10 things I wish I had known a little sooner.

In 2021, I delivered the keynote address for the International Women’s Day event at Stuartholme School. The list is just as relevant today.

The average life expectancy for an Australian woman is 84.6 years, so at 45, I’m middle-aged – sorry to anyone around my age who has been living in denial if I just shattered your illusion.

I’ve learned some things in that time, and I want to share with you the top ten things I wish I had known a little sooner. As with anything, context is important, so while I don’t want to harp on about it, it’s important that you know I grew up in a violent, abusive and neglectful household, hidden behind the walls of an architecturally designed two-story brick home in the Brisbane suburbs. The abuse was verbal, physical and emotional. As a young child, my mother tried to kill me with regularity. Those who knew, such as extended family, did nothing. And in one instance, when I was 11, a family acquaintance who came and discovered the inside of the house in a state of abject squalor, think of an episode of Hoarders,  rescued the cats and left me there.

It was a dark childhood. But spoiler alert – my life turns out fantastically well – and looks to continue that way.

As the Executive Director of TEDxBrisbane, TED Talks and events have become an important part of my life. In many ways, when I found TED and the TEDx community – I found my tribe. People from across the globe with diverse backgrounds and unique and varied areas of knowledge and expertise, but who have a shared goal of making the world better.

I have learned a great many lessons from TED Talks – too many to list today, but I am going to point you to some of the talks that have been life-changing, light bulb moments for me. Because if you want to learn something, or be inspired, or find a solution, I have come to discover that in almost all instances – there’s a TED Talk for that.

Let’s start with one for the young women in the room.

1. Being a teenager can suck.

I don’t want to start on a downer – It doesn’t necessarily suck for every teenager, it does not suck all the time, and it might not suck for you, but suck it can.

Don’t let anyone else make you believe that it can’t.

Some of you might have very challenging lives. You, or someone you love, might be seriously unwell or struggling with mental health issues; your home might feel more like a battleground than a sanctuary. There might be money problems or relationship problems.  

And even if none of these apply and you have the perfect oasis at home, which I hope is true for all of you – there are still issues with the humans – friends and not-friends, boys, boyfriends, girlfriends, gender identity, sexual identity, subject choices, exams, assignments, formals, uni choices and more. Throw in COVID for good measure.

You are marching full speed towards that magical line of turning 18.

You are almost at the point where you can make decisions for yourself. But not yet. Right now – you can’t. Hopefully, people who love you are doing their best to make good decisions for you, in consultation with you – but you might not always agree with them, and you certainly don’t need to like them.

At 16, when I was in year 11, I hit a moment of absolute despair. I was trapped in my abusive home, and I had come to the realisation that no one was coming to rescue me. I felt I could not go on any longer, and I attempted suicide. I would have died but for the quick action of a friend from school who found me, and with help from her mother, got me to the emergency room.

She quite literally saved my life, which I did not thank her for at the time – that took a while, but it led to me getting the help of a fantastic psychiatrist, who helped me turn my life around, slowly but surely.

One thing he said to me, as I approached the end of Year 12, was that everything that happens to you before you turn 18, you can blame, to varying extents, on others. But once you turn 18, that’s all on you. So use every day to prepare so that the day you turn 18 you can take off running.  

It was both liberating and a tad daunting, but it was fantastic advice. It built resilience and determination. 

So if you’re still on the underside of 18, try to take 15 minutes a day to learn a skill you can use for adulting. 

You’re busy, I know, but if you have time for Netflix, you’ve got 15 minutes for this. You’ll be glad you did.

2. You don’t have to have ‘a Dream’ right now.

Martin Luther King Jnr’s ‘I have a dream’ speech was inspirational and perfectly crafted, and almost every entrepreneur, sportsperson, artist, and musician has an ‘I have a dream’ line they throw around in interviews and on their social media.

It has created such an expectation in society that we should all have a dream that I have clients and young people reach out to me concerned that they don’t, almost as if something is wrong with them.

The truth is, you don’t have to have a huge dream on the scale of curing cancer or travelling to Mars.

If you do, that’s great, rock on – let me know how you go, but try not to get your ‘I have a dream’ ooze all over everyone, you’re making some people feel bad and panic.

The truth is you don’t ever have to have a ‘change-THE-world’ level dream, and certainly not in your teens or twenties.

Start by having some ‘change YOUR world’ goals. Achievable challenges you set yourself, whether you are 14 or 40.  

They can be big or small. They can be just about you at the start, though hopefully they’ll grow to the point where it’s about making a difference and having a positive impact on the lives of others. You can talk about them to friends or family, or on social media if you choose, or you can keep them covert – and you are the only person who knows.

I once gave myself a year to drop from two teaspoons of sugar to one in my tea. The start was very rocky, but I resolved to not feel guilty about it. I had a year to get there, and by 31 December, I’d nailed it. It was a seemingly tiny thing, but it felt great. The next year I repeated it and dropped from 1 teaspoon to zero, and my tea has been sugar-free for several years now. Sugar everywhere else remains a problem, but we’ll get back to that.

The point being – challenges can be small – but they give you a chance to learn about yourself, learn what strategies work best to inspire you to action, learn about your level of procrastination (mine is high) and have an opportunity to enjoy success.

There is a great TED Talk called Try something new for 30 days – by Matt Cutts. I highly recommend it.

It’s also important to note that if you do have a dream now, don’t be afraid to ditch it and switch to another one if it no longer fits right. Don’t let your identity become so intertwined with a dream that it becomes hard to change. When I was the CEO of the QUT Student Guild, I had a lot of contact with students who were looking to change courses, sometimes three years into their study, because the dream they had at 17 no longer fit.

It’s better they worked that out at 20 rather than at 50, though even then there’s still time. The sad thing was when they would tell me that even at 17, they already knew it wasn’t what they were passionate about anymore, but they were the kid who had ‘wanted to be a doctor/lawyer/architect since they were five’, and they didn’t think they could change that without disappointing some of the other people in their lives.

It broke my heart every time.

Change your dream as often as you like. Like a piece of clothing that you grow out of, that no longer fits or you simply don’t like it any more – find something you like and that fits better – that’s okay.

Being open to changing my dream has seen me change it often. To finish school and make it out of my home alive, to be a great teen mum and not pass on my abusive and neglectful family traits, to returning to uni, to doing well and graduating, to overthrowing an inept student guild threatening my kids’ childcare, to being the Student Guild’s CEO, to becoming the national convenor of Australia’s third-largest political party, to becoming an executive in the biotech industry, to getting a couple of Masters degrees, helping nonprofits, changing the world, and more. Not being wedded to any one dream, and having the ability to pivot was key. Along with having an amazing partner happy to hold on for the ride … more on that second point later.

But before we move away from discussing the societal expectations of having a singular dream, I need to tell you that, for my $0.02, we should stop asking kids what they want to be when they grow up; it’s not helpful. I won’t digress now, but there’s a TED Talk for that: ‘Why some of us don’t have one true calling’ by Emilie Wapnick. I didn’t realise there was a term for someone like me – with multiple interests, multiple passions and multiple skillsets until I watched that talk. Spoiler alert – it’s multipotentialite.

3. There is no one right way to do anything.

Throughout life, I’ve come across people who like to try to bestow wisdom that this thing they’ve discovered “is the ONLY way to do things.

I’m sure in their heads they’re trying to be helpful, but it’s usually not helpful at all.

In my experience, there is no one right way to do anything. Perhaps if you are working in the pure hard sciences, there might be a circumstance, but even there, it seems like research, innovation and discovery means that knowledge, protocols and processes are constantly evolving.

I think what they’re actually saying is that the way they did it themselves is (obviously) the best way… because it’s the way they chose, or that the way they want you to do something, is the one right way.

For my $0.02, I typically try to escape from conversations containing this kind of advice as soon as possible.  

There may be faster ways and slower ways to do things. Paths to study, career or life goals might be more or less direct, more or less expensive, more hands-on practical or more academic.

But there are always different ways to achieve anything.

And if you want to achieve your goal via a particular route or path that no one has taken before, and you have good reasons to do it that way, and you’ve put in some research to verify it’s possible, then blaze that trail. And know if it works, others can follow behind you in the future.

But blazing a trail can be hard. You’ll likely make some wrong turns and have to backtrack and adapt a few times, but to quote Tom Hank’s character, Jimmy in the movie ‘A League of Their Own’ – “If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it – the hard is what makes it great.”

4. Some women can have it all, but not all women, and not all at the same time.

There is a lot of hype that suggests that women today can have it all.

It’s vitally important to note that women are not a homogenous group.

Standing here, I have a lot of privilege. I have white privilege, educational privilege, and I have socio-economic privilege, to name a few.  These are not bad things, but it is vitally important for me to acknowledge them. 

Because too often when people, the mass media and advertising generalise and say statements about what women can and cannot do as a generic group, it fails to acknowledge the reality that for many women including women of colour, Indigenous women, women who are refugees, LGBTIQ women, women with disabilities, women from low socio-economic backgrounds to name just a few, there are not the same opportunities as there are for you or me.

And the practice of celebrating the few individuals that make it out of extremely adverse circumstances as people ‘who have lifted themselves up by their bootstraps’ is extremely dangerous.

Don’t get me wrong – I commend them. But it suggests a highly inaccurate idea that anyone who wants to make a better life for themselves can, regardless of their circumstances.

On a number of occasions, people have sought to portray my overcoming of my childhood adversity in such a way as to make this point, and I am quick to correct them.

Many of the young women you might see on the street, whose lives include such things as alcoholism, drug addiction, prostitution, homelessness, domestic violence and more, had very similar childhoods to mine. What they probably didn’t have was the same privilege, the same opportunities, a good education and access to a great psychiatrist. But for these things, I could have been them.

It’s not about bootstraps; it’s about privilege. Yes I worked hard, but I had a platform of privilege to launch myself from. The good thing is that those of us who have privilege can use it to help those who don’t. 

So mentor someone who doesn’t look like you or have your opportunities, regardless of where you are in your career. If you’re time-poor, donate to organisations that support and empower women to change their lives.

Having said all that, for many of us with privilege, we can have it all.

But we can’t have it all at the same time.

On any given day, in any given year, something will need to be prioritised.

Some days, your day job comes first. 

Some days it’s your career, when you have the luxury of focussing on training or study to help you reach your career goals.

Some days, it’s your kids and being a mum.

Some days, it’s your partner and your relationships.

And some days it’s you.

And sometimes it’s not days at all but seasons, years and decades.

I went to uni in my twenties while juggling three kids. But my forties includes a lot of time to work on my career, my company and me.  

In that career/kids/relationship/travel sense, I do have it all, but I’ve never had it all at the same time. My twenties looked very different to my forties.

Important side note – it’s okay to put yourself first sometimes. In fact, it’s imperative. Think of yourself as a well that keeps giving out buckets of water to people. If you don’t regularly top up the well, it will run dry.

Some great words of wisdom from writer Anne Lamott come to mind – almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes – including you.  

Part of that ‘me time’ for yourself should involve good health, but I’m not the person to speak to you about that. It’s one of my ongoing challenges that I will win one day. For now, I’ll simply note that if someone had explained the science of sugar to me sooner, I would have made different choices earlier. Spoiler alert: it’s more addictive than drugs, and it’s evil.

Just try to do a little bit better… you can start tomorrow.

5. Words matter – names matter too.

Some of you might know the work of an amazing American woman. An educator named Jane Elliot. She’s most famous for her multiple decades of work on challenging racism by requiring people to walk in the shoes of people who don’t look like them.  

The full documentary, A Class Divided, is available to watch free on the internet.  

Something of equal importance is her call for women to stop holding themselves back by using ‘girly’ or infantilising names – such as using Debbie instead of Deborah, Vicky or Tori instead of Victoria, Abby instead of Abigail.

As Jane would say, ‘Get over being cute. Get qualified. Get competent.’

You are, of course, grown women, and you can choose what name to call yourself by, but you should know that research suggests that using infantilising names can hurt your career trajectory.

And while we’re talking words, I would like to strongly suggest that you please stop using descriptors like female entrepreneur, fempreneur, female CEO, SHE-EO, mompreneur, and girl boss.

They suggest to audiences that women in these roles are ‘lesser than’. They are a subset not worthy of holding their own under the generic non-gendered title.

I am not a successful female entrepreneur; I am a successful entrepreneur.

And while I am an entrepreneur, and a mum; I am not a mumpreneur – just as males who are parents and entrepreneurs are not dadpreneurs.

You are not lesser; you are not a subset; you are awesome.

Words matter – please use them wisely.

6. Madeleine Albright has it right.

Madeleine Albright is a former Secretary of State in the US. She famously declared, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”

I could not agree more.

Things are better than 20 years ago but have no doubt; we don’t have equality. 

We need to help each other.

This does not mean you have to like all women. I don’t like all women. It does not mean we need to be besties. It means that we should lift each other up, support each other professionally,

And every time you break through a barrier, climb a level higher – turn around, throw down the rope ladder and extend your hand to lift the next woman up.

Stop accepting the historical premise that there is only one seat at the table for women – pull up more chairs.

Lift yourself up, then help your peers, help the women who are your junior in your companies and organisations and then help the next generation.

Learn about amazing and inspiring women.

If you’re not already a fan, start watching the TV show Drunk History. Yes, it’s drunk people hilariously recounting history, and yes, it’s American history, but I have learned more about inspiring women in history from this program than the mandated Queensland history curriculum of the ’90s ever allowed me to be taught.

And don’t stop there. There are amazing local women in Brisbane who are mind-blowingly impressive.

Dr Trudi Collet at QUT has developed a plant extract that in early-stage laboratory testing kills 100% of the Zika virus and all strains of dengue fever. Investigations are continuing. 

Sister Angela Mary Doyle ran a secret underground hospice service in Brisbane in the ’80s, providing care for men with HIV and AIDs at a time when the State Government refused to do so because they asserted that AIDS was a punishment sent from God for being gay.

Amy Sheppard, along with her siblings in their band Sheppard, has written an anthem about body positivity that pushes back against the ridiculous pressure and fakeness of Instagram and selfie culture – ‘Kiss My Fat Ass‘. It’s fantastic. 

That’s just three. Three Brisbane women. There are so many more, but many of you won’t know the names of these women, and that’s a real problem that we need to address.  

So seek out and find amazing women, including amazing local women – wherever you are in the world. Celebrate, support and connect with them – and champion their stories to others.

7. Feminism is hard

It just is. For so many reasons.

There is no one right way to do it.

I’ve been told by many people throughout the years that I am the ‘wrong kind’ of feminist. For some, I was too moderate. I got married, took my husband’s name, had kids and during some decades put my kids before my career.

For others, I’m too intense. Speaking out, challenging inappropriate terms and practices in organisations, challenging behaviours and calling out actions that make the people behaving badly feel uncomfortable.

But it’s worth it.

My $0.02 advice to you, is find your version of feminism that fits right now, and then take some time to learn more, read more, be inspired, and then slowly extend yourself and lift your level of engagement over time.

It sounds daunting, but it’s not. Once you start learning a few things, reading a few stats, noticing the language that seeks to keep women down, you’ll want to help women – your peers, your juniors and the next generation. Trust me, it’s addictive.

Also remember, feminism can be exhausting. 

You will often be confronted by people who say women already have equality. 

Don’t assume they will be men. Some of the most respectful, informed and dedicated feminists I know are men, and some of the most uninformed non-feminists are women. 

It can be exhausting to deal with.

So don’t feel you have to be in full feminist mode every day. Make improvements where you can, step in whenever necessary, advocate on behalf of those who might not be able to advocate for themselves but then…. take a spa day.

Because as feminists, we want you to have enough in the tank to be able to stand up for yourself, lift up your colleagues, challenge systemic problems and arguably, most importantly, if parenting is a part of your life, to raise informed feminist sons and daughters so the next generation can outshine us.

8. Find your people

Finding the right people to surround yourself with can be a game-changer.

Be exceptionally picky when picking a life partner, if that’s something you feel inclined to do. If the single life is for you – rock on.

There’s a great TED Talk by Dr George Blair-West, a Brisbane-based psychiatrist, on how to do that. I highly recommend.

When you pick them, make sure they are a feminist. They say you can’t choose your family, but that’s a crock.

The day you turn 18, you decide how much of your original family you want to keep in your life. Hopefully, they’re fabulous, and it’s a 100% keep situation.

And when you pick a life partner, you are choosing who will be the other parent of your children – your future family. That’s all your choice.

My husband Rob and I have been together for 28 years this year. He is the best human I know. He makes me a better human. He always has my back without fail, and I am still madly besotted. If you think you might like a partner – find one of those.

Beyond love and family, surround yourself with fabulous people.

My TED tribe inspires me to continue to build an amazing community, to learn new things, to challenge my old beliefs with new knowledge and to make a difference.

Having hated group work all my life, in the last six months, I joined a professional accountability pod with four other high performing professionals in the US.  All top of their game, three of whom are women. We bounce ideas off each other, provide support, and act as accountability buddies (essential for master procrastinators like me – did I mention there is a TED Talk on procrastination by a guy called Tim Urban – it’s a must watch and it is hilarious). 

My pod mates act as critical friends, critiquing my work and ideas to give me feedback that challenges me in order to make it better. Go find some people who will do the same for you.

9. Kindness Matters

Be kind. 

In most instances, it cost you nothing, but it can be invaluable to the person on the other end.

Two instances of kindness stand out to me, and I wanted to share them.

When I was a pregnant teenager, my now husband and I were in a department store in Carindale. I was 18 but I looked 14, and Rob was 24.  

We were going up an escalator as an older woman was coming down in the other direction. She smiled at us. I still remember it because she was the only person who smiled at me the entire time I was pregnant. People can be cruel and judgemental, despite having no knowledge of what the circumstances of your life are. But this women was kind, and 28 years later I still remember her.

The second involves a faculty member here at Stuartholme who likely has no idea this was even a thing. As my home room and Economics teacher in Year 11, Mr Elliot was always kind.  

As a new student trying to fit in and someone keen on economics, he took to calling me by my last name, which was Morrison at the time – I can’t recall why.  

But given my home life, more often than not, his tiny words of jest or kindness were the only kind words I received on any given day.

At the end of my first semester, where I had topped two subjects across the grade, he had the opportunity to meet my father at a parent-teacher interview. The next morning in home room, he pulled me aside and let me know that when he told my dad I’d got 97 and 98% respectively in two subjects that he had asked, what had I gotten wrong. Where had I lost the marks?

Mr Elliot then smiled at me and said, “In case no one has told you yet, you did a great job”.

It was only as I was writing this speech that I made the connection that these are the very words I use every day with my children, my peers and colleagues to celebrate their achievements.

10. Every day is a do-over

It doesn’t matter how badly things went today, this week, this year.

What mistakes you made, the dumb thing you said, the stupid things you did, because, every day is a do-over. 

The choice is up to you what you do with it. So give yourself the gift of a clean slate each morning and do something good with it. 

Don’t aim for 100% perfection. That’s just setting yourself up to fail. If you’re a high achiever, aim for 80% perfection and 20% authentic human. The stuff your former ‘judgy’ self might have called mistakes or stuff-ups.

More often than not, the 20% authentic human moments are where the magic is. And remember – done is better than perfect.

So let tomorrow morning be your first do-over day. You don’t have to fix every problem but just do a little bit better than today.

That’s it—my top tips as of today. I reserve the right to change them as I learn more.

So go live fabulous lives, one day at a time.

4 thoughts on “10 things I wish I had known a little sooner.

    • Sean Leahy says:

      I love this.
      Every school, every person could learn something from these heartfelt and down to earth insights. Me included 🙂

  1. Charlotte Hillenbrand says:

    Truly fantastic. So full of great insights, good advice, humour and warmth. I would have loved to hear you deliver it Juanita.

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