Gesine Thomson on How Motherhood Defined and Advanced Her Career
Interview conducted and condensed by Aaron Aslin
Q. Backstage, before you went on, you said this was going to be a very personal talk for you. What did this talk mean for you?
A. When Amir Banifatemi first asked me to be a speaker at the conference, and I heard it was called Beautiful Minds, I was unsure what I should talk about. As the founder and CEO of the World Consciousness Center, it was possible just to talk about that. It fit very well. I had lots of time to think about it, but I didn’t make a decision. Then Amir called me about seven weeks before the event and asked how I was doing. He realized I hadn’t zeroed in on what I wanted talk about.
Amir said, “Let me help you to make that decision,” and this is what he asked me, “Imagine you have come from the doctor and heard that you have a short time to live and now TED gives you the opportunity to tell the world what matters to you.” That changed everything because I needed to think about what really matters to me. It became clear that in connection with “Beautiful Minds,” family is what really matters to me. This is the chance to let the world know, to talk about what it meant to me to have the chance to be a mother, and it coordinated beautifully with what happens to young people.
I am surrounded by young people –men as well as women– and they are all looking for direction in life. This generation seems to be looking for direction desperately. The women are confused. What is really important here? Do they need to go fully for their job? Do they need to go halfway? Do they want to be mothers, because their instincts –intalled by thousands of years in them– tell them that’s an important part of life? And then men need to react to women who are in that undecided stage. I felt deeply about this. It was exactly what mattered to me because my children are the most important project in my life.
I decided this is what I wanted to talk about, but it was so personal. I have always talked about professional things but have never talked personal. I am a very private person and I think that is one thing that the governments like. When I come into a project, they know I keep everything to myself.
Because I usually just talk about the professional side, I am now making a decision that is life-changing for me. For the first time, I am talking about something that is fiercely private. I made that decision because I thought it would help the generation right now. Perhaps it just helps a few people and they get it. And then here comes the day of the talk and I am standing mic’d in the wings and having a breathing attack because I know this is such a change. I am going to speak from a private perspective, and then I went off onto the stage, and the rest you will see in the TED talk. I literally stepped onto the red spot and ripped my heart open.
Q. You said you are surrounded by young people balancing their instincts to be a mother against balancing their personal careers. Can you give us the story about how this progressed for you?
A. I was quite busy at the time because I already had a very established architectural firm and I had projects in 14 different countries. I was occupied and on the way to doing very interesting things, but I fell deeply in love with this man. So I made the choice. It was most important for me at that point to lay the groundwork for a family because I wanted the full Ark of the human experience. For a woman, especially somebody that works on a high emotional level, that is how you understand the human condition – through experience. I jumped feeling “this is right and this is what I am going to do” and I did it.
Q. When you were in your career at this time with your children, how were you able to balance being a mother against pursuing your career and what were the sacrifices you needed to make?
A. Well, I need to explain that on top of having a family I believe that it is important to have three generations under one roof. I was lucky to not have just one grandmother in the house, but I had two grandmothers in the house. Now these were trusted people. They helped tremendously to have a functional family even when I was engaged in other things. But most of all –and that was the key– I learned through my children. I learned patience, what it means to give things time, and that there is a right time for everything. So I let this breathing space happen and didn’t go full blast with my career.
It is the circle of life. The older generation passed over, so that was one responsibility that phased out, and the children, by that time, had grown into responsible young men. Then came the time when I could fully jump into things again with rocket engines. And my family was wonderful because when this happened they said, “Now is your time. Everything you want to do, we fully stand behind you. We will help where we can but just get going and get done what you want to do.” I am working around the world and I have begun to teach.
You know, when you are ninety or something, what do you do? You have time to write the books and you have time to teach. And I keep really hoping that this will happen to me and I want this to happen. So I live a healthy lifestyle even though I am continuously traveling. I try to get sleep, exercise, and eat healthy. I try to keep my mind very balanced and very clear because that is where I do my work. It is interesting, I often get asked, “Where is your main office?” And I point to my head and say, “Where my head is, that is where my main office is.”
Q. How did the experience of motherhood, and its influence on your work, change and evolve over time?
A. Two things I think were the base. The first thing was that we treated our children as people but always, of course, according to their stage in life. They were not babied in the sense of baby talk. We had, from day one, a high respect for the children as full individuals. And we enabled our children. We would build the safety net without them knowing that there was a safety net and we let them discover what they could do. So what does that do? It makes children responsible and, in a very playful manner, they are enjoying discovering the world. And you know what? They have an instinct for survival, every human being as that. All you need to do is make them evaluate the risk factor and they do that very quickly.
Children enrich your life very quickly. They were doing things that were mind boggling to me. So we would always offer guidance but would let them discover for themselves. We, as parents, think life is a journey of discovery and let’s see where it goes. It is an expression to say ‘the sky is the limit’ . Quite frankly, is the sky the limit? No, it is much bigger than that. So why don’t we just explore as far as we can?
What did that do in my case? It enriched me amazingly. I am only one person who can have only my own percentage of experiences. But here were two other young people full of vigor and life and all of the sudden I lived, really, three lives and that is exponential. So I was just gifted with an enormous amount of experiences that gave me a fuller understanding of humanity. That is a very big platform.
I need to understand the human condition to build for people and to build environments where they can thrive. So I cannot even begin to tell you how phenomenal the continuous gift of my children is. Now as they get older, I really have to put on my roller blades just to keep up with them. And that’s good. It gives me a vigorous perspective.
I am part of a native american wisdom counsel. So here I have balance of the understanding of the elders, who share things with me, and then I have the energy of youthful thought process, the joy of the beginning of life , on the other side. That is amazing when you are in that place. You do get the spectrum of humanity in a much better way. So I am actually very blessed.
Q. Out of the talks you were able to watch which others stood out as favorites?
A. Mr. Mullis and Mr. Mullen. Both have the same kind of name but are totally different people. One is a Nobel Prize winning chemist and a profound thinker. The other is a skateboard inventor. Now these are two different worlds and seem so opposite. But when I saw them together, I saw an electric bridge between their brains. And I was just stunned about that because I realized that skateboarding on the level that Mr. Mullen has done –he has invented the most incredible moves– requires a profound mathematical understanding. Is it just intuitive? I don’t know. He must have it. On the other side Mr. Mullis, the chemical Nobel Prize winner. They are from totally different age groups. They are worlds apart in what they do. Yet they are connected by excellence, by understanding what it takes. Because, you have to show up every morning to become excellent. I saw the phenomenal excellence between those two men. It was a beautiful experience.