Seven Lessons of Extraordinary Strength & Daring

Seven Lessons of Extraordinary Strength & Daring

On a rainy, cold Sunday afternoon in Wellington, the Opera House became a refuge for both the body and soul this weekend, in the inaugural Extraordinary Tales of Strength and Daring.

In an event put together by Natasha Lampard, seven women took to the stage to tell their inspiring stories of success, failure, bravery and learning to a sold-out audience of 250.

In this post, I share seven valuable lessons shared from the stage.

From left: Michèle A'Court, Elizabeth Knox, Lillian Grace, Natasha Lampard, Marianne Elliot, Michelle Dickinson, Gemma Gracewood, and Jessica Lee Hansell aka Coco Solid

From left: Michèle A'Court, Elizabeth Knox, Lillian Grace, Natasha Lampard, Marianne Elliot, Michelle Dickinson, Gemma Gracewood, and Jessica Lee Hansell aka Coco Solid

1. Be Honest With Yourself

The first speaker to grace the stage shared the importance of learning to tap into yourself and really listen. After pursuing all the things she thought came along with a successful life, Lillian Grace found herself sitting at an airport, recently separated from her husband, without a job or money, but with a one-way round-the-world flight ticket in her pocket. In a profound moment of clarity, she described the relief she felt in discovering that even though everything she thought had defined her life had fallen away, she still remained.

I realised that who I am, was bigger than all the things I had built around me.
— Lillian Grace, Founder, Figure NZ

On her round the world trip, Lillian discovered truth in the extremes, fluctuating between despair and unexpected luxury provided by the kindness of friends and strangers. Sharing the realisation that nobody cares about your life as much as you do, she resolved to be honest with herself about what really made her happy, and despite the bad, she would make an effort to embrace the good whenever it came her way.

She has found her passion in making information readily accessible and understandable to anyone, anywhere, by recently founding Figure NZ

If you’re checking things off a checklist, you better make sure it’s the right checklist
— Lillian Grace, Founder, Figure NZ

2. Vulnerability Is The New Strong

Change happens in the ‘I can’t do this by myself’, in the ‘We’re here too’ and in the ‘We’re in this together’
— Marianne Elliott, National Director, Action Station

Following on nicely from the theme of being honest with yourself, Jessica Lee Hansell aka Coco Solid spoke about the importance of embracing vulnerability and authenticity. A musician, rapper, journalist, zine-creator and creative writer, she got straight into walking the talk, describing her fear and intimidation at speaking in front of such a crowd. But as someone who had recently set herself the goal of dropping as many charades as possible, Jessica spoke candidly about embracing the new, and constantly checking yourself.

You can’t grow up in a westernised, colonised country like New Zealand without your identity being a transient, hot mess.
— Jessica Lee Hansell, aka Coco Solid, Musician/Writer

A key message in Jessica’s talk was how asking for help can make you stronger, and lead you to unexpected places. She put out a call on social media recently explaining that she was out of work, and asking if anyone had something she could do to help pay the bills. It was then that Natasha gave her a call about this very event, and as Jessica described it…

Nek Minute, Opera House, Sunday afternoon
— Jessica Lee Hansell, aka Coco Solid, Musician/Writer

Scientist and educator Dr Michelle Dickinson (aka nerd-girl superhero NanoGirl) was recently asked to put herself in a position of vulnerability. When a friend recently asked her to participate in a naked photo shoot, her initial reaction was “No way!” But upon learning a little more about the #MyBodyMyTerms project, a campaign to challenge perceptions about victim-blaming, revenge porn, consent and sexual violence, Michelle began to question how being naked, in both body and personality, can help us to accept ourselves and grow. So she took herself out of her comfort zone to participate in the campaign video below.

Combining themes of honesty and vulnerability, I’d like to highlight another related nugget of wisdom that Jessica provided...

3. Calling Someone Out Is An Act Of Generosity

In an age where honesty and transparency are valued virtues over competition, it can be a true gift to someone to call them out on something that have said or done that you disagree with.

Calling someone out on stuff they have done that wasn’t right with you, is the most generous act that you can do for them
— Jessica Lee Hansell, AKA Coco Solid, Musician/Writer

We are all learning as we navigate life, and by letting someone know that you’re not cool with a given situation, you signal that you care enough about the relationship to address any hurdles to cooperation in the future. After all, she explained, hate is not the opposite of love. It is rather being ignored, silenced or erased, that is the opposite of love.

4. Define Your Own Measures of Success

Success and it’s universally-feared twin Failure were discussed by many of the speakers.

Michelle Dickinson’s traditional Chinese mother had a very black and white vision of success for her daughter: stay skinny, fair-skinned and without any visible body muscle, as this was key to attracting a good husband. Thus, success. Education was irrelevant, so it was in secret that a young Michelle was joining her father in the shed to build a flying machine powered by robots.

I came from a place where books were to be afraid of, and education came from TV shows and celebrity gossip magazines.
— Dr Michelle Dickinson, Scientist/Educator/NanoGirl

It seems that those who doubt themselves are in good company these days, with 70% of people suffering from “Imposter Syndrome” at some point in their life: That little voice in your head that says “I’m not good enough”. Michelle encouraged the audience to fight that voice in your head, define your own measures of success, and instead listen to the one that says “You’re awesome!”

Human rights lawyer, writer and activist Marianne Elliott followed a similar path from disappointment and presumed failure, to defining her own terms of success. Raised in the Open Brethren church, she got married days after her 20th birthday to the son of the pastor of another church. Several years later when her marriage fell apart, she felt an overwhelming sense of failure - to herself, her family and her church.

How do we get from A, to where we want to Be?
— Marianne Elliott, National Director, Action Station

In her following years of walking across Africa, being a humanitarian worker in the Gaza Strip, the Head of a UN provincial office in Afghanistan, and a Piha-dwelling fairy performing at kids’ birthday parties, Marianne spoke openly about how she has learned to deal with the world when things fall apart around you, by looking inward into herself and asking for help when needed. She now runs the progressive campaigning organisation Action Station.

Novelist Elizabeth Knox let her creative writing do the talking, reading an excerpt entitled “Failure”. Starting out by questioning whether she was inspiring or edifying, she asked the audience to make up their own mind as she read a story of someone (herself, perhaps?) going through the learning process of caring for an elderly aunt who is increasingly afflicted by dementia. It was a beautiful piece of narrative, capturing the essence of what it is to be a helpless bystander, doing your best while watching someone you know so well turn into a stranger.

All around us are people on fire, scorched and shrinking. You never know when you’ll be faced with one of the burning people.
— Elizabeth Knox, Author
Wellington Opera House

Musician and producer Gemma Gracewood also experienced a sense of failure at a young age. As a young girl passionate about theatre and performance, Gemma was rejected by one teacher when auditioning for the school choir, while another told her “Your problem is you’ve got too much personality”. She described that she got used to hearing no a lot. Which takes us to our fifth lesson from Extraordinary Tales…

5. Sometimes “No” Just Means “Not Yet”

After leaving school to start university early and embroiling herself in feminism, activism, alternative culture and student radio, Gemma realised she wanted to be the curator of stories. It wasn't straightforward; several times over, she was knocked back for jobs she really wanted, but she would somehow find herself in those jobs anyway. She was once turned down for a job at Radio NZ National, only to find herself offered the role - as a Producer for Nine to Noon (then hosted by Kim Hill) - six months later.  

I cannot live without being delighted.
— Gemma Gracewood, Musician/Producer

Gemma’s love of music and performance, lead to a neighbour knocking on her door, and informing her she was the now suddenly a member of the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra. Having toured all over the world with a merry band of uke-toting, silliness-loving entertainers, Gemma spoke about the impact that music and fun can have on people’s lives. She had much of the audience in tears when describing the moment that a man came up to the band after a show in North Carolina, describing how after a year of mourning the death of his infant daughter, he had discovered the WIUO online, and learned to laugh again.

6. Remember To Laugh

Whether it is a bunch of people in costumes and fruit hats playing ukuleles, or Marianne Elliott’s foray into entertaining kids as a fairy, many speakers noted how crucial it is to remember to laugh.

If the children in your life have never seen you in fancy dress, go home and rectify that tonight
— Gemma Gracewood, Musician/Producer

Coco Solid’s talk was a laugh-a-minute, often at her own expense, while seasoned comedian Michèle A’Court had us all in stitches. Describing the hilarity of attempting to rush across the ditch to Wagga Wagga, NSW, to be with her daughter in the throes of labour, and being thwarted every step of the way  -  including a thrilling climax that saw her stuck in a hospital elevator just metres from her daughter  - Michèle’s story illustrated the magic of making light of stressful situations.

Michèle is the recent author of Stuff I Forgot To Tell My Daughter. Not one to hold back on her  thoughts (although she explained there are far more “naughty words” going on in her internal dialogue than she ever vocalises), she talked about a recent exchange of metaphorical online blows with Martin van Beynen in response to his opinion piece that Kiwi women swear too much. Michèle responded in her weekly column for The Press and Stuff, suggesting that men could have exclusive rights to all the swear words, if women were afforded exclusive use of all the rest.

Women are entitled to use all the words
— Michèle A’Court, Comedian

7. Be Yourself

A theme that underpinned stories from each and every speaker, this final lesson requires no further explanation to an audience of freshly inspired women, other than a reference to the Alice Walker quote with which Michèle concluded her talk:

I have the right to be this self
— Alice Walker, Author/Activist
Extraordinary Tales at Wellington Opera House
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