We spoke to Australian athlete, motivational speaker, mining engineer, mother and author, Turia Pitt, to hear how against all odds, she defied expectations to rebuild her life...
Turia says her story is forever divided into two parts: before the fire and after the fire. In 2011, at the age of 24, Turia's life was turned upside down. While competing in a 100-kilometer ultramarathon in the Australian Outback, she encountered an out-of-control grass fire. Trapped by the blaze, she suffered full-thickness burns to 65% of her body. She was choppered out of the remote desert barely alive, and she wasn't expected to survive. She lost seven of her fingers, spent over six months in hospital, underwent over 200 operations, and spent two years in recovery. Against all odds, she defied every expectation placed on her and she rebuilt her life. Over the years Turia, has written multiple books, being honoured with multiple awards, mentored thousands of people to achieve their greatest goals, and joined one of her personal heroes, Tony Robbins, as a headline speaker at the 2018 National Achievers Congress. Last year, Turia launched her fourth book. It's called Happy (and Other Ridiculous Aspirations), and in it she explores something we're all seeking: happiness. Turia dives into this idea, and also interviews high profile athletes, comedians, scientists, and world experts to explore how everything from money to our relationships has an impact on how happy we can be. Let's meet this phenomenal woman.
"Hospital was where the real work began for me, because it was then that I realised what had happened to me. The enormity of what lay ahead of me hit me in the face"
Turia Pitt, Australian athlete, motivational speaker and author
Are you able to share what happened on September 2nd 2011 when you were competing in an ultramarathon through Western Australia's Kimberley region?
I was in an ultra-marathon and I was about a quarter of the way through the race. I was trapped by a grass fire with five other runners. I was evacuated by helicopter, landed in Darwin and placed in an induced coma. I woke up a month later in a Sydney hospital. Hospital was where the real work began for me, because it was then that I realised what had happened. The enormity of what lay ahead of me hit me in the face. I had to start by taking small little steps like walking one lap of the hallway and learning how to stand, that at the time felt really pathetic for me.
I got into the habit of every night when I went to sleep, thinking about three things that day that I did really well. I'd say, “Today you did really well at your physio session. You walked an extra lap in the hallway. You ate your whole lunch. Good job. You wore your mask all day.” By focusing on what I'd done well, instead of rehashing everything in the day that didn't go right, was really the start of me cultivating a positive mindset.
That’s not to say I'm positive all the time. You've got to accept that you're not going to be happy every day. Some days you might be tired, lethargic, cranky, resentful, shitty. All of those emotions are perfectly valid. The more we accept those, and we acknowledge them as just being another emotion, the faster they dissipate.
The first chapter in your book explores gratitude, savouring, and anticipation. Can you share what this chapter is all about?
Gratitude was an exercise that was recommended to me by my psychologist. I saw a psychologist pretty much once a week for two years after I was injured. I always like to say, “if your car is broken, you take it to a mechanic. If you want to get your eyebrows waxed, you go to a beautician. Your heart and your head deserve no less than a professional to be able to help you.” I'm a massive advocate of people - if they're struggling with something, whatever it is – to go to a psychologist, a counselor or just seek that kind of professional support.
Savouring is another one. A lot of us, especially women and mums, always have his mental load of a zillion things to do. “Got do this Zoom call, then I've got to go feed my baby, then I'm going to eat lunch, then I'm going to write this email. Oh, and that project is due today.” All of those different things, it’s like this massive load that weighs on us. What we forget to do is to enjoy the present moment and really savour and relish it – just taking stock and trying to notice those little bits of joy throughout your day.
I know that your morning routine is something you see as sacred, uninterrupted family time. Can you tell me about how your morning routine has changed your life and how it can change other people's lives?
I used to be one of those really annoying people: wake up early, did some exercise, sat down at my desk, worked on a really big project, I got all these things done. I felt really smug and good about myself. Then I had kids and all of a sudden, your mornings are no longer your own. My mornings these days are very heavily dictated by the two little people who also live at my house.
I don't look at my phone in the morning, because as soon as you pick up your phone, you're just sucked into this digital vortex of emails, calendar notifications, Instagram Stories, and all of a sudden that sacred, brand-new morning is just spent thinking about everyone else, what everyone else needs from me, and what everyone else is doing.
Since I've had kids, I don't look at my phone, and I really try hard to spend time with them, spend time with my husband, spend time with my family, drink a cup of coffee, and just try and enjoy it and try and savour that time as well.
You talk about how energy is key to happiness. Can you tell me about how you look after your wellbeing?
I'm definitely not the expert in this arena, because, like most people do I'm sure, I do try to exercise regularly, drink enough water, get enough sleep. But also, all of those things, they don't always happen. If my kids are sick, if my partner's away, then I'm doing a lot more around the house and with the kids. If I'm releasing a book then my week is really, really busy so maybe I'm not finding that time to be moving my body and to be eating well. For me, if I can't do those three things, those cornerstones, I really like music. If I'm feeling a bit flat, I'll just put on a couple of good tunes and I'll try and dance around, potter around, and I feel that gives energy to my day.
You look at kindness in the book. After the fire, what did you learn about kindness?
So many of us are reluctant to ask people for help and then to accept that help. For me, there were so many things I couldn't do for myself. I couldn't brush my hair, couldn't brush my teeth, couldn't feed myself, couldn't dress myself, couldn't wipe my own arse. I actually had to ask for help. When I did ask people for help, I found out that they were only too happy to help me, and that it made them feel better as well.
I always remember that if you need help, just ask someone. I know when I get asked to help out a girlfriend or to help my brother with his university assignment or whatever it is, I feel really proud and really pleased I'm able to be able to help in that way. I think that's a really large component of kindness but I also believe all of us are inherently kind. If you're at the coffee shop and the person in front of you is 50 cents short, what do you do? You'd probably pay for their coffee or give them 50 cents.
What happens is that most of us are just so preoccupied with our own lives that we don't really notice what's going on around us. So again, I think that ties back in with savouring and just being more mindful of what's going on around us and what's happening in our world.
"We can't be happy all the time. We're going to have days where we feel dejected or rejected or down"
Turia Pitt, Australian athlete, motivational speaker and author
You said that you could’ve written an entire book on self-talk, and the question that you ask in the book is: how did I get from self-hatred and loathing to self-love and happiness? Can you share the answer that you gave your readers?
I always get asked how I'm so confident and how I can put myself out there. What people mean by that is how can I be so confident when I look so different to everyone else? I just took these tiny little baby steps. For example, I wore my compression mask for two years. And then when the time came for me to take it off, it was like a really hard non-pliable security blanket. I was scared to take it off. So what did I do? I started not wearing it around the house. I would walk around my block with my mask off. I would go to Woolworths and buy a packet of biscuits. I would go out for a coffee with some girlfriends and not wear my mask. So small, incremental baby steps is part of the answer for how I managed to build up my self-love stocks.
I also think part of self-love is accepting that we're not going to love ourselves all of the time – it's like happiness. We can't be happy all the time. We're going to have days where we feel dejected or rejected or down. With self-love, some days we can be really proud of ourselves and the next day we might feel really crap. We might feel self-conscious about something. We might feel like we didn't do a very good job on that project that we were working on. It's just about recognising that we can't be 100% in love with ourselves all of the time. It's also about recognising that we can love ourselves, but we're still allowed to improve ourselves, and we're still allowed to change ourselves as well.
You also talk about how your past doesn't define your future, and yet so many of us cling to the past and they let it affect our present. How do we overcome this?
One of the things I would advise is just to change what you're focusing on. If you're spending your energy on what has happened to you in the past, of course it can be really hard to create a really beautiful future for yourself. I'm sure you remember, we had really bad bush fires last summer. We had terrible bush fires all around the town where I live. Of course, I was really anxious, terrified, scared. People had lost their properties. I was heavily pregnant at the time. I had a toddler at home. That whole time I was just thinking about how the fires were affecting me personally. As soon as I shifted that focus and I started asking myself questions like, "Well, what could I do about this? How could I be of service? How can I give back to my community?", it was almost like that anxiety, fear and stress dissipated.
Out of that, a girlfriend and I, created this really cool social initiative called Spend With Them. It was a way that we could get customers from all over Australia to purchase something from one of the businesses that was in a fire-affected community. By putting my energy into something positive and into something that was helpful for other people, it helped me to navigate that really stressful period in my life.
Headlines tell us that there's a loneliness pandemic. What are your thoughts on why so many of us feel so disconnected in a time where through things like social media, we've never been more connected before?
It really depends on where you live. I live in a really tight-knit community on the south coast of NSW where I know most people. I think it's because with social media, it's almost like we've invented a whole new way to feel bad about ourselves. We can feel really great about ourselves and our own lives, and then we can jump on Instagram, see what everyone else is doing, and all of a sudden, our life seems really pathetic in comparison.
If you’re feeling lonely, I would, number one, advise them to reach out to people or to join a group or to join a club or to get out of the house. Number two, exercising, getting outside for some fresh air, going for a walk, getting some sun on us, all plays a big role in our mental wellbeing. And the third thing: our relationships with each other. That's really key. That's really crucial to our happiness. It's really easy to neglect our relationships with our friends and our family, but out of everything that I talk about in happiness, they're the main things that we should be investing our time and energy into.
You talk about relationships in the book, and you share a story from when you were in year five at school and you were bullied by some classmates. Can you share the story and what you learned from it?
I was in year five and there were these really mean girls in my class. I would always get excluded from things. They would always invite each other over to their houses. I honestly don't know now why I was in that group or wanting to be friends with those people. But I remember one day, one of them came to school and they conducted a hate survey and they came to me with the result and said, "98% of the class hates you." One of them had a birthday party and they invited every single person in the class except for me. It was like they had this massive vendetta against me.
What did I learn from that? As a year five kid, of course, I was upset. I was sad. I was hurt. The main thing I learned from that was just that people can be arseholes, number one. But number two, you can always choose your friendship groups. You can choose the people that you're spending time with. I was trying to be friends or trying to be in the group of people that obviously didn't really want me in their friendship group.
The main thing I want to teach them my sons’ resilience, the sense that they can get through hard things, that hard things are inevitable in their life, and it'll be tough at the time, but they will get through it and they'll be able to move on.
I want to talk about money because that's a topic that you tackle in the book. Can you tell me your view on money and happiness?
If you're spending your money on things that make you happy, such as experiences (skydiving, getting a cook to help you out with mealtimes because you might find them really stressful, or to buy yourself some time to get your car washed instead of you doing it yourself), then yes, it does make you happy.
However, if we're spending it on material possessions, it's probably not going to make us as happy as we might think. We all know this. We buy things online, they arrive at our house, we go, "Yes! This new top arrived." It goes in the cupboard. We forget about it. So, with money, by spending our money on experiences like skydiving or going out to dinner with our friends, that has been shown to make us happier than if we're spending our money on material things.
What do you say to yourself when you're feeling a little bit out of sorts in the morning?
It depends. If I'm having a bad day or I've had a bad night's sleep or whatever, I’ll just say, “You know what? Today is crap. That's fine. Tomorrow will hopefully be better.” There's a real power in just accepting it and acknowledging it. It’s amazing what our minds can do when we drop this bullshit facade that everything's okay. We can't be happy all the time – that’s a really unrealistic expectation.
Can you talk me through the power of reframing and the importance of a positive mindset?
For me, in my journey, whenever I felt really down about what I was going through, I read books by other people and I listened to their stories and I watched movies, and that really gave me a healthy dose of perspective on my own life and on my own problems. I think with reframing, that's an exercise I do where I look at the situation, whatever the situation is, and I'll list all the negatives of that situation and I'll list all the positives of that situation.
For example, with my operations, usually I have about three of them a year. There's a lot of negatives around having an operation. It's scary, it's painful, no guarantees as to what the outcome will look like or feel like, I lose a lot of time to recovery, and I feel really crap and really out of sorts for the next couple of weeks. So, it's not a very empowering way to look at my operations through.
Then I'll look at them through the positive frame. There's a lot of positives. I get to catch up with the medical team who saved my life initially. I get to watch as much Netflix, eat as much ice cream as I want. I can boss around my friends and family. How awesome is it that we live in Australia and we've got access to this medical treatment that most people in the world do not have access to? If I look at my operations through the positive frame, it's more empowering. I feel better about the choice that I'm making.
You’re the mother to two sons. Tell me about how becoming a mother has changed your outlook on life and impacted your happiness?
I remember when I used to listen to parents wax lyrical about their own children, I'd do an internal eye roll and I'd be like, "Yeah, okay. I get it. Your kids are the bees' knees, whatever." Then I became a parent and all of a sudden, I have these two beautiful, perfect, little humans who are adorable, and they're great at everything, and they're funny, and they're brave, and they're smart, and they are adventurous.
I always say it's contextual, because some days I feel like I am a really good mum. I feel like I'm winning. And then, this morning, my toddler did not want to put his clothes on for preschool. I had an interview booked in. I was really stressed. I kind of jammed his shirt on his head and he was really unhappy about it. And I dropped him off at preschool and I didn't feel like a good mum. I felt like that wasn't a very good morning for me.
Some moments are delightful, magical, incredible and extraordinary. Other moments are relentless, mundane - it's the daily grind. Just like happiness, with motherhood I've accepted that some days I'm really going to relish it other days, I'll be like, "It's only 8am and I have to get through the whole day."
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