It was evening, about three weeks ago, when I was quietly sitting on the couch in my apartment when my housemate barged through the front doors with an excited glint in her eyes.
‘...Good day?’ I recall asking as I peered at her.
‘Yes! I listened to a really great guest speaker today!’ she responded happily as she bounced towards me.
This was interesting news to me because my nerdy PhD-educated housemate’s profession involved her constantly exploring new concepts and ideas. If she wasn’t attending or speaking at seminars, she’d be at home listening to podcasts or reading journal articles about the latest theories and practices in her field… so for someone to have caused such an impression on her was rare.
After sitting down and talking to her over wine (of course), I learnt that there were many things the guest speaker spoke about that day, but the concept that really resonated with me personally was about ‘building blocks.’ According to my housemate, he spoke about the importance of continually soaking in and processing the learnings and experiences you go through over the years to create impact and make informed decisions when the time is right (particularly when it came to leading teams and driving change). And whilst this concept seems obvious on the outset, it made me think back to a Ted talk I watched a while back by Andrew Solomon titled ‘How the worst moments in our lives makes us who we are.’
His talk begins with him telling us about his childhood where he experienced bullying and abuse because of his sexuality, and continues with him speaking about the people he’s interviewed over the course of his lifetime - from a woman who was raped and impregnated because of it, to political prisoners in Myanmar. The commonality amongst all these people is that whilst they truly faced – or are still currently facing- adversity and pain, they are still positive about their outlook in life.
He then goes on to talk about his life mantra of ‘forge meaning, build identity.’ Forging meaning is about changing yourself – the way you perceive your current situation for instance, and building identity is about changing the world. One of my favourite quotes from him is ‘identity involves entering a community to draw strength from, it involves substituting ‘and’ for ‘but-’ not ‘I am here but have cancer,’ but rather ‘I have cancer, and I am here.’ He also recognises that it's worse for people with stigmatised identity because when we’re ashamed, we can’t tell our stories and our stories are the foundation of our identity.
My talk with my housemate made me think back and appreciate that Andrew’s wisdom derived from a lifetime of experiences… of travelling to the craziest of places to interview people who have gone through the most heartbreaking struggles so that one day, when he was ready, he could stand on stage at a TedX event and speak to hundreds of people to make an informed and positive impact.