son and two dogs. She speaks and writes on topics that centre around flourishing,  entrepreneurship, feminism and youth development. Her blog (www.eugenieteasley.com) is written from the perspective of a young(ish) woman candidly reflecting on her daily thoughts and experiences as she learns to lead an organisation and find a way to balance it with her personal life.

She was sweet about it. But then I realised that I was just putting out the shiny version. Best face and all that. So much for ‘candid’.

Here’s the real version:

kitchen_floor

Eugenie Teasley persuaded some (admittedly pretty hotshot) buddies to become trustees to a fledgling idea in 2011. She’s run it mostly from her kitchen. The floor of which is as worn out as she quite often feels. She sends a lot of emails, but can regularly still be found in her pyjamas well after lunch time. For no apparent reason she tends to avoid phone conversations and only listens to voicemail about once a week. She has two dogs and even after her #Flourish40 experiment still barely walks them. She hasn’t cooked anything this month, yet feels disproportionately proud that she folded two baskets’ worth of washing a week ago. Her kid spends so much time with the childminder that he now mimics her facial expressions. She’s just discovered that there is a word for people who refer to themselves in the third person: illeist. She should have know that because her BA was in Classics, but she didn’t because she has forgotten everything she ever learned. Except that ‘education’ means to ‘bring out’ rather than to ‘indoctrinate’. But then again a lot of non-Classicists can figure that out. 

Update, May 18

A wonderful friend just sent me an email with her own ‘unpolished’ bio. It was so brilliant it made me want to ply her with cocktails. It was also so candid it made me realise that my ability to be genuinely candid is clearly more gradated than I first reckoned.

Here’s my Candid 2.0 addendum:

I’m actually a generalist in the disguise of a professional. I tried to create some neat, impressive narrative arc for my life but really it works because a lot is left out—such as I quit my teaching job halfway through the year and moved to San Francisco, primarily for love and only secondarily for a Masters. I love coming up with ideas which means that old ones tend to get replaced by new ones a little bit too often. And although I’m more into date nights than I have previously been, I can be regularly found alone on the sofa looking at my Twitter feed and reading Grazia. What does that magazine choice say about my purported feminism? I mean, I don’t just pick up old ones in hairdressers, I actually buy them with my own cold hard cash. I’m still not comfortable talking about my facial hair management routines. This is the first time I’ve said ‘chin hair’, ever. I run out of money two weeks before the next pay cheque.  I only run a lot because I like to eat at least one chocolate bar a day. And when I say chocolate bar, I mean one of those big Cadbury ones.

Me and my mother

My mum and the F word

Me and my motherMy mother and I have an argument set to repeat. It’s about the word “feminism”. To her, aged 74, it conjures up a spikey and unladylike period of modern history, clad in biker boots and earnestness. That was the time when other middle class white women ditched their aprons and decided to have a public moan. And much though my mum relishes the company of women, she doesn’t have time for moaners. She’s not interested in power for herself, and is not much interested (or impressed) by women who get themselves into positions of leadership—be it in politics, or the church, or business.

The funny thing, I tell her, is that she is a feminist, whether she likes it or not. Her own (rich, alcoholic, absent) mother made her leave school at 16 and refused to let her go to university, lest she become a “bluestocking” (aka an over-educated bore). Packed off to Europe to study art, mum sneakily took an English A-Level by correspondence, knowing that she wanted to be a writer. By the end of her teens she was paying her own way. She travelled to New York, worked in the department store Bloomingdales then made a solo trip across the States to California, down to the south, and back. On Greyhound buses. This was in the 1950s. The epitome of mettle, she wrote twenty-seven screen plays for the BBC before one got accepted. She became one of the first female presenters on the BBC, heading up shows such as Man Alive; she even filmed a groundbreaking documentary for them on lesbians. This was in the sixties. She has always been financially independent of her husbands, even though she’s a writer; she survived a litany of miserable episodes—enough for several tragedies; she raised my half sister as a single mother for several years. She has always encouraged my sister and me to be brave enough not to follow the crowd, to be original, to do our own thing.

It’s true that the household jobs are pretty standardly divided between her and my father; she says she doesn’t know how to change a lightbulb (which I think she probably does, though it is undeniable that she can only just turn on the television).

Today is International Women’s Day. A time to celebrate women and their multifarious roles and attitudes and skills the whole world over, as well as to highlight the inequalities and prejudices that still, shamefully, abound.

So I find it frustrating that my mother, whom I admire for a million reasons, whom I see as a faulty hero (the best heroes always are), who has had a privileged life but has rarely squandered a second, who has seized opportunities and made things for herself—I find it frustrating that she talks about feminism in a negative way. I think that in her mind, to be a feminist is to be anti-men and anti-feminine. Period. Perhaps during the sound and the fury of the early protests that is the message that came through. But these days it is nothing so stark. In fact, it is simple. It’s just about fairness and equality of opportunity. Women don’t have to always be the one to change the light bulb, but they should be able to if they want to.

My desk

8 books, 5 thoughts, 2 articles and 1 desk

Today marks International Women’s Day: an occasion that is both celebratory and frustrating. A bit like Black History Month, it’s a disquieting reminder in our societal calendar: we’re moving towards a place of genuine equality and lack of prejudice, but quite clearly are miles away from it still, so instead we just acknowledge it loudly within a defined period of time.

I go out and buy today’s Guardian. The front page includes a piece by a brilliant journalist, Polly Toynbee, on why it’s a bad time to be a British woman: rising childcare costs (yup, that resonates), cuts to childcare credits (that too), the hours we spend on unpaid caring, the attrition of public sector jobs, the pathetic number of women in boardrooms nationally (now just 14%), the pay gap…

It makes me empathise with other working mothers—I’m also trying to figure out if I can make enough money to pay for someone else to look after my child. It makes me hugely grateful to my husband for being so brilliant about cooking (well, he’s a chef), and keeping the house from the slum it would become if it was just me in charge. And for looking after our kid more during the week than I do. It makes me proud that the chair of Spark+Mettle is female, and it makes me feel good about being this part-time CEO of sorts.

Spanx founder Sara Blakely

And then I turn the page and see the founder of Spanx, Sara Blakely, splashed across page 3 of The Guardian, surrounded by her girdled troupe, under the headline It’s all about the bottom line: inventor of Spanx squeezes on to billionaires’ list. And it makes me feel conflicted: pleased to see an ambitious and successful businesswoman up in the ranks of men, frustrated that it’s such a big deal, bothered that she got there through underwear, questioning whether the whole concept of Spanx is empowering or disempowering. What does that say to the young women growing up today? You can get on Page 3 of The Sun by taking your underwear off, or on Page 3 of The Guardian by making it—and profiting handsomely from our (literal) out-of-proportion expectations of beauty?

For the last ten years my life has revolved around raising aspirations in young people.  And although Spark+Mettle is aimed at both young men and women, I’m proud that for the Star Track pilot over two thirds of our co-creators are female. Today I’m lucky that I have a little time to reflect on everything, and to try to piece together what exactly I would want to share with young women growing up in the UK (and perhaps beyond): not just to help them raise their aspirations, but also to empower them to realise their aspirations too.

I turn away from The Guardian, and to what is literally right in front of me.

My desk

As I write I have eight books on my cluttered desk, stuffed between my printer and the Yellow Pages. A novel by Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies, not yet begun. The Household Box, by Will Hobson is a brilliant, creative and beautifully-crafted assortment of games, insights and ideas to improve relationships and family life. Then there are a couple on happiness and flourishing, courtesy of Sonjya Lyubormirsky and Martin Seligman respectively. Also a copy of genre-fusing What is the What by my ex-boss and still-hero Dave Eggers. You’ll be able to see that there’s also a copy of the Oxford Book of English Verse—something my dad gave me for Christmas, and something I haven’t actually opened yet. And then there are two left: Caitlin Moran’s utterly brilliant How To Be A Woman, and Craig Dearden-Philips’ Your Chance To Change The World.

The books make me think about expectations of women today in Britain: the ones they have of themselves, and the ones that others have of them. I don’t think there is any one way to realise our aspirations as women today: the methods are as diverse as we are as individuals. But if I had to hammer home 5 points to a young woman, I think they might be these:

Be ambitious.

I’m leafing through Dearden-Philips’ Your Chance to Change the World. It was the tool that turned my idea for Spark+Mettle into an actual thing, an entity, an organisation. It was the ladder that I could put between little tiny me and my big, nebulous aim. And having those rungs were key. Especially here, in the UK. I encountered so many people who were negative. “You want to start up something, now? In this economic climate? When you have no experience of running anything?”

It made me long to be back in California, where if I’d mention a little idea or a little scheme people would positively enthuse about it: giving some good advice, some constructive feedback, and handing me a host of contacts. To be ambitious and female is much better tolerated in the USA. But to young women in the UK, let me emphasise:  it is not impossible, wrong, shameful, nor unfeminine to want to achieve great things in your working life.

In the book there’s a quote from Mark Twain which I love:

Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can somehow become great.

It’s also possible to do this now, here, in this economic climate, with all around us going to pot. It takes a lot of baked beans for supper and robs a lot of easy downtime with friends or family, but it can happen. Find people who give you faith in yourself, good advice and the occasional free lunch. They’re out there.And they are wonderful. Find them.

Yesterday I was at an event with the RSA. Matthew Taylor took the floor to start. I haven’t heard him speak before and I long to hear him speak again. He was talking about social enterprise, and how excited he was about it. He was talking about how often there’s an assumption that being caring and being ambitious are mutually exclusive. And he was talking about how social enterprise is an exciting intersection of these two key characteristics. Thinking about what he said now, through my #IWD lens, I recognise how dementingly gendered these characteristics are perceived as being. And if it’s possible to have both in a business, then it’s sure as hell possible to have both in a human.

Be funny. Or, at least, don’t always be earnest.

HowtobeaWomanCaitlin Moran is funny. She talks about body issues, abortion, motherhood and masturbation and she is funny. She talks about empowerment and emancipation and she is funny. In How To Be A Woman she proves to the world, via the bestseller list, that us women can make serious points about big issues and be funny all at the same time. That’s my sort of multitasking.

As women we can be taken seriously and we can be flippant, irreverent, light. Just as we can wear mini-skirts and not be sluts. And wear high heels and not be totty. Although we may well be tottering…

Women wear heels because they think they make their legs look thinner, ENDOV. They think that by effectively walking on tip-toes, they’re slimming their legs down from a size 14 to a size 10. But they aren’t, of course. There is a precedent for a big fat leg dwindling away into a point—and it’s on a pig.

I’m not much of a pig these days—at least when it comes to shoes. My feet put the loaf into loafer. But that’s not really the point. The point is: well, it’s sort of this. A friend’s mum always told her: “Darling, in life there are the fountains, and then there are the drains.” And by the way, that doesn’t mean you have to be a bubbly little conversationist to be someone to whom other are drawn. Crikey, no. Introverts can be fountains too.

Be a straight-talker.

But at the same time as all this light, multifaceted, spouty talk, we need to speak up and out too. Directly, immediately, reasonably. We can’t hide behind giggles, or whisper behind closed doors.

It comes down, in my opinion, to integrity. And integrity can be shown through humour, as well as through honest dialogue.

In The Household Box, Will Hobson suggests setting up a Suggestions Book: an idea that perfectly encapsulates my two wishes of being both funny and direct all at the same time (in a wonderfully, tongue-in-cheek passive-aggressive sort of way). And boy, how great is the UK at passive-aggressive, not-saying-what-I’m-really-meaning conversation? So this is the moment when I go all product-placement and wholeheartedly advocate for the Ronseal approach to conversation: do exactly what it says on the tin. If you can have a direct conversation with someone without their needing to check your footnotes, life will be a whole lot easier.

Be generous.

Not necessarily with money. Although that’s always nice. But absolutely with time, with ideas and—most important of all—with specific praise.

Generosity is a core tenet in Seligman’s Flourish. He suggests writing letters of gratitude, and then reading them out loud to the person to whom it’s written. You might not feel comfortable doing that, we are in the UK after all, not California, which is fine. But in this country where we say ‘sorry’ such an absurd amount, can’t we find ways to reduce how unnecessarily apologetic we are, and find opportunities to be generous instead?

In The How of HappinessLyubormirsky produces a list of happiness-inducing activities, many of which could be sub-categorised under ‘be generous’:

  • Express gratitude
  • Avoid social comparison
  • Practise acts of kindness
  • Nurture social relationships
  • Learn to forgive
  • Take care of your body

That last ones remind me that it’s important to be generous to yourself (and that’s not the same as being selfish). Go ahead, watch another episode of Community. It’s really funny, and funny stuff is good for your soul. How about that video with the crazy techno cat? Oooh, here it is:

Ahahahhaaa! What a treat! And that’s just on screens. If you don’t treat yourself: you’ll be no use to anyone, just a grumpy pig in heels.

Be creative

Whether it’s with memory (What is the What), or with genre (What is the What), or with language (What is the What), or with children’s minds (826 Valencia) or with the book form (McSweeney’s)… Dave Eggers is a source of creative inspiration. The thing is: he is brilliant. But at the same time (and I say this with the deepest admiration) he is nothing special. Or at least, he shouldn’t be anything special.  He just makes stuff, and he makes stuff happen. We can all do that. In fact, he now spends a large part of his life helping other people do that.

I’m a bit late to the “let’s get creative” party. It’s been a huge, but uncelebrated part of my life. Something I haven’t really ever acknowledged as being a fundamental component for a flourishing existence. But it is. I see it now, it is. It’s so simple. So obvious. So awesome.

And let me be clear: being creative doesn’t have to mean quilting eiderdowns or writing the next zeitgeisty novel (Eat Your Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius Out?). And it certainly does not mean Blue Sky, Out Of The Box Thinking. And it doesn’t mean doing something that feels forced or unnatural or pretentious or hipster. You don’t need to knit an army tank or upcycle your old kitchen.

To me, being creative means simply finding little slivers of time when you can have a sense of awe or wonder and seeing where that takes you. Or getting absorbed in an activity (however menial) to such an extent that your mind wanders free. For the godfather on this subject, check out the man-with-the-impossibly-Hungarian-name and his book on Flow, or watch him talk at TED here:

See? Nothing grand, no skyscraper-high visions or plans: just you back with your mind, checking out the world and your place in it, and getting a little buzz from just that.

I think that does so much for us: it sparks off new ideas, it dusts off old ones. It reenergises. I’d say it’s a mental espresso but then I’d sound like a git…

– – –

So there are my books and what they make me think. What you don’t see in the photo of my desk is the inbox piled high with unopened mail. You don’t see a ball of wax, a hair clip, a lone taxi receipt. Or the two bikes that I almost always hit my head on, hanging just to the right of the desk, above the little-used filing cabinet.

The desk and all its clutter is a pretty good representation of my life right now. Here I am, on International Women’s Day, carving a living out of working on my own at this desk. Balancing paid freelance work with getting Spark+Mettle off the ground with family life and the occasional moments of free time, typically spent in front of screens watching Community or Parks and Recreation. Failing, hourly, at a whole heap of things. Having little time and even less desire to do uxorial things such as tidying, cleaning, vacuuming, ironing. Ironing? Last did that in ’96.

What I do have some time—and a lot of desire—to do is to support young people, especially young women, figure out what they want from life and how they might go about getting it. If I can be any sort of ladder for them, between where they are and where they want to be, then I am a fortunate woman indeed.