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…