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Michelle Preston FRSA grew up in a school system which told her that as a woman only three careers were open to her: secretary, nurse and teacher. And yet since then she has enjoyed a varied and rewarding education and career. In this poignant blog, she explores her journey from disillusionment to empowerment, and how her new women's initiative, SWOP, can help others to find their life purpose.

‘A strong woman knows she has strength for the journey. But a woman of strength knows it is in the journey where she will become strong.’ (Unknown)
‘Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family, whoever you are, you need one.’  (Unknown)

Once upon a time, many years ago, there was a little girl growing up who believed that she could do absolutely anything… but by the time she reached 16 and was ready to leave school, that belief had been destroyed by a system that told her she had three choices of career because she was a girl: secretary, nurse or teacher. No options were given for university or for ‘men’s’ jobs, like doctor or engineer. The girl was angry and disheartened. She disengaged from pretty much everything, and for years was labeled disruptive and told she would amount to nothing. She was a NEET (which now stands for ‘not in education, employment or training’) before the label even existed.

Who was that girl? That girl was me, and I was right on track for trouble. And yet, I went on to a life working in the voluntary sector, helping to create countless community-based projects; I studied at university ten years after I left school; I became a life-long learner, returning to university to complete a post graduate qualification; I became self employed as a consultant; I set up a second, ethical, business; and, most importantly, I made a life-long commitment to positive social change. So what changed to enable all of that to happen? I found my life purpose.

In positive psychology, evidence is accumulating that demonstrates the importance of personal meaning in our wellbeing and also in our quality of life. As C.R. Snyder and S.J. Lopez, professors of psychology at the University of Kansas, put it in their 2007 paper on positive psychology, ‘Happiness + Meaning = Well-being’. Martin Seligman, who some say is the founder of positive psychology, talks about the ‘meaningful life’, which he describes as ‘using your signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than you are’. At the Laboratory for the Study of Meaning and Quality of Life, research has focused on understanding the factors that foster well-being and reduce psychological distress, and the role that meaning in life plays in human happiness. They state that ‘People… who have a sense of meaning in life, also report feeling more happy, more satisfied with their lives, less depressed and anxious, and more satisfied with their jobs.’ They go on to elaborate that ‘meaning-searchers [who feel like they’ve found an] occupational path infused with a sense of higher purpose and spiritual calling… report more well-being and more investment in their career development’.

Personally, my passion for purpose and mission for meaning has been enhanced since receiving the email that invited me to become a Fellow of the RSA a couple of years ago, and my commitment to supporting others was strengthened when I was elected as a Fellowship Councillor for the South West. I’m now enhancing the offer I make in service of something even larger, supported through Catalyst funding from the RSA, and taking a brand new project called ‘Simply Women on Purpose’ (SWOP) around the UK this year.   

I first had the idea for SWOP four years ago when I started looking for what was out there for women like me: women who place purpose at the centre of everything they do; women who have found and follow a path with heart; women who are change-makers and difference-deliverers; and women who want to be and do all of these things. Perhaps it was partly because I was working for myself, but I was craving connection. I wanted to be a part of something bigger.

But despite my searching, I couldn’t find what I was looking for. There were plenty of ‘business’ networks where the focus was profit rather than purpose, but they just didn’t sit well with me. I believe that business needs to be a force for good rather than a force for gain. And so I began to play with the idea of creating a new network where women could come together, and where women’s wellbeing was as important as the work we do. Most importantly, I wanted to create a network where together we could become the change we wanted to see in the world.

As such, I hosted a free one day conference last summer, ‘Women on Purpose – Connect, Create, Collaborate’, supported by the RSA, where I talked about this idea, this dream, this fantasy, and where I brought together women who were leading purpose-filed lives and organisations to tell their stories. The response from the attendees was remarkable, and my call to action from them was loud and clear: we love this, we want more and one day is not enough!

And so SWOP (Simply Women on Purpose) was born. It is a new project and network in the making, with the aim of helping to support women to improve their wellbeing and create a purpose-driven life. Offering low-cost, community-based events and workshops, presentations, interactive activities and networking underpinned by positive psychology, SWOP is accessible to everyone. Women leave our events with an expanded sense of possibility and with clarity on how to become their own change-makers. Creating true connection at all levels, participants are provided with practical tools for positive transformation and for living an authentic life filled with purpose and meaning.

Thanks to an RSA Catalyst grant, SWOP is about to be taken around the UK to eleven locations: Truro, Bristol, London, Birmingham, Cardiff, Manchester, York, Cumbria, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Belfast. In each location I will be offering a free two hour workshop, exploring the three core themes of SWOP, which are ‘Connect, Create, Collaborate’, in part through conversation with female change-makers local to each area. If you’d like to hear me talk more about purpose, meaning and the Simply Women on Purpose project and roadshow, then sign up for this free webinar, which is being hosted by The Network of Wellbeing on Tuesday 27 February.

Maya Angelou said, ‘I’ve learned that making a living is not the same thing as making a life’. My idea of living is to help women create a life filled with purpose and meaning, to connect, create and collaborate so we can create positive change together.

Michelle Preston (PGDip), FRSA is a Positive Psychologist, Wellbeing Consultant and Feminine Leadership Facilitator based in the UK.

If you’d like to be involved in the development of Simply Women On Purpose then please get in touch by email:  It would be great to connect with you.

You can also find the dates of each SWOP workshop at the website



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