Avril McDonald is the Author of the Feel Brave Series of books (little stories about big feelings for 4-7 year olds) and founder of Feel Brave. She set up the Friends of Feel Brave charitable arm with the vision to give all children access to tools to help them manage tough emotions and reach their potential. Avril is an ex-Primary School Teacher, Business Woman and a Mum. She is also a fellow of the RSA which has a mission to enrich society through ideas and action.
Who are the members of your family?
I live in Australia with my British fiancée Rob, and our two children Maggie and Luke.
What is Feel Brave about and driven by?
Feel Brave aims to help children manage tough emotions and reach their potential through characters and stories. It’s driven by a constant burning desire that I have always had to be a professional creative artist. I originally wanted to be a musician but my life got distracted by other fun adventures. Then when I had children and wrote poems that were helping them manage tough emotions, I suddenly saw the opportunity to be able to bring some characters and stories to life which totally creatively fulfills me and hopefully can help our world.
Tell me why mental health is so important to you?
When I was 8 years old, I experienced (what we later learnt was), my first ‘Panic Attack’. At that time, little was known or spoken about ‘Anxiety Disorders’ (or Mental Health for that matter!) so it wasn’t even an available condition to have! I felt very alone with it.
Then at 15 years old, I suddenly felt very separated from reality. I called it ‘Feeling Dreamy’. It wasn’t until years later when my sister (who was training to be a nurse at the time) came home with some academic material that she had photocopied for me which explained ‘Phobias’ and ‘Anxiety Disorders’ that I felt immense relief that I wasn’t just ‘crazy’. There were even real names for the things that I had experienced.
This gave me an insatiable curiosity about the mind/body connection. I found thought leaders like Tony Robbins and discovered strategies such as ‘Neuro Linguistic Programming’ and ‘Cognitive Behavioral Therapy’ which were not only helping me manage my anxiety, but were also helping me reach my own creative potential. As an adult, I wondered why we weren’t teaching these techniques to young children when all of their neural pathways are connecting.
When I had children of my own and my daughter had a nightmare, I found managing that situation very easy because of the strategies I’d learnt myself in managing my anxiety. I wanted to help other children with mental health and emotional well-being because I believe that everything begins with the state of our minds and that our contentment is very dependent on our resilience and abilities to understand our brains and be able to self-regulate our emotions. I am passionate about trying to innovate in this area and help curate all of the great science and research that we now have access to and bridge it into the mainstream (without children even realising it…) I have a lot of hope for how powerful we can help our children become and I want to play a part in trying to make that happen.
How do you juggle the success of Feel Brave with your family?
I think that it’s super hard to juggle it all. I have some help with cleaning each week and the kids do go to school 6 hours per day but after walking the dog twice, managing meals, keeping the house ‘surface’ clean and doing the laundry e.t.c, I only have 3 hours truly to myself each day to get things done. The rest of the time, I just have to work everything around the family. I get up at 6am every day and start my work then. During the day, I work when I can (many a time from noisy indoor soft plays where I strangely seem to be able to get a lot done), and often late into the night once I’ve got the kids to bed.
I worked my way up the corporate ladder and became a Managing Director of a Global Digital Entertainment Company and that role was much easier than what I’m doing now. During that time, I had wonderful Nanny’s so I could confidently leave a peaceful happy house at 7.30am, be totally focused on my work for 10 hours and return at 6.30pm to smiling children bathed and ready for stories, cuddles and bed.
Juggling a family whilst trying to build a business (I think) just often feels like having tomatoes thrown at you the whole time. Mostly because we are actually cleverly designed to be affected by our children’s moods or unrest (nature’s way of keeping the human race going I guess), so beyond just the practical management of running a family and a business, you have all of these other emotional pulls going on all of the time. I do love that I am at home with the children sharing this really precious time together but in order to achieve what I need to achieve each day, it’s a constant juggle and a constant ‘sell’ to them and my partner on the strategy, roadmap and Key Performance Indicators. You think a Board of Directors is hard work to keep on side!
I learnt how to priority-manage really effectively in the corporate world and I constantly do this with my business at home. I have a very disciplined daily ‘To Do’ list, ‘Due from others’ list and ‘Personal’ list each day. I have a great network of mum friends in the same position as me that I can call on for kid’s/dog swaps when needed. I meditate every weekday (which I highly recommend) and (thankfully) I have the dog that needs walking which keeps me moving and out of the house twice a day around the school run. I try and get lots of sleep and eat as much real/raw food as possible. I also go off the rails from time to time, drink red wine, listen to 80’s music really loud and have a good cry.
Ultimately, my family often see me constantly working (because my work is also my passion), so I have to try and remain vigilant on balancing what I’m doing against spending time with them because I could write for 5 hours and not look up if I was left to it. I’m not afraid to push back though and give my work the time and effort it needs. 100 years ago, I would have probably been out working the land, growing vegetables and spending all day washing clothes (and the children would have had to help me) so I give myself that reality check from time to time and remind myself that it’s ok for me to be spending a lot of time working on my work, my passion and what I hope might be a great positive contribution to the world that my children can be proud of.
It could be said you’re a female Tony Robbins for children – what’s your vision for your work?
I’m nowhere NEAR being a female Tony Robbins for children but it is what I certainly aspire to be. I found Tony Robbins about 25 years ago and I want to do for kids what he does for adults which is to decode and model patterns of effectiveness. He has bridged practical strategies into the mainstream by presenting them in simple, practical engaging and entertaining ways. This inspires me to try to do the same for children.
What is your ultimate dream for Feel Brave?
My dream is to eventually work with leading academics and thought leaders in the wellbeing space to translate their science/research/strategies into the mainstream using innovative transmedia. To try and fire up the entrepreneurial spirit in others to do the same. I think we are ripe and ready to do this now and there is a huge need for it but we are a bit stuck on how to do it well.
What’s the difference between bringing a product to life and making money?
I think that there is a huge difference. I think that you need a certain set of skills to bring a product or creative project to life and that you need a very different set of skills to then make a commercially sustainable business out of it. At times I think it’s like the difference between being an Artist or an Entrepreneur. Some say that you can only ever be one or the other. I think that some can successfully do both but for the most part, you’re probably naturally better at one than the other (which is why a lot of artists are poor!).
I have a lot of respect for people who bring a product or project to life but I’m in awe of people who can then make a sustainable business out of it. I listen to a lot of great thought leaders in this space like Tim Ferriss and Jay Abraham who give me such great help in turning my ‘Product’ into a ‘Business’ because it’s a tough nut to crack.
It’s suggested that ‘joining the dots’ is important – what do you think about this?
When you ‘join the dots’ on your passions, your experience, your talents and your values, you suddenly have this huge authentic power that knows no bounds. When you are doing something that is authentic to you, things just flow. People ‘get it’, they feel your passion, it’s contagious and it works. I highly recommend stopping to work out your ‘dot’s’ and then have a go at connecting them. Just take a look at really successful people and look for the dots that they’ve connected and you’ll start to see it.
Money could be still seen as the representation of success – how do you view this?
I think that it’s tough because a lot of people don’t ever consider that you are actually doing a ‘job’ until you are bringing in money (even your family who see you slogging away for years at it). You might be giving the world a huge amount of value through something that you have created (or you have a very long gestation time for something that will be of huge value), but we still live in a world where (unfortunately), a lot of the great creative input women give to the world goes unrecognised or doesn’t have the right perceived value (e.g. the value of being a stay at home mum which is still massively underrated in my opinion).
It’s an extra hurdle to get over as an entrepreneur because it’s so hard to ‘keep the faith’ through what can be a long gestation period full of ‘No’s’ and not give up just as you are about to break through and start making money.
I’m hugely proud to say that after 6 long years of personal investment and development, I have just had my first 3 months of profitability and am now starting to commercially grow. It feels really rewarding and also hopefully helps others know that some things just take that much time and testing.
Are you a social entrepreneur? And if so, how do you find being this?
Although I currently have no idea how to do it, my goal is to create a commercially sustainable business that can then fund a whole ‘Socially Conscious’ side of the business that gives all children access to tools to help them manage tough emotions and reach their potential. It is my understanding that it seems to be a school of thought that ‘Social Entrepreneurs’ are generally not for profit making and I get that difference but I think that there are a lot of inspiring entrepreneurs out there today doing some amazing work socially with their profits and I think that we should encourage this more.
I would like to think that I will one day be considered some sort of ‘Social Entrepreneur’ because I hope to make my business commercially sustainable enough to really create some innovative, disruptive positive social change. A wonderful contact of mine Zhena Muzuka who is a classic example of a mum (who I consider to be an inspiring Entrepreneur with great social consciousness), says that ‘With a mission to serve others, you cannot fail’ I wholeheartedly agree.
How do you make sure your children know you are ‘Avril’, not exclusively Mum?
I quite often remind my children that ‘I need to work on Feel Brave now – I need to be ‘Avril’ now’. Children are so delightfully selfish (and your mum should always be that person that you can just burst into tears with, throw your worst tantrum then fall asleep on) but I think that you can easily fall into the trap of trying to please everyone and pleasing no one. If mum isn’t happy, the family isn’t happy. If families are not happy, the community is not happy, if the community is not happy, the world isn’t happy. We need to look after and nurture ourselves just as much as we nurture our kids.
I have always had a strong sense of self-preservation and think that a lot of mums don’t and they put themselves last which is not good for anyone in the long run. If my daughter gets emotional and clingy because I’m having a rare night out, I say to her ‘Let me be Avril tonight, wish me a great time and let me just be Avril because I work hard and deserve to have a night out tonight’ and she seems to get that. I want my children to see me achieving all of my dreams. I think that’s a powerful lesson for them. They always come first but I’m very conscious of making sure that I push back when I need to.
Tell me about the façade, I’ve heard you mention, of the “showreel” some businesswomen/mothers present?
I think that it’s really easy for mums to be put off by other women who seem to be able to effortlessly juggle it all (a family and a business). We see so many articles in glossy magazines about ‘Mumpreneurs’ or Female Corporate Giants and everything about them can seem so fabulous and they spin many plates at once but we might not be always seeing the full picture. They may actually have good independent financial support or help at home and with childcare (or they have likely already done 10 years of hard slog that we just haven’t been made aware of). I’ve also seen some women who seem to ‘have it all’ but are secretly falling apart on the inside and admit to that part of their journey later on.
I think women can also put a lot of pressure on themselves to try and seem like they are easily juggling it all (and I get that because I want to try and be the best mum I can whilst trying to build a business), but realistically, it’s hard to balance it all and make it work and things fall through the cracks. It’s good to have a supportive network of good women around you who are doing the same thing as you to regularly calibrate with (like the Driven Woman Network ) and I think that the more honest we can be about our struggles, and little tricks to help make our lives easier, the more supportive we will be for each other.
It’s also good to have people you can call on (like a partner or family member) who can just take over if you feel low and need to just drop everything and go to bed. I think we forget how much we need other people and the importance of getting comfortable ‘Asking for help’ which I wrote about in the recently published ‘Give Yourself Permission Anthology’.
In the have-it-all-debate, what’s the elephant in the room?
I don’t feel so much like there is an ‘Elephant in the room’, but I think we should encourage a re-think on the whole ‘Can you have it all’ question and maybe instead ask ourselves ‘Can I find contentment with all that I’m trying to do’. I don’t think that we can ever ‘have it all’ because being a mum and running a business is a constant balancing act and sometimes the business gets more of you than you planned and sometimes the children get more of you than you planned. I think the most important thing is to find contentment with your chosen path. Much like the sweet spot in meditation where you find stillness, calm and contentment sitting noticing but not giving focus to your monkey mind – if you can apply this to your life, I think you have the best chance of finding contentment.
And finally, what is the one common denominator between mothers? (beyond children)
Dan Pink wrote one of my favourite books ever called ‘A Whole New Mind’ – Why right brainers will rule the future. He talks about how we have moved through different worlds like the Agricultural, Industrial and Knowledge Working worlds and that we are now living in what he coins as ‘The Conceptual World’. In this world (where Asia and Automation can do a lot of jobs that our parents did), we need a whole new set of senses to survive and thrive in business. He talks about the need to create a good story, and the importance of play, to focus on things such as finding meaning and symphony. I think that mothers/women naturally have a lot of talent in these areas and so with the freedom and opportunities technology has now brought us, there has never been a more opportunistic time for mothers to start a project or a business and have the potential to do really well. It’s our time and we should dare to dream big and maximise this.
Click on the links to connect with Avril and Feel Brave