How to Win at Life

shaun weston 6 comments

In conversation with Jess Black, Part 2



I identified three things to talk about in this post from my earlier conversation with Jess – opening a kitchen in a refugee camp, car rallies and marriage. We’ll get to those topics, but I also asked Jess to help me come up with a list…


The How to Win at Life List: 

  • Be nice
  • Commit to doing something
  • Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know
  • Travel. Expand your horizons
  • Face your demons
  • Be grateful


The idea of this “How to Win at Life” list seemed absurd – any such list is completely subjective. But isn’t that the point? We each have our own life to live – it’s up to each of us to decide what “winning” is. Below are some of our thoughts on this…


Your measure of success doesn’t have to be money, power and status. You don’t have to make your dad (or whoever) proud.


Simply having a roof over your head / not being homeless could be a win, so too could living life on your own terms.


Things go in waves – friends get fancy cars/ buy a house/ get married / have kids. Pegging yourself against other people is not “winning.” Life is not a competition.


Jess and I have much in common. For example, we couldn’t care less about comparing cars, we are both happy to be in the property market and neither of us has kids. However, I don’t get hassled about my ticking biological clock. Has it always been “acceptable” for strangers to talk to women about their fertility? Without doubt children can bring much joy and having babies is right for some, but they are not a measure of success for the entire population!


So, to unpack the list…


Be nice


“Helping people when you don’t have to,” says Jess, is a lesson from her mum. Jess recalls many times as a kid pulling over to the side of the road with her mum to help people with their broken down cars etc. To know Jess is often to know and love her mum too – a woman whose creativity and compassion continues to serve the community in the art groups she facilitates across Brisbane.


“Everyone should have some degree of altruism.”


Commit to doing something & Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know


“If your intentions are good and your heart is in the right place, if you really want to do something, you’ll figure it out.”


In the refugee camp kitchen


Having taken time out to travel late last year (2016), Jess was about to go up through the Baltics from Ukraine when a post on Facebook by Refugee Support Europe changed her plans. Calling for a chef who could come and start a kitchen that would eventually be run by volunteers from the refugee camp, Jess sent an email. The reply: “can you come now?”


In Ukraine I was reading about the Syrian refugee crisis – you see it a lot more when you are there (I had been in Greece just before that). You can’t ignore it like we do over here, so I found this organisation who were looking for volunteers.


Jess returned to Greece and explains that the kitchen was a nightmare when it first opened on the day before Christmas. They had big gas burners, which were basically hooked up to garden hoses, there was often no running water as the pipes were frozen and the only equipment was four big pots.


Being a charity with little to no money there was lots of improvising – “really resourceful people in the camp had little gas bottles from their own accommodation, people brought stuff and we MacGyvered some solutions. We needed stuff, so people went out and found stuff to make shelves etc.”



People really got involved. As soon as they realised we were churning out Syrian food we had hundreds of people every day… There is not a lot of comfort you can give people who have been so traumatised and displaced. Food (something from home) is just such a comfort.


“I learnt a lot about Syrian cuisine having turned up knowing nothing. This was great as I’m working with Syrian refugees now and got a crash course in Arabic food terms.” Added to this, Jess was met with the challenge of having to order food in Greek. Such is her sense of humour; she makes the solution sound easy – “lots of laughing and pointing. You can get through life that way.”


Jess shared some great news – the volunteer group recently removed their services from that camp. The shop, kitchen and other services introduced were at a point where they could all be run by the residents, so Refugee Support Europe have taken their support services out and redirected them to places that had nothing.


Travel. Expand your horizons


“I’m super glad I have seen some of the things I’ve seen. That’s a big motivator to keep working so I can go see the whole world.”


The Mongol Rally – “Our cucumbers are floating”


In 2007 while living in England, Jess came across The Mongol Rally. Traveling from London to Mongolia in an unsuitable vehicle (or perhaps better termed ‘small & shit’ on their official website) while raising money for charity sounded like just the adventure she needed. With her friends unable to take the two months off work for the trek, Jess put up an ad on Gumtree and in “one of those serendipitous moments” met her travel companion Anna. “We met in a pub wearing the same outfit – jeans, a huge knitted brown jumper and a red scarf.”


At the time the rally was raising money for a charity that was working with street kids in Mongolia and you could also choose your own charity. We raised money for SPANA as Anna was a vet and had spent time working with them in Africa.


Mongo Rally – keeping warm


They sourced a 1988 Vauxhall Nova and were one of 200 cars, including an ice cream van and a black cab (which had the meter running the whole time) that left Hyde Park. Of the approximately 400 people that took part that year, Jess recalls only six women!


With one of the rules being to make it on your own, Jess talks of a totally disorganised convoy and of more improvising.“My proudest MacGyver moment was making a fan belt out of bra. MacGyver is my spirit guide.”


“Travel is magic, perhaps because it’s so fleeting. You make instant best friends and amazing memories.”


More recently Jess completed the Shitbox Rally (Melbourne to Cairns) in 2012, an event endorsed and supported by the Cancer Council, which sees drivers take cars worth just $1,000 across some of Australia’s most formidable roads, all in the name of charity. With friend Christine Spooner as part of “Team Paint Dry” she made the trek in old Ford Festiva (pictured). With its rainbow paint job, the car even took a test long haul trip from Brisbane to Sydney as part of a convoy of cars traveling to support a marriage equality event.


The Rainbow Festiva passing through Ballina – Shitbox Rally car


Face your demons  


“Acknowledge what makes you sad, so it doesn’t fester. Be truthful with your feelings.”


Every one of us has done dumb stuff (and I say ‘stuff’ to avoid swearing too much), so naturally Jess is no exception. I asked Jess if she sucked at anything to which she replied “my marriage.” Acknowledging other dumb stuff she’s done, it’s clear her marriage bothers her in a way the other stuff doesn’t – because it was “destructive towards another human.”


I knew Jess was married but not much about it, as it was before our friendship began. I appreciated her opening up, although I find it difficult to write about – whilst I have her permission to share what was said, I want to do so in the right way and convey the incredible strength I have seen in Jess in the time I have known her.


Not long after moving to the UK Jess was raped. She came back to Australia to be with family, so she could be closely monitored and recuperate as much possible, and also have support while the legal proceedings took place back in the UK. Jess adds that, “two or three months since having been home, I was adamant that I was fine.”


Soon after moving back to the UK, Jess met her future husband and they were engaged after 6 weeks. “That’s probably a warning sign,” laughs Jess. “We got married after about a year, so it wasn’t so freaky by that point. And then we both sucked at being married… I could throw blame, but neither of us really made enough effort. We were both just babies.” Jess was 24 at the time. She notes it’s not too weird to be married at that age, especially in the UK.


I met this guy who also had a bit of a sad background. He was physically huge at about 6 foot 5, but a gentle lamb. He was going to love me, look after me and protect me – it was exactly what I needed at that point. I loved him, I absolutely loved him, but I was so caught up in “It’s all ok, this is fine, look at me I’m getting married and everything is totally okay. There is definitely no unresolved trauma here.”


Now divorced, I asked Jess if she regrets getting married. “I don’t regret getting married, but I regret some of my behaviour – mainly because it was my dad’s behaviour and I have always thought of myself as being better than that. That’s why it kind of hurt so much.”


I had not anticipated that our conversation would include rape – we’d never really talked about it. Jess said that soon after it happened she spoke openly about it, perhaps overcompensating as if she had to prove she was okay with it. These days, “it’s not like I don’t talk about it, but I don’t need sing about it either.”


It’s one of those things (because nobody talks about it), that when you start talking about it you realise it’s happened to so many others. All of a sudden these secrets that we’re carrying around making our hearts heavy…everyone else is in the same boat. Sometimes you have these conversations with people and they can be really cathartic for both parties. To be able to get some of that off your chest occasionally is healthy.


Eventually I did deal with it…now I can talk about it without being too emotionally involved in it. It’s a thing that happened. Things happen.


As I reflect on Jess’s words, I think the take-away is to look at the things that have happened to us and see them as just that – “things”, whether horrific events or otherwise. “Things” on the timelines that are our lives. Our experiences, even the worst of them, don’t have to define who we are.


Be grateful


As Jess points out, our own circumstances when compared to what others have endured, is just one way in which we can feel gratitude. “I have known a lot of people who’ve had terrible experiences. Just the fact that we were lucky enough to be born in a first world country… I am grateful for so many things. You have to be… well, you don’t you don’t have to be anything, but I really feel it.”


Jess, I am so grateful to have you as a close friend and for the opportunity you have given me in writing these two blog posts – I hope the words here shine a light on what an amazing person you are. I know that many people are grateful for all that you do. Thank you.


As always, comments and shares welcome.


6 Comments on “How to Win at Life

  1. Wow, I really don’t have the words…. but what an inspiring read. I would like to say I wish there were more people in this world with such genuine fundamentals on being a decent human ❤

    1. Thanks Nicole, Jess truly is a wonderful human being. Fortunately there are still a lot of good people out there – hope to share more stories here and connect with even more wonderful peeps in the blogosphere. All the best 🙂

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