Interview with Mirna Hidalgo: living a life that feels like an adventure, not an ordeal

I'm so delighted Mirna agreed to be my first interview for Moxie Rules. I got to know Mirna in Brussels back in the noughties (2000's) when we sat opposite each other in Euroclear’s legal department: she was a senior lawyer responsible for strategic projects, I was in compliance neck-deep in policies. However, a few years ago Mirna did what so many of us wonder about doing: she switched lanes and set up her own business as artist, coach specialising in burn-out prevention and conflict management, and lecturer. I wanted to know why Mirna changed careers, what challenges she sees people facing in the corporate world and how can we manage them, and where does creativity come into it?

Interview with Mirna Hidalgo: living a life that feels like an adventure, not an ordeal

So starting with the big question, why did you decide to change?

It’s been a natural evolution. I’ve always been some type of artist: I started dancing at the age of four, and when I was a law student I worked as a dance teacher and danced flamenco professionally. When you engage in creative activities you naturally look at a broad spectrum of things and see connections between them. For example, flamenco dancing is about technique, coordination with others and improvisation… and in a corporate career, you need these skills too: it’s still a dance.

As a lawyer I negotiated corporate strategic projects and quickly found that negotiations are less about law and economics and much more about dealing with people. I think that is always the real challenge: working with others. Every person is unique and each time you have to find a way that works with him or her.

The skills you need for negotiating deals such as conflict management and personal influence are ones that help all of us in all aspects of our lives. So with 20 years of experience in the field it was natural to give corporate training on these issues. I noticed that in the breaks or at lunch, people would come and talk to me about their own specific circumstances, the work relationships that kept them awake at night… and I thought I needed to be qualified to help them, so I became a certified coach. I saw that most of the stress came from difficult relationships, so I specialised in burn-out prevention and conflict management. It was really an evolution.

 

And you’re also a painter: have you been painting for long?

I only started painting a few years ago. I had the impulse to try it after I saw some paintings being sold in the market that I didn’t like, so I went to the Academy of Fine Arts to sign up for “a course” and they said “it’s not a course, it’s a career” so… I ended up doing a 6 year degree in Fine Arts. After that I wanted to know where creativity comes from: it’s such a mysterious process so I have completed another degree in the psychology of creativity.  It blends nicely with the rest: negotiation and dealing with difficult people requires a lot of imagination and creativity…

Blue Woods by Mirna Hidalgo

 

Two degrees? How do you find the time?

(Laughs) A lot of support. I have a lovely husband!

 

Recently I’ve heard people coining terms such as “multi-passionate” and “multi-pational” to describe themselves where they’re pursuing more than one thing. As an artist, lawyer, coach, professional dancer, polyglot (Mirna is fluent in Spanish, English, French and Dutch) that sounds to me like you. Do you think that’s the direction more and more of us will go in the future, that the model of having one career – one focus – is changing?

It’s very personal. You may do many things like I do or you can be perfectly happy with one calling. What has changed is the way we work, with the arrival of disruptive technologies, AI (artificial intelligence) and digitalisation that make the speed and volume of change so difficult to grasp, let alone control. There’s also more instability: the time when we stayed with one company for our whole career is gone so we need to be more creative and flexible in the way we follow our path.

I don’t consider my own path exceptional, I just have a huge learning appetite and a drive to experiment with different ways of expression. I call this “being the whole of you”. If you feel the impulse to be a lawyer, financial advisor or whatever your formal profession is AND you always dreamt of being a writer, painter or musician, there is no reason why you couldn’t be both.

 

Do you think working in the corporate world is becoming harder than it used to be, that there are more demands being placed on us, or is it a case of rose tinted glasses when we look back at the past?

I think it’s becoming harder. Our world is changing at an unprecedented rate and that has an impact on people but I have the feeling that some companies still do box-ticking in terms of the wellbeing of their staff. They understand their people are a key asset, they know about the studies which show the link between wellbeing and innovation, and yet they are still attached to the short term productivity goals and the shareholder structures which often press management to do whatever it takes to reach targets.

I’m not a fan of measuring everything by KPIs (key performance indicators). I’ve written in my blog about the time I was told my team had to measure “happiness” and that I should set a target for “the number of opinions” a lawyer issues per hour which felt absurd. There is definitely a place for KPIs – they were indispensable when I used to negotiate IT agreements – but applied to everything, indiscriminately, they kill all opportunity for creativity and engagement. Treating people as ‘machines’ is never going to bring genius, brilliance and talent. I am not surprised by the burn-out epidemics in certain sectors. The combination of high pressure, constant monitoring and toxic bosses is disastrous.

 

You come from the financial world but your clients come from a range of industries. Do you see people in the financial sector facing a particular set of challenges that you don’t see so much elsewhere or are they fairly universal?

The challenges I see are universal across competitive industries where they have similar management structures and methodologies in place. What is perhaps more specific to the financial world is that it’s a very abstract subject and uses a lot of analytical and intellectual skills so I think you need to cultivate other parts of your brain and find energy by doing other things such as cooking, exercise, music, art, more contact with nature. We have only one brain: what you do outside work will end up feeding what you do at the office. More physical and creative activities can help you rest the mind and become more creative.

Also in the financial world, people face a lot of external pressures because the environment keeps adding more and more constraints – all the new regulation since the financial crisis and new technology, digitalisation has resulted in mountains of work and increased competitive threats. This is when creativity and collaboration are most needed.

I think the financial sector is one of the most serious and rigid environments. People feel very attached to projecting an image based on productivity and return on investment – while controlling risk, of course.  While this is what’s expected of the job, they tend to forget that too much focus on results adds stress to the process. Excessive stress is a creativity killer. Many are also trained to think strategically and the higher their hierarchical position, the more they tend to link their identity to power and status, to the point of developing social anxiety symptoms.

In order to adapt to the new challenges, both at organisational and individual levels, the industry could benefit from a more balanced attitude towards work. Not just in terms of hours, but more in terms of making place for imagination and relaxed creative spaces. To be able to think flexibly and to innovate we need to shift from control and manipulation to influence and participation. The content is serious and heavily regulated but that shouldn’t stop people from seeing work as a playspace for new ideas that stimulate a more dynamic engagement.

 

Has moving from corporate lawyer to corporate coach led you to develop any “philosophies” about the corporate world: what works for people, what doesn’t work…?

Perhaps not so much a philosophy but I believe it’s important to manage your energy.

Working in the corporate world, people concentrate on managing their time all the time and end up frustrated because there is never enough. But I think we should rather concentrate on managing our energy. I schedule my days in function of my energy, for example, coaching is intense as it requires giving a client deep support, so I limit the number of clients I see in a day and don’t do sessions back to back. I try to make my clients more aware of planning their own energy too so, for example, if you have a meeting you know will be difficult or with someone who drains you, then afterwards plan to meet with someone who lifts you or block out some time alone.

When we are in overdrive we think we should do more things, like exercise to improve our energy but it doesn’t always work like that: sometimes you should do less, or manage the frequency differently. It’s really about listening to your body. This is the first front in preventing burn-out: developing awareness of what your body and emotions are saying.

 

Career-wise, what’s next for you?

I’ve become very interested in the psychology of power. There’s clear evidence that power corrupts, that when people become powerful it triggers hormonal responses, we become less empathetic, more self-centred. I am looking further into power and the corporate world because a recurrent theme among my clients is suffering under people who abuse their power. Unfortunately toxic behaviour is contagious:  jerks attract jerks! You have to know how to protect yourself and how to get away when necessary. And again, championing the creative spirit remains at the core of everything I do. My mission is sharing ways to live a happier life that feels like an adventure and not an ordeal.

In parallel, I will continue to let my emotions flow through my brushes at the art studio, and who knows what other projects will show up! 

 

What makes you happy?

This is one of the first questions I ask my coaching clients because the way you define ‘happy’ has a big impact on the way you live, and if your definition is based on the next house, the next promotion, the next goal, what happens if you don’t get it?

I try to define happiness in relation to simple things and an emotional state. You can be happy in a difficult situation with that kind of definition, by attaching it to a state of mind rather than an external reward.

 

What’s your favourite quote?

I have a lot, so choosing only one is difficult but I’ll go with Anais Nin:

Life Shrinks or Expands in Proportion to One’s Courage

It takes courage to follow the path you want to and to not be afraid of making a fool of yourself from time to time.

 

What book most inspires you?

Probably “Man’s Search for Meaning”, a 1946 book by Viktor Frankl. Frankl was a psychiatrist and survivor of the holocaust and he tells of his experiences in the Auschwitz concentration camp. It’s hard to read because he talks about very difficult things: at the same time it’s very humbling and gives you hope. He saw how in the most extreme situations those who were able to imagine a better future and find meaning moment by moment survived. This book illustrates our inner freedom of choice like no other. It’s a good reminder of the responsibility to make the most of our lives.

 

And if people want to contact you …?

I’m happy to connect through Linkedin, https://www.linkedin.com/in/mirnahidalgo/or through my websites

…training and coaching, visit Wiser Gems: http://mirnahidalgo.strikingly.com

…to see my art: http://mirnart.strikingly.com.

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