New Year's Resolution
It's that time of year again and we are all making resolutions that 90 per cent of the time we don't keep. But I made one 12 years ago and it was the best, but toughest, resolution I ever made - and I have kept to it!
What was my resolution? It was to risk everything I had to start a business for the first time in my life at the age of 58 – when most people are thinking about imminent retirement. I threw up a well-paid job that I loved and risked my life savings.
I blame the charismatic Sir Tim Smit who co-founded the magnificent Eden Project – where I had been the Director of Communications – in part for this seemingly mad resolution. He taught me that if you have a big idea don’t just talk about it, do it!
And the resolution turned out to be even more risky than I had planned, when just days after resigning I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
So, on January 7, 2007 I found myself with no job, no income, and a life-threatening disease; yet with the stakes even higher, my determination to keep my resolution became yet more resolute. While I struggled through the treatment, I worked on turning my big idea – inspired by my mother’s untimely death and now all the more vital to me facing my own mortality – into a reality.
My big idea…
Amongst people’s top 10 New Year’s resolutions, is to ‘spend more time with friends and family’; not surprising given how busy modern life can be, compounded by wider social trends such as the breakdown of the traditional family unit – and a sense of community.
Yet even for those who manage to see through this resolution, how many can say that they really get to know the ‘back story’ of their nearest and dearest? If their children or grandchildren asked them about granny’s or great grandpa’s life, what would they say?
It was only when my mother died unexpectedly, taking her memories with her, that I realised I had so many questions about her life which I now had no way of finding out the answers to, which added to my sense of loss.
There was absolutely no reason for me not to ask her when she was alive. We didn’t live miles apart. We were very close, in fact, she was my best friend, my mentor. She was wise and funny and kind - but we lived in the present. We didn’t discuss the past. We went to exhibitions together, we had coffee together, we went to the theatre together. We debated politics, we argued about fashion. We did all the things that millions of mothers and daughters, or for that matter mothers and sons do. But (tragically) we didn’t talk about her past, her experiences of growing up, her family and friends, or any of the hundreds of things I would now love to know about her.
As her executor I had to rummage through her life to find the documents needed to sort out probate. I came across drawers full of photographs of people who must have meant something to her but who were now anonymous. I had no idea who they were and never would. There was no-one to ask.
And so often I meet people who say they feel exactly the same and desperately wish they had been more inquisitive – also regularly reflected in findings of the various and numerous polls conducted on people’s ‘greatest regrets’.
So I vowed to try and help others not to make the same mistake – and help them capture their precious life story for future generations.
I realised that while the rich and famous have their lives recorded – either as a biography or an autobiography (often with the help of an expensive ghostwriter, costing thousands of pounds) – this wasn’t possible for the great majority of people.
So why is it that so few people write their life story for their family? When I survey people on the cruise ships I lecture on, they say it’s because they don’t know how to do it. Just knowing where to start can be difficult. A blank piece of paper or screen is very daunting.
I wanted to make it easy, and affordable, for anyone to write their life story and have a beautiful hardback book at the end of the process, which could be passed on as a family heirloom.
….becomes reality: introducing autodotbiography.com
It took 12 years of devising and writing and spending our life savings and putting our house on the line – my husband of 44 years, Paul, has been magnificent in supporting me. Hundreds of thousands of words later, I (gently) launched www.autodotbiography.com at the 'Who Do You Think You Are?" exhibition in February 2011.
It is a unique online system that makes it easy for anyone, no matter how good or bad at writing, to create a beautifully written, lavishly illustrated hardback book of their life story for their family. All the author has to do is answer simple questions - selecting from pre-written answers, if they are not a confident writer, or writing in their own words if they are. To illustrate their stories they can upload photographs and documents, and then our automated system turns their words and pictures into a beautiful book. Basically, it is a virtual ghost writer and a virtual book designer combined.
Looking back, looking to the future….
There are so many things to say about running my own business. It has been terrifying, amazing, frustrating and a tremendous adventure. I have learned to do so many things in the course of running the business. For instance, I never dreamed I would become a cruise ship speaker! But lecturing and running workshops on cruise ships is a terrific way to market autodotbiography, as well as seeing the world with some delightful people who have wonderful life stories to share with their families.
I am thrilled to report that at the ripe old age of 62 I won an award from PRIME (Prince of Wales Initiative for Mature Enterprise) Best New Digital Business. And I have wonderful comments from the authors who have completed their books and their fascinated families that makes it all worthwhile. In a world when physical books are becoming outnumbered by digital formats (often quickly superseded by new technologies), it is wonderful to see the importance people still place on creating beautiful books – which will still be sitting on a bookshelf for future generations to enjoy – and I love that I have been able to build a business out of this.
I am so glad I made and kept to that New Year’s resolution back in 2007…could this be yours be for 2020?