It’s been a funny old month. Twice I have been up for awards and both came as a complete surprise. Although it is an honour to receive such accolade, being recognised for my work has never been in my game plan.
At its start I was honoured, along with Robin Pascoe, to receive an award at the Families in Global Transition conference in Houston, for the work we have done for expatriate spouses, primarily for the books we have written, the presentations we have made and the way we have both travelled the world sharing what we know to help others to grow, connecting and assisting people along the way.
After we had been presented with our Trailblazer awards, real glass trophies with engraving on and everything, Sandy Thomas, FIGT’s outgoing president asked everyone in the room to stand if their lives had been touched by Robin or myself. We watched in awe as the majority of the audience, hundreds of people, got onto their feet. Robin and I exchanged a glance. Had we really done that? I guess we had. Receiving that award was both an honour and a surprise. Not once during our 20 or so years out there doing what we do had we stopped to measure the impact of our work. It was a special moment and one that will remain with me for many years. This was my ‘you win some’ moment.
But last week, just three weeks later, I was up for another award. Unbeknown to me, several of my students and friends had nominated me for Expatica’s first Expat of the Year award in the Netherlands. It came as a complete surprise when I heard that I had reached the final five and had been invited to the glorious 13th century university of Nyenrode, to attend the awards ceremony, when the winner would be announced. Again, it was unexpected and an honour to be in this position. Just being nominated was something to be proud of.
As I walked down the avenue of trees fringed by a carpet of purple crocuses and white snowdrops towards the beautiful red-shuttered coach house my heart was in my mouth from a mixture of hope and anticipation. I had received many good luck wishes from all over the world and most had insisted that I was the obvious choice. My expectations had been raised. I sat there with palms sweating as they made the announcement. And though I had not expected this award, nor did I truly think I deserved it, I didn’t win and my disappointment was crushing. This was my ‘you lose some’ moment.
The month that began with a bang went out with a whimper. My moment of glory from my Trailblazer ‘Oscar’ eclipsed for a while by my failure to be crowned Expat of the Year. I was perplexed and left wondering why I had been affected by losing an award that I had known deep down I would not win anyway. I’d won one award that month. Winning a second would have been downright greedy, right?
A month on I remain delighted with the memory of that crowd of upstanding conference delegates standing before me at FIGT. My disappointment at not being Expat of the Year is fading fast. As I look back on a month that was bookended by award ceremonies I am left reflecting on what the awards have taught me. I think it is something to do with goals and game plans and nothing to do with success or failure.
We are often told to set our goals, visualise them and then strive for them with all our might. And I am a firm believer in taking small steps towards these goals. Receiving these two awards had not been my goals. They had never been in my game plan. I had not been able to control them or work towards them. Or had I?
I think back to the joyful day when I had unpacked my first box of ‘French Tarts’, the first book I ever wrote, back in 1985. To this day that feeling has never been surpassed. Here was something I had achieved, all on my own. It had been my goal and I was delighted by it. ‘Chuffed to bits’, as I would say. I’m still ‘chuffed to bits’ when my books come out, when my articles are published, at the end of a good workshop or keynote speech and at the sight of a standing ovation.
As you know, ‘sharing what I know to help others to grow’ has been my life purpose for a number of years. This was and continues to be my own goal. And, seeing a crowd of smiling people on their feet at FIGT, it seems, I am achieving that goal. This is why the FIGT award mattered.
So, in conclusion, at the end of this rollercoaster month, I leave you with the thought that there is little reward in pinning your hopes on goals that are left to fate. When you lose them, the disappointment can be devastating. I urge you then, to pursue goals that are your own, that you plan yourself and then, when you do reach those moments of glory, that glory is well-deserved and long lasting.
About a year ago I had a consultation with a clairvoyant called Mike Robinson. I asked him if I would realise my ambition. He told me that he could see me on a ledge high up a mountainside. Beneath me there was a rocky valley, and on the other side of that valley stood another mountain.
“You want to get to the top of the other mountain?” he asked.
“You will get there,” he said, shuffling slightly in his seat.
I could tell that Mike’s next word would be ‘but’. I waited.
“But,” he continued. “If you follow your instinct you will fly over the rocks to the top of the other mountain, easily. If you don’t then you will still reach its summit but you will have to pick your way down through the rocks of the dry valley. It will be a difficult journey. It will take longer, but you will still get there.” Mike leaned back in his chair and waited for my reaction.
What he said made perfect sense. All I had to do was to follow my intuition and I’d reach my goal. I guess I had not needed a clairvoyant to tell me that. What I know for sure, is that his words have made me more mindful of when I am on the right path, and when I am not.
Last month I had the privilege of meeting Toma Haines, The Antiques Diva, who came to the networking group I chair, Connecting Women, to deliver a speech on social media marketing the easy way. Toma has built a following of over 20,000 for her blog on antiques shopping in Europe. At that meeting she shared her secrets.
“When you are on the right path, Serendipity has a habit of stepping in to help you,” she said. “And doors open.” Mike’s words came back to me. If you follow your gut instincts then opportunities arise, as if by magic. When they happen it is up to you to choose whether to take action or not. Toma has lived in Paris and Amsterdam and loved shopping in the fleamarkets and antiques shops. She had a talent for negotiation and for spotting a deal. She loved nothing more than sharing her tips and so she started a blog and Diva Tours taking people round the markets of Europe. Toma simply did what came naturally, followed her instinct and doors opened.
When Andrea Martins of Expatwomen.com suggested Toma sign up for the website HelpAReporter, she saw a request from a journalist for an antiques expert to comment for a story she was writing. Toma took that opportunity too and soon she found herself appearing in the media including Marie-Claire, The Wall Street Journal and CNN. Serendipity had not only stepped in, but she had given her a first class ticket over to the top of her next mountain.
I realise that Mike’s advice was not confined to the world of work. During the last few weeks we had been trying to by a house we had fallen in love with. A few people warned us that the house may have been renovated by a get-rich-quick developer and it took a bit of negotiation to persuade the seller to accept our offer. But it felt right and we had not had to fight, so it had to be right, right? Less than a week later we had a structural survey done.
Ed, the surveyor’s, face was bleak as he paced the newly-laid wooden floors of this ground floor. His frown grew as he tapped walls, climbed ladders and ran his fingers along window frames.
“The floor has to come up,” he said gravely. The builders have not left any ventilation space beneath it and have filled it with the rubble from the building work. “And the roof needs replacing too.”
And that was just the start of the survey report. At that moment, before we even received the written survey Ian and I had the gut feeling that this was not meant to be. We’d ignored the few signs we’d had and had pursued it anyway. As we drove away with our spirits low, having wasted four weeks chasing the wrong property Mike’s words came back to me again: “you will have to pick your way through the rocks . . .”
The rocks he had warned me about had been there in the foundations of the building. There was no way I was going to buy a house that needed us to move rocks before we could move in. The very next day we found a much better house at a much better price in the location of our dreams. The house is a bovenhuis, which means it has three floors and is built a shop. This house has no foundations for us to worry about. The survey is being done by Ed on Thursday.
In life, there are many times when I stop and think and try desperately hard to tune into my intuition, to listen to my gut not my head or my heart. I try hard to recognise the right thing to do, but it is so hard to be confident in our thinking.
There are rocks to found on the writer’s road too. It is surprising how many new writers persist in trying to write in a way that does not come naturally and their words trickle onto the page with painful slowness.
I have long believed that your best writing comes when you write from your heart and you write in your natural voice, the voice close to the one you use when you speak. Trying to use complicated vocabulary and sentences with too many subclauses will make your writing feel like you, and your reader, are clambering over boulders in order to reach the end of the sentence. Make it easy on yourself. Don’t force the reader to follow your prose with one finger beneath the text and the other poised over the dictionary.
Writing what comes naturally is the best way to start telling your story. Then, once you have reached the end you can go back and polish it, but not until you have reached the end. Not until you have reached the peak of your ‘other mountain’ and achieved your goal.
A writer’s life can be a rocky road. Life too has its fair share of bumpy rides, but if you are on the right path things come naturally. You should not have to fight. If you follow your intuition doors will open and you’ll get there with fewer headaches, doubts and bruises ¬ you may even get a ride from Serendipity.
All the latest news, views, and writing tips from Jo Parfitt and the team at Summertime Publishing
Sign up to Summertime's monthly newsletter for your free copy of So You Want to Write a Book?