I am sharing this with a challenge.
This is rather long. However, here's what I'd like you, Dear Reader, to think about. How is YOUR story full of challenges and triumphs, victories and failures? How might you respond as a man or woman to these same questions? This interview caused me to think long and hard, including about how each of us lives our own version of a hero's journey, every single day, in some way.
So rather than read this interview as it relates to my life, ask how do these questions relate to yours? How does your hero's journey look so far? What would you write, and then, more importantly, what will you write into the novel of your life next for the next chapter?
Can you tell us a bit about your story?
I grew up on a chicken farm in Central Florida, the daughter of literary parents and a father who played polo. Farm work made me strong; I grew up loving large animals. When I joined the Army at the age of 21 I was fully prepared for the physical demands and the discipline of the military.
What led you to this particular career path?
I didn’t have a marriage and family, but rather chose a solo path. As a result I had different options. I left the US in 1984 to live in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji for four years. That whet my appetite. I took a number of years to work in the corporate world in sales, leadership and supply chain as well a professional speaking. After I wrote my first two books at the age of 58 and 59, I was inspired to take on Kilimanjaro by a good friend. I’ve been a body builder for nearly fifty years, and great big goals appeal enormously. I summitted Kilimanjaro. While standing at the top of that mountain, I realized I could do just about anything. Within seven months, I’d done Everest Base Camp and Macchu Picchu, and my corporate career was over. I’d remade myself into a top- notch athlete, by no means graceful, but determined and with real endurance.
I’m about as graceful as a drunken camel, but not a whole lot of people can keep up.
What's the most interesting story since you began your career?
There is no “most interesting story!” I literally have thousands of stories from more than fifty trips all over the world, and each one has something marvelous to teach about patience, resilience and learning how to laugh in the face of adversity.
For example, I broke my back in eight places riding a horse in Kazakhstan in 2017. Six weeks later I was back on a horse. In 2105 I smashed my pelvis, broke my arm and wrist, and got my 16th (of 22 concussions, told you I was clumsy) in Iceland. Back on a horse in six weeks. My ability to find the humor in all those events is my super power, my god killer.
However to stay away from the busted bits, in late 2019 I was in the Western Mongolian high country with two guides. It was September and there was a howling wind preceding a cold front moving through the mountains like a freight train. We stopped, it was icy beyond belief, and I set up my Nemo tent for the night in under three minutes in 60 mph gusts. The boys? Well. They got their great big tent up, but within a few minutes the wind tore it down. I spent the night inside my tent watching the sides of my tent blow in and out like great lungs, fully expecting to wake up somewhere in communist China. The boys slept in an ancient Russian van. I got up the next morning at about 4 am., pulled on my warmest duds and set up my music. Then I crept outside as the crescent moon began its slow descent over the distant, snow-dusted peaks.
I found a big rock, sat down in front of it to block the wind, and watched the sun slowly paint the peaks pink as I listened to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy ring in the new day. The tears froze on my cheeks. Such experiences rewrite our relationship to nature, to ourselves, in terms of what we think we can do. I was 66 at the time, and would soon go on to ride the Bale Mountains of Ethiopia for weeks on powerful horses.
We are limited only by our fears.
Which three character traits were most instrumental to your success?
I’ve had to beat some very big issues. As a sexual assault survivor, I developed eating disorders in the early 70s which I battled for forty years. I’ve also been a heavy smoker in my youth, and was obese for years. I beat every single one of these battles without professional help. Along the way I learned to trust that at some point, I would make the decision for self-care, and that the issue which was dogging me had a purpose. It always did. This: what happened to me is never about me at all. It’s to make me useful to others, via a combination of compassion and empathy. I am rarely surprised at what I come across, which allows me to create a safe space for others to be, feel and experience what is authentic to them. When you don’t judge, people can be themselves, and they can explore their own truths with far greater confidence.
Perhaps the greatest secret to what I would call success, which is having found my lane, being very good at it and loving my life as it evolves, is my sense of humor. I’ve nearly died multiple times in skydiving, horse riding and scuba diving adventures. I don’t panic. I do find such events very, very funny. It is that oblique, odd sense of the absurd which has allowed me to see the inanity in the sometimes extreme situations in which I find myself all over the world. When I laugh, I loosen up, relax, and can think creatively. Laughter also floods my body with endorphins, I heal faster and I can use that superpower to get to safety.
The last, which is perhaps a subset of the second, is that I can’t possibly take myself seriously. When you have been through what I’ve been through, accidents, rapes, going butt over teakettle down a mountainside in Lalibela, Ethiopia (I could go on, I warned you) you learn that when you are WAY too serious, you become insufferable. Not only does this stiffen your body, it also can insult people around you, people you need, whose support and trust you have to earn. People follow authenticity and transparency. The fans of my writing love me because when I am wrong, not only do I take responsibility publicly, I make fun of myself. That gives everyone around me permission to relax. Humor is THE single greatest superpower we have, not only to deal with the worst that life throws at us, but to teach others how to tack in high winds.
Is society still uncomfortable with strong women? Can you give an example?
I was set up with a blind date in Durango, where I moved in 2000. Dave (not his real name) and I went out for a drink (I had water) and regaled each other for hours about our various exploits: scuba, flying, military, skydiving, you name it. Hours on end. While we never dated, he did move in as my roommate while he finished fireman training. At one point, Dave was searching for a pair of scissors when he came across my logbooks. He was gobsmacked. I had told him the truth, everything he had told me was a lie. While we laugh about it now, the fact that I really had done everything I said ensured that we would never, ever date. Dave bet me once that a woman couldn’t do fifty pushups. I can and still do one hundred men’s pushups every other day or every day in training. He lost that bet and I permanently lost any chance of an equal partnership.
Dave likes saving women. Every girlfriend he ever had was a mental mess. I was his equal and he by god could not deal with it. If I’m not strong and in shape, I can die. It’s just that simple. In my dating life, the men who find me attractive are very much put off by the fact that what I need from them is their strength of character, the willingness to be vulnerable and their courage. Too many men drawn to my face or body are completely put off by my lifestyle. In the woods, on an adventure, I am a seriously competent partner, a no-nonsense person you can lean on. I do not need saving. I need character, not competition. Men find my independence and my achievements a statement of competition even though I most assuredly don’t feel the need to flout it that way.
Interestingly, all but one of the men I have dated never married. I find that intriguing but not surprising. The intense emphasis on the proper roles of men vs. woman have made it impossible for me to find a partner, for I am happiest wandering over into those areas mostly inhabited by men: military, adventure travel the like.
How does a powerful woman put others at ease?
There is no perfect pill. There are no “shoulds.” The best thought I can offer is to read the room and be other- focused. The heart and soul of charisma is to be all about other folks, to make room for other folks to talk, feel important and share their stories. People are desperate to be noticed and seen. Powerful people, truly powerful people do that for others. They are neither self-absorbed nor are they utterly self-focused.
The challenge we run into is feeling as though we have to apologize, tone down or chop off parts of who we are so that others don’t feel intimidated. This is hugely costly to us and to the world at large. The way I work it is my humor. I can be a very intimidating person, a huge personality. That said, my favorite target for humor is myself. That alone tends to relax people, because so many assume arrogance. Self-effacing humor has a multiplying effect; when others see that you are happy to make fun of yourself, that you are deeply interested in others, that you are an excellent listener and genuinely focused on others’ stories, those characteristics create a safe space.
How can society change its discomfort around powerful women?
First, stop apologizing for being born. Being here. Being smart and capable and competent. Stop apologizing for being excellent. STOP apologizing for being powerful. Just stop apologizing, as though your personal power is a problem. It may well be for some, but that’s their problem, not yours. This is very very different from the kind of puerile arrogance born of deep insecurity, that’s very different. This is about truly potent women trying to play small. Nobody wins.
That narrative begins at home. How we speak to and raise our girls, the books she reads, the movies she watches, the stories we tell her. When I was growing up, Disney princesses were forever being saved. Today’s Disney princesses are MMA experts. I have a friend who is raising his half-Japanese daughter to be a black belt in several martial arts. The dual message that a woman can be a badass AND still truly feminine is part of the narrative that has to be changed.
Too often truly powerful women are seen as battleaxes because they were, for years, embittered by a world which didn’t want to acknowledge their gifts. She had to claw and fight to the top. Mentors, and I had one for 33 years, have to help train and guide powerful women to see themselves as fully-formed in all spheres. As we age, we hold the torch, provide the role model, and hand the torch down.That’s what mine did for me when I was 63. Role models and mentors make a huge difference.
So in media, in real life, we need to be exposed to potent female examples, successful women who haven’t become too lopsided in one way or another. A powerful woman doesn’t have to be strong all the time, for part of her power is intense vulnerability, the ability to stand in front of her deepest emotions and not flinch, and walk through the pain knowing that her worth is not determined by whether or not she is paired, but more so whether or not she is fully in herself, in her own fullness, appreciative of all her aspects and not afraid of that power.
Interestingly, my movie superhero who lived all those truths was. Lt. Ripley in the second of the Alien series. She was vulnerable, scared, had PTSD, was stripped of her rank, thrown in with the aliens again, demonstrated powerful mothering and caring instincts and still kicked alien rear end. THAT to me was the first female superhero who demonstrated all of the spheres. My personal muse is Beryl Markham, who paid a very high price for being beautiful, a skilled pilot (one of the very first bush pilots in Africa), a good writer even admired by Hemingway, gorgeous enough to be favored by Hollywood and royalty, a fine horse trainer and rider, and universally loved and hated for being so far ahead of her time. .She is my kind of role model. She never quit.
A key part of that messaging is that our strength is first, not in competition with men’s strength, they are complementary and equal in their value. And second, that a woman does not become stronger by being more like a man. She may, as do I, love some things a backwards society considers in the male sphere (strength training, which when I started fifty years ago did not have many women involved, adventure travel, the military) but those don’t make her less feminine. These things are available for human engagement. It is our prejudice and limited thinking which create male-female roles in those regards.
Women have to endure uncomfortable situations to achieve success . Do you have a story like this ?
Success in my current world is driven by athletic ability, calm, confidence in extremity, and how we behave in situations where others panic. In the male-dominated, also youth-dominated world of adventure travel, the 69 year old woman is an anomaly, a unicorn and not to be believed. I could give you thousands of specific examples.
Here’s one: in Hurgadah, Egypt, I wanted to go riding. The men there gave me a lovely, tame mare and told me, as I approached her, “Don’t be afraid of her.” WILL YOU PLEASE. I leapt aboard and my guide and I took off at full speed across the dunes. My rear end never left the saddle, he videotaped that run (which I have used often since) and when we got back, told me that I needed to ride “a stronger horse.” I rode their stud, a spicy, flighty 8-year-old Arabian stallion, who instantly responded to my very light hands and gentle requests. At days’ end, my guide gave me the nod, I leaned forward, grabbed a handful of mane and gave my stallion the GO. We took off like lightning, girl and horse as one, speeding across the sand towards the purpling mountains, his mane whipping red marks on my cheeks. We pulled to a safe stop at the edge of the cliff, my guide arrived shortly afterwards, grinning happily. So was I.
Had I been a man, they would have given me the stallion first. They never would have said to not be afraid. This happens to me all the time. I got condescension and the assumption I’d never been on a horse. You should see some of the horses my trainer has put me on. They were banshees.
One young guide in Myanmar, who was driving me to a long hike in 100+ degree, 98% humidity weather, told me to take the bus because I was old and a woman. I asked him how long the hike was. For men, he said, three hours. For you, FIVE. I nearly fell out of the car laughing. He was serious. Long story short I did it in two, taking photos of my watch at the entrance and at the end. When I got back shortly afterwards, he didn’t believe me until the hotel manager validated that I had just gotten back and had clearly gotten to the top. I asked him how he would feel if I told his nine-year-old son that he would never amount to anything. Mad, he said. Right, said I, and how is that any different from your telling ME that simply because I am a woman past sixty, I can’t make that hike? That conversation changed our relationship, and his perspective. Had I been a man, he never would have suggested the bus, unless I’d been crippled.
I could regale you all day long with such stories. The prejudice is real, not just because I am female, but most definitely because I am now almost seventy. If we are going to change the narrative, we have to be out in the world doing things that others won’t. As I indicated before, there is a cost to this. Men do not like to feel eclipsed by someone who is uber-competent, and many of us who live such lives do so solo. Not by choice, but by the dictates of a deeply limited society that boxes men and women into set roles. Those who step outside those roles are punished, often by shunning.
What are the biggest challenges faced by women leaders that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Being sexually attacked, assaulted, judged, being shouted down, shushed and controlled, being backstabbed when taking risks. Now this can happen to many, but a powerful woman in a male-dominated field, such as fighter pilot, is not likely to get assaulted by a senior officer. We are. We do. I never was a fighter pilot but I got attacked by a senior officer. To be fair, the military is a particularly awful place as some ten thousand men are assaulted each year, but in the world in general, women leaders who use their vulnerability, their collaborative skills to find diplomatic answers and compromises are considered weak. It takes far greater power to find compromise than it does to run roughshod over people.
Unless I missed it, men aren’t ogled, handled, groped, pushed up against walls, coerced into sex to keep their jobs, etc. etc., certainly at the same rate as women. That’s the most obvious. Having been there far too many times, that alone is the most damaging, the implicit and explicit threat of sexual violence. I am aware that some powerful women have returned the favor, as it were, but that’s not revenge. That’s just perpetuating violence.
Being heard. We all know the stories about the Great Ideas offered up by women, hijacked by men, because said Great Idea wasn’t taken seriously when a female voice offered it. History is rife with such examples, women composers, writers, etc. Even Jackson Pollack didn’t originate his style of painting. A woman did it first, he stole the idea and she lapsed into obscurity.
Ancient patriarchal assumptions about roles, which severely limit individual contributions by anyone and mostly women such as:
-REAL women (fill in this blank by any far right wing evangelical Christian, etc)
-What constitutes power. When defined by patriarchy,, “power” carries very specific implications and definitions. To that, one reason people elect authoritarian leaders is because of their unfortunate lack of understanding of what true power looks like, acts like and makes a difference in the world. This is perfectly expressed by the difference between the US and New Zealand, how our leaders responded to Covid, and the way our countries managed their way through the pandemic crisis.
You could easily and rightfully argue that those countries where there were calm, capable female leaders fared far better than those with power-mad, power-hungry, power-grabbing leaders who ended up doing terrible, lasting damage to their people and economies through the need to be right, in charge and ignore science . The most powerful people care intensely about others. The least powerful care only about themselves and see others simply as ways to validate themselves. I find that women shrink from using the word “powerful” to describe themselves largely because of the negative connotations of the word.
How did you balance family with career?
I married only briefly at forty, to a man with an alcohol problem. Never wanted children. I’d always been known to work extreme hours. Without a family, the real question I had to answer was how to have a personal life. The idea of “balance” is ridiculous; there is no such thing, not really. Life is ebb and flow. Our families, our need for down time, the need to shift through the many iterations of a female life, are chapters. Sometimes they overlap.
We can have it all, but just not all at once. When we want it all at once, that creates just one more unnecessary stress. Instead of barking at ourselves and others about work life balance, which doesn’t exist unless one has significant resources to hire staff, if we are well-partnered, which is a whole other issue, then it’s possible to take turns to allow those we love and those who love us to evolve as they need to. Rest as they need to.
The battle I fought was for permission. Permission to take a break. Permission to have a personal life. Those who have suffered sexual trauma are quite often over-achievers, and that comes at a cost. For me, finally getting to a point where the work I love is also what I am passionate about was a huge reward. These days, I plan rest days during my adventures, and I take far more time to enjoy the yard where I live, to read more, benefits that I had a hard time allowing myself for years. It has nothing to do with age or slowing down. It has everything to do with permission.
Did you find a balance point?
After working ninety-hour weeks for years, I wrote my first book, Wordfood, which won three prizes. My gift to myself, after all that, was a month in Thailand. I took months to learn enough of the language to get by. That month was when I finally cured my eating disorder, and reconsidered how I wanted to live. That was in 2011. I started planning and taking lengthy trips all over the world, learning a bit of the language, and writing about it. Since I already loved to train, it was a natural evolution to start doing far more athletic endeavors, which led to taking on Kilimanjaro the year I turned sixty. This work allows me to commit to my personal health, since I blog about it. By 2013, my love of travel outstripped my affection for corporate work. I had found what I wanted to do.
How does beauty play into being powerful?
I’m probably not your girl for this question but I will answer this directly. I’ve been pretty, or at least attractive, my whole life. As a girl, a teenager and a young woman that got me precisely the wrong kind of attention, got in the way of getting jobs, and ended up being a burden. However I could also play the pretty card. I’ve modeled, and because I beat the obesity battle for 35 years, I’ve been able to dress in tiny and gorgeous clothing. That got me hate from women, who assumed that because of my looks I had men falling over me. Not only is that assumption untrue it’s patently unfair.
Attractive women often find that men find them terribly intimidating, a word that I have come to despise with a vengeance, as I have heard it my entire life. The implication is that I have to change tone down, be something less dazzling or capable. Beauty is a commodity, and frankly, it backfires. For those who trade on their beauty to get by are also burned at the stake for every second they age past some imaginary prime. We already hate women for aging in America, women so often are deemed invisible as soon as they pass forty or so, and beauty then becomes THE THING to have rather than wisdom, gravitas, accomplishments, leaving a legacy.
Some years ago I quit wearing makeup. I still color my hair but that’s a lost cause these days. I still have beauty queen proportions from a lifetime of body building and I have retained most of my looks, but my face is traced with the stories of all the mountains I climbed, horses I’ve ridden, forests I’ve explored, oceans I’ve kayaked. My face is my story. To rob it of that story insults Nature. I may not like jowls, and I have had some minor nip and tuck back in my early fifties, but the older I get the less I care about beauty per se. At nearly seventy, what makes me beautiful is a combination of what I have to offer, what I am willing to give back, the ability to rise above some pretty awful circumstances and events and still be laughing, finding each day an adventure, and planning to go climb Annapurna this fall. And return to Kilimanjaro next year.
I care far more about being able to do my hundred men’s pushups, stack my own wood, ride spicy horses, write well and adventure in the world than being beautiful. I find culture’s obsession with beauty damning, demeaning, and ultimately destroying for so many girls and women.
I battled eating disorders for forty years in order to be thin, for beauty’s sake. Don’t get me started on this. I have very strong opinions and they are most unkind about the pressure our media and fashion standards place on all of us. Beauty is a calling card. It goes away over time. Worship and you and I will die a thousand thousand deaths for every single aspect of our beauty which Nature takes away, as is her perfect right, as we slowly age, especially if we only equate beauty with youth. Jane Goodall is beautiful. Aging gracefully and powerfully, fearlessly, is goddess work.
How is this similar or different for men?
No different. Men are now suffering from eating disorders, trying to look like superheroes, I could go on. As long as it makes money, the industry will prey on our insecurities. We are ruining lives by the millions this way. I am not a fan. Of course I like it when someone calls me beautiful.. But these days I’d rather someone give me a high five for finishing a big mountain. THAT’s beautiful. And it’s also personal power to not be led around by the nose by standards which are patently impossible to achieve.
What are the five top things a Powerful Woman needs?
1. Humility. The more powerful you are, the more competent and capable, the more humble you need to be. Otherwise your strength can end up being oppressive and tyrannical. The most effective powerful people are also receptive, vulnerable and constantly learning. When we are humble we choose to keep learning, always keep learning, because we know we are always and forever a rookie.
2. Humor. Self-effacing humor is a powerful tool. The ability to laugh at ourselves makes room for growth, makes us approachable and allows others to relax around us. Humor also allows us to deal with the worst life has to offer, and provides the perspective and strength to keep going.
3. Don’t take yourself so seriously. This is related to humor but very different. When we are rigid, intractable and defensive, that makes us brittle and easily broken. That’s not power. That’s weakness.
4. Be willing to be publicly WRONG, publicly SORRY, and be willing to make that a learning point not only for you but for those around you. The addiction to being right is a relationship and trust killer. Our ability to admit when we are wrong is another super power. That engenders trust, and it inspires others to take personal responsibility as well. Own all your results, good, bad and ugly. They are yours, no matter what. I turn my faceplants into public jokes. That has earned me passionate fans. In fact my BEST stories come from my never-ending list of failures, all of which are inevitable, part of life, and which I embrace as part of how I evolve to my next and better self.
5. Be willing to live and stay in the question. This is the hardest of all. The most powerful people understand that there is NO black and white. Black and white are for fearful authoritarian types. Real-world leaders understand that the world is shades of grey, constantly shifting. The ability to be the question, to not know, teaches intelligence, wisdom, resiliency and personal power. Our ability to be able to perform despite fuzziness, and the world is always fuzzy is what gives others hope. Right now we are living in shifting sands, always did, but now it’s much more obvious. We need examples of people who manage very well in the question.
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