How many times have we heard that bloody cheesy phrase?
“Ohhhh, I met this [fill the blank with the name of a famous artist , pop star or millennium start up geek] and it changed my life!”
Way too many times, right?
Whenever I’d hear this, I would think omg this person has no sense of self-identity or even creativity on their own and has to rely on someone else to find themselves. BOOM.
SLAP. I was wrong. These people did not need anyone to find out who they were, they just found a person who gave them the space to become. Now, that might sound extreme, but the truth is, most of our behaviours, decisions and attitudes are guided by our society, influenced by social medias and even imposed by our culture — whether you live in Singapore, London or Paris.
Being yourself and believing in yourself is a true act of courage nowadays.
Of course, the reason why I’m telling you all this is because I met someone…Well actually, I met two of them. Both helped me to define myself. And of course — like in all good movies — there was a bad guy and a good guy.
Before I met them, this is how I would have introduced myself: female, french, a bit eccentric, definitely extroverted (and even more in the Asian context!), trying to look senior and wiser (especially in managing a team older than I was), way too self-aware of my embarrassing English accent in front of my clients; a proud consultant with a big brain (that’s actually true), looking to prove my worth (or the one of my degrees) by putting in looooooong hours in a job that I thought I was truly passionate about — and which I still like a lot, let’s be fair. I mean it was not so bad, I had a great situation at work, a great team with whom I would laugh a lot, loads of travelling and really challenging problems to solve through compelling, authentic, relevant (etc…) mind-blowing brand strategies for big giant companies who powered the world — half of them were in what we call ‘sin’ business, the other half too genuinely good to spark interest in people and make money. The typical branding job: make the bad look good and the good look exciting.
And then came ‘le client de trop’, the bad guy. So intrinsically bad I felt dirty trying to make him look good. Here I was, a young impressionable woman consultant, sitting alone in this enormous ostentatious vice-president office with a big view over the city, covered in thick carpet and furnished with ugly glass awards and other chinoiseries; sitting in my uncomfortable little grey skirt suit on this way too large heavy black leather sofas — listening to the crap an old bald powerful fat man was giving me about how climate change is fake, how oil is inexhaustible and how solar panels are an industry trick to calm down environmentalists and shut down investors (who are too happy anyway to receive their petrol dollar dividends at the end of the year). Now, I am not an environmentalist nor an activist but I’m still French. So you’d think I pushed back, I’d object to this massive ball of shit.
No. I did not. I simply smiled and remained silent. Was I too afraid to lose my job? To lose the client? To fail the project? To look stupid? Or to not be taken seriously? Maybe a bit of everything. I felt sorry for myself the moment I stepped out of the room, I felt ashamed. At the time I thought it was just an ego issue, but today I know it was more. Deep inside, I knew I would never, ever work for another client in this industry…but the nightmare lasted a whole year, leading to a proper burnout and a state of professional pain and numbness for months.
And that’s when I met the other guy…the good one. He was very different. He had gentle blue eyes, he apparently liked to walk a lot, spoke slowly and loudly with this weird British accent, had been engaged in life threatening activities and seemed to feel comfortable in extremely cold temperatures.
His name was Robert Swan.
The truth about Robert is that he is one of these crazy overachievers, hungry for life and never tired of convincing you to enjoy to its fullest. He is a polar explorer, environmentalist and the first man ever to walk unsupported to both the North and South Poles. His contribution to education and the environment has been recognised through his appointment as a UN Goodwill Ambassador for Youth, Special Envoy to the Director General of UNESCO and an OBE award. He’s just a simple man, you know…
So how did Rob enter my life? Well first, he was not chilling out in a big office, which definitely helped. Instead, he was standing in front of Singapore’s top corporate sustainability leaders giving an inspirational talk at the Global Green Economic Forum in Singapore. And I was seating on the front row.
I simply cannot describe what happened next. The moment Rob started talking, time stopped and the air froze. We suddenly felt transported to Antarctica, following his steps on the cracking ice, avoiding crevices and frostbites as we reached the South Pole. The level of captivation was so high I caught Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan — Minister for Environment and Water Resources at the time — starring at Rob, mouth open, literally drinking his words. By the time the talk was over, I was shaking of an adrenaline overdose.
I gathered all the courage I had left in me, stood up, crossed what felt like the trickiest slalom of ballroom tables arrangement and went straight to Rob, shook his big hand and said:
“How can I help?
Hire me please. I will quit my job to join your Foundation.”
“Don’t. Keep doing what you do.
Join me on the next expedition instead.”
That was almost two years ago. I have not quit my job. I tried my best to influence my clients to do better, to do good for the planet and for the people. I chose gross happiness index over plastic. I chose epigenetics over banking. I chose better water over soda water.
I chose to act by what I stand for.
And next month, I’ll be joining an Expedition to Antarctica.