Why We All Need A Telescope And A Microscope

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We all need heroes in this world, and one of mine – notwithstanding the fact that she went to jail for insider trading – is Martha Stewart, creator of a homewares and mega-media empire in the States. It’s not because of her gorgeous floral arrangements, or her gardening tips, or the drool-worthy recipes in Martha Stewart Living, her glossy lifestyle magazine. (Sad but true: being a great believer in the power of home-making – as a solace not just for self, but for the family and much-loved friends who gravitate to ours – I still have every issue ever published, which means over 20 years’ worth!)

I like the way Martha’s made a business out of style, and taste, and reassured me that just because I may want to decompress from a week of 18 hour days by organising my linen closet or my gift-wrapping supplies, that’s OK; it doesn’t mean I’m not intelligent, and it doesn’t mean I’m not a feminist. It means I just like things to be nice, too.

But what I really admire Martha for is an excellent book that she wrote called The Martha Rules. It’s a brilliant how-to book for women, in particular, setting out on an entrepreneurial journey – so good, in fact, that I’ve gifted it to lots of young women embarking on start-ups. But the lesson I really took away from it is the importance of having two tools: a microscope and a telescope. Martha was referring to business – and how important it is to step back from working on the detail, to look at the bigger picture and how your business sits in the wider landscape. But what I took away from that book – and what I try to apply to my life, not just my ventures – is the telescope lesson.

Today, all of us spend our lives fixated on tiny screens, on problem-solving, on figuring out a way to deal with one crisis after another, whether it’s a sick kid who unexpectedly throws a spanner in the works (or rather the working week), a broken dishwasher (my current domestic status update), a lost bank card (er, actually also my current status update), whatever. Entire days – no weeks! – can disappear, simply dealing with everyday life, without us ever taking a moment to stand back and look at that bigger picture.

And it’s just so, so vital to do that – because it’s only by looking at things from afar that we realise a) what’s really important in life, and b) what needs changing. Fact: life is short. Way too short to spend it mindlessly dealing with trivia (trust me, nobody’s going to go to their grave wishing they’d spent more time on Twitter), or lurching from one crisis to another, or generally watching the days slip between our fingers. And this isn’t just about stopping to smell the roses (or right now, the lily of the valley which are flourishing near my back gate and I’m spending too little time up-close-and-personal with). How often have you read about someone with a life-threatening illness talk about how it was such a wake-up call, and it made them realise what really mattered (whether that was spending time with family or a partner, or quitting a job they didn’t enjoy, or maybe even ticking that climb up Kilimanjaro off the bucket list)? Answer: all too often, because for many of us it’s only when something dramatic happens that we get to look down that telescope.

So: how to do that more often? Well, one way is meditating. I’ve written about that before – and personally, I now swear by an app called Calm (check it out at calm.com). For ‘big picture’ stuff, perhaps think about taking an actual course in meditation – not just because it’s a great way to learn to focus, but because there’s something about signing up to learn anything that can make us think: ‘Shouldn’t I be finding time to do more of this, in my life…?’ Which can perhaps nudge us to do more new things, rather than just more of the same.

Holidays are great for ‘big picture’ stuff, too. (As in, perhaps: ‘Do I really want to be doing this stressful/unenjoyable/dull job that I am going back to next week/in a fortnight – or should I be thinking about looking for other challenges and new opportunities?’) For me, though, it’s daily walking that helps me with the big picture stuff. Almost as if I’ve got an invisible telescope packed in my pocket, alongside my phone and house keys.

Recently, I had a big challenge with one of my ventures. A tricky conundrum that nobody could seem to solve – not business-threatening, but something that needed a new approach so we could move forward when we’d been going round in circles. One morning, partly because it was just gloriously sunny, I absented myself from the office and my team and took myself off for a long, blustery, blue-skied seaside walk. A few miles. Instead of whiling away my morning answering what always feels like a deluge of e-mails, I chewed on my metaphoric pencil, as I put one foot in front of the other – and hey, presto: after a mile or so, I had the required brainwave. Ta-dah! I took the solution back to the team, we actioned it – and could move forward again. But I absolutely, 100% know that wouldn’t have happened if I’d been at my desk, sweating the small stuff and dealing with detail.

So I invite you: make this the month you invest in yourself – and your life – by trying to spend time looking at things from afar. After all, if Galileo could discover the moons of Jupiter (and more) by staring down his telescope, what heavenly future can you make for yourself, just by spending a little time standing back from the world…?

PS. In her intro to The Martha Rules, my hero Martha does acknowledge the jail term and the lessons it taught her – so it’s not like she’s brushing that under the carpet with some posh broom! She’s clearly not proud of what happened. But I also admire that she didn’t let a huge, image-damaging incident hold her back. Which might just be fodder for a future editorial, I suspect…

Victoria Meets Jo Fairley

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You might have read one of the many features she’s written for VH over the years, including Getting Your Yoga Mojo Back or the Apps That Make You Happier, but there is more to Jo Fairley than simply being a journalist and over the years she has added many strings to her bow…

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I left school at 16 with 6 ‘O’ Levels – and a lot to prove, having been told by my careers teacher that I would never amount to anything. I trained as a secretary and worked my way up through magazines, becoming the youngest-ever editor of a magazine – Look Now (a title for nice teenage girls) – at 23, then going on to edit the fashion title Honey, where over the three years of my editorship I worked with amazing photographers at the start of their careers, such as Mario Testino and Ellen von Unwerth, and had Mary Greenwell and Sam McKnight as my ‘resident’ hair and make-up team. Read More…

How To Stay Cool At Night

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Somehow you don’t expect to return from a goddaughter’s wedding jaunt to Mallorca to find that the nights back in Blighty are even more sweltering than they were in Deia. Now, I’m not good in the heat. During the day, I cope by moving very s-l-o-w-l-y, glugging what feels like gallons of water – and if I’m too hot at night, I simply can’t sleep. Almost nothing I hate more than tossing and turning, glued to my sheets.

So: keeping cool on steamy summer nights has become something of a specialist subject for me, over the years. Air conditioning’s a) an environmental no-no, b) generally noisy (outside of the most five-star of hotels) and c) unsightly. (As anyone who’s ever looked up from a New York pavement can confirm.) Here’s what I’ve found works. Read More…

The Healing Powers Of Illness

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Many years ago I read a book which made a deep impression on me. It was called The Healing Power of Illness, by a German doctor called Rüdiger Dahlke. Highly controversial, it suggested that when we get sick – or even have an accident – it’s not just random, but we’re in some way responsible for what’s happened to us. (The book, incidentally, can still be sourced via Amazon.)

This is an attitude which prevails in my house, where my beloved and very caring husband goes into complete lack-of-sympathy mode when anyone in the family is ill. You’re lucky if you get a glass of water out of him, so convinced is he that you’ve brought the cold/flu/norovirus on yourself. (Mostly by allowing your immune system to become depleted enough to fall victim to a virus or bacterium. The right diet, exercise and enough sleep should keep illness at bay, he believes – and the thing is, he’s almost certainly at least partly right.) Read More…

Something In The Air

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There are green shoots out there. The light’s shifted, suddenly. And I don’t know about you, but at this time of year I begin – just begin – to think about changing the fragrance I wear.

Now, perfume, as many of you know, is hugely important to me. Life-enriching, For most of us, our sense of smell is akin to a seven-stone weakling; we drift through our days, barely using what Helen Keller referred to as ‘the fallen angel of our senses’, when there’s much, much more we can get out of our sense of smell. It was for that reason that almost three years ago, my friend and colleague Lorna McKay and I set up The Perfume Society (perfumesociety.org): an actual organisation whose mission is to help people improve their sense of smell via the medium of perfume. Read More…

And Just B-R-E-A-T-H-E

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I haven’t always breathed brilliantly. My overriding childhood memory is of a Wright’s Coal Tar Burner flickering in the corner of my bedroom, in an effort to ‘open up my passages’ (as my mother rather unglamorously put it). Heaven knows what the coal tar did to my lungs, long-term, but having coughed my way through childhood I’m one of those people who – when there’s a bug going round – will experience it going ‘straight to my chest’, if I succumb.

Or I did. In the past few years, things have improved enormously – and I think it’s down to several factors. Ah, those of you who know me might say: you moved to the brisk and breezy coast, 15 years ago. But actually, these past three years, I’ve been spending several nights a week in pollution-choked Central London, so that can’t be it. (Although I do always make a point of avoiding the city centre’s most clogged arteries, always walking on backstreets so I’m not breathing the diesel belching out of black cabs, in particular.)

I put it down to having written a book on yoga, a few years ago ­– Yoga for Life, which you can actually find on VH – which had me really thinking about breathing properly, for the first time in my life. As a bonus, what I also discovered is that right breathing does double-duty as a relaxing technique. (Always room for more of that, in our busy lives.)

There are a couple of techniques which I honestly believe really work to keep my lungs strong and resilient. ‘Nad Shodhana’, or ‘sweet breath’, is alternate nostril breathing – which you do by pressing lightly on one nostril, breathing in with the other, holding, releasing the finger and exhaling through the opposite nostril. But the technique that I really treasure, and which I think has helped me is called ‘ocean breath’ – because it sounds a bit like the pull of a calm sea on a sandy beach. It’s technically known as ‘Ujjayi’ breathing (say it ‘ooh-jie’). Or, slightly more heretically, as the ‘Darth Vader’ breath, which is the best clue I can think of as to how this should sound when you do it right. It happens to be truly brilliant for focusing the mind: if you have a project to complete and you’re finding it hard to rein in your thoughts, do some ‘ocean breathing’. And – useful at this time of years – it’s also brilliant for building internal heat: on a cold day, ujjayi breath is wonderfully warming. And this is how you do it.

Start by…  Finding a comfortable seated position, or alternatively, lying on your back. Putting a bolster under your knees can be good.

  1. Start by taking long, deep, slow breaths through your nostrils.
  2. Slightly contract the back of your throat to make a hissing sound as you breathe steadily in and out. (It’s sort of en route for a snore, but not quite;  it shouldn’t be forced – but if someone came close, they should be able to hear this breathing.)
  3. Lengthen your inhalations and exhalations as much as you comfortably can, while still feeling relaxed and comfortable. While you’re doing it, listen to your breathing; just the sound can be as calming as one of those ‘ocean wave’ relaxation tapes.

To be sure you’re getting it ‘right’, hold your hand up to your mouth and breathe out as if you were trying to fog up a mirror or a windowpane. To get the ‘fog’, you have to constrict the back of your throat. Now close your mouth and do the same thing, but breathing through your nose. And that’s it: you’re ujjayi breathing. I think of it as Jane Fonda for my lungs, only a lot calmer. And no snazzy leotard required.

There are a couple of other things which I think have helped my ‘chestiness’. A practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine told me to eat an apple every day – rather in line with that ‘prescription’ to keep doctors like him at bay, but in TCM it transpires that apples are considered especially good for the lungs. In winter, I also often put a dab or two of frankincense essential oil on my chest – a tip from my beauty editor and This Works founder colleague Kathy Phillips, which I find very helpful.

And last but not least – because don’t we all love a great product? – I want to single out two aromatherapeutic treats which definitely have a place in my breathe-easy arsenal. First off, Temple Spa Breath of Life Aromatherapy Inhalation Essence, which packs a menthol-y punch, together with notes of lavender, eucalyptus and tea tree. (If this doesn’t clear your passages, nothing will! But great for a cold, because of that.)

The second must-have is yet another in the Aromatherapy Associates Bath & Shower Oil collection, which as many readers know features my ‘desert island’ must-haves, Inner Strength and Deep Relax. But when I’m feeling cold-y or just need to breathe more clearly, I turn to the fabulous Support Breathe Bath & Shower Oil: an absolute miracle worker with its eucalyptus, tea tree and pine blend. A capful in the bath, 15 minutes breathing the fragrant steam, and I’m a different woman. With different lungs.

Meanwhile, I thought I’d just finish with this wonderfully inspiring Swedish proverb, which seems really timely for a new year. ‘Fear less, hope more; eat less, chew more; whine less, breathe more; talk less, say more; hate less, love more – and all good things are yours.’ So here’s wishing you a wonderful 2017. (With clear passages…)