3 mindsets that will build your resilience and courage, via Yassmin Abdel-Magied
Until a fortnight ago, I had not heard of Yassmin Abdel-Magied.
But on Monday 21 August, Creative Mornings announced that the 26-year-old mechanical engineer, author, TV presenter and social advocate (amongst many other roles) would be the speaker at their monthly event later that week. My curiosity was piqued when they mentioned that Yassmin is an internationally renowned speaker on unconscious bias, a topic close to my heart and one that I believe needs to be elevated, so I signed up to attend.
Then, coincidentally, a day or two later on social media I discovered that Yassmin had been featured in the latest Sydney Morning Herald Good Weekend magazine cover story, where I learned about the events and her Facebook post a few months ago - a well-intended message that was expressed in a way that was open to (mis)interpretation given the sensitivity of the context, and inadvertently provoked hysterical public outrage and fury. Saddened to read of the alarmingly savage malice directed towards her, and admiring her strong sense of self and confidence, I was even more curious to hear her speak in person.
On Friday 25 August, Yassmin was welcomed to the stage after host Jeremy Wortsman publicly acknowledged the traditional owners of the land on which we were gathering. Yassmin immediately won me over by prefacing her talk with a brief explanation of why she acknowledges the traditional owners of the land.
She described her wonder and awe at the fact that indigenous Australia is one of the world’s oldest civilisations, many times older than the ancient Greek and Roman civilisations whose art and architecture we travel across the globe to admire. She explained how she acknowledges the traditional owners to respect their role in our country’s history, and remember that we are part of history too. Though not the main subject of her speech, it was a thoughtful, passionate and potent digression that spoke volumes about her connection to Australia, the way she sees the world, and her mindful approach to life.
The rest of her talk was also articulate and animated. Yassmin had been asked to speak on the topic of genius, and she invited us to contemplate, “Who decides what is amazing? Is your work only valuable if other people see it as valuable, or does it have an inherent value? Is the value fixed or does meaning change based on how we interpret it?” (She mentioned a fascinating social experiment by Joshua Bell and the Washington Post - a worthwhile read if you haven’t come across the article before.) Yassmin proposed that genius is subject to interpretation rather than a fixed judgment. She then spent the rest of her talk expounding the power of mindset, illustrating her points with colourful anecdotes and experiences from her life.
Different, but not less
Born in Sudan (she describes her heritage as pieces of a pie: “three-eighths Sudanese, three-eighths Egyptian, one-eighth Turkish and one-eighth Moroccan”), Yassmin and her parents migrated to Brisbane when she was 18 months old. As a uni student, she loved motorsports and wanted to become a Formula One racing driver. After realising an F1 racing career would require serious funding, Yassmin decided to pursue a different path upon graduation in 2011. The resources sector was an obvious choice for an engineer living in Queensland, so in 2012 she started a career in the oil and gas industry.
She was the first female field engineer the company had hired in her department, which resulted in some interesting and unintentionally humorous conversations with colleagues and managers. But aside from her self-proclaimed “soft spot for bogans”, what most surprised and intrigued me was her experience of the blokey male culture on oil and gas rigs:
“I didn’t know that I didn’t belong. For some reason I truly believed I was a middle aged white man. I didn’t see myself in the way they saw me.”
As someone who had spent most of my life feeling like an outsider, I wondered: How had Yassmin grown up without realising she was different, especially as she said her family was only the second Sudanese family in Brisbane, and she has worn a hijab since the age of 10? Had she never been picked on or bullied for her differences? Curious, I approached Yassmin after her talk and posed the question to her. She paused before answering, saying she’d never thought about it that way before. Then, as if thinking aloud, she responded,
“I realised I was different, but I never considered that I was less than.”
As she had told the crowd,
“If I went in [to work] with the mindset that my gender, race or background was a disadvantage I would’ve seen it everywhere. Instead I went in and saw my difference as a positive and something that gave me strength.”
Choose your story
Yassmin explained how she consciously chooses her mindset. Talking about wearing a hijab or looking ‘different’ to white Australians, she said, with a mix of confidence and self-deprecating laughter, “If people stare, I don’t automatically assume they’re hating, I tell myself they think I’m hot.” (She had similarly told the Good Weekend about her “secret self-empowering Beyoncé talk”.)
“Our brain rewrites our neural pathways to reinforce what you’re thinking over and over again…We have an amazing ability to rewrite our brains, not just to feel better, but to change the way we operate.”
“Why would you tell yourself a story that takes away your own power?”
Commenting on the challenges of the last few months, Yassmin said, “The only thing I can control is how I respond or choose to relate to it. We need to realise the power we have to control our responses, otherwise you’re giving people a passport to rewrite your brain.”
“Don’t underestimate the power of the stories that you tell yourself.”
In response to a question about whether she used affirmations, she explained, “No, I try to make it the way I see the world as opposed to something I have to tell myself.”
Whose opinion matters?
Yassmin was asked by an audience member how she balances the story she tells herself with what she hears from others. She observed that for most of her career the story she told herself had aligned with what was being said by the press and the public. But over the last few months, the two narratives have clearly diverged. (Yassmin has faced hostile abuse, shaming, hatred and, even more disturbingly, death threats.)
Yassmin explained that during this tough time she asked herself, ‘Whose opinion matters?’ In deciding this, she had to determine how she measures her success – whether it is the tangible difference she makes, or winning over the opinion of people in the street. She referred to a Sudanese saying her father would often mention while she was growing up, translated as:
“The camel walks while the dogs keep barking.”
If the camel stopped to listen to every barking dog along the way, it would never reach its destination. Sometimes the dogs may provide useful information, like the fact that the destination has changed, but most of the time they are just making noise, so the camel keeps walking.
The Yassmin I saw on Friday was engaging, optimistic, warm, thoughtful and funny. A woman with a huge smile and the boldness to be seen and heard - breaking stereotypes, inviting us to examine deeply-held assumptions and showing us that different does not need to mean less.