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We Must Stop to Win

On a cold and crisp sunny morning, I was invited to Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School to address 150 eleven to eighteen-year-old boys and young men about my journey, my successes and the lessons that I have learned in my life within my roles of being a mum, local councillor and in my fight to tackle human trafficking and modern slavery. Now this was a challenge! I didn’t want to talk about my successes when I feel like my journey only just started (plus I have a rather unconventional way of approaching success) and found it equally hard to consolidate all the lessons too! The month before, I was presenting at the United Nations Women’s Headquarters in New York, but somehow this felt a little more daunting, mostly, because I assumed that a bunch of teenage boys surely had better things to do (in their own eyes!)

Even though it seems like a lifetime ago, I tried to imagine what it would have been like for me if I were sitting there myself and what sort of thing may have peaked my interest in such a school setting. I know that I definitely would have been wondering: What is this speaker going to share that has been deemed to be so important by my headteacher that I have to listen to them in a school assembly?

With that in mind, I split my presentation into six pillars and, through mixing in some serious rhetoric, personal stories and a little humour, I hoped to get my key message across – that succeeding in life is not about what you achieve, but more about the process and the way you achieve it. (Although during the presentation, I think I was laughing at my jokes more than they were!)

I began my presentation by describing a news story that had resonated strongly with me that month. I called the first pillar: ‘Stop to Win’.

Stop to Win – Through the story of the 2018 Boston Marathon winner, Desi Linden, I attempted to demonstrate how the actions of this amazing woman support my life mantra that ‘you rise by lifting others’. Against professional advice, Desi waited for her friend and fellow competitor, Shalane Flanagan, who needed to go to the toilet. This allowed Desi to regain the strength in her legs and she ended up winning the marathon by a clear four minutes. Desi was the first American woman to win the marathon since 1985. The point that I was trying to make was that had Desi not stopped for her friend, how would she have felt if she still would have won? So, this story shows that it’s about how you win, rather than just the winning itself. Ultimately, there shouldn’t be a cost attached to how you achieve that win.

The next pillar I preceded to tackle was respect, as it is only when we respect ourselves that we can reach our full potential.

Respect – I view respect as a fundamental attribute in life, and I wish that back when I was a teenager someone would have told me how important it is to love and respect yourself first. If you respect yourself, you also respect others, which then builds empathy for others (rather than sympathy). Empathy is an essential life skill as it allows us to form a connection with another human being by building bridges so that someone else’s problem becomes yours, too. When we feel empathy, the ecosystem around us naturally changes and we become a valued member of our community and, in turn, a call to action takes place. This call to action began for me in 2012 when I learned of the harrowing cases of child sex trafficking taking place across the world. I asked myself: “What if these were my children? Would I fight for them? Of course, I would, so why shouldn’t I fight for other children, too?”

The third pillar, which I see as essential, but I believe is almost always overlooked, is active listening.

Active Listening – Some people just listen to talk, and I can guarantee that we all at least know one person that is like that. The failure of many people to properly listen is exacerbated by the fact that social media has become a fundamental part of our social fabric. This trend also ties in with a rise in loneliness among older and young people alike. How many of our social media ‘friends’ do we truly know and understand? Only by actively listening and interacting with those around us in a face-to-face environment can we combat loneliness.

The fourth pillar centred on the way in which we speak to our peers. We are all entitled to have our own opinions in life. What is important to think about, though, is how you say something, rather than what you say.

Charisma– The way in which we speak to our peers has an impact on the way they feel about us and how they feel about themselves in our presence. Using smiling as an example in my presentation, I explained that by simply smiling at someone, you automatically relax that person and disarm them, placing yourself in a position of strength before you have even started a conversation. I might think that there are a number of things that Shiva Foundation should do as an organization, but that can’t happen without engagement and buy-in from multiple actors from within my own team, as well as from across the sector. So, what do I do to get that engagement and buy-in? I build a personal connection, which encourages my peers to become more interested and invested, as well as more open to my thoughts and views.

The next pillar centred around a realisation that I had at quite a young age – that I was happiest when I was doing something for someone else and not expecting anything in return.

Doing Good – Reliving my experiences in India playing with children in the slums, I explained to the assembly that I was amazed that these children basically had nothing in the way of material possessions or even nourishment, and yet they were so happy.  I came from an environment where I had several pairs of shoes, lots of clothes, plenty of food to eat and of course a lovely house.  Hence when I started my service journey, I thought I could “help” them in so many ways! In actual fact they helped me!

These experiences helped me realise that I needed to redefine my understanding of happiness and winning. I finally understood that I didn’t need to go searching for happiness, but through doing unselfish things, happiness would come naturally to me. I tried to make this relevant to the room by highlighting that you don’t have to be an adult, rich, or even educated to do good where you are right now – it can be as simple as visiting the elderly, picking up litter or giving up your seat on the train.

I also wanted to make clear that doing good is not something that we should only commit to doing in our personal lives, but something that we can also do in our professional lives. Many successful companies, regardless of size, have managed to make considerable profits, whilst incorporating ‘doing good’ within their business infrastructures. We can similarly make the same social impact in our working life without having to give away billions and we shouldn’t be scared to use our experiences and the tools at our disposal to change the way in which we engage with the world. I tried to emphasise that it is when we all start to embark on that journey to become better human beings that the world will start changing for the better.

The final pillar was around choice. Every person will determine the way in which they want to live their lives and what sort of legacy that they want to leave behind.

The Choice is Yours – For me though, the values that have been essential in my life centre around my realisation that the process of achieving my goals and ambitions is always more important than the result. I chose to use money as an example as I thought that these boys would relate to it and told them that it’s not about having millions, rather, about how you get there in the first instance that will define you. No-one can predict the future, you could lose all your wealth. So, what is more important? Having it in the first place? Or knowing how to make it? Learning from our failed experience is what allows us to gain the wisdom to eventually achieve success. One Haberdashers pupil summed it up quite nicely when he fed his thoughts back to me at the end of my presentation. He said, “Failure is inevitable, but I can use the values that I have learned today as trampolines, as tools to start again, whatever the goal may be.”

The power of small acts of kindness should never be underestimated and so I concluded my presentation by asking the assembly what small changes they will look to make in their day to day lives – using the six fundamental pillars – to be kind, respectful and caring to others.

I was really pleased to find that the response to my presentation was overwhelmingly positive. Young people (not that I’m that old) have a special place in my life. I have some great memories from my childhood and teenage years, but I also remember the pain of being young and trying to find my feet in this world. I think the battles that young people face today are tough in nature. The world has changed so much – that they must feel like older people can’t even begin to understand them and their problems. (I mean I don’t even understand the shorthand language they use on text messages!)

Regardless, I wish these boys the very best – but I implore them to think about the fact that success and winning don’t just have one meaning and can be defined so differently for each person. As they embark on their journeys to becoming adults, I ask them to take time out to stop sometimes and simply reflect. Helping others won’t slow them down and competition can also mean competing to change the world for the better. I ask them to search for role models whose lives and messages resonate with them and to also continue to question the process through which they achieve success in their lives.

Glamour and success don’t come without failure and pain. It’s good to know and understand that. Whilst schools are supposed to set up our children to succeed – does the education system also help them understand how to deal with failure, too? I’m not sure. But that’s a conversation for another day. For now, I will end by saying that these boys and young men made for a great audience and I’m ever so thankful for the opportunity to – for the first time – process and express my own personal toolkit for success in life.