Interviews with Incredible Women (www.iwiwproject.com) is a series of thoughtful interviews with women who inspire me and the women who inspire them. I became interested in talking with incredible women after hearing some of the really cool stories about the lives of women I know, like the woman who owns an art studio or my friend, the geophysicist. At first, I just wanted to throw a giant party and invite all of these cool women, but I realized that they wouldn’t be able to hear each others stories unless it was written out. I had the skills to start the blog, so I did. After conducting and publishing 64+ interviews, I became curious about the themes that thread through the lives of “incredible women.” The research question was, “What makes incredible women incredible?”
I had some ideas about the themes that might emerge through a review of the data gathered through the Incredible Women interviews, but Brene Brown’s work made me wonder about the techniques of qualitative research. It was my good fortune that Dr. Heather Stuckey, from Penn State University, is a qualitative researcher who was willing to work with me to code and analyze the interviews, unearthing the themes that women mention as being intrinsic to an incredible life.
Women’s Studies, The Basics sets a good background for the complexities of the life women. But it’s The Evening Times of Glasgow where we find everyday women characterized as incredible. In the article “Six of the Best Who Inspired Our Voters,” The Evening Times talks about a woman with cancer who overcame long odds, women who wrestled with the death of their children, women who are passionate and compassionate about their work. It’s so interesting to see how the themes that I discovered throughout this research are relevant when you hear unrelated stories from other ordinary but incredible women.
One other inspiration for this project came from Composing A Life by Mary Catharine Bateson. Grove Press writes that this book is a “treatise on the improvisational lives of five extraordinary women. Using their personal stories as her framework, Dr. Bateson delves into the creative potential of the complex lives we live today, where ambitions are constantly refocused on new goals and possibilities. With balanced sympathy and a candid approach to what makes these women inspiring, examples of the newly fluid movement of adaptation–their relationships with spouses, children, and friends, their ever-evolving work, and their gender–Bateson shows us that life itself is a creative process.” (Bateson). For me, this inspired me to ask women about the creativity in their lives and work.
The interview data reported in this project were gathered over most of 2014. The plan is to continue collecting interviews to expand upon the stories of incredible women.
The women held occupations that ranged from stay at home moms to Apache helicopter pilots, from attorneys to geophysicists. In line with snowball sampling, each participant was given an opportunity to recommend other incredible women. In general the participants were not limited to any particular demographic although, most of the participants were well-educated, predominantly white American women . The list of participants grow organically, without focusing on creating a representative sample.
Questions were tailored for each participant, based on the information that was available about them. The participants were identified using social media profiles including Facebook and LinkedIn, as well as personal websites to research participants prior to sending them an initial list of five or six questions. Topics centered around participants’ interests/passions, how they maintain balance, the role of pain in their life, and the lessons learned over a lifetime (what advice would you give a younger version of yourself, for example).
As the project progressed, the questions evolved to be more open ended. Instead of asking different questions for every participant, the questions were standardized and often included the following:
- Q: You’ve been identified by someone as being incredible. What do people see in you that is incredible?
- Q: What advice would you give to an earlier version of yourself?
- Q: What is the most rewarding thing you’ve done?
- Q: Life is beauty and pain. Tell me about pain in your life.
- Q: What question did I miss? What else should I know about you?
- Q: Finally, can you recommend another incredible woman for me to interview? Can you facilitate an introduction?
Interview questions were provided to participants via email with some introductory text about Interviews with Incredible Women and links to interviews that had already been published online. It was clear from the email that the interview would be published online and, at that point, some women declined to participate. There was no promise of privacy, since interviews are published under participant’s real names with easily identifiable data.
Some participants preferred to be interviewed orally and in these cases I recorded the interview, transcribed it, and sent it back to them for their approval. This builds credibility through member checking (reference). Most participants wrote their own responses, which I read and lightly edited for clarity, spelling, and grammar, again providing them a version to review prior to publishing.
The social media analytics on most of the interviews showed that the interviewed reached an audience from a few hundred to a few thousand, at least on Facebook. The response that I got from the community was overwhelmingly positive. Many women had never thought of themselves as incredible and expressed that the process of thoughtfully answering the questions was insightful.
We developed an initial code book with recognizable themes from about 20% of the interviews and then used NVivo software to assist in coding. Saturation was reached when no new data was emerging, such as there were no new codes being added to the codebook. Initial codes included:
- Approach to life (gratitude, learning and openness, passion, mindfulness)
- Collaboration/Group Work (creative solutions)
- Internal locus of control (trust your instincts)
- Outward focused (work that benefits others)
- Overcoming challenges (hard work, creativity
- Self care (travel)
After an initial round of coding, we cleaned our codes to eliminate unnecessary ones and to merge codes that demonstrated the main themes.
Please note, we used the edited, published interviews as the source data, which may provide a limitation to our study. Although it would have been standard to use original transcripts of the interviews for the analysis, especially in cases where deeper, more revealing details had been removed, the summarized text were available. The study is also limited in generalizability based on the composition of white women who were mostly well educated.
We found several themes that women repeatedly mentioned in Interviews with Incredible Women. These themes included:
- Incredible women are valued and supported by their family or their loved ones and they in turn value and support themselves.
- This self care gives them resources to focus outward, working to benefit others.
- These women respond to life with gratitude, mindfulness, learning/openness, and passion.
Theme: Incredible women are valued and supported by their family or their loved ones and they in turn value and support themselves.
Family/ Loved One Support
Participants reported that the support of their family and loved ones was essential to their success. These participants tended to have a support network of people that includes friends, family, and colleagues. For example, Anna Crider Sharp said, “my family and loved ones have supported me throughout my life both professionally and personally. I would be nowhere without them.”
This theme closely ties to Approach to Life – Participants expressed gratitude for the support of others: “my colleagues were really supportive and respected my ability to do this job in a flexible way, even if it wasn’t the way everyone else does it.” Although gratitude isn’t overtly expressed, the tenor throughout the interviews was that these women deeply appreciated the opportunities and support that came through the people they love.
Theme: This self care gives them resources to focus outward, working to benefit others.
Many participants discussed self care in their response to “what advice would you give to a younger version of yourself?” One participant put it pretty clearly in her response: “Do not forget to take care of yourself.” But others talked about being an introvert and needing time to “decompress and relax.” Taking care of yourself is “the real secret of getting things done; you have to nourish yourself to take care of others.”
Self care, according to these interviews, includes yoga, rest, meditation, backpacking, exercise, caring for animals, climbing, hiking. It’s worth noting that many of these activities are solo ventures. These women express a need for spending time with themselves, to refresh their spirits.
Although incredible women take time for themselves, they are also focused on work that benefits others. They are deeply passionate about empowering others – whether it’s first-graders or inspiring those around them. For example, a theater professor wrote that she’s “in theater because we all need to take all these tools from theater so that women can step into authorship. Somebody needs to write the story. If we can use theater to get women to step into that authorship role, those qualities will carry over into life and leadership.”
Participants volunteer, teach, work in orphanages, prisons, with prostitutes, as shamans, as environmental activists. Participants champion causes like infertility and mental illness, giving a compassionate face for people who struggle. And they express wonder and gratitude at these roles: “I still love every one of my students, flaws and all…I often learn more from my kids than they learn from me.”
One of the women was the co-founder of Haiti Babi, a non-profit that teaches Haitian women to knit and crochet baby blankets for an online webshop here in the States. Haiti Babi pays fair wages and gives the women a means to support their family, a win-win in social entrepreneurship. She said, ”The most inspiring part of working on Haiti Babi is watching the women and their children’s lives change. We have watched as their lives have transformed. We have witnessed their personalities begin to shine in a way that simply can’t come through when [they’re] living in extreme poverty.”
Finally, when asked what her message would be to the world, Amanda Oliver responded, that people “have value, self-worth. People don’t realize their worth, what they bring to the table. Everybody has something unique and special that they bring. That’s part of the point of people-who-matter. Yes, YOU have purpose and value.” Incredible women deeply believe in the value and worth of both themselves and others and are passionate about helping others see their value.
Theme: These women respond to life with gratitude, mindfulness, learning/openness, and passion.
Approach to Life
How do incredible women approach their life? They do it mindfully, with a ton of gratitude and a willingness to learn. Incredible women approach their life with passion, figuring out creative ways to do that they love. Mindfulness, gratitude, passion, curiosity are all facets of an incredible life. To understand your passions, you have to be curious and mindful. Curiosity and mindfulness lead to gratitude.
One participant said that “I want my life to be daring, ambitious, and impactful. There’s a sweet spot of inspiration when I feel a little bit afraid of where I am headed. If I feel entirely comfortable, I’m not in the right spot.” Being passionate doesn’t always mean being comfortable. Sometimes it involves overcoming huge challenges or getting comfortable with pain, being so mindful that you even come to be grateful for the uncomfortable moments.
Because of this mindful approach, participants are always learning; “I was constantly learning about myself – My abilities, my faults, my strengths, my weaknesses.” Another participant mentioned, “I have always been wiling to grow and learn as a leader, a woman, a mom, and a friend.” And from Judy Dillon, “education is the key for advancement and a successful future.” Learning is one of the key approaches that incredible women have towards their life and those around them.
What do incredible women mean by mindfulness? The traditional definition from John Kabat-Zinn is that mindfulness is “the awareness that arises by paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment with openness, curiosity, and acceptance.” (reference). To sum it up in three words, one of the participants said, “LOVE. ACCEPTANCE. DISCIPLINE.” Participants often talked about enjoying the small things, because “nothing lasts, which makes it precious each and every moment. And that life is impermanence and change, and we must learn to accept the incredible gift of time and not waste it in pettiness and fear. Live with your heart set on love.”
What is more incredible than living with your heart set on love?
A yoga teacher in Richmond wrote, “in the moment, if I really pause and just hover in the moment, I find that the bliss is right there. I know that sounds really simple and, perhaps a little cliché, but I really, really have found it to be true. Trying to get into the moment can be full of effort, but when you arrive in the moment, it is effortless, struggle-less, bliss.” Incredible women keep working towards the present moment, where they only response is one of gratitude and love. Like one participant said, “I have learned that there is no greater moment than the present, because in that moment you have it all.” Another echoed her, “I fill my heart, soul and mind with awareness by paying attention. Truly paying attention, to whomever I am with, to whatever I am doing, to what I am feeling.”
How does mindfulness lead to gratitude? “There is no guarantee of another day, let alone another moment, so that moment you find yourself should be embraced and celebrated.” When you’re settled in the present, you have the opportunity for gratitude about the extreme blessings in your life.
It has been such an honor to work on Interviews With Incredible Women. I feel like I’ve learned some secrets to how to live an incredible life, like to take care of yourself so that you have an apply ample supply to give to others, like that mindfulness leads to gratitude leads to joy. I’ve seen that over and over in my own life.
I started this project from the premise that everyone is incredible, but I’m realizing that some women handle life with a grace that is really incredible. It’s been so inspiring to conduct these interviews and to hear the unique stories that each woman told, but it’s been incredibly interesting to see the themes that run through the data – and interesting to see how those trends apply to my own life.
Bateson, Mary Catherine. Composing A Life. Grove Press, 2001.
SIX OF THE BEST;The incredible women whose bravery and courage inspired our voters. Evening Times of Glasgow. June 4, 2004.
Smith, B. G. (2013). Women’s studies: The basics. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge.