Do you know what has shaped your life?

| December 5, 2013

There are certain people, places and events that stand out and influence who you are today. Sherryl Caulfield shares her personal story of how a holiday in Canada and a mysterious woman changed her life.

No matter where you come from, the language you speak, the career you have, you – like everyone else – have people, places and events that have contributed to who you are today.

Have you ever thought about who are the people, what are the places and events that have been so influential in your life? It can be quite a clarifying experience and at other times quite a confronting one. The first time I had that question asked of me, I wanted to say: ‘Please! Not today. Any day but today.’

It was asked by an American facilitator at the start of a two-day offsite meeting I was attending at a hotel in Darling Harbour. This was to be a team-building exercise for our marketing department that had been leaderless and fracturing for about four months. The new leader was now in place. We were going to storm, form, norm and perform together once more – because once we were great performers, once our manager had been recognised internationally out of a field of 5,000 people for his stellar leadership and teamwork. But not anymore.

Now this new leader knew one thing about me that only one other person in our group did: I was leaving in eight weeks – not just the company, but the country. And I had been asked by our CEO and new Marketing Director not to reveal this until a week after our offsite marketing meeting. At the time, I was fine with this request.

However, the weekend before this pivotal workshop I went to Queensland to say goodbye to my parents and siblings. I was 33 years old at the time. My mother is always an emotional woman when it comes to farewells. I waver between crying myself and being strong and stoic. Mostly I try to be composed. That Sunday I did my best to suck it up. On the plane I looked out the window at the mangrove flats shrinking away from me, unable to talk to my partner. The lump in my throat was large and dry. It made my eyes water as I tried to swallow it down. But swallow I did.

However, the next morning when we were asked to share for three minutes our people, places and events, the caulk across my sadness snapped, and all I could do was sit there and cry senselessly. Each time I tried to start anew, I would cry. I couldn’t speak about my parents, sister and brothers. I couldn’t speak about what this company, or this immediate group of people, who were like family themselves, meant to me. Oh Dr Seuss, the places I had gone with these people.

In the end I had to excuse myself. My colleagues, my friends, had seen me go through many things in the past seven years, things they would think would run circles around that simple question, so you can imagine their confusion.

The interesting point about this question – what are the people, places and events that have shaped you – is that it can change over time as you learn and grow, try new experiences and take risks.

Right now if you were to ask me that question a very clear image comes to mind, because it has been such a driving force in my life for close to a decade.

It stems back to a holiday I had in Canada and a mysterious woman, whose name I never knew, yet whose path I crossed several times. I was in British Columbia – I’m not telling the exact place – and this woman was wearing workmen’s boots, jeans and a nun’s wimple and veil – and she was a woman on edge except when she was smoking her cigarettes and pinning me in place with her cerulean eyes. I kept on trying to figure her out. Eventually I said to my partner, ‘What is her story?’  Because she certainly had a story. My partner replied, ‘Make it up.’

And so I did. She followed me home and into the pages of my first series of novels. I gave her an age, worked backwards to her birth and then forward through her life, through all the significant events that made her the person she was. And in spending time with her, I found I wanted to go back even further, to her mother and to the other side of Canada, so I ended up writing three books I’ve called The Iceberg Trilogy.

So I invite you to ask yourself: What are the people, places and events that have shaped your life? And where is that taking you?

Sherryl Caulfield

Sherryl Caulfield is an Australian-born marketer, traveller and writer. After twenty years working for some of the world’s leading technology companies and a stint with Outward Bound, she longed to write about the human experience and the redemptive qualities of nature. Book 1 and 2 of The Iceberg Trilogy are out now. On her website is more about her writing journey.