Diane von Furstenberg on compassion, courage and Owning It
The designer, philanthropist and author describes how her own difficulties gave her inner strength
Diane von Furstenberg remains one of the most successful figures in fashion. Newsweek magazine declared her 'the most remarkable woman since Coco Chanel’ and she was president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America from 2006 until 2019.
Nevertheless, the Belgian-born, US-based entrepreneur, philanthropist and fashion designer has experienced her fair share of misfortune. Her new book Own It: The Secret to Life, is an A-Z guide and manifesto for personal growth, and many of the entries focus on how one can turn challenges or problems into assets. Some of those problems have been pretty substantial.
“I only learned about the meaning of the word compassion after I was diagnosed with cancer at age forty-seven,” the author explains under the heading of Compassion, in the 'C' chapter of her book. “I remember the waiting rooms, the fearful eyes. I understood the suffering of others while refusing mine, reaching for my own strength . . . owning it.”
With medical treatment and a fair amount of patience, she was fortunate enough to beat the disease. “My treatment was eight weeks of daily radiation,” she goes on to explain. “Although the treatment itself only took a few minutes, there was always a long wait. The wait became an opportunity for a routine, to find a book to read only there, something that held me together.
“I picked a story of a grandmother, mother, and daughter—three generations of strong Chinese women who suffered and survived extraordinarily difficult conditions, from bonded feet to cultural revolution. I finished reading the book exactly as I completed my treatment. By that time, I understood compassion. Compassion is an emotion, but also a muscle that gets trained and developed. It is a practice that adds a fuller dimension to identify with others and their sufferings as well as our own.”
Where did the fortitude to quietly read while undergoing a course of radiotherapy come from? Perhaps another C entry: Character. “Character is the one and only thing we have total control of,” she writes. “We can lose our health, our wealth, our beauty, our family, our freedom, but we never lose our character . . . even under torture. Our character is our strength, our spinal cord, the house inside ourselves—it’s all we can truly count on!”
Indeed, in von Furstenberg’s opinion, character directly informs an additional human attribute: Courage. “Courage is using our character for strength. It is the willingness to face danger, challenges, and emotions,” she argues. “We practice courage by managing fear and obstacles!”
Wouldn’t you agree? Whether you’re assured of your own strengths, or feel the need to explore this aspect of your inner life a little more fully, why don’t you aim to own it too, and order a copy of von Furstenberg’s pithy, witty and wise book here?