In the first of her articles for the Sisters, the group’s founder and globally acclaimed speaker, author, and ocean rower, Roz Savage, starts to share the story of how she began to shape her life and, in doing so, became a force for change in the world.
Both my parents were church preachers which, by British standards, didn’t pay well, so I grew up in a house with lots of love but not much money. As a reaction against my childhood, I became a very materialistic teenager and twenty-something. I wanted to have a big house and a nice car. I thought they would make me happy.
I was fortunate to get a good education, while a university education was still free in my country, and after graduating I found myself in a well-paid job as a management consultant. From my first day I felt that I was in the wrong place, pretending to be something I wasn’t, but this was the kind of job that I was ‘supposed’ to be doing, so I pushed down the uncomfortable feelings and persevered, convinced that if I wasn’t happy now, I would be happy once I was earning more money.
Eleven years later, I was earning more money, yet I still wasn’t happy. In fact, I was deeply unhappy. From the outside, everything looked perfect. On the inside, I felt I was living someone else’s life.
I turned to self-help books. One of them was the classic, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. Habit Number Two was ‘begin with the end in mind’, and the author suggested writing two versions of your own obituary. The first version would be the obituary that I wanted to have, and the second would be the one I was heading for if I carried on as I was.
Before I started on the first one, I thought of the obituaries that I had enjoyed reading, the people that I admired – they were people who dared to live life fearlessly, people who set out to experience the world and embrace life in all its variety. They might occasionally screw up spectacularly, fail gloriously, but they would pick themselves up and carry on trying. They wouldn’t give a damn what anybody else thought of them – they lived life by their own rules, guided by their own principles.
I scribbled down a description of my idealized self, not allowing myself to be constrained by any self-imposed limitations. In this obituary I had all the skills, all the character traits, all the internal resources I needed to live a glorious, successful, happy life. My pen flew across the paper, and I could feel a new zest for life bubbling up inside me. I felt energized and empowered, and excited about this life that could be mine, for even as I wrote I started to believe that this fantasy could come true. I finished writing and looked with satisfaction at the words on the page. In my imagination I had already lived this life, and was justly proud of my accomplishments. I felt not just happy, but joyful and inspired. It was as if I had temporarily opened a portal into a parallel universe where I was living the life I was supposed to be living.
Then I came to the second obituary – the one that I was heading for. My pen moved more slowly this time, and I stopped frequently to chew its lid. My energy levels subsided, and my enthusiasm slowly ebbed away. I was struggling to find something interesting to say. After half a page of apathetic note-writing I gave up. The second obituary described a conventional, ordinary life – pleasant, with a few moments of excitement – but leaving no legacy except a house clearance sale and a few friends with fond memories.
I looked at the two sheets of paper lying side by side on the table in front of me. The difference between the two was startling. I realized then that if I carried on living as I was, I would not end up with the life that I wanted. Clearly something was going to have to change.
That day, I was a world away from being the person in my dream obituary. It had given me a clearer idea of where I wanted to go, but I had no idea how to get there. I knew instinctively that once I set off down that path there would be no turning back, and I was afraid of where it might lead me. I had seen a life of infinite potential, but I didn’t have the self-confidence and self-belief to take my dreams off the page and translate them into reality.
What really disturbed me was that it was now clear that while I had been climbing the ladder of success, I had leaned it against the wrong building. It was now obvious that what mattered was what I did, not what I owned. Even more strangely, this fantasy life I had imagined looked a lot less like the materialistic life I had been living, and a lot more like my parents’ lives – simple in terms of possessions, but rich in purpose and meaning.
I felt like my life had been turned upside down. What had once seemed so important was now insignificant, and the insignificant was important.
This revelation shook me to my very core. I had been a loyal follower of the cult of materialism since the trip to San Diego when I was sixteen, and the last eleven years – my entire adulthood – had been spent in the pursuit of material wealth. Now the illusion had been shattered, and I was suffering the equivalent of a crisis of faith. If possessions couldn’t make me happy, then what would?
It was a big question, and I didn’t want to acknowledge the answer. The fantasy obituary had made me feel happy, but that was not the life I was living. To live that life, I would have to make some enormous changes, and the prospect terrified me. While I had been writing, a door in my mind had opened a door to new possibilities, and I had been eager to explore beyond, but now I had to run back to reality and slam shut the door to the magical new world I had discovered. The implications were too much for me to handle. It was time to shut the lid on this Pandora’s box of foolish fantasies. I put my pen down, and hid the two sheets of paper in the bottom of a desk drawer.
To be continued...
Roz Savage MBE is the first woman to row solo across the ‘Big Three’ oceans: Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian. Her adventures raised awareness of environmental issues, as a result of which she was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) by the Queen. She now writes and lectures on global challenges, sustainability, and the urgent need for change in the collective human narrative. Having herself made the journey from bystander to activist, Roz passionately believes that women have a unique and crucial role to play in creating a better future, and that every woman has the potential to find her inner leader.