x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Life lessons: Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Youth worker and novelist Vanessa Diffenbaugh shares her philosophies on life.

Vanessa Diffenbaugh.
Vanessa Diffenbaugh.

1.  Stories are powerful. A professor once told me that the portal to the universal is through the particular. He knew that all the studies, evidence and statistics in the world are not enough to sway public opinion or mobilise a movement. It is stories — both real and fictional — that can captivate hearts, change minds and, in the most powerful examples, spur action.

2.  Change is possible. Most of us have the experience of looking in the mirror and seeing our mother (or our father). But are our emotional and experiential lives as predetermined as our physical appearance? I don't think so. We can become anyone we want to become. It takes focusing on the aspect of ourselves we want to change and reflecting on the beliefs that cause us to act in ways that are counter to the change we seek.

3.  Give generously. This was one of my wedding vows. My husband and I keep our original, handwritten wedding vows taped to our bedroom door, and this one has become a centrepiece of our marriage. It isn't about money. We define generosity much more broadly than in financial terms. Generosity, for us, is listening to the people around you, hearing what they need and giving what you can.

4.  Talk about your successes and your failures. We have been trained to broadcast our successes and hide our failures. But the truth is this: our failures humanise us, and they connect us to one another. I am not only the person who wrote and sold a novel while raising a houseful of biological and foster children; I am also the person who wrote a horrific young adult novel that never sold and gave up on a foster child I couldn't handle — an experience that still haunts me.

5.  Ask for help. In my early 20s I was trying to transform a youth programme in an organisation in which nothing had changed for years. In my first year, I hadn't made any progress. "Ask for help," the chairman of the board told me. He emphasised humility and genuine need. I took his advice, and it worked. People want to help one another; sometimes we forget to ask.