View the video here: Debra – Topic
The former aide to Harold Wilson and Edward Heath on a rollicking career, coming out at 91 and a daily glass of claret
The oldest artist ever to win the prize talks about turning Guardian pages into art, being forced out of London, and how she’ll be spending the prize money on funding her friends – and buying really fancy shoes
Last week I had dinner with my friend. We’d grown up together in the 1970s and 80s. We’d shared so much that I thought we knew each other really well. What she told me that night at dinner shocked me. She said she wished she’d never become a nurse. She said what she really wanted to do was drama. In my mind, she had always wanted to be a nurse and I remember her mum, having conversations about it. She wasn’t sure why her mum wanted that for her, but she did and Jane took on that aspiration as her own. She’s 52 now and has spent her entire career doing something that she didn’t really want to do.
I’ve heard variations on Jane’s story many times in the last decade during conversations about how we can inadvertently try to make us ourselves into something we’re not.
Have you ever been in a job that you feel is totally wrong for you, or maybe even less dramatically, do you just don’t really feel energised by the work you do?
Well, here’s the thing, we know from neurobiology that we are who we are by the time we’re in our mid-teens. After that we don’t change all that much. If we’re a person who loves to connect, we can’t help but stay that way. If we’re not a competitive person but are in a sales job, then no amount of coaching or training can make us into a competitive person. Yet, for the most part, this simple insight into human beings is lacking in schools, colleges, careers’ services and organisations in which we work. For some older people, it means that not only have they been disenchanted in their working lives, but also they face ‘retirement’ or at least a post-paid work phase with little idea of how to find meaning and satisfaction in life.
A strength is something that someone is naturally good at, loves doing and is energised by. Our values and our motivations are also our strengths. For example, great nurses are motivated by the values of making a difference and doing the right thing.
Our strengths are innate. They are developed by the time we reach our mid-teens. By then we are who we are and don’t change very much. We can learn new skills or acquire new knowledge but what we are like as a person fundamentally doesn’t change that much.
Many have little idea of who they really are, what they are naturally good at, what energises and motivates them and what really matters to them. In my parlance, they don’t know their strengths.
Without this fundamental understanding of ourselves, it’s always going to be hit and miss as to whether we find fulfillment. Or, like Jane, we might end up spending a good deal of time doing something that we’re okay at but just don’t love.
This work matters a lot to me because had I known about strengths when I was young I would have refused promotion into a job that I wasn’t cut out for and, in doing so, I would have saved myself a lot of frustration and unhappiness.
When I was in my 20s I was doing a fabulous job that I loved. I was a round peg in a round hole and I couldn’t wait to get to work every morning.
I was doing so well that I was promoted. The new job couldn’t have been a worse fit for me. I found it draining and I was just ‘ok’ at it, I definitely wasn’t great at it. Whereas my previous job had been so energising for me.
My confidence dropped and neither my boss nor I could really understand how it was that I was so vibrant and successful in my previous role but not in my new one. I had ticked all the boxes in the interview but it didn’t occur to any of us to ask whether it was actually a good fit for me.
Needless to say, I didn’t last long in that job. But it played in my mind – how could an organisation with such apparently sophisticated selection approaches have got it so wrong.
Now, almost thirty years later, thousands of people are still struggling being in a job to which they’re not suited and organisations are still inadvertently getting it wrong.
Had I known about the importance of strengths and discovered my own strengths years ago, I would have saved myself a lot of angst and made some better decisions.
It is very sad that the self-insight which is crucial to our happiness and wellbeing is as elusive in the under 20s as it is in the over 50s.
What I am talking about here – is knowing our strengths so that we can make choices that are right for us.
Think of your strengths as something that you can’t not do. They are the things that feel like a natural part of who you are. Have a think about what that means for you. What sort of things do you naturally do? So you almost always…talk to people in lifts, queues or on trains?
Have a list of things to do, even on weekends?
Strive to come first? See the problems that need solving?
If you said a big ‘yes, that’s me’ to any of these things, this an indication that this is one of your strengths or several of your strengths.
Using our strengths energises us. If you said a definite ‘no’ to any of these things, chances are it’s because it’s not a natural strength. These are the things you would probably avoid doing and if you did them, they would drain you.
Think of your strengths as the real you. The things that are naturally you, that you can’t not be or do, that you’re naturally drawn to.
Whatever your age I would heartily recommend investing some time discovering your strengths. It’s a simple exercise and the time spent is a fantastic investment as the self-insight serves as a guide as to what to spend your time doing (and just as importantly, not doing).
Doing what you love, having a purpose and enjoying the small things in life will help you to spend the rest of your days in ways you find meaningful and fulfilling.
Sally Bibb is the author of The Strengths Book: Discover How to Be Fulfilled in Your Work and Life. It was published last month and is a practical book that contains a series of exercises to discover your own strengths as well as advice about how to apply them in all aspects of your life.
Frieda Hughes is a painter and poet. She is also the daughter of two giants of the literary world, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and didn’t read her parents’ poetry until her mid-30s
Read the full story here: Frieda Hughes: ‘I felt my parents were stolen’ | Life and style | The Guardian
Photographer Cindy Sherman talks about a difficult childhood, her compulsion to dress up, growing older – and why she now prefers to live alone
The US writer, who alongside Tom Wolfe blazed a trail with the ‘new journalism’ of the 60s , has provoked controversy with his new book about a motel owner who spied on his guests. But is the story too good to be true?
Read the full story here: Gay Talese: ‘Most journalists are voyeurs. Of course they are’ | Books | The Guardian
“Work is that which you dislike doing but perform for the sake of external rewards. At school, this takes the form of grades. In society, it means money, status, privilege.” Abraham Maslow (1909 – 1970) His “…interest in human potential, seeking peak experiences and improving mental health by seeking personal growth had a lasting influence on psychology.” 
“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” Harriet Tubman (1820 – 1913) escaped slavery to become a leading abolitionist. She led hundreds of enslaved people to freedom along the route of the Underground Railroad. 
Work versus Passion, can I have Both?
Maslow and Tubman are from very different backgrounds. Both respected, they each knew lots about work, passion and a continually changing world based on clashing cultures and the times in which they lived.
Both are right as they were each dedicated to a cause and reached for the stars. However, in the 35+ years working in the corporate world, no matter what the background or circumstances, the common complaint is typically, “I hate my job and want a new one that fits my values and passion. How do I do that?”
Coaching hundreds of employees, peers and friends over the years, I came to the conclusion that I too had the same basic question. As a short-term fix I jumped from one job to another (and a big raise and new title), but no matter how exciting at first, the honeymoon ended somewhere at the two to four year mark. The cycle would continue.
The 50s – I’m not going anywhere Career or Workwise
As I hit my early 50s, I felt that something was missing from my life. It wasn’t money, relationships, friends, traveling, or my industry being ripped apart; it was my lack of passion. My BA in psychology and MBA in Marketing were virtually useless after 2000.
In 2001 I was working in Silicon Valley for a new, hot start-up and then lived through the crash of the economy and poor business models (2008). I was the last person standing in our Partner Marketing department. Hundreds of people were let go.
I knew in my heart that changing jobs again would not bring me any more satisfaction, but landed a great looking job in Washington DC at another startup; it was sold.
I needed a major lifestyle change.
I got divorced and moved to my New York childhood home with my mom. What I thought would be 6 months turned into 8 years, becoming her caretaker and holding her hand as she died. At the time that I sold her house, I was 62 with no job or home.
I moved in with my boyfriend. I had no choice but to look at my life and decide how satisfying it was. I took a few years off to read, attend retreats and meditated; it was clear my life needed a good dusting.
The 60s – Too many Deaths of Friends
Let’s face it, I would never be a Maslow in psychology or a Tubman helping free folks from slavery and getting them to safer pastures.
So I took stock of my passion. It had been growing through the years, but I always put it behind the important stuff, “my work.” As I started to take a look at my life, panic set in. Would I have enough money, was I too old to be hired, could I handle the 60-hour workweek and the speed at which everything was changing?
I looked at my skill set and tried to figure out what really turned me on (my passion – what was that again?). What activities could take me to another place where time wouldn’t matter? I discovered there was a world of activities to explore.
Finding your Passion and New Lifestyle
- Resources and budgets
A budget is a plan that allows you to compare the amount of money you have with your expenses. Budgets can be developed for any time period, but a monthly review is a good idea to see if you are on track. Budgets are flexible and can be changed based on circumstances. With budgets you remain “in the know” of your resources so there are no surprises.
In 1977, I was one of the first women to graduate with a Master’s in Business Administration. I got my first job with Ford Motor Company and the sky was the limit. Six years later poor profits and sales got me thinking the grass must be greener somewhere else. Having worked for over 10 firms, I realized that much of the grass was already browned.
We aren’t talking about downsizing; we learned it had another inside name, “dealt by 1000 cuts.” The reality was that the world was changing and the skill sets were very different than when we were trained.
- Living Situation
There are many different “family” units and living situations; multiple marriages, divorce, combined families, sexual orientation, homelessness, and adults living in their parents’ home or parents living in their child’s home. What will you do?
- Unresolved relationships
We see many of these around us. Our nuclear family, extended family, friends, marriage, living together, affairs, moving away, changing interests, illness, grief, excitement, all exist in our changing world.
My living situations changed over the years. I went from family home, dorm, apartments, leasing million dollar homes, brownstone, back to family home, living with boyfriend and now, finally, taking the step to move into my own apartment.
- Making Money to Survive or Thrive
Depending on your chosen (or not) lifestyle, this will impact how you live. Decide what you want and what you can afford or what can fit into your life. There are endless choices. But you must do your research first.
- Choice to Retire
Why retire? Perhaps you have hit a certain age, have become sick of your job, or new needs arise. The world is your oyster, if you can afford it.
- No Choice to Retire
Money, money, money, obligations, ego, status and power, all contribute to your choices. You need to look deep into your heart, mind and bank account before making a change.
You won’t find many volunteers who hate their jobs. There may be problems and you may choose to leave, but it is a personal choice and thus offers complete freedom to do what you want.
- New Life Style
As you explore your life, where it is now, and where you want it to go, this may push you to adapt to a new life style, which matches your passion. It is up to you and no one else. Then you try to make it work with others. There are big decisions to be made here.
Planning is key. You need to be your own project manager and keep on task, regardless of what is happening in the world (fires, floods, tsunami, hurricane, governments take overs)…you can continue to plan and re-plan until the day you die.
- Baby Steps
One of the best pieces of advice I have gotten was “take baby steps.” It takes out the panic and frustration as you begin this process. Even if you could do a project in three steps, turn them into 9.
You must decide for yourself what type of action you will take to create changing beliefs, different mind frames and your Plan.
Once action is taken, a periodic review of how you are feeling and the results you have achieved is imperative. As we go through this change process, both beliefs and affirmations allow us to shift positions, both philosophically and physically, knowing that we can always shift it again at a later date.
Passion from the Masters
I have studied, read, and met many wise people.
“Humans create their own boundaries, their own limitations. We say what is humanly possible, and what is not possible. Then just because we believe it, it becomes truth for us.”
This process can take a while. It took me two years. It can be fun and very frustrating. At the end of the process you may not be able to put all changes in place, but do what you can. The rest will find you.
 Don Miguel Ruiz, The Mastery of Love (2011)
WHAT DO YOU DO?
I am an end of life Doula – I walk alongside and advocate for people at the end of life, so they feel more at ease and more empowered in their dying days. I also run a Death cafe and am active in the Positive Death movement. I have been working as a creative in Textiles and jewellery for most of my life and I still make Memorial Jewellery under the alter ego Rosie Weisencrantz
TELL US WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE YOUR AGE?
I find that such a hard question to answer as I honestly feel ageless inside. I am all the ages I have ever been ….I still carry all those younger versions of myself inside me; they all pop out at different times. At the moment I feel about 26 because I am particularly happy right now
WHAT DO YOU HAVE NOW THAT YOU DIDN’T HAVE AT 25?
I have the security of owning a home which gives me choices. I see it as my passport to freedom and adventure in the future. I have a beautiful son, who teaches me constantly how to be a better person.
WHAT ABOUT SEX?
I see sex as part of a deeper intimacy. I have zero interest in casual sex, in the same way I have no interest in fast food. I dipped my toes in the tantric waters for a while, and I got a glimpse of what is possible. I’m an all or nothing kind of person. Never bring me cheap chocolate!
I was a serial monogamist for most of my life and have had some pretty disastrous relationships, and yet I regret none of them. They all contributed to my growth, no matter how difficult. However, now I would like something a bit more joyful, with a man who totally *gets* me and shares my irreverent spirit. I am not afraid to be alone, as that is infinitely preferable to being in a dysfunctional relationship. I quite like the idea of living separately within a relationship. I think this keeps a relationship healthy.
Relationships can be a breeding ground for resentment, and living apart can act as a deterrent to that, and help to engender greater respect for each other. As Gibran says *let there be space in your togetherness* I would like to meet a man to travel and explore the world with…that is very appealing…. someone who looks at me through loving and forgiving eyes, and a man who can allow himself to open and be loved fully in return. I would like to experience that once before I die.
HOW FREE DO YOU FEEL?
Freedom is a state of mind. Thoughts are our greatest jailers. Sometimes I feel free, other times I feel imprisoned by my fears. I feel most free when I am alone in nature, and the mental noise is switched off. Nature is my sanctuary.
WHAT ARE YOU PROUD OF?
My son is my greatest achievement. He is a beautiful being with a boundless heart, and he has taught me many things. I am proud of my creativity and my achievements as a designer. I won an international award at the peak of my career. I am also incredibly proud that I overcame my pathological fear of death phobia, that plagued me as a child and into adulthood, and now through my work with death and dying, am helping others to overcome theirs.
WHAT KEEPS YOU INSPIRED?
Questions and Ideas. My own creative process. I have loved playing with my imagination since I was tiny and have always got a kick out of my own thought processes. I see myself as a catalyst, energy-wise. I would have made a good inventor. I feel I could have done anything I put my mind to..because my creativity is limitless.
WHEN ARE YOU HAPPIEST?
I feel freest and happiest when I am cycling along the river, far away from people, listening to beautiful music on my ipod. I am also happy when I am having conversations about death and dying and see people opening up about their deepest fears for the first time. I am happy when I am in love.
AND WHERE DOES YOUR CREATIVITY GO?
It goes everywhere! Creativity is a state of mind. It’s an unstoppable force. Art writing talking feeling being. An open and curious mind is the foundation of all creativity.
WHAT’S YOUR PHILOSOPHY OF LIVING?
Be yourself, and don’t take yourself too seriously. Be able to laugh at yourself in all your glorious human imperfection. There is literally nobody who does you as well as you, so celebrate your uniqueness. We are all glorious paradoxes. Enjoy the play. It will be over soon enough. And dying? “Get curious about death before death gets curious about you” is my mantra. Don’t wait till your body and mind are failing to begin this most important work. Contemplation of Death teaches us how to live. As the Zen quote says *the cup is already broken* so live each moment fully and kiss the joy as it flies.
ARE YOU STILL DREAMNG?
Always. To dream is to be alive. Never underestimate the power of your imagination. Enjoy this play.
WHAT WAS A RECENT OUTRAGEOUS ACTION OF YOURS?
No huge acts of outrageousness here…just being myself. That is my act of rebellion or outrageousness. To give an example; yesterday I lay on a bench with my head hanging upside down, and watched the passers by walking from *the ceiling of the earth* – from an upside down viewpoint walking looks like dancing. It amused me to notice that and I try not to bother myself with what others think of me. By being myself I hope I give others permission to be themselves also.