Martha Lane Fox on near death, denial and disco
June 12, 2020. Series 1. Episode 2
Baroness Martha Lane Fox is a force of nature – entrepreneur, philanthropist, cross bench peer and one of the most influential people in digital for the last 25 years. The co-founder of Lastminute.com, she also now sits on the board of Twitter, the Donmar Warehouse and Chanel. But Martha is also someone who can talk with power and authority on the subject of crisis. In 2004 she was left fighting for her life after a car accident in Morocco that broke 28 of her bones, including a shattered pelvis. In this episode Martha talks powerfully about the practical techniques – both mental and physical – she has developed to cope with a crisis she must confront every day of her life. Martha is, I think, an inspiration to anyone dealing with their own trauma.
Martha’s Crisis Cures:
1. Boxing: ‘It’s so fundamental to my mental and physical wellbeing…even just imagining doing exercise can build the muscle mass. It’s quite extraordinary the relationship between our brains and our muscles.’
2. Books & Poems: ‘The poem Don’t Hesitate by Mary Oliver, it’s about joy…even when the world is bleak and there’s always something awful happening it doesn’t mean you should begrudge yourself joy.’
3. Pant Discos: ‘Putting some music on, blaring out way too loud (sorry neighbours) and having a couple of minutes moving about. Nothing beats it.’
Peers for the Planet: https://www.peersfortheplanet.org
The Open University: http://www.open.ac.uk
Queens Commonwealth Trust: https://www.queenscommonwealthtrust.org
Just For Kids Law: https://justforkidslaw.org
Lucky Voice: https://www.luckyvoice.com
Two things strike you immediately about Baroness Martha Lane Fox. A total and utter absence of self-pity is first. But an authentic, compelling honesty about her crisis and its impact is second.
Honest that nothing good came from her accident. Honest that, for her, denial has been an invaluable weapon in the years since.
As she says: “Denial is a very, very important part of how I function. I’m sure there are lots of people who would say there is lots about that that’s not healthy. The way I don’t get scared or feel as though I am a fraction of what I was, is by denying that I might fall over, that I have massive physical challenges. Some things you have to park.”
The power of denial is not a strategy for crisis that you’ll find in any self-help book but I thought it was incredibly valuable because, as Martha herself says, “Crisis is not a competition.” There is no authoritative manual for crisis because every crisis is different. The key is in taking the time to work out what is best for you.
And for Martha, one of the most positive people I’ve had the good fortune to talk to, denial has – when she feels she needs it – absolutely worked.
Music: Allies by Some Velvet Morning
Host – Andy Coulson
00:00:00.00 Intro music
00:00:19.00 Andy Coulson:
Hello and welcome to Crisis What Crisis? A new podcast series designed to be a useful field guide as we all try to navigate and come to terms with a dramatically changed world. Whether personal, professional or both, crisis is without doubt, the new shared experience. I’m Andy Coulson, a former newspaper editor, Downing Street Director of Communications and inmate of HMP Belmarsh. For the last four years I’ve been trying to put all of my experience, the good and the bad, to use as a strategic advisor to business leaders and I can tell you that the bad has been just as useful as the good. And that got me thinking that there are plenty of great podcasts out there where you can hear stories of success, there are far fewer where you can benefit from the experience of those whose lives have properly unravelled.
00:01:02.24 Andy Coulson:
So, in Crisis What Crisis? I talk to the embattled, shamed, courageous, ruined, damaged, resilient, unlucky and lucky survivors of crisis. Some names will be familiar, some less so, but our guests will talk about their experiences honestly, often with humour but always in the hope that what they have to share might be useful to anyone facing down their own demons and challenges. Put simply these are crisis stories worth sharing.
00:01:30.17 Andy Coulson:
If anyone deserves the job title ‘force of nature’ on their CV then it’s my guest today, Baroness Martha Lane Fox. Entrepreneur, investor, cross bench peer, philanthropist and passionate champion of all things digital. Martha also sits on the boards of Twitter, Donmar Warehouse and Chanel and last year she was voted the most influential woman in digital for the last twenty-five years. She’s also someone who can talk with more authority than most about how to cope, how to survive when life goes horribly wrong.
00:02:02.23 Andy Coulson:
That moment came in 2004 when Martha was thrown from her open-top jeep on a Moroccan road. Left fighting for her life, twenty-eight bones broken, including a shattered pelvis, Martha was airlifted back to the UK where she faced years of surgery and painful recovery. Hers is a story of breath taking resilience. A true testament to the power and impact of positive thinking in times of crisis. So Martha, thank you so much for joining us today. We’re here, of course, to talk about crisis but if I may I’d like to start with karaoke because you are, of course…
00:02:39.18 Martha Lane Fox:
Some people would say that my singing was a crisis.
00:02:44.03 Andy Coulson:
You are, of course, the founder of the brilliant Lucky Voice karaoke business, or as I’ve come to view it over the years, therapy.
00:02:51.15 Martha Lane Fox:
00:02:52.00 Andy Coulson:
So are you a believer in the true healing power of a show tune?
00:02:58.05 Martha Lane Fox:
I 100% am. And you may even have been part of this Andy, I’m not sure, but I remember one of the moments that definitely attested to that was when I got a call from the bar team in Soho, one of the bars in Soho, saying ‘you won’t believe what happened last night, we had the Number 10 with…’, I can’t remember if it was The Daily Telegraph or The Sun or whatever, ‘…and they were singing their hearts out because they’d had so many weeks of bad headlines they thought the only thing to do about it was to have a sing-song’ so… I don’t know whether it actually made a systemic difference but it did really remind me how everybody feels better after they’ve had a chance to belt their heart out.
00:03:33.23 Andy Coulson:
Do you know what, I am responsible for that. And it wasn’t with another newspaper it was with our Lib Dem colleagues because we’d just gone into coalition. And so as an exercise in bonding I decided that Lucky Voice was the answer for us all. So it was duets between Tories and Lib Dems.
00:03:51.11 Martha Lane Fox:
Did it work?
00:03:52.19 Andy Coulson:
Well, you know, we got through the first few months, that’s for sure.
00:03:56.13 Martha Lane Fox:
00:03:58.12 Andy Coulson:
Martha, by your own definition you had the most wonderful upbringing. I’m curious to know where the ambition and drive came from. And I’m also curious to know where the roots of your resilience, if you like, first started to develop. Because although your parents, clearly, can take an enormous amount of responsibility, but where are the other clues that when problems came that you’d be able to deal with them?
00:04:29.10 Martha Lane Fox:
I think it’s a couple of things that I feel so very privileged to have had and the first, as you say, is my parents. And it’s very strange as a forty-seven year old woman to go back to your parents but I don’t think it’s possible to underestimate how much of an influence in sowing the seeds of what they thought were important and therefore the values that I wanted to have in my own life. But also, something else which is about having a broad ranging world and a hinterland.
00:05:08.19 Martha Lane Fox:
And although when you’re an entrepreneur you have to be obsessive to a degree, and although I hope I’ve shown through my life that I’ve tried always, however small, to move things forward a tiny bit, I think that coupled with that one of the things that I’ve drawn strength from is having a wide network of friends, having a wide ranging cultural life, reading, art, music, whatever it might be, travel, all the other things that make life such a rich and varied journey. And that comes, 100% from their incredible curiosity about the word and their interest in showing how important it is to make sure you don’t become a one dimensional person.
00:05:50.16 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, but the link between resilience and values is an important one?
00:05:58.21 Martha Lane Fox:
Yes, I think it is. I think it is and I think you build it. I think this notion, and it’s been kind of interesting through this period of time, because there’s a lot of people obviously wanting some kind of clues about how they might move through this complex moment we’re in. And I think that one of the things that I come back to is that it takes work. It doesn’t just happen, right?
00:06:21.22 Martha Lane Fox:
It might be easy to look at somebody like me, or somebody in what feels like a position of fortune or privilege or whatever it might be and think, well it’s easy for them because bla. But actually I think resilience takes work and it’s something you have to keep building and it’s like a muscle, you don’t just suddenly have it, you have to keep trying to exercise it. And that’s partly about values, as you say, but it’s also about making sure that you realise that you should test yourself a bit. And if you start to cruise then you’re probably not building that resilience muscle quite as much as you could be.
00:06:57.23 Andy Coulson:
Yeah. In 1998, of course, you launched with Brent Hoberman, lastminute.com, the business that became the sort of darling of the dotcom boom. That was obviously a terrifically exciting time but not without its personal challenges, one imagines. I’m talking about the good days of Last Minute. You know, women are massively underrepresented in the digital sector now. What was it like for you, as a woman in her early twenties, in a sector that was so male dominated?
00:07:29.18 Martha Lane Fox:
Access… The reason I’m kind of hesitating is because you’re absolutely right, women in tech – shocking statistics. And unfortunately twenty-five years later on it’s still pretty frickin’ bad. But the other industry in which we were operating, travel, is appalling too. And I remember being in as many meetings sort of with Lufthansa’s management team to try and get them to sell us product or big hotel chains where there would be no women as much in technology. So it was pretty brutal.
00:08:00.01 Martha Lane Fox:
But the strange thing is that I remember moments of thinking, ‘oh my god, did you just ask me that? Or did you just behave like that?’ Times when venture capitalists asked me or Brent ‘what happens if she gets pregnant?’, for example, when they were trying to decide whether to give us money or not. And you know, just blatant sexism in meetings not taking to you or looking me in the eye.
00:08:21.10 Martha Lane Fox:
But the truth is that I felt so carried along, both by my working relationship with Brent, which was very equal, he never made me feel as though we were anything other than equal partners, through to the excitement of building the team and the people I was with. So, if I’m being really honest with myself it wasn’t the most dominant thing, there were difficult things for sure. But it’s more now when I look back on it and I think, ‘oh my, Jesus Christ, what on earth was going on?’ I was really naive in how the dynamics of those markets were working.
00:08:55.05 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, but naivety can be an incredibly powerful thing, right?
00:08:58.20 Martha Lane Fox:
That’s definitely true, yes.
00:09:00.17 Andy Coulson:
It can get you a long way.
00:09:01.00 Martha Lane Fox:
It can be but it can also come back to bite you. So you know, we very consciously, and it was conscious, I was twenty-five, Brent was nearly twenty-nine, nearly thirty, he loves it when I say that, decided that we were the marketing tools. And not because we thought, here’s a fairly telegenic couple of people who are young, who look like they’re doing something interesting and different. It was more because we had no marketing budget at all and we were quite good sales people.
00:09:26.22 Martha Lane Fox:
So we thought every time someone invited us to anything, opening of an envelope, any kind of travel event, any kind of dotcom thing, we’ll go and we’ll just bang on about lastminute.com. And because we were excited and we had a lot of energy it was our main marketing tool. And that was great, it got us into places we’d never have got into before because there were not very many people that were like us. Because strange as it seems now, it wasn’t, it really wasn’t a thing to become an entrepreneur; people thought we were nuts. And to become an entrepreneur in the tech sector was like ‘what are you smoking?’ That was insane.
00:09:57.21 Martha Lane Fox:
So we got a lot of attention because of it. But when I look back now I think I didn’t, again naivety of course, didn’t think about the consequences of putting yourself out there quite so much. And I was always my authentic self, I don’t have a whole load of different things going on where I’m trying to present lots of different Marthas, it was always me. So then it did come back to bite me and I wish I’d held a bit back because when you put yourself out there you take the consequences of that when things don’t go quite so well, I guess.
00:10:30.08 Andy Coulson:
Let’s talk about that. Because of course, it wasn’t all up with Last Minute. In the great British tradition of ‘build ‘em up and knock ‘em down’, the business became a totem really didn’t it, when the internet bubble burst and the share price dropped to 30% of its flotation price. The criticism of you, more so than Brent actually as I remember it, was pretty acute. Did that feel like a crisis?
00:10:54.11 Martha Lane Fox:
Yes it did and it felt like a crisis on multiple levels. We had worked really blooming hard and we hadn’t really come up for air. You know, we’d turn up at parties at midnight and see my friends for fifteen minutes or be constantly be thinking about business, the people in it, the product, whatever it was. And so that was a massive whack round the face of ‘oh my god, there’s a world out there that is really quite unpleasant and has a different view to what we were seeing in our business’. Which was actually growing as much as it had ever been.
00:11:27.03 Martha Lane Fox:
So there was that kind of realisation of ‘oh my god we had been very naive’. But also there was a really, really deep and unpleasant sexism about the criticism. In as much as Brent and I had had our photo taken when we were launching the business and Brent’s picture would be cut out and it looked like I was the founder, which was mortifying for me because it was Brent’s idea. When the share price was, as you were generous enough to say, lost 30% of its value, I think it was more like 300% of its value. We went from kind of fifty-five…
00:11:54.16 Andy Coulson:
Sorry, to 30% of its value but I’m obviously wrong.
00:11:58.05 Martha Lane Fox:
Yes, exactly, it was pretty hard because some people had lost some money, although everybody had only invested £135 it was still their money and needed someone to blame for the fact that the internet market had blown up. And I was that person because I had, as I just mentioned, put myself out there. And you know, horrible things were written. People wrote that I should be assassinated. Somebody wrote that I shouldn’t go out unless I was in a burka and it’s hard to let those things…
00:12:25.06 Andy Coulson:
What, these are members of the public sending you letters?
00:12:28.03 Martha Lane Fox:
No, these are journalists writing in respected newspapers. Members of the public writing letters…
00:12:33.06 Andy Coulson:
A journalist wrote that you should be assassinated?
00:12:37.17 Martha Lane Fox:
Yes, yes. And that is pretty… I don’t know if that would be published now, actually. I’m not sure people would be able to get away with it. And members of the public, who generally I feel like I’m quite good at getting along with, sent me 3,000 hand written hand written letters. And let’s just say that bitch was one of the nicest sets of letters that I would get. And I think a lot about that, because obviously as a board member of Twitter, what would have been unleashed in social media age is quite humbling I think. And I found that…
00:13:10.06 Martha Lane Fox:
So sorry to answer your question, it was a personal crisis because I was overwhelmed by it and it was unusual, but I didn’t know how to navigate this horrible barrage of stuff and I was uncharacteristically exhausted. I just went to bed and I never normally would do that. It was hard, more importantly for the people in the company because a lot of them were young. They’d worked so hard for so little money and they’d lost all of their stock option value and the company that the thought was going to be a success was seemingly being knocked apart even though the business was growing. And it was hard because obviously…
00:13:41.09 Andy Coulson:
Was there a sense of guilt?
00:13:44.08 Martha Lane Fox:
Of course. Of course and responsibility and all those things. And I was going to say, and it’s not… maybe guilt’s too strong a word with the investors, because I think investors are a bit more savvy, but obviously as a founder who said, ‘charge with me over that cliff’ you want to make sure that then people don’t actually charge over the cliff, that you’re going to go onto the sunny incline. So yeah, a long answer but that was a really, that was a hard time, that was a really hard time.
00:14:07.02 Andy Coulson:
Did you think, this is not for me?
00:14:10.18 Martha Lane Fox:
I don’t think I thought that. That’s not necessarily in my nature, I tend not to bail on things. I think I thought what can I try and do to make myself feel better and subsequently how can I help to make sure that the people that are looking to me and Brent for reassurance and inspiration have got that. And that, I think that those were my main motivations.
00:14:38.06 Andy Coulson:
So by 2003 you’d turn things around again, the business was back on track and you decide to resign.
00:14:44.13 Martha Lane Fox:
00:14:45.06 Andy Coulson:
Was that a tough decision? I mean, had you just grown sick of the public market, the scrutiny, the judgement?
00:14:50.01 Martha Lane Fox:
No, it wasn’t that, it was, I was thirty-one when I left lastminute.com in 2004 and it, as I say, it was Brent’s idea and it felt like our shared adventure that we’d been on. But it was always different motivation for me than for him and I didn’t want to be defined forever by lastminute.com. And I’d loved my whole experience there, it chops up and down, but generally oh my god, what an incredible outlying experience to have by the time you’re thirty-one. And I just thought I want to try some different things. I want to see whether I can actually function in the world beyond this weird crazy experience. So it was planned, it happened over a long period of time. It was hard, of course, but it wasn’t impossible. It felt right.
00:15:36.12 Andy Coulson:
Last Minute was sold in 2005, I think for about £600 million, a great success. But by then life had become obviously very different for you.
00:15:46.07 Martha Lane Fox:
00:15:46.08 Andy Coulson:
On Sunday May 2nd 2004 you’re in Morocco with your new boyfriend Chris and another friend when on a wet road you jeep crashes and you’re thrown clear of the car and onto a rock and in an instant your life is fundamentally changed. What do you remember now, Martha, about the days immediately after the crash? The days that your doctors and your family feared could be your last?
00:16:16.18 Martha Lane Fox:
I don’t really remember very much for about the first month to be honest. I was so sedated you know in the first week I had something like twenty-five operations. And I remember someone telling me that I’d had, over the course of even that first seventy-two hours I’d had, I think it was twenty-eight pints of blood. And I only mention that because I think about that a lot because I can’t give blood now because I take too many prescription drugs and they don’t like people like me giving blood. But those twenty-eight pints of blood saved my life. And of course all the amazing doctors and of course all the incredible care that I got, being able to get out of Morocco, being able to get to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. But fundamentally there’s something so insanely humbling for me about knowing that those twenty-eight pints that came from strangers saved my life. So that’s what I think about when I think about those first few days because I can’t really remember anything because I was basically anaesthetised.
00:17:10.07 Andy Coulson:
Do you have much memory of the sort of moments before if you like? The holiday before the crash?
00:17:14.22 Martha Lane Fox:
I remember patches of the morning before. You know, I wasn’t wearing my seatbelt so that’s something I have to face into all my godchildren and now my new young sons are hysterical about seatbelts because they’ve seen a car crash victim’s scarred up body and they think clunk, click, click, clunk in. So I guess one good thing came out of it. So I can’t remember so much before. I remember a little bit about the trip with Chris, who was my new boyfriend as you said, now my very permanent partner. So it’s patchy.
00:17:46.20 Martha Lane Fox:
But what I do remember when I start to remember coming round it’s very strange. I can remember bits of ICU but I went in and out so much I’m not quite sure when exactly the timings was. And it’s incredible how things go into your conscious. I remember the voice of one of the nurses, the ICU nurses and I can’t remember their face but I know now, that if I heard their voice again I’d be straight back to that first month. Because you hear somebody pottering around about you, adjusting wires, giving you things and so on and that is such a strong memory, I can hear it very, very clearly still in my head, quite strangely.
00:18:20.09 Andy Coulson:
Had you, were you in England by that stage? Because you were air lifted out of Morocco to the John Radcliffe in Oxford?
00:18:28.01 Martha Lane Fox:
Yes, I was. And again, sometimes I think that perhaps people like me don’t often tell the truth about their experience. And the truth of my experience is that the money that I had made or had access to through lastminute.com saved my life, simple as that.
00:18:41.18 Andy Coulson:
00:18:42.16 Martha Lane Fox:
And I think it’s quite easy to kind of forget that…
00:18:44.14 Andy Coulson:
You see it that clearly?
00:18:46.08 Martha Lane Fox:
I see it that fine really because it’s true, right? I was able to get a private medical plane, which is way out of the possibility of most people, to get me out of Morocco within forty-eight hours. Otherwise there’s absolutely no question, there was nowhere in Morocco that could deal with the scale of injuries that I had faced. And I was able to get, not only that, but back to one of the best hospitals in the world for intensive care and orthopaedic issues. And then I was able to have the system that I was in, propped up by extra care and help and all the things, and I still do now. So I really mean that so sincerely because I think it’s important to recognise where you’ve had that luck and what has enabled your life and that is definitely one of the things.
00:19:29.22 Andy Coulson:
Quite often people who’ve been through crisis will say that they came back better. But you’re very honest about the fact that nothing good came from your accident.
00:19:40.23 Martha Lane Fox:
Sometimes that’s a bit nihilistic. I’m not really a very nihilistic person but…
00:19:44.17 Andy Coulson:
No, but it’s the truth, right? In some ways it’s the very obvious truth. And yet you were able to maintain an optimistic, to put it mildly, view of the future and of your life. I think people listening to this will be astonished that you did that, but they’ll be equally fascinated and intrigued to know how you did it.
00:20:08.00 Martha Lane Fox:
Well thank you and thank you for being generous about how I basically didn’t feel like that at the time. And you don’t really make that choice, you just carry on right? And I do think that that is one of the things about crisis, is you just have to keep going. You may not know what that one step in front of the next step, which for me was quite literal, will be but you just keep going.
00:20:27.23 Martha Lane Fox:
And I think when I said that nothing good came of the accident, I mean that because it still is so profoundly affecting every day. And if I could go back to one second before and put my seatbelt on I would like that. But there’s something that happens in parallel, which it doesn’t mean that there weren’t moments of joy, and that I didn’t see incredible kind of happiness and the I haven’t felt extra dimensions of certain things. So it’s hard to explain but I think that one of the things, alongside the money and the networks of my family and my friends were the other thing that definitely made the difference for me between life and death.
00:21:08.20 Martha Lane Fox:
I was so lucky that, you know I was in and out of hospital for two years and then after that for the next kind of five years. And I still have these bouts of things happening to me and yet I never feel alone in them because I’m always surrounded by this incredible web of friends and family. And when I was in hospital in the first two years, not a day went by that someone didn’t come and see me. Not one day. And that is just so incredible because of course that gives you a belief about the outside world. You know you have these connections; you feel loved, supported, you feel like that strength to carry on. So you can find that joy and see that joy alongside also, wishing that the thing had never happened and that not much good came of it.
00:21:50.12 Andy Coulson:
There’s also a sort of lonely truth to crisis isn’t there? That you can have all those things and of course those things make a fundamental, can make the difference. But in the end it’s you in a bed, with a badly damaged body wondering what on earth is going to happen next.
00:22:09.17 Martha Lane Fox:
00:22:10.22 Andy Coulson:
And that’s what I mean by the ‘how’ really. What did you do yourself? Actually, first of all, I’m intrigued to know, when did you begin to accept what had happened? Because you’ve also talked about taking ownership of your problem, right, from a business perspective. How did you take ownership of this?
00:22:30.15 Martha Lane Fox:
Well, do you know what, I think I do that continually every day. And so I don’t know, when I go back to the nearly sixteen, seventeen years ago, it sort of feels relevant but actually it might be, more when I find that I can express it better is what happened to me, for example, last year, right. So in the end of November I had a bad fall and I slid straight over on my sacrum, which has not really ever properly mended, huge amount of nerve pain in my pelvis anyway, and it just exaggerated it to a really hideous degree. And I wasn’t really able to move for a couple of months. And I went quite quickly back into quite a dark place. Because one of the things that keeps me able to function and keeps my mental health healthy is exercise, even though people would laugh, I’m not very good, but I am quite strong now. And I like walking and I find the hardest thing is actually just sitting and not moving and that’s when I get stiff and pain and so on.
00:23:26.05 Andy Coulson:
You box, don’t you?
00:23:29.10 Martha Lane Fox:
I do box, yes. Don’t laugh at me. My boxing teacher…
00:23:32.04 Andy Coulson:
I’m not laughing, I’m nodding in admiration.
00:23:34.17 Martha Lane Fox:
My boxing teacher, Lesley Sackey, is really a superhero, she’s so patient with me. But it’s brilliant because I can’t feel very well in my legs and feet and you have to constantly be assessing your proprioception and that’s what’s great with boxing. Anyway, I couldn’t box in November or December or January really.
00:23:51.01 Andy Coulson:
So two months you couldn’t move?
00:23:53.07 Martha Lane Fox:
Yeah, two months and actually, that felt lonelier, because that’s from a different point right? When you’re in hospital and you’re in a proper crisis that everyone recognises and people rally around and it was a thing. But then the moments when you fall back or I found over the next few years they are harder because obviously you can’t demand ‘I must have people at my bedside all the time’ that’s not realistic and it’s not appropriate and it wouldn’t be the right thing at all but I think what would make a crisis out of it. So that’s when you have to draw on different strengths and you have to be more accepting because I think getting out of hospital or out of that immediate first period of time was about not accepting something. You know I had to keep going, I had to of course rest and pace and do the physio and stuff but also keep moving and prove I could walk and do all the things that are impossibly hard.
00:24:40.23 Martha Lane Fox:
Whereas my more recent, when I go backwards now, it’s more that I have to find the mental strength to accept that it has happened, to let myself rest, to get better, to not put myself back on the track that means I’m going to fall over and have another injury. And in a way that’s way harder. So I think that my mental resilience around my recent falls and hurts or operations have actually been harder because you’re drawing on different things and it’s less obvious sometimes. So that’s when I have to be much more imaginative. So my own personal strategies are listening to lots of podcasts, reading as much as possible because it’s a bit tricky reading because of physical pain because of the position I’m in. Listening to certain music. You know finding other things to be able to take your brain out of what you’re feeling constricted by. And actually that’s harder, that takes harder work.
00:25:37.03 Andy Coulson:
Obviously people survive, come through all different types of crisis, but one might argue that yours is the toughest because of that constant reminder, the sort of physical reminder of it. Do you allow yourself to sort of, go there, if you like? Or is your mechanism to make sure that you stay out of that pit, if you like? Do you ever allow yourself to wallow around?
00:26:08.18 Martha Lane Fox:
Denial, denial, denial. Well you know crisis is not a competition, right? And I mean that very sincerely. I think since the accident people have sometimes found me who have either accidents themselves or feel like they’ve got similar physical challenges and it’s never a competition, right? If you’re feeling in the depths of something then you’re feeling it. And I think everyone copes with that in different ways.
00:26:33.05 Martha Lane Fox:
For me, denial is a very, very important part of how I function. And I’m sure that many people would say that there’s lots about that that’s not healthy. My mother might, for example, say, ‘Why do you insist on just walking about?’ And I think she’d quite like me to stay inside, wrapped in cotton wool for the rest of my life. But the way I don’t get scared or feel as though I am a fraction of what I was is just by denying that I might fall over, that I’ve got massive physical challenges, and I just kind of carry on. And it generally works and then sometimes it doesn’t.
00:27:08.02 Andy Coulson:
I love that, the strength of denial.
00:27:10.10 Martha Lane Fox:
It does. I know it’s not very fashionable to be in denial.
00:27:13.14 Andy Coulson:
No, but it’s powerful.
00:27:15.05 Martha Lane Fox:
But I think some things it really is. You know things, I mean, it’s that classic thing of ‘accept the things you cannot change’, right? It’s just some things you have to park because they’re not going to change. I’m not going to suddenly recover all the things that are wrong with my body and I’m not going to be what I was before, so just move on and move through it. And I’ve had this debate quite a lot with both Chris and my best friend and sometimes it’s helpful to go back over things.
00:27:42.09 Martha Lane Fox:
And for example, May 2nd, you mentioned the date of the accident, I do something every year. I like marking it. And that might seem weird and perverse to some people but for me personally, it’s helpful. Partly because I like to say thank you to all my friends for helping me get here and that’s a very important thing. Partly for my family, my mum, my dad and so on. But also for me. I like being able to say ‘okay by next May 2nd I want to try to have done an…’
00:28:06.23 Andy Coulson:
So give me an example.
00:28:08.13 Martha Lane Fox:
Well there’s a small one and a big one. So for the ten year anniversary of the accident I thought what shall I do? I know what I’m going to try and do, I want to try and walk ten miles every day for five days. And I’ll tell you what, back in 2014 that felt like an impossibility and my aunt, who I’m very close to, said ‘Let’s walk along Hadrian’s Wall’. So we did. And not just me but all the people who’d helped me get out of hospital. So for four of the five days, three or four of the five days, there were sixty-four of us walking along Hadrian’s Wall and it was really phenomenal. Children of all ages, family, friends, it was amazing. And I thought I’d like to raise some money and I did. I raised $100,000 for various different charities during my crazy walk. So that was a big example. But this year, because of my slight falling over and accidents, I just wanted to beat my non-stop punching record.
00:28:59.21 Andy Coulson:
Amazing, and did you?
00:29:00.11 Martha Lane Fox:
With Lesley, with Lesley. Well I think I did sort of beat it, 280 punches in a minute thank you very much.
00:29:07.16 Andy Coulson:
Wow. Tyson Fury beware.
00:29:11.21 Martha Lane Fox:
Yes, well… So yeah, next year, don’t laugh, and I’m not sure if it’s going to happen because of the situation we’re in, but the woman who started Spanx’s husband seems like a total and complete freak, Jesse Itzler, I think he’s called, and he started this thing called Everest 2029, have you heard about this?
00:29:30.15 Andy Coulson:
00:29:30.20 Martha Lane Fox:
And he’s got a mountain in America and kind of hipsters pay an insane amount of money, that’s me, to go up and down it. I think you have to go up and down it twenty times or nineteen times and when you’ve done that you’ve walked Everest.
00:29:44.23 Andy Coulson:
00:29:45.21 Martha Lane Fox:
So that’s my next challenge. I want to try and climb Everest in those short bursts.
00:29:51.24 Andy Coulson:
00:29:51.20 Martha Lane Fox:
How hard can it be?
00:29:53.20 Andy Coulson:
I’ve seen you speak publicly and I also reminded myself by watching a couple of your Ted Talks and the like. You come on stage, you always deliver your speech standing up when sitting down, I assume, is an option. You stand there with your walking stick. You can see, and I’m interested in this from a professional point of view because as you know I’ve spent a bit of time working with people on their presentation skills, as far as I…
00:30:27.07 Martha Lane Fox:
Oh please give me some feedback, I want some useful feedback.
00:30:28.04 Andy Coulson:
No, no, but this is my point, no, there’s nothing you can learn from me, this is my point. As far as I can see you never use an autocue, you rarely tell the same story twice, which of course is the oldest trick in the book.
00:30:41.01 Martha Lane Fox:
Well I’m not sure…
00:30:42.03 Andy Coulson:
I said rarely, but it’s an astonishing, it’s actually an astonishing feat for anyone, right? But it’s an astonishing feat for you and you choose not to make it any easier for yourself. So what’s that all about?
00:30:58.16 Martha Lane Fox:
Thank you but that’s what I enjoy doing. So it’s not a hardship, I would do it differently if it felt really hard. And I increasingly think that…
00:31:11.01 Andy Coulson:
It’s physically difficult?
00:31:12.10 Martha Lane Fox:
It’s physically a bit difficult.
00:31:12.24 Andy Coulson:
You can see that it’s physically difficult.
00:31:14.06 Martha Lane Fox:
It’s a bit difficult sometimes but actually I think it’s better to stand up because I feel like you project your voice better. Actually, sitting down is probably a bit more tricksy, I’m not sure. That’s not naturally where I feel most comfortable, I like feeling upright and then I can move about a bit. So the physicality of it’s fine. I definitely reject PowerPoint, autocue, all that stuff I think that if you are able to speak with confidence without notes or just with a few mental cues.
00:31:44.00 Martha Lane Fox:
So I try and anchor my speeches always in groups of three. Now I’ve given away my top secret. So I think, okay I’m going to start, three chunks and they’re going to have three segments in them. Let’s say I’ll know what those anchor points are and then I’ll be able to weave between them. I just think it gives people a much more kind of, I hate that word relatable, but a kind of relatable experience and hopefully they feel that the person there is really speaking to them, which I am. So I just enjoy doing it more like that and I think I’ve got a bit better at it as I’ve got older and I think that if it’s a way that I can deliver a message that I want to deliver or a way that I can help inspire a group of people or young people or young women in tech or whatever it might be, then that feels like my job.
00:32:26.14 Andy Coulson:
Well it’s a job well done. Obviously life changed again, in a wholly positive direction, with Felix and Milo, children who will not need any lessons in resilience as they…
00:32:39.13 Martha Lane Fox:
Hopefully not, you should see them sometimes though.
00:32:42.12 Andy Coulson:
As they get older.
00:32:43.10 Martha Lane Fox:
‘Having my toenails cut, cut, cut, mamma’, I’m like, really?!
00:32:48.13 Andy Coulson:
Not a lot of room for that in…
00:32:49.08 Martha Lane Fox:
To be my child!
00:32:51.07 Andy Coulson:
Not a lot of room for that in your household, right? You mentioned that you see it as a muscle, that resilience is a muscle that needs training. That’s also, on one level, an unfashionable view? That we should be running away from stress rather than towards it. Have I got that right? Your view is that you need to be in it on occasion. To be able to deal with it, should things go wrong?
00:33:23.13 Martha Lane Fox:
Yeah, I’m not sure if stress is the word that I would use. I don’t think it’s just about putting yourself in stressful situations, although that may be part of it. I think it is about making sure you’re not… being truthful with yourself about when you’re hiding from things necessarily and when you’re hiding from things unnecessarily. And I still do it with myself. It’s very easy when you’ve had a cataclysmically bad accident which the whole world generally knows about to say ‘you know what, I don’t want to because I’m in pain’. And it’s quite easy to say, ‘well I don’t feel in that much pain but I just don’t really want to and I think I’ll use the accident as an excuse’. That’s really honest and sometimes I do that and I don’t like myself for doing it.
00:34:02.21 Martha Lane Fox:
So if I feel that, and I’ve got one of the best excuses in the world, then I absolutely know that must fee that all the time. And therefore, I guess what I mean is, everybody deserves to hide sometimes, of course, that’s an important part of human resilience is knowing to be able to take that strength from being by yourself and just saying, ‘I don’t want to do that, no’. But I also think it’s about being truthful with yourself when you probably could just give yourself that little nudge to try it, to give things a go. And I don’t mean in a sort of jolly hockey sticks, ‘come on let’s just carry on’, I don’t. I mean more considered and intentful than that.
00:34:36.13 Martha Lane Fox:
Because I do think human beings learn by putting themselves in different situations with different groups of people, reading different things. You know, listening to different things, going to different places, all of which sounds remarkably sad now we’re stuck in this quarantine period but we will come back. And so I think I mean, it doesn’t need to be stress, although that might do it too, I just mean being really realistic with yourself when you’re hiding from things and when you might just be able to gain a bit of experience, knowledge, show that you can do something by doing something that feels a bit more difficult.
00:35:14.00 Andy Coulson:
Is ego a factor in crisis?
00:35:19.06 Martha Lane Fox:
Well, far be it from me to make any judgements that the countries faring so well in this crisis are the ones led by ginormous autocratic men. Bolsonaro, covering himself in glory, Auban, even Macron, I would put in that category unfortunately, and perhaps Boris and even definitely Trump. I think that, of course, in crisis it is even more important to be realistic and self-aware and that’s harder if you’ve got your ego sitting in front of it. It’s harder with yourself it becomes five hundred times harder if you’re trying to lead a team or a group of people through something. So yes, I’m sure ego is… I mean, ego is always to do with something isn’t it?
00:36:04.15 Martha Lane Fox:
But I’ve also, you know, I know that I probably have an over-inflated ego on many levels too. But I do think that we can have confidence and project confidence without having ego with it. And it’s important sometimes to separate, sometimes people want to see the reassurance, they don’t want a leader who’s just all over the show, it’s not that you project this kind of, ‘I know what to do and I’ll do it in this way…’ you don’t want to be intransigent, you don’t want to be full of ego. But giving people a sense that you are in this together, you are going to work through it and it’s going to be okay I think is also important.
00:36:36.14 Andy Coulson:
I mean, you know, whilst you move in a political crisis, if you like, or the kind of crisis that we’re in at the moment that involves politicians, an ego obviously is going to feature hard. But do you think for an individual crisis that ego can be put to good use? By ego, what I mean is, ‘I don’t want to be that person, I don’t want to be the person that people think I’m going to end up being? I’m going to, actually no, I see myself very differently and I’m going to make sure that that’s how the story ends’, if you like. Was that a factor for you?
00:37:07.11 Martha Lane Fox:
I think that that’s a really nice way of expressing it. I’m thinking about it. I often think to myself, be your best self, try and be your best self. Be somebody that… not quite in the way that you’ve expressed it but just I know you can be better than how you’re displaying whatever thing you’re doing right now. I mean, there’s nothing like a pair of four year olds to make you feel like you could be a better version of yourself, frankly.
00:37:33.21 Martha Lane Fox:
But more than that I think for me personally I feel like this very strange combination right now, like I’m sure many people, of it’s quite easy to feel like, okay I’ve got this in my very local environment, thinking about this crisis. So I’m going to check my children are okay, my friends, family network and people that I feel responsible for, you can kind of dig in. And then every now and then I think, but that’s not enough for me and I want to make sure that I have, even in a tiny way, tried to do something that feels a bit more meaningful, because there are so many people that are putting themselves much more profoundly at risk than all of us sitting around with our computers. So maybe that’s a form of ego, I don’t know. But I defiantly have a voice in my head, I think it’s pretty permanent, I hope it’s not just in crisis, that’s thinking are you doing enough? Are you contributing? Are you being a net positive to things, not a net negative to things?
00:38:30.08 Andy Coulson:
We’re talking about eight weeks after lockdown was imposed and as a passionate believer in responsible technology, how are you feeling about the sort of tech consequences? On the one hand we’ve seen the kind of digital transformation that you could only have dreamed of when you had the job in government in 2010. Everyone of every generation moving on to their computers and their phones. But on the other side a real risk that it’s opening the door to autocrats who’ll see it as an opportunity to grab even more power for themselves. A sort of abuse of crisis, if you like. How are you feeling about that balance right now?
00:39:08.21 Martha Lane Fox:
I think as you quite rightly say, it is this kind of exponential leap. Some of us, I’m not so much involved in the crazy start-up world anymore, I’m really kind of geekily interested in the next wave of digitisation, of institution, society, government and I really enjoy thinking about that and it’s been just fascinating how this has been that lever. I mean, to see the cross bench meeting in the House of Lords all taking place on Zoom, if you’d said that was going to be a possibility a year ago I’d have been like, ‘No way!’ But I find that really quite inspiring because it just does show that there is this amazing capacity for people to want to organise, to get on with stuff and even when the tools are hard or even when it’s not their natural bench, which let’s be honest, many members of the House of Lords it might not be the easiest thing for them to do, it’s happened. So I find that quite inspiring.
00:39:55.20 Martha Lane Fox:
And the tech piece is hard, you know, Doteveryone, the small charity I founded, have been doing this research sporadically every two years. And two years ago the research we did showed that in the thick of the tech lash, everyone loves the internet when it delivers the Amazon package to their front door, but only 12% of people thought it was doing good things for society. Slightly different dynamics now where even more people think it’s doing great things, obviously because of the pandemic we’re in, nearer 80%. But only 19% of people think that the services are designed with their best interests at heart, so as us the users. And that’s a bit depressing, isn’t it?
00:40:33.13 Martha Lane Fox:
So there’s all that going on with the consumer facing internet and then as you rightly say, these very complex questions emerging about surveillance, data, privacy, what that means for the relationship between state and citizen. But I take a somewhat unfashionable view of this, perhaps because yes, it’s complicated but it also doesn’t need to be. There is no reason why government technology or technology used by states needs to be nefarious or have this complexity to it. It can be decentralised, it can be transparent, it can have amazing terms and conditions, it can have very clear sunset clauses, i.e. data stops being used when the thing dies.
00:41:14.10 Martha Lane Fox:
So it’s really important to keep asking those questions but it is possible to get this stuff right. And I think that we sometimes, it feels a bit like we’re dancing on a pin when we look at the kind of, our western world’s considerations about this stuff. When you think about what’s happening in China which is building a parallel internet, has being surveying, basically, their population for decades and will be investing more and more heavily around the world. Will own our networks, all of the stuff. You know, I’m a globalist person, I think we should be open and talk to the Chinese but I think we’ve also got to have the conversations and focus them in the right place.
00:41:52.00 Andy Coulson:
Very good, Martha, thank you so much for your time and for being so frank with us. Before you go I want to ask you for your crisis cures. So these are three things that you… it can’t be another human being, I’m sure there’s a very long list of human beings but it can’t be a human being. The three things that you turn to in the tough times.
00:42:16.01 Martha Lane Fox:
Yes, I mean exercise is so fundamental to my mental and physical wellbeing, it is the difference between a good day and a bad day. And what Lesley, aforementioned, amazing boxing teacher taught me, was that she said to me, it doesn’t matter, it’s now pretty much been scientifically been proven that imagining doing the exercise can build the muscle mass, it’s quite extraordinary the relationship between our brain and our muscles.
00:42:39.00 Andy Coulson:
Sorry not actually exercising, just imagining the exercise. That is very good news.
00:42:41.22 Martha Lane Fox:
If you are somebody that does… Yeah, exactly, I think you maybe have to have done a bit of exercise to be able to pattern it. So when I was not well, when I was laid low again recently, I thought about the boxing moves and it does make a difference. So even if I don’t feel like I can get out there and move in the same way I still deeply rely on imagining the exercise even if it’s not doing it. So exercise is the first thing by quite some distance.
00:43:06.15 Martha Lane Fox:
The second thing is books and reading. And particularly I’ve found myself going to poetry in this crisis. Partly because, despite what everybody’s saying, ‘oh all this time to do stuff’ yeah right, there’s no time to do anything. But there is time to read a poem for five minutes I have found. So I have been reading a lot of poetry. I have been doing really nice…
00:43:26.22 Andy Coulson:
Is there a particular poem at the moment?
00:43:29.12 Martha Lane Fox:
No, but I tell you what, I’ve found two poems recently that are just so brilliant for now. One is by a lovely contemporary American poet called Mary Oliver and it’s called Don’t Hesitate. And it’s about joy and how even when the world is bleak, there’s always something awful happening, but it doesn’t mean you should begrudge yourself joy. And it’s a good poem and I highly recommend that. So poetry particularly. So exercise, even if it’s just imagining it, reading poems because they’re short. And then I find very effective the pant disco. I don’t know if pant discos happen in the Coulson household but we have quite a lot of pant discos round here.
00:44:04.11 Andy Coulson:
They have on occasion.
00:44:05.03 Martha Lane Fox:
I know I’m not allowed them with another person but I’ll have them by myself too. And I think that putting on some music, blaring out way too loud, sorry neighbours, and having a couple of minutes of moving about, nothing beats it.
00:44:18.12 Andy Coulson:
Outstanding. Martha, thanks again so much for your time.
00:44:22.06 Martha Lane Fox:
00:44:22.15 Andy Coulson:
00:44:25.05 Martha Lane Fox:
Nice to see you.
00:44:25.18 Andy Coulson:
Thank you. Thanks for listening to Crisis What Crisis? Do feel free to send us your feedback. You’ll find our contact details and our show notes giving you the key insights from our guests at crisiswhatcrisis.com. There are more useful conversations on the way so please do subscribe and if you like what you hear give us a rating and a review, it really helps. Thanks again.
00:44:49.17 End of transcription