Kathy Andersen should have had a normal childhood in a middle-class suburb of Sydney, Australia. But that childhood was stolen by her father, who began sexually abusing her when she was only four years old—an ordeal that continued for more than a decade. The emotional distress resulting from this trauma caused Kathy to be labeled a “problem child”—a reputation fostered by her father to keep the truth hidden from the rest of the family.
Kathy grew up feeling isolated and has few happy memories. “One of my favorite things was sitting up in a tree in my front yard because it was a place where I could escape everything,” she told me in a recent interview. “I was up in my own world looking through branches and pretending I was in a spaceship.”
It wasn’t in a spaceship, but Kathy finally launched herself out of her real-life horror story. She was accepted to college after finishing high school, but that would have meant staying at home as a commuter student. So, at the tender age of 17, she decided to postpone her higher education and leave home. Finally, she was out of her father’s reach. She took a job at a grocery store and moved in with two girls who worked with her, adding other jobs so she could support herself and still save money. Then she landed a position as a bank cashier and started taking accounting courses. “I saw that if I took positive steps for myself, I could have a positive impact on my life,” she said, making her success seem as simple as a change of attitude. But that attitude was accompanied by Kathy’s relentless determination and work ethic. She earned her university degree in five years while simultaneously rising up the ladder in her career, eventually getting a Master’s degree. By age 30, Kathy seemed to have it all: a six-figure salary, a nice car, a beautiful home. But there was a void in her life. “I had everything on the outside that made me feel really good,” she remembered. “But I was still feeling empty on the inside.”
This recognition sparked the quest that would dramatically shift the arc of Kathy’s life. “I decided to literally change my shoes, from corporate high heels to hiking boots,” she recalls. “I needed to step out and experience something different that might get me on a path that was more inspiring, because up to this time I had been just surviving and getting over what I had experienced.”
Kathy figured that she could afford to travel for six months if she kept to a budget of $20 a day. Although an excellent planner, she made a point not to have a rigid itinerary. “Our plans can never compare to what the universe has in store for us,” she realized. “I decided that I would stop at a place and pause to see how I felt.” That all-important pause would later become one of the watchwords of Kathy’s empowerment of herself and many others.
Kathy’s only “compass,” as she puts it, was her gut feeling when she arrived in a new place. If it felt right to be there, she stayed; otherwise, she moved on. Her instincts turned out to be right: “When I just went step by step and followed what steps felt inspiring, all these good things ended up happening.” She visited some of the richest and poorest places in the world—from the United States and Canada to India and Haiti. During her travels Kathy met many extraordinary people who expanded her perspective on the human condition and the importance of helping others in need. She also discovered the importance of being in the moment and aware of what is around you now.
“We run so fast, and if you run through the most beautiful scene on the planet, you miss the beauty and the magic of everything that’s right next to you and in front of you,” she said. Kathy learned that being in the present and trusting one’s own intuition vastly expand the possibilities of one’s life. “You start to wire your brain around a trusting of your inner wisdom, intuition, and judgment, in addition to looking at the rational facts of the situation,” she told me. “I think that’s the secret to success, to combine the intuition with intelligence.”
While Kathy was awed by the great national parks, she was affected even more by what she witnessed in poor countries like Haiti. Her concern for the needy led to a life-changing shift of the compass for her. She settled in the United States and started working with nonprofit organizations while also earning a Master’s degree focusing on leadership and international development at the Harvard Kennedy School. From there she went on to establish a global institute in Miami, Florida, that helped create economic and community development programs in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. She also applied her expertise to nonprofits that raised money for children with disabilities. “Make no mistake about this woman’s advice and lessons,” said Professor Christine W. Letts, a former Dean at the Harvard Kennedy School, about Kathy. “She comes from a position of skill and strength. Everyone can benefit from her lessons.”
Meanwhile, Kathy kept hearing the same refrain from people she met and worked with—that her life story was worth sharing with the world. She took their advice, and the result was her award-winning book entitled, appropriately enough, Change Your Shoes, Live Your Greatest Life. Feedback from scores of readers confirms that her message of personal fulfillment has inspired people to overcome many types of challenges.
Kathy is now empowering many lives with her workshops and retreats that focus on helping people develop life and work skills, as well as by her consulting, coaching, speaking, seminars, and writing. She remains actively involved in projects in poor communities. She is also the founder of a support program in Miami for victims of child sex trafficking and other abuse, which is part of The Lean In Circles program founded by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg that is helping women in more than 70 countries to achieve their ambitions.
Currently, Kathy is excited about a book she is working on with Jack Canfield, author of the famed Chicken Soup for the Soul series. She is also busy getting the word out on her latest book, Change Your Shoes: 365 Life Resolutions. The “pause” that Kathy discovered during her journey of self-discovery is a key element of these resolutions. “It’s a feeling of guilt,” she says about people’s reluctance to take time out from their lives to attend to their own needs. The premise of 365 Life Resolutions is that tiny steps can reap big rewards over time, and make someone a better parent, a better employee…even a better business entrepreneur. By taking small strides away from one’s comfort zone, that zone enlarges and good things start happening. “Whether I’m working with the poorest communities or CEOs or celebrities or sports figures, that’s the common challenge: just getting to that one thing that you can do for yourself today,” she says. “Because, otherwise, it just seems too overwhelming.”
One way Kathy keeps herself moving forward is with a big whiteboard on which she writes the biggest dream she has for herself in one particular area and what she really wants to achieve, then breaks down her dream into achievable action steps (such as who she can ask for help). She highly recommends putting thoughts to paper, because doing so makes those ideas more real and workable than if we just keep them in our heads.
Kathy has no intention of slowing her pace and narrowing her focus, which is good news for so many who are benefiting from her efforts on their behalf. “I just love to help people who are facing everyday challenges, who are struggling, and to do the work that actually makes a difference in people’s lives every day,” she says. “That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.”
Be sure to visit Kathy Andersen’s website: www.kathyandersen.com.