Tag Archives: Courage

Meet Sophie Blondel who swapped Paris for rural Normandy

Summer in Normandy is peculiarly familiar. The sun is capricious and is frequently hiding behind the clouds. The rhythm of life here is punctuated by the sea and its tides, painting fascinating, melancholic landscapes, starting with a fresh canvas every morning. The village of Regnéville-sur-Mer in Lower Normandy is a quiet place with an unlikely grand church and ruins of a medieval castle. Every Friday in the summer the castle is bustling  with people coming to shop and eat at the farmers’ market, listen to a band or watch a play. I came to Regnéville-sur-Mer to visit my friend and former colleague Sophie Blondel.

Castle    Market

Sophie worked as a Chief Financial Controller in a large media company in Paris. Her work was frighteningly complicated and demanded a lot of time and responsibility.  Sophie was very good at it, despite its pressures. She also found time for tango and swimming, movies and friends, making the most of what Paris has to offer for about 20 years. At the same time, Sophie has been studying shiatsu.  In Japanese, “shiatsu”  means “finger pressure” . It is a holistic physical therapy, which works to strengthen the body’s natural ability to heal itself. It is based on  manipulating body energy, ki, as it flows through a network of body  meridians.  After 4 years of study and a trip to Japan, Sophie earned a professional certificate from La Voie Shiatsu, a school accredited by the French Federation of Traditional Shiatsu.  Earlier this year she quit her high-powered finance job in Paris to move to rural Normandy and practise shiatsu.

I remember our conversations at an industrial-size Nespresso machine in Paris. We were both stressed, hyper-caffeinated, stiff from spending too much time sitting in the office and working through countless spreadsheets. We took pride in our work and our ability to handle pressure, we were loyal and professional, but inwardly thoughts were beginning to creep in: “Is this really what I want to do?”

In Sophie’s beautiful garden in Normandy I asked her what prompted her to consider career change. “It’s my values that have changed. I’m proud of what I have achieved in Paris and I loved living there but increasingly I’ve become disenchanted with my life and I wanted to change it.” Sophie moved to Normandy because this is where she had grown up. Her parents still live here. “I came here often, I used it as a retreat to help me relax and re-balance my energy. I have come to live here because I wanted to change my lifestyle, not just my career.”

Sophie Blondel

Just a few months after moving to Normandy, Sophie looks completely different. I cannot quite put my finger on it, but she radiates happiness. We make dinner from the fresh produce we’d bought at the market, we go to the beach, we take long walks and meditate. We realise we have a lot in common, now that the professional masks are off.

Sophie tells me about her new work. She has regular clients in the nearby Granville and is now looking for permanent studio space. Over the summer she has also been  offering her services at a local caravan camping site. One morning while I was writing a blog, Sophie went to work. She came back with triumphant “I had four clients today!” Many people would look at Sophie and conclude that she is just another professional who ‘down-shifted’ once she’d made her money. I see a woman who isn’t afraid to challenge herself, to take a leap of faith and embrace fear. In her previous role, her job was to take account of other people’s initiatives and performance; now she has to be bold and creative, like any entrepreneur, learn about marketing, be her own boss.  “I’ll give myself a year or two, and then we’ll see.”

There’s no guarantee your new idea will be a success, but you can give it a shot and try your very best.

What is your greatest achievement? Changing my life

What are you good at? Let me think… I am good at seeing the beauty in things.

What is your weakness? Lack on self-confidence…

What would you advise your 15-year-old self? Don’t chase someone else’s dreams.

If you can do anything, knowing that you would not fail, what would you do? I would like to travel the world and learn about healing practices of different cultures.

Sophie practises shiatsu in Granville – for details, please visit her website.

Meet investigative psychologist and sky diver Tamar van Dijk

IMG_8452I am in Tayrona National Park, making my way back from the Lost City, ruins of an ancient settlement, discovered in Colombia in 1976. I am with a group of travellers from Colombia, the US, Canada and Europe. A big lad in his early twenties is attempting to cross the river using a pulley rope bridge. He is huffing and puffing, making the show of it, but never quite leaving the bank. Most of us have already crossed the river barefoot, which was mildly inconvenient but relatively fuss-free. A fit young woman next to me says to no one in particular: “He is just waiting for someone to tell him not to do it.” Sure enough a moment later we hear “Oi, leave it, they probably need the pulley this side of the river” and the grateful backpacker runs down to the stream, his bravado gone, his relief barely hidden.

Perhaps it does not take an overqualified psychologist to read a man’s mind but Tamara was spot on, so forgive me the side story. Please meet Tamar van Dijk (not her real name), a 28-year-old Dutch investigative psychologist who helps the police profile murderers and solve crimes.

Tamar grew up and lives in Haarlem in the Netherlands. “It is a very charming medieval city close to gorgeous beaches and sand dunes – it’s nothing like Harlem in New York!” After finishing school, she decided to become a cook and got a job in a restaurant. Tamar spent about six years cooking in some high-end restaurants in Haarlem, and at the same time she enrolled to study first economics, then psychology “to keep the brain cogs in motion.”

“I got a Masters degree in Psychology as well as a Masters degree in Criminology, covering law, psychology and sociology. At that point I realised I was more interested in criminal psychology and a career with a greater sense of purpose, so I stopped cooking and applied for a job as an investigative psychologist.” 200 other graduates applied. Tamar got in.

She took an additional course in investigative psychology at Utrecht, and was also sent to study Violent Criminal Behaviour with the FBI Academy in the US. “I had a plenty of theoretical knowledge straight after university but lacked practical experience. The FBI course was very helpful, although some of their methods seemed obsolete in comparison with what I had studied in the Netherlands!” I ought to mention that Tamar has decided to get a Law degree as well and is now half-way through the curriculum.

So what does an investigate psychologist do?

“I study files, help to investigate cases the detectives have trouble with. The work varies: murder, threat, stalking, sex offences etc. I often assist criminal interrogations, watching interviews with a psychotic suspect on a murder case. I analyse allegations of sexual offences,  advising criminal prosecutors on such aspects as false memories, false denials or false confessions. I am also one of the three psychologists on a team that works on stalking cases against public figures, like the Dutch royal family or politicians. They get threat letters, and we read and analyse them.  In many cases the writers are delusional, and we assist in getting them the right medical care. Finally, I advise local police on their efforts to prevent murder or violence from happening. For me it is the most rewarding field of work.”

Tamar enjoys a mental challenge, and having both a challenge and a sense of purpose are the most important aspects of her life.

Speaking of challenges, Tamar is a bit of an adrenaline junkie. She has always been active and adores being outdoors, but her idea of fun is perhaps of a kind some of us would refer to as ‘insane’. “Since I spend a lot of my time sitting in an office, after work I go out to race my motorbike or rock climbing.” Tamar spends her weekends mountain biking, kayaking, kitesurfing, wild camping or skydiving.

Tamar racing on her motorcycle

In early 2014 Tamar was on holiday in South Africa where she went sky diving in tandem. She loved it, and she also wondered how it would feel to jump solo… Back in Haarlem she saved up some money to start a sky diving course in the summer. Tamar got her sky diving license in August after theory lessons and seven qualifying jumps.  At the 20th jump she broke her foot at landing, but naturally she cannot wait for the summer season to resume diving.

Tamar 1Tamar 2   Tamar skydiving

“Flying in the air is the best feeling ever. Every morning I wake up hoping I have been transformed into a bird. Sadly, that hasn’t happened so far.”

Tamar learning to fly a plane

In case you are wondering, extreme sports do not take up all of Tamar’s time. “I also play saxophone (in a tango orchestra), read about astronomy, philosophy and neuroscience, I attend lectures, go to concerts, and I love spending time with friends and family.” Incidentally, Tamar has a twin brother, who is her opposite. “He prefers staying within his comfort zone…”

Tamar’s plans for the year is to go travelling on her bike. She is planning to cycle all the way to South East Asia, wild camping along the way. “I’d like to meet new people, perhaps help them out and, at the very least, make them smile.”

Meeting Tamar reminded me once again what Ladies Who Impress project is all about: to celebrate insanely impressive women and inspire all of us to aim higher and to challenge ourselves.

Leap of Faith, a Ladies Who Impress celebration

Leap of Faith was the 7th(!) Ladies Who Impress event, celebrating courage and ingenuity of women who brave new territories, once discomfort with the status quo overweighs the fear of the unknown. We’ve talked about entrepreneurship, but also eyewear, travel and opera..!

Nadine Mortimer-Smith, Claire Goldsmith and Marianne Cantwell

Here are the highlights of the celebration…

For Nadine Mortimer-Smith it seemed the most natural thing in the world to write a business plan of how she would become an opera singer. Indeed, even with the most dramatic career changes, it pays to play to your strengths, and Nadine’s financial background in the City helped her find an investor to sponsor her for the first few years.

Jana Bakunina with Nadine Mortimer-Smith

Jana Bakunina with Nadine Mortimer-Smith

Nadine also revealed that she had got her first role before she received any formal training – her audition was impressive enough. If you are holding back because you don’t feel you are qualified to do something, just give it a go. You may surprise yourself…

At the end of her interview Nadine challenged five people in the audience to stand up and take on new challenges there and then. Five enthusiasts came up with fantastic ideas in the spirit of the moment, and if they think everyone’s forgotten all about it by now, they are wrong! I’ve put their pledges on a post-it note and even framed it!

Pledges Leap of Faith

You may like to visit Nadine’s website and sign up for her newsletter.

Marianne Cantwell admitted that a ‘Free Range’ career may not be for everyone, but she is certainly making the most of it, roaming around the world and inspiring people, stuck in career cages, to build their own businesses, based on their strengths and passions.

Marianne advised to be honest with yourself and remember that ‘Free Range’ life is a journey, with its inevitable ups and downs, changes and even u-turns. Once you’ve taken a ‘leap of faith’, you will probably continue ‘leaping’ every week but you won’t feel stuck…

Please visit Marianne’s website to find out about her Friday’s Love Letter, her courses and her book  Be a Free Range Human: Escape the 9 to 5, Create a Life You Love and Still Pay the Bills.

Claire Goldsmith told a story of how she revived an iconic eyewear brand, worn by such fashionistas as Audrey Hepburn, Michael Caine and Grace Kelly. What’s interesting is that she made us think of a brand as a person: “No one likes arrogant or unpredictable people and the same applies to brands. Make yours likeable and consumers will follow.”

Claire certainly got it right for Oliver Goldsmith sunglasses, now worn by Kate Moss, Yoko Ono, Damian Lewis, Kate Beckinsale and Lady Gaga, to drop a few names…

Claire also asked the audience, whether they spend more money on shoes or optical glasses – it’s some food for thought, given that most people first look at our faces not shoes… If you’d like to invest in a pair of glasses, you’ll find some ideas and a list of stockists here.

Claire Goldsmith

Claire Goldsmith

It’s been another great celebration – thank you so much for your continuing support! If you are not yet friends with Ladies Who Impress on social media, please join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter. It’s where I post links to interesting, relevant articles, updates on Ladies Who Impress I’ve interviewed previously and share thoughts and inspiration on a daily basis. All photos from the last week’s event are also on Facebook.

Amara Karan

Amara Karan – whose life is it anyway?

I imagine this is the exact question Amara thought of asking her Dad when she decided to quit her job as an investment banker and enroll into an acting school. I wonder if she did – it sure enough takes guts.

Amara Karan was born to Sri Lankan Tamil parents, who emigrated to Britain two years before she was born and brought her up in Wimbledon, hoping for a stable and prosperous life for their daughter. Amara went to a good school, studied hard and got into Oxford University to read Politics, Philosophy and Economics. It was fairly predictable that she became an investment banker in the City of London.

But at some point Amara found her City “hat” did not suit her; she missed theatre, being on stage, acting in school and university plays. At some point that sensible girl, always following her father’s “high hopes” made a decision many would view as foolish. She applied to study acting at The Arts Educational Schools of London.

Just months after graduating, Amara made her film début in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited. Her other film credits include lead roles in indie productions All in Good Time and A Fantastic Fear of Everything. She starred in such TV series as The Bill, Poirot, Doctor Who and, more recently, Kidnap and Ransom. What’s more, Amara spent 2008 and 2012 seasons with The Royal Shakespeare Company playing Jessica in The Merchant of Venice, Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew and Hero in Much Ado About Nothing.

When I met Amara for lunch, she was very candid about still waiting to make a real breakthrough internationally and winning an Oscar, which is fair enough. I am all in favour of aiming high. But I found her happy, relaxed, genuinely in love with what she does, grateful for all the opportunities she’d had so far both on screen and on stage and having no regrets about her unpredictable schedule, hectic lifestyle and taking that fearless plunge.