TEDx-talk Alexandra Smith The Beauty of Imperfection (video & transcript)

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TEDx-talk Alexandra Smith: The Beauty of Imperfection

Hieronder het filmpje en het transcript van de TEDx-talk van Alexandra Smith: The Beauty of Imperfection, gegeven op 5 november 2015.

Transcript TEDx-talk Alexandra Smith:The beauty of imperfection 

We like to be perfect.
We enjoy sharing things we are proud of.
But when was the last time you told others about something that makes you feel ashamed?

Like not being able to pay the rent, because you just don’t earn enough money to make ends meet.

Or hiding something about your past. because you think that people will think less of you if they find out.

Or…  Dropping a spare set of undies on the escalator where everyone can see them.

Most of us keep secrets. And sometimes it is actually better not to talk about things you’re not proud of. Keeping up appearances can come in handy sometimes – I admit.
But if we only share good news, even to our best friends and closest family, what message do we send out to them?


I do not run a company with thousands of employees.
I didn’t overcome some terrible live threatening disease.
The books I wrote didn’t sell a million copies worldwide.
I don’t exercise any sport that will ever make me a champion.

And in contrast to most of you, I know close to nothing about my roots.

So telling a personal story about my background is quite complicated.

That is – at the least – curious.
Because I am a storytelling expert.
And let me tell you this, in Holland, a storyteller without a personal story is like chips without mayonnaise.

Over the years I have helped many authors and entrepreneurs with their story. And because I am a big fan of authenticity, one of the things I always ask is: what personal elements can you add to make your story more authentic?

They tell me the lessons they have learned from parents and grandparents, what their roots are. How they enjoyed the favorite dish of their mother, which happened to be the favorite dish of their grandmother. Or how their grandfather grew up in World War Two.

And two years ago it dawned on me. On November 2, 2013, to be exact.

Here I am… teaching people about the importance of personal stories… while at the same time… I don’t have one!
(At least not a complete one.)

So what do I remember about my youth?
When I was little, I was frequently drawn to this dark wooden cabinet in the living room. Inside, on a shelf, was a silver picture frame carrying a black and white photo.
It showed my Surinamese grandfather, who I never met and knew nothing about. I must have taken it of the shelf a hundred times, staring at this man who seemed to be the male version of me – but older.

My Surinamese grandfather died under mysterious circumstances when my father was 16 years old. Which made my father decide to leave Surinam and travel to Holland, while working as a steward on a cruise ship. In Holland he met my beautiful mom, who was stunning but even younger then he was, and they immediately wanted to share the future together. The parents of my mother were against this marriage; and not only because she was young.

You see, back in the seventies, even in Holland, interracial marriages weren’t so common as they are today. They of course decided to marry anyway; otherwise I wouldn’t be standing here.

But that was about all I knew: a few facts.

No stories about their parents.
No stories about their lives before they met.
No stories about their roots, whatsoever.
It was one big mystery.

And for some reason, I didn’t dare to ask about it either.

I always thought that I would never find out anything else about my grandfather. But life is like the wholesales company of unexpected presents.

About 12 years after I moved out of my parents’ place, I received an online message. It was from a cousin of my fathers side. I didn’t even know she existed, but she found me on social media.

I was quite surprised about the information she gave me.

According to her, my grandfather did not have roots in Suriname. He grew up with his family in Guyana and they were rich.

But when he fell in love with my grandmother, his parents weren’t so pleased about it. She was poor and half Venezuelan, half Indian. I guess interracial marriages weren’t so popular in that period of time either.

My grandfather was stubborn and decided to marry her anyway.

His family responded by disowning him and he then left the country. Without money, but with my grandmother, they settled in Surinam.

It took me 32 years to find out that I don’t have three bloodlines, but six. And two years ago, I realized, that I still don’t have a complete story about my background and that I probably never will.

While most of us grow up with parents and grandparents that share stories of how their lives use to be, some children grow up without them. Because sometimes people don’t want to share personal stories about their background. They are too ashamed. Because sometimes talking about it is so painful, that you believe it is better not too share it with anyone. Not even with your own children or grandchildren.

I guess my parents wanted to protect us and not relive whatever traumas they endured in the past. But the result was that I grew up in a constant state of wondering and a constant feeling of disconnection.

I learned some valuable lessons because of that.
If people grow up without knowing their roots, they feel incomplete –because a big part of them is unknown.
And if you want to connect with people, it is sometimes necessary to share things you are ashamed of.

Even if it involves confessing that you don’t really have a story about your background.

Two years ago, I was writing a new book – a diary full of confessions. I shared some very personal information.

The stuff that made my friends say: are you sure you want to share this information to the whole world?

Private information.

Like sharing my yearly turnovers of the last six years, while in fact I wasn’t doing so well as an entrepreneur.

In this book I put my trousers down and told the world everything I did during my quest of doubling my monthly income. I shared my failures, my fears, my uncertainties and my thoughts. I shared quite a few things that I felt ashamed of.

Like screaming in pillows when journalists at a public party take photos of everyone – accept you.

Or realizing that you suffer from low self-esteem when it comes to deciding on what fee you should ask for the work you do.

I shared so many personal things that, when I sent it to publishers, they sounded a bit like some of my friends and replied with:

“It is really fun reading it. But we feel it is a bit too personal for a big audience and we also think that it is too much of a niche.”

The thing is: I had nothing to loose. Keeping up appearances didn’t work. And I was pretty sure that among the million entrepreneurs in Holland there would be others screaming in pillows because of lost chances.

So I decided to write it anyway. An honest book, something different than all the success guides that are available. About the struggles you have when you are an entrepreneur in times of crises. About feeling ashamed when someone asks you how your business is doing when it isn’t going so well.

Something really great happened: in 100 days of writing and reflecting upon my actions, I in fact managed to double my monthly income.

And I decided to publish the book myself. It immediately started selling. I was asked to give speeches and I even started training other professionals.

The beautiful thing was: I received a lot of mails from other entrepreneurs who recognized themselves in my story. Complete strangers started to open up to me about their challenges.

Author and research professor Brene Brown once strikingly said; the most powerful words when we’re in struggle: Me Too.

A story of one entrepreneur, my story, gave a face to a whole group of entrepreneurs and independent professionals. Many newspapers and magazines started writing about it.

No one really connects with perfection. We are anything but flawless.

In the real world, we have to work hard and not always get the success we aim for.

In the real world, on some days we just feel shitty – even though we post pictures of drinking cocktails at perfect sunsets.

In the real world, we sometimes struggle for three hours to build one simple Ikea bookcase.

When you look around and look very carefully, you would notice that the real world does not consist of Facebook characters.

We keep up appearances, show our successes, but it is not what we really want. What we really want is share our values, dreams, hopes and fears with other people. Because that is what makes us happy.

Today I am 40 years old and I realize that the pieces of information I do have about my family really helped me completing my personal story a bit further and helped me understanding myself a little better.

I guess that my stubbornness to always follow my heart rather then rules or money has something to do with my grandfather’s choice to prefer love over money.

And with the six bloodlines I inherited of my parents, it may not be so strange that I am drawn to different cultures as well: my partner is half Danish. That may not sound exotic, but trust me: it is.

Growing up without stories probably inspired me to become a storyteller. Maybe it was my way of fitting in. And that I made a profession of helping others with their stories, could have been my way to prevent history from repeating itself.

It turns out that the very thing that makes us human is our ability to connect with others through stories. Stories are like the air we breathe. We cannot survive without them.

But we must not forget one important ingredient in storytelling and that is imperfection. Because we cannot feel intimately connected with superheroes or Facebook characters.

So go and tell people about your experiences.

Tell your children what storms encountered your life and how you weathered them – or not. Dare to share stories that you feel ashamed about.

And if you are an entrepreneur like me: behind every success story lays a path of failures and determination. Talk about that, because we learn from that and it gives others the opportunity to connect with you on a deeper level. We need to hear “me too” more often, in order to connect and understand each other. Tell your neighbor how you got fired and how that made you feel. Listen to the lady standing next to you at the supermarket and find out why she has that sad look in her eyes. Invite others to share their struggles with you.

Ultimately your story is never a story about you alone.
It’s also a story about the people around you.
About how you influenced them, and how they influenced you.

Sometimes your story is that you don’t have a story and how disconnected and incomplete that made you feel while growing up and trying to find and understand yourself.

But if you are willing to share your dreams as well as your fears, that is usually all it takes to turn disconnection into connection and failure into success.

(Thank you.)

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