If you've ever been plagued with doubts that you were too old, too broke, too scared or just too damn late to discover your purpose in life and put everything you have behind living it... then this interview is for you.
In 2008 Connie Giffin believed she'd found and was living her life purpose. A successful, self employed, entrepreneur in her late sixties she was looking forward to handing over the reigns of her three successful businesses to her successor so that she could enjoy retirement and quality time with her grandchildren and great grandchildren.
All that was about to come crashing down when the financial crisis liquidated her clients, her companies and most of her assets and life savings - over night. Left with nothing except her "financially shaking rocking chair." She decided she needed a new life purpose. On the brink of her 70th birthday Connie became a student again and embarked on an 18 country tour of the world to research models of best practise in holistic education*. The aim? She's driven by a desire to redefine the educational system, a legacy that won't just benefit the lives of her own family but children everywhere
I meet Connie in the beautiful Andean hills of Vilcabamba, in Southern Ecuador. A place nicknamed, appropriately enough, "the Valley of Longevity" as some of its inhabitants have lived to a 129! Now 72 years young Connie holds a BA in psychology from Prescott University, a Masters in experiential education from Prescott and is currently working towards a PHD in eco - psychology, with Akumai. She's got smart, cropped grey hair, twinkling blue eyes and a Southern lilt to her voice that means when she talks about growing up in the forests and lakes of her grandfather's farm, I could listen all day. But make no mistake there is an assuredness and steel beneath the eyes and a voice that means business. Well it's not every great grandmother in their 70s that loses everything only to reinvent themselves, travel the world and is now gearing up to publish their first book! Ladies, meet Connie Giffin!
WW: Connie you've had a remarkable life, talk me through your career arc to how we come to be sitting here today.
CG: From the age of 17 I worked in the corporate world climbing that good ol' corporate ladder. I was a central Office Manager for the Belle and Howe corporation and then in 1976 I left all that behind me and opened my own first business which was an art gallery.
After that I took up a traveling sales rep position in Arizona for a national photo company and five years later my former husband and I started another business creating steel and concrete cast stairs by which point I was in my forties. After that I went back to college to finish my Bachelor of Arts in Education, which I completed in 1998.
WW: So you didn't go to university when you were 18?
CG: Well I started studying for it when I was 18 but I didn't complete it until I was in my forties. I studied for it at night school which was the only thing I could afford on my income at the time, but I was always determined to complete it. And guess what...it happened.
That's one of two things I've carried from childhood. Education is the way to success and nature was my nurturer and counsellor. After I completed that qualification I moved to Colorado and opened my own mortgage business and did the design and build of monolithic homes.
WW: And that's what you were doing when the financial crash happened?
CG: All I financed was eco - homes, earth friendly properties. That means anything sustainable that no one else would finance. Even though they were more sound, no one would touch it because they weren't conventional so that's what I financed for 9 years.
And I had my art company - a framing company; and an interior design business. I had all three companies going until the big financial crash when i lost all three.
WW: And you were content at that time with the businesses you were running?
CG: I believed i'd found my life purpose and suddenly all of that was taken from me, if it hadn't of been I probably would have continued on.
WW: Do you think we can have different life purposes at different stages of our lives then?
CG: Well obviously it happens!
At the time I provided a service that was very much needed and there was nothing like it in the US and people were desperately trying to make changes in their lives and build sustainable homes. So at least it was a beginning, i hoped it would be carried on but I hadn't planned to be the one to carry it on. I actually had a buyer for it and i was going to work with her for a couple of years and then sell the business to her, but then suddenly we had no business because we had no lenders. I lost my business, my income, my properties, everything.
WW: I can't imagine how scary that must have been. What happened next, did you start looking for other work?
CG: So when it was all gone I stumbled around for a while. I applied for work but at my age I could not find a job, or any source of little income and had very little to live on.
WW: What did you do?
CG: I sort of wandered around lost and eventually had the good fortune to do enough to do a programme with Barbara Marx Hubbard, called the Agents of Evolution. Through that programme, I discovered I didn't want to spend the rest of my life sitting in what I called my "financially shaky rocking chair" I wanted to get up and do something that benefited humanity and I wanted to do something for my grandchildren.
The more I thought about it and the more I gave myself some time to let it all settle, I concluded that the way to help my grandchildren was through education. I knew we needed a new educational system but beyound that i didn't know what.
WW: Incredible. So take me through the steps from deciding you wanted to commit to a new purpose - one where you started to look for a new educational system and how you actually started down that path, a path that led you through 18 different countries!?
CG: There was a college got in touch with me. They thought that they'd developed a course that I was actually looking for back in 1999 when I completed my BA with them (Prescott University.)
WW: Wait, they contacted you 15 years later?? I'm not sure the administrative systems of many universities in Britain are that organized! (laughs)
CG: It shocked me! But you know i'm a great believer that when you follow the path you're supposed to follow: the people, the path and the things you need are put before you. I laughed and shared that I had just lost everything: money, business, properties...everything and I was desperate. He said that in those circumstances the student loan programme could probably grant me about $130,000 dollars.
I'm very much against our young people having huge financial debts however for someone my age the repayment was really in my favor so I considered it seriously and then checked 44 other different colleges around the US hoping that from 1999 - 2011 they had also become more experiential. To my dismay they had not, so i woke up the following morning and said "ok, then."
I called Prescott University and said here's the deal:
"I have a new purpose in life and it comes first. I need to hep the children and I need to do that by creating a new educational system.
If you can accept me back on those terms I really need a college as a background for my work and research and I know the college background will open up a lot of doors for what I want to do.
WW: And so part of beginning to create this new educational system was to research best practise and see what's already out there?
CG: That's right. I put together a proposal for my school and was told it was far too extensive for just one student to take on! But I did all the research myself. I had a very flexible schedule and my purpose was to locate the most innovative models of holisitic model of education in the world, so I could see what was going on that worked. For my thesis I chose 15 of the most innovative which was a drop in the bucket of all that i’ve been in contact with but those are the ones that i spent the most time, and really felt they had very outstanding models.
WW: And you visited communities mainly? Sustainable communities?
CG: I started in England and had a flight ticket out of Stockholm with one date in Budapest in between. The plan was to visit communities that were doing something different, communities, schools, colleges. So I had a big list that I left here with but I left it open, and also had a list of places that i wanted to visit for my book, places such as the Eden Proect in the UK and the Plantagon in Stockholm. In the end I visited 18 countries around Europe as well as America and Canada.
As my trip progressed I realized that although a lot of sustainable communities are into education they are mostly focused on educating the outside world on environmental issues rather than creating something spectacular for their own children.
WW: Before we get on to chatting more about the actual travel, tell me some more about the places you visited, any stand out models for you?
CG: I visited La Cite Ecologique in Canada - one of the most outstanding models of education I'd seen.
Another great place and one of the greatest participants was a small community in Northern Denmark, called (in English) The Essential Teachers Training college. This was a group of people that some years back built the tallest windmill in the world and were told it was impossible. I had the privelege of going to the top of it while I was there, by someone that had taken part in building it.
They decided to create a different kind of college and teach teachers how to teach.
I also spent quite a bit of time in Nice, France while I was there. I sat at a big dining room table outside at the hostel Iwas staying in and there happened to be a family there from Australia. The mother had homeschooled her son who had ADHD and she'd also spent most of her life promoting homeschooling and small family farming.
WW: So homeschooling and unschooling is another example of holistic education? I was gong to ask what your views are on that?
CG: Its exactly what we need to be doing, we need to undo everything that the children have been learning for generations in schools.
WW: You don't think children need to be around their peers to learn social skills?
CG: I don't think school is the only way to learn social skills. They can learn those skills in other communities, schools are only one possibility but there could be many others.
This first evening she and i got talking and people seemed to come from all around the world to join us at the table to talk about education so I didn't have to do anything, just sit there and have dinner.
WW: What about stand out countries in terms of education? Are some countries doing it better than others?
On the whole the Scandinavian countries put a bigger empahisis on education than other countries.
Finland was my number one country. It made a change in its priorities thirty years ago.
They had very few natural resources, their economy was suffering so they chose to invest in their greatest asset, their people. Their purpose was "to give quality to every student." They weren't trying to create a handful of geniuses, they wanted their entire population educated to its fullest potential.
WW: When put so simply it seems like such an obvious investment and so vital. Yet how many other countries have that as their guiding vision.... similar to how great organizations to work for are also often highly successful because they choose to invest in their staff.
Now lets talk about the travel. Did you have any fears before you set off - about going on this huge adventure as a 70 year old women travelling by herself?
CG: No but that's a personal choice I made a long time ago. I made a decision not to live my journey in fear. So I don't.
A lot of people said: You’re goin to do what?? You can’t do that!
and I said: Well i’m going to do that!
WW: Any countries you put on the list just because you wanted to see the sights? (laughs)
CG: I'd say it was combined if there was a country i was interested in i might look real hard so i had a legitimate reason for being there. (laughs)
WW How did you budget and plan your trip? Did you backpack or five star it?
CG: Well lets say this, I had no money, i had a small student loan that I could use a part of for my research, I had a very small budget. I spent 10 weeks in Europe and it cost me $5500 and 6 weeks in canada on $1250 and that included my flights to and from.
I travelled clear across Canada, I had a Greyhound North American bus pass which was $350 for 60 days anywhere in North America and a small discount for being a senior citizen.
In Europe I flew in to London and back from Stockholm and I got a special first class Global Euro Rail Pass.
That took care of most of my transportation.
I could not get a student airline ticket because i was over 26. I said: what's that got to do with anything? I am as full time a legitimate student as you'll have anywhere else?! But they didn't agree, so I changed the booking went back to the same airline and changed one of the flights and got a lower full price ticket!
WW: And for accommodation? Did you stay in hotels, private rooms, dorms??
CG: The greatest thing i did was stay in hostels all over Europe, they're not for kids anymore. I only encountered one hostel that had age restrictions,
But the hostels were a wealth of resources. Oh I stayed in dormitories, cheapest I could find. It was nothing to be in a room with 12 people and sometimes that was quieter than with two. Sometimes you'd get put next to a nightclub, but overall I stayed in some very nice ones and was very grateful to meet so many friendly people.
WW: When I meet American friends they often say to me, Oh i'd love to do what you're doing (traveling) but if I did I'd lose my healthcare...its a bit like a golden handcuffs in the States right? How do you deal with that, I'm guessing as someone who was self employed for so long you haven't had that for a while anyway?
CG: I don't use healthcare and haven't used Western medicine since 1982 when I ruptured a disc in my back and used alternative means to get well. That's when the doctors and I parted ways.
WW: That sounds like a whole other story in itself!
CG Yes since I don't spend one penny on that and I ignore it all it doesn't bother me. I got well from a lot of serious things through natural methods. I changed my health habits and I look at my health from a preventive standpoint, its one of the reasons i'm sitting opposite you right now in Vilcabamba, Ecuador. We are in one of the healthiest place on earth and it has all kinds of health benefits.
WW: Wonderful. So you managed to tour 18 different countries including America, Canada and then Europe. What happened when you got back?
CG: When I got back and started to put all of it together I started to see a pattern forming of what's really underneath the holistic framework and 6 essences of building blocks. Holisitic education was pretty well defined by Ron Miller back in the 60s. There were 24 groups over the years that really contributed to what we consider holistic education today, for eg Montessori, Friends Association, the homeschooling method, all kinds of different groups, and Ron Miller spent a decade putting together a definition that pooled the elements from all of that and that's what we mainly look at today.
What I discovered from my research which was new was that underneath this framework were these 6 essences that were consistently making up the base for it.
And then this year I learned from one of my participants Dr Michael Cohen that underneath all of that, one of these essences holds the solution to end all human created problems in the world
WW Is that all you dsicovered this year Connie?! (laughing)
CG: Human created suffering, problems challenges, devastation everything...
WW: Are you going to tell me what that is, or save it for your book?
CG: Oh i'll tell you its not a secret, actually there have been quite a few other people that have proposed as a solution. But what's been missing all these years...
We saw that reconnecting to nature is how we would get back onto a sustainable path and how war/famine would end because we'd have a complete redistribution of resources and in community people would share - but no one had really looked underneath that to say: well how do we do that?
I tell you... go spend 15 minutes a day in nature and your life will change somewhat. However what Michael Cohen discovered was 54 sensory attractions. Ways to sense things and his programme and solution is to give us the procedure of reconnecting to nature through those 54 senses, and this as applicable to a tiny child as to someone my age, and its offered as a PHD degree.
WW: Wonderful. So if people want to learn more about this how can they?
CG: Since publishing my initial thesis I've been busy writing my first book that distills my knowledge in a way that's easy for people to understand. When the book's ready to be published i'll be selling it on my website which will also be a platform for learning that connects young people around the world and educates parents, teachers, schools and colleges on what i've discovered.
And in another remarkable sign of synchronicity, in the time that that Connie and I are together in Vilcabamba she is approached by a major German publishing house and has just signed a contract to publish her first book.
I'm helping Connie create her first website and if you are interested in reading more about her work in holistic education, or purchasing a copy of the book when it becomes available then drop me a note with Connie in the subject header on the link below and i'll send you some more details :)
Thanks for reading, I'd love to hear your views on holistic education, travel or any of the above, in the comments below.