Michelle Mills-Porter is known for helping people and teams to reach Sky High Performance. She discovered the truth behind motivation, the importance of effective communication and the power of collaboration in the strangest of classrooms and spent over a decade distilling those lessons into a suite of tangible tools and training programmes that get real results. Michelle is an award-winning businesswoman, and author, consultant and a celebrated keynote speaker, delivering “The Magnificence of Humanity” to audiences far and wide.
Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?
I had an encounter with 4 Caribbean reef squid, whilst snorkelling. They were in a perfect line, which rotated slowly, and they allowed me to join them. They started to communicate with me by flashing colours over their bodies. It was all the colours of the rainbow flashing in sequences. Every time a fish came near they would go white and withdraw their tentacles, in a moment of surprise, but then they would start their colour dance again. At one point, I thought that I had better leave them alone, perhaps I was intruding, but then they started to follow me! So they were as interested in me as I was in them. It was utterly magical. To feel like there was a desire for communication was beautiful. I am passionate about helping people to communicate effectively and cross species communication is really special.
Can you tell me about your experience in Sri Lanka with the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004?
My partner Stuart and I had learned to dive with a group in the UK and this was our first diving holiday with them and our first Christmas away from home. We arrived a couple of days before Christmas and on Christmas day evening, our new Sri Lankan friends put on a barbeque party for us. It was on the beach and it went on into the early hours of the morning when we stumbled off to bed promising to meet each other to go for a dive in the morning.
We set our alarms and duly got up for breakfast. People were excited that the tide was so far out that you could walk to the rocks that you would usually only be able to snorkel to, so many people were going to explore. It was a beautiful day, but being “a little bit worse for wear” we were not up for diving, so we went back to bed and left our friends.
Some time later, we heard some shouting and assumed that some children were mucking around in the hotel, so we pulled our pillows over our heads and went back to sleep. A little while later, we realised there was this incessant banging that wouldn’t stop and the sound of rushing water like there was a storm outside.
Stuart went to investigate and pulled back the curtain. To our horror the hotel was in the middle of the sea! We were surrounded by water! We were on the third floor of the hotel, but as we looked down the buildings were being pounded by waves and the dive centre roof was being carried away. The banging noise was a boat being slammed into the side of the hotel and there was not a soul in sight.
Despite being shocked and worried for people’s lives, there was a parallel feeling of awe and excitement which is pointless to deny. The POWER of the sea as it took buildings down like they were made of sand, was both terrifying and majestic. On the surface, at times, the water seemed to be moving in slow motion and yet you could hear creaking, splitting and cracking noises as everything underneath it started to succumb to the weight of the entire ocean. There was no beach, the sea was just taking over and it felt like a violation. And yet the sky was still blue, the sun still shone as if none of this was happening.
What were the next few hours and days like?
After a while the sea stopped coming in so fiercely and eventually it started to recede. It left devastation behind. Everything was broken, sewage, oil, rivers and roads were all mixed together.
Hours later we managed to get to the safety of Jimmy Lal’s house, who lived at the top of a hill a couple of miles inland. He was a prominent figure in the village, and he owned a fleet of ships and a fleet of lorries, so he employed many villagers. He took in lots of us, as did other homeowners on the hills. We were thrown together from many different countries, and backgrounds, but we seemed to be able to slot together to make things work. Communication seemed simple, despite speaking different languages, we seemed to understand. One of the first tasks was to patch together a working phone from several different components, and we enabled every person in the garden to be able to make a phone call home and to tell their loved ones that they were alive.
Nothing of monetary value had any currency anymore and there was a calm simplicity about the situation at the same time that there was utter chaos. Over the next few days, I truly saw hidden depths in all my friends, and beauty in humanity. Whether it’s seeing someone risk their lives for a stranger… or watching someone just listen to another who has lost everyone, everything and is inconsolable… or taking decisive action to aid our survival… I was shown that we all have goodness within us. I believe we are born good. Life might change us, situations, illness, but to see human beings come together for each other is something I will be eternally grateful for… For one short week, we formed a community with no hierarchy, no politics, no one-upmanship. And amongst all the sorrow, the pain and the devastation, there was light.
A number of interviewees have talked about the wonder of the natural world but you saw a darker side of the scale and power. Can you still marvel at an ocean, mountain or storm?
Oh, yes! I have always been appreciative of the natural world. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to roam the countryside or the seaside taking photos, and sharing the beauty that I come across. I often think that I could have been a storm chaser. I’m the type of person who will jump in the car with my camera and follow the lightning, a sunset or a rainbow. That hasn’t changed at all. In fact, when you hear the stories of indigenous people making their way to high ground before the tsunami hit… and animals fleeing, it’s a humbling reminder that we are not in touch with our planet. We are not in sync with nature.
Let’s think about what caused the tsunami. The planet cracked! An Earthquake equivalent to 23,000 Hiroshima bombs split the earth for 1,200 kilometres with a crack that was 20 ft deep. The sea was sucked into that hole and nature gave us a warning for about 2 hours! Some of our friends heard the earthquake and felt it, but we dismissed it. Some people felt the sea going out so far was a bad sign, others decided to explore. Nature gave us so many signs. It is our fault we didn’t know how to read them.
(How much technology has given us, and how much has it taken away?)
I have a healthy fear of the sea. I still swim in it and snorkel, but I find that I cannot be out of depth anymore. I tried it once and had a massive panic attack, I thought I was going to die! So I’m not about to go diving any time soon. As long as I can see the sea floor and reach it without trouble, then I’m OK.
If nature was a person, what would you like to say to them?
I would say Namaste. I respect nature, I am sometimes fearful of it, but most of all, I am in constant awe of it.
Does an experience like that turn you towards or away from supernatural forces and beings?
This is such a sensitive and subjective question. Everyone has a different experience and therefore a different perspective. If I had lost Stuart, then I don’t know how different my beliefs would be. But we survived. From a survivor’s perspective, there is an inclination to believe in angels, God, or a protective force… but then would you also be saying that some people are worthy of being saved and some not? I felt that I couldn’t talk about my beliefs to anyone who had suffered more for fear of being misunderstood.
What I witnessed, from people who had lost their families and their loved ones, is that it bought religious people closer to their faith and not further away. And for those who were faithless, it enforced their belief that there can be no God.
How has this near-death experience changed you?
It hasn’t changed me as such. It’s shaped my path and given me a new trajectory. I have noticed that everyone handles such an experience differently. Some seem to go through the stages of grief, whilst some block it out completely and some turn towards a hedonistic lifestyle; live for the moment as you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.
For me the worst thing was how the trauma affected me on a cellular level. The illnesses that I developed and still struggle with today are in my opinion the scars of my experiences. However, the positives are the lessons that I learned about motivation, communication and collaboration. They may have taken me over a decade to distil and translate, but now I have something incredibly valuable to share. I have created analysis tools that allow people to discover their core values and therefore live in flow with their true motivations. I have created a behaviour profiling tool that shows people their prominent qualities and a tool that helps people to understand others’ better. I wanted to share what I had learnt so people could have those things, without going through such a drastic classroom as I did.
I remember you saying that an experience like that makes or breaks a relationship.
Ah! I was talking about my personal situation. When you say you know what you will do if you were in a situation like that, you are talking about what you would like to think you would do. You don’t really know how you will react until you are in that situation. I believe that when you are in “that moment” you see straight through to the essence of a person. We have no time to play a role, or remember who we are meant to be, we just DO!
When the chips were down, I saw Stuart put my life before his own and in that moment, I felt like I saw straight through to his essence. I knew I could trust him with my life and that is the moment that we promised that if we got out alive, we would pledge ourselves to each other and get married.
If he had done a runner, then I would still be single…
I saw some opposite scenarios to our story, too, so what I was saying is that we don’t truly know ourselves until we have seen right through to the core and we are not often tested so deeply.
Do you think you’re a better person off the back of the experience?
I talk about Kintsugi, which is the Japanese art of mending a broken vase etc with gold. The mended piece is considered more valuable and more beautiful than the original. The more cracks that have been mended, the more precious the piece.
I think the analogy works for us and the experiences we go through. I certainly have a deeper empathy with many forms of trauma and distress. I don’t think I would even have been led to create the suite of analysis tools that I have if I had not been in the tsunami, so I hope the answer is yes.
What is human magnificence?
Human magnificence is what happens when we truly collaborate. To say that we can create something bigger than the sum of its parts, sound a bit glib. In my talks I use the example of a 4 part harmony group creating an overtone, which is in essence a fifth note created by the amalgamation of their voices, but which no one is actually singing. It’s quite remarkable and makes my point.
If we bring our all, and put it together, our collaborative efforts know no limits.
We are rarely tested but imagine that we were attacked by aliens right now and I bet you that we would see a mass collaboration across the planet. We would come together as one race, the human race. We wouldn’t be arguing about politics, pettiness and pounds.
I felt this when running our charity in the aftermath of the tsunami. We raised £8.6 billion as a collective… (£100,000 from the Hikkaduwa Village Fund.) and I felt like there was a vibration across the planet, a collective compassion that was beautiful. We feel that in little bursts from time to time, when people come together, do something extraordinary and that is the epitome of humanity.
What advice would you give to someone so that they make the most of life?
Find out what lies at the core of you… Your essence… your core values. When you know that, then live your life feeding and nurturing that. Then you will be in flow with who you are meant to be. You will find your purpose in life and nothing can be more fulfilling than that.
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