Caroline McHugh on The Art of Being Yourself (Full Transcript)

And my question is, why wouldn’t you ask yourself these questions when you’re strong, from a position of health? When you’re in a job, when you’re loved. That’s when the questions become most useful. So the question on this one is, “If you could be the woman of your dreams, who would you be?” And my tongue’s nowhere near my cheek when I ask you that question.

The thing that might stop you being the woman of your dreams is the next circle, and that’s what you think of you. So now you’ve got what everybody else thinks of you, what you would like everybody else to think of you, and this is what you think of you. And you have good days and bad days, right? There’s days where you wake up and you think you’re the bee’s knees. And other days you wake up and you can’t even say your name. Even your cellphone feels too heavy.

So on the days when you wake up and you feel like you’re the bee’s knees, it’s not even like you’ve got a reason. It’s like free-floating joy in your body just looking for a target, and you know how it feels on those days because — (pitchs]. You just think, “Somebody give me an audience; I’m on fire! Quick, point me somewhere!” And your hair’s fabulous, and everything just works, everything works on those days. But the other days nothing works. Your legs don’t work, your mouth doesn’t work. You — the word thief comes and steals your entire vocabulary. Those are two extremes of your ego, and one of them is about self-congratulation, and the other one is about self-castigation.

Now your entire life, I don’t care who you are, I don’t care how old you are, your entire life, from birth up until now has been about building a stable relationship with your ego. You need an ego to live in a Western, capitalist world. If you didn’t have an ego you’d be toast. But your challenge is to take the ego from its dominant position and pull it back so that it’s in service to yourself. That’s when it becomes useful, and in order to do that you’ve got to find the still point right in the middle of those two extremes. So that’s what I would call equanimity, or equilibrium, and it’s the kind of state of mind that cannot be perfumed in any way by anything that happens outside you. This kind of confidence that comes from there is like the confidence of the sky. All right, and now it’s dark outside, but you know if you went up in a plane, even in the stormiest of days the sky is brilliant blue underneath.

So when you look at the sky and it’s made a rainbow and it’s absolutely gorgeous, there’s no question that the sky is up there going, “Ha, did you see my rainbow?” Or when it’s a terrible, bleak, you know, gray, gloomy day, that the sky is going to apologize. No, the sky just is, because the sky sees the impermanence of the clouds, and the impermanence of the rainbows, and you have to develop an inner state of mind that’s as impervious to all the good shit and bad shit that happens to you as the sky is to the weather.

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Now, we would also call this, in a Western context, we would call this feeling a feeling of humility, and I worked last, one day last week where I got to work with UK Sport, and particularly I got to work with the amazing coaches who worked with the amazing Olympic athletes who got all those amazing results at the Summer Olympics. It was incredible to be in the same room as 400 of these people.

And the woman who runs UK Sport is a woman called Baroness Campbell, and she gave me a definition of humility that’s as good as any I’ve ever found. She said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; humility is thinking about yourself less.” And I remembered learning that lesson when I was a wee girl and probably no more than seven or eight, and it was actually the woman with the squinty mouth that taught me the lesson. She had no idea, my mother, what she was doing to me as I was growing up, but when I grew up in Glasgow, particularly working-class, steel-industry Glasgow, nobody had any money, so nobody could afford to go out and be entertained. Everybody’s social life happened in a house, so at the weekends, all the wrinklys and all the kids would show up at people’s houses, and they would, you know, drink ’til their kneecaps were on backwards, and all that kind of stuff, but everybody at some point in the evening had to perform.

And it was a riot, because these people were bus conductresses, and welders, and carpenters by daytime, but then they’d show up at nighttime and come at you Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin, and Sarah Vaughan, and Billy Eckstine. They were all — my house was — it was like a star-studded affair, living in my house, and all the kids were taught to perform as well. And so, I’m the oldest of four girls — my mother had four daughters. So did my father, interestingly enough. But we were brought up from any age to perform, and we’d be wheeled out at these family parties, me with my guitar and my sisters around me, and we’d have to sing. And we’d be literally positioned, Jose, like the Von Trapps. You know, my father would say, “Beneda over there, Louise over there,” and then we would sing, and we were terrible. We were absolutely rubbish.

So one night my mother came up to get us and we were all upstairs having pillow fights and everything, she showed up and she said, “Right lasses, everybody’s ready. Go down and give them a song.” And this night I was just overcome. I said, “I don’t want to sing.”

She said, “Why do you not want to sing?”

I said, “I’m shy.”

She said, “What’re you shy for?”

I said, “Well, everybody is going to be looking at me,” and I’ll never forget her face.

She looked at me, she said, “Caroline, don’t flatter yourself, darlin’. You think anybody down the stairs is interested in you? They’re not. Your job is to go down there and make them happy, so go and sing.”

I said “Okay”, and I picked up my guitar and I picked up my sisters, and you know what? That advice has never left me. But what it has left me with is spectacular disregard for where my abilities end, and spectacular disregard for being the center of attention. In fact, since that day, I have never been the center of attention. You’re the center of mine, and that’s a very different feeling.

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So last, the last you, and the opposite of least, is the ever-present unchanging you. This is the you that you’ve been since you were seven, and the you that you’ll be when you’re 107, please God. I spend a lot of time in India, and in India you’re raised with this feeling that you’re a spiritual being who happens to be in a physical body, whereas we in the West are much more into our physical bodies, and then if we get old enough, and long in the tooth enough, we kind of get interested in spirit.

But, if you’ve ever been to the Gandhi museum in Delhi, you’ll know that this is the line that is above the door, and it was actually a response by Gandhi to a question from a journalist. So Gandhi was getting on a train and the journalist called after him, “Gandhiji, Gandhiji, what’s your message to the world?”

And Gandhi turned around and said, “My life. My life is my message.” And your life is your message too. It might not be as big a message as Gandhi’s — mine certainly isn’t — but your life has to be your message. Otherwise, why are you here? It’s not like you’ve got a spare.

So when you think about your identity, when you think about what it means to be alive, when you think about why you deserve to exist, you’re not your thoughts because you think them. And you can’t be your feelings, because otherwise who’s the you that feels them? You’re not what you have; you’re not what you do; you’re not even who you love, or who loves you. There has to be something underneath all that, and when you look at people who have managed to transcend all these judgements that we put upon them — You know, this man here, he couldn’t be judged as a man, or a black man, or young, or old, or Democrat, or Republican, nor a gay, or a straight. It really, really wouldn’t have mattered, because he knew why he was here. Yes, we can.

So you see, he seemed to be a verb. And even when you’re born without many of the attributes that some of your peers may have, even when you’re born in a way that may lead you to feel impotent. If you can tap into that voice, if you can tap into that inner voice that I’ve been talking about, you might just end up being, at 12 years old, the youngest person ever called to the National World Champion Swim Team. You might even end up at the age of 13 being the youngest Olympian gold medal winner, ever. You might even end up at 14 being the youngest person ever to get an MBE. That’s what happens when you dial in to the personal pronoun.

So if you can do this, not only will the speed of your life get quicker, not only will the substance of your life get richer, but you will never feel superfluous again.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.