Chief Idologist Caroline McHugh on The Art of Being Yourself at TEDxMiltonKeynesWomen conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: The art of being yourself by Caroline McHugh at TEDxMiltonKeynesWomen
So, the chances are you’ve looked in at least one mirror today. You’ve had a shave, or you combed your hair, or maybe you checked your teeth for spinach after lunch. But what you didn’t know is that the face looking back at you isn’t the face that everybody else sees. It’s a kind of reversed, distorted, back-to-front image.
So some years ago, I was on a flight to New York and I read an article in the FT, and it was an article about a phenomenon called a True Mirror, and for the Americans listening, that’s a mirror. So the True Mirror was actually invented by a brother and sister team in New York called John and Catherine Walters, and what they discovered was that if you take two mirrors and you put them together at right angles and you take the seam away the images bounce off each other. And what you see when you look in a True Mirror is exactly what other people see when they look at you.
So I land in New York and I phone John up and ask him if I can go and see him, and I end up in his gallery in Brooklyn, and it was like being at a sideshow in the circus. There were True Mirrors full length, face sized, all over this gallery. And when I walked over to the True Mirror for the first time and I looked in the mirror, it was one of the most disorientating experiences I’ve ever had in my life.
The first thing you notice when you look in a True Mirror is that your head’s not on straight. So yours is kind of going that way, and yours is quite straight actually, and yours is going that way a wee bit. So, apparently most of us tilt our heads one way or another, so when you approach a True Mirror the first thing you try and do is fix your head, but, of course, because it’s reversed you go the wrong way. So it’s very, very disorientating.
But more importantly, I had a flashback. I had a flashback to when I was a wee girl. So I grew up in Glasgow — in case you haven’t noticed, I am Scottish. But I grew up in Glasgow, and my mom, when she was putting her makeup on, I used to love sitting and watching my mom putting her makeup on, you know, with my chin in my hands.
And I would tell her occasionally, “Isn’t it funny how one side of your top lip is higher than the other side of your top lip?”
And she’d look in the mirror and she’d say, “It is not.”
And I’d say, “No, it’s only a couple of millimeters, but that side of your cupid’s bow is definitely higher than the other side of your cupid’s bow.”
She’d say, “Caroline, you’re havering.”
And when I looked in the True Mirror, there was the lip that I had been wearing, at that time, for maybe 45 years, and I’d never seen it. So the difference is when you look in a regular mirror you look for reassurance. You look for reassurance that you’re beautiful, or you’re young, or you’re tidy, or your bum doesn’t look big in that.
But when you look in a True Mirror you don’t look at yourself, you look for yourself. You look for revelation, not for reassurance. And this was deeply interesting to me because what I do for a living is I help people be themselves. Not in any narcissistic or solipsistic way, but because I believe that social reformation begins — always starts with the individual.
And when you look at remarkable individuals, and when I say remarkable, or successful individuals, I don’t mean monetarily successful. I mean people that have been successful at achieving whatever they set out to do. You’ll find that the thing they have in common is they have nothing in common. These are people who work in many of the fields that I work in. I work with people in corporations, I work with captains of industry, I work with selected politicians. I’ve worked with geophysicists. I’ve worked with chamber orchestras, and ballet dancers, and pop stars, and opera singers.
And I’ve identified the thread that links them. These are individuals who have managed to figure out the unique gift that the universe gave them when they incarnated, and then put that at the service of their goals. I think that we all come complete. We come complete with one true note we were destined to sing, and these are people that have managed to figure that out. And it doesn’t dictate your choice of job; what it dictates is how you do it.
And when we see these people we invariably call them larger than life. You know, you’ll see somebody like Roberto Benigni and you’ll say, “Oh my goodness”. Eve Ensler, she’s larger than life, which always makes me smile because how could you be larger than life? Life is large. But most of us don’t take up nearly the space the universe intended for us. We take up this wee space around our toes, which is why when you see somebody in the full flow of their humanity, it’s remarkable. They’re at least a foot bigger in every direction than normal human beings, and they shine. They gleam, they glow. It’s like they’ve swallowed the moon.
And all the work I’ve done has led me to believe that individuality really is all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, people who are frightened to be themselves will work for those who are unafraid. Now your job is not to be anything like any of the people that I put up behind me. In fact, your job is to be as unlike them as you can possibly be. Your only job while you’re here on the planet is to be as good at being you as they are at being them. That’s the deal.
So I want to start today by asking you an incredibly personal question. Not the one that says, “Why are there so many syllables in the word ‘monosyllabic’?”, no. Not even the one that says, “Did you know that Britney Spears was an anagram for Presbyterian?,” no. Something a wee bit more pivotal. In fact, this is a question that’s been looking for you your whole life. It’s probably the simplest, and the most complicated question you’ll ever ask.
And yet how many times in your life has somebody offered you that well-meaning piece of advice that you should just be yourself? How many times have you said it to somebody else? One of your kids comes to you, or one of your team comes to you, and they tell you they’re nervous, they’re scared. They have to go and do something and their bold goes, and you say to them, “Darling, just be yourself, because when you’re yourself, you’re fabulous”.
Now it always resonates, because it’s all we want to do. If you tell John to be himself, he doesn’t want to be Mary. He’s quite happy being himself, but it’s the use of the word “just” that I find interesting because it would imply two things. Number one, that that was an easy thing to do. Number two, that it was an original piece of advice. You know, John had never thought about it himself.
When it comes to being yourself, when it comes to being in the world, the minute you showed up, the minute you incarnated, you were given a life sentence. Now, you don’t know how long you got. Maybe you got 70 years and I got 62. We’ve no idea how long we got. Although, where you’re born, when you’re born, to whom you’re born, all these things have a certain influence, or impact on how you become who you become. So if you’re born in Switzerland, chances are you’ve got a long time to figure this shit out. If you’re born in Zimbabwe, or some parts of Glasgow, and I’m not kidding, you’ve got significantly less time.