A verbal cobra and a barracuda in an overall
Updated: Sep 25, 2020
Last week I introduced you to Granddad Hogan and his wise advice to “take no notice.” Mike was a lovable rogue with a twinkle in his eye and extraordinarily long eyelashes that he batted to get what he wanted, something he was doing up until his last days in his nursing home. He was easy to love.
This week you’re going to meet his wife, my grandmother, Lizzy. She was equally wise but in a very different way. How to explain Lizzy? Here goes… What’s that line about a riddle wrapped up in an enigma?
As a child, Lizzy scared the hell out of me. Mainly because she was deeply unpredictable. Things could go from a very normal conversation to what I can only describe as a verbal attack in a matter of seconds. She had an amazing ability to look at a person and really SEE them, understand what lay beneath their surface and lash out at them with THE perfect verbal barrage aimed at their Achilles heel. It was really quite a skill.
I think it’s important that I talk about Lizzy’s dark side first for a few reasons. One is that wisdom doesn’t have to come wrapped up in a pretty bow with fluttery eyelashes, it can come from the most unlikely or prickly sources. Another is that you can’t understand all the things that made Lizzy who she was without understanding what a demon she could be.
Aside from being a verbal cobra, Lizzy was an adventurer. If you asked her what she had done that week, she would tell you a tale of a kind strangers who’d helped her when she dropped her shopping; when you asked where it was that this happened, she could just as easily reply “London” as “down the road”. My grandparents lived in Liverpool, London is nearly 300 miles and 5 hours’ drive away, but she thought nothing of jumping on the bus and going for the day.
What else do you notice about this story? The kind strangers. In LONDON of all places, where you can fall down a flight of stairs on the Tube and people will politely step over you. Lizzy had a way of drawing people to her. It used to make me snort to myself that these people must have been thinking, look at that lovely old lady, little realizing that they were dealing with a barracuda in an overall. But with hindsight, I think there was more to it than that. There was something about Lizzy that was… fascinating to people.
As Lizzy got older, she got more difficult. She was hospitalized, which she was not happy about at all, Lizzy was above all else a free spirit. But she was also deeply ingenious and cunning, and didn’t have much time for rules. As a result, Lizzy was fond of escaping. On one occasion, the police picked her up walking along the street in her hospital gown. They asked her for her address, and she gave them that of my grandparents’ flat. I do not believe for one second that she was “confused,” she knew exactly what she was doing. When the police arrived on the doorstep with Lizzy in her nightgown, she flung her arms around my granddad… who had been living the life of quiet solitude he’d so long wanted since she’d been “taken off his bloody hands,” and promptly denied all knowledge of ever having met her, begging the police to take her back to wherever she came from.
That was only one escape, there were plenty more. The home ended up installing the “Lizzy lock”, an additional bolt that was over 6 feet off the ground. If they thought that that was going to be enough to foil 5-foot-at-a-stretch Lizzy, they had to think again. One morning the door was found wide open, a discarded mop that had been stolen from a supply cupboard and used to push open the latch flung on the floor… and, of course, no Lizzy.
There are so many more tales I could tell you, the one where she was asked to play the fairy godmother in the Christmas play at the hospital is a family legend. Especially since she “let them think she was playing along by going to rehearsals” although “had no intention of doing it” but (said with a deeply self-satisfied smile) she made sure that whatever happened she would “get to keep the magic wand.” But for now, let’s get to her wisdom, because that’s what we’re all here for.
All-time best advice #2 Look after yourself, nobody else is going to do it for you
As you can tell from everything you know about her now, Lizzy was a survivor. She was resilient, and while she was what can only be described as bizarre, you cannot take away from her that she did not hang around waiting for life to happen, she got on and lived it on her terms.
She was not one for kindly grandmotherly advice, maybe given while baking a pie to a family recipe (the recipe for Lizzy’s famous “stone soup” sadly died with her). But she was heard to utter these words more than once – “look after yourself, nobody is going to do it for you”.
In today’s age “selfcare” is, as well as a trend, a hashtag and a talking point, a multi-billion- dollar industry. But this was the 1980s and Lizzy was well ahead of her time. She was a big believer in knowing what your own needs were, fulfilling them and not compromising for one second. You wouldn’t have to tell her the importance of fitting her own oxygen mask first, Lizzy would have been right there tugging it from the ceiling. And all kudos to her for it, because what cause exactly is it that we’re all supposed to be martyrs for any way?
Of course, there’s more to it than that. One of the biggest pitfalls I’ve seen people fall victim to in corporate life is assuming that they will get taken care of, that there is a greater good out there looking out for their career and their general wellbeing. In some organizations that is for sure true, but certainly not in all. Ultimately, the reality is that so much of your work life comes down to the philosophy, not to mention advocacy, of your leader. And no matter how incredible or considerate or dedicated to development that leader is, they are one and their employees are many. Your best interests, your development and your future will matter to a really good leader, much more than what you deliver day to day. But the hard fact is that those things will never matter to them as much as they do to you.
I once had a team member make her case for a promotion and then in the next breath apologize, because she knew I had a lot on my plate, and making promotions probably wasn’t top of my priority list. And I told her very sincerely that she should never apologize for advocating for herself, because she was right to realize that the person that she could most rely on to make sure that her interests were served was… her.
At what I now know was a pivotal point in my career, I was offered a job in Corporate Strategy. At the same time, I was told by a resource committee that I “really should” go into Internal Audit. I’m sure that there are fascinating and worthwhile experiences in auditing, but I saw it as a choice between counting wheelie bins in a factory in Lagos, or doing something small to shape the future of the company, and I chose the latter. I did it because I was looking out for myself and not relying on anyone else’s opinion of what I “should” do, because I knew that I knew me way better than anyone else did, and my own satisfaction and fulfilment meant more to me than it did to a group of career path experts I’d never met.
In both these situations and more, Lizzy has been sitting on my shoulder telling me exactly who we should and shouldn’t put our faith in. It’s tempting to see her advice as selfish or untrusting. I don’t think it is at all. It’s just truth. No matter who you share your heart, your life, or your workspace with, you are the center of your own world and you shouldn’t have to apologize for it. Just so long as you don’t fall into the narcissistic trap of thinking you’re the center of everyone else’s world too. And trust me, Lizzy would have had no time for that idea at all, she was surprisingly egalitarian.
Like Mike, Lizzy never set foot in an office. But it has played on my mind that had she grown up in an era where women were educated, Lizzy’s fierce intelligence could have been directed at something else entirely more significant than escaping hospitals. Lizzy lost her first child during child birth and was never the same again, according to Mike. I have also wondered whether, without this unimaginable pain that in her lifetime wasn’t a thing to be spoken about, never mind treated, her eccentricities would have shown up in a different way.
Whatever else she was, Lizzy was resilient, she was intelligent, she was a bold adventurer and a free spirit, she knew how to really see deep into people and respond, she didn’t stick to the rules when she thought she knew better, and she was an epic problem solver. What’s more, there was something about this bundle of characteristics that people found fascinating; at her funeral, the family were overwhelmed by the number of hospital staff who came to pay their respects to the most intriguing patient they had ever had.
What would have scared me as a child, but now I am more at peace with, would be looking at that list of traits and realizing that there’s something familiar about them because on my best days, they also describe me.
I guess that makes me even more qualified to tell you
Look after yourself, nobody else is going to do it for you
Next week, you will meet an actual business person and not a member of my family, but one with several gems of life advice to share.
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