Interview with South African Native, Cath Duncan

Cath Duncan of Agile Living and The Bottom Line Book ClubHere is a fantastic opportunity to help out with a great cause, enter a raffle to win some amazing personal and business development resources and get 17 author interviews just for promoting the cause on Twitter or Facebook. Before you continue reading, please take a moment to visit this Kidney Raffle Page and help spread the news.

This interview is with a friend I originally connected with online and then had the the opportunity to meet in my home city of Calgary, Canada. Cath Duncan and her husband are South African natives who have decided to call Calgary home after some work re-locations around the world. Cath has generously given hundreds of hours of her time to raise money for Kidney research. She tells her story and offers some great personal development advice in this interview.

Please tell us a little about your yourself.

I grew up in Cape Town, South Africa. Since 2002, my husband Andy and I have moved between London UK, Philadelphia USA, Cape Town SA and Calgary Canada since 2002. We’ve moved a lot because we both love change and variety, and living in different parts of the world is a great way to travel because you can continue working and building your career while you travel, and you’re a part of a the community rather than just experiencing the obvious tourist attractions.

My husband is a software development consultant so it’s been fairly easy for him to get contractual work in the UK, South Africa and Canada, and he now works for a very progressive global consultancy that keeps him stimulated with dynamic projects. I started out in Child Protection Social Work and moved into self-employment in a variety of different training, coaching and counseling roles in 2005. At the end of 2008, I took my business online and since then I’ve focused on creating online personal development resources to help people take action on the best ideas in the best personal development books (at and offering life and career coaching consults via Skype (at

What is South Africa like?

It’s often only through visiting other places that you’re able to see what makes the place you were born in unique. South Africa’s uniqueness is in it’s rich diversity and multi-dimensionality. It’s a bridge between developed countries and undeveloped countries because South Africa is such a wonderful mix of first and third world.

Of course, if you’re living and working in South Africa, this creates incredibly complex and interesting problems to solve, because we have both the worst of the developed world’s problems (like lifestyle diseases such as obesity, heart disease, kidney disease, and extreme opulence, selfishness and greed) and also the worst of the undeveloped world’s problems (like lack of housing and sanitation, unemployment, illiteracy, HIV/AIDS and so on). When you consider this, together with the 50 years of Apartheid and separate development that took place in our recent history, it’s easy to see how racism and crime has thrived in some pockets of South Africa.

But this diversity and multi-dimensionality also makes for incredibly interesting solutions, inventions, art and design, music, storytelling, community development projects and unexpected surprises. You can go to a remote, rural place like Bulungula, on the East coast of South Africa, and find pristine, beautiful beaches (in spite of the high population and poverty rates in the area) and great 3G internet connection (in spite of the fact that 70% of the people living there are unemployed, literacy rates are high and there’s very little income). They’re doing amazing things to bring together the best of first and third world at Bulungula. Beyond the eco-friendly lodge, they’ve helped the community start a number of 100% community-owned and run businesses including agricultural ventures, horse riding, canoeing, fishing, guiding, baking, sewing, cooking, wood-carving, environmental protection projects, massage services and a restaurant. My favourite was the bicycle powered blender at the lodge, where you can have a morning cycle and make your breakfast smoothie at the same time! They’ve helped the community to form a non-profit called the Bulungula Incubator, which has rehabilitated a local primary school, built and run our world class Early Learning Centre, embarked on a number of ambitious agricultural projects, implemented various clean drinking water initiatives and lots, lots more.

You’ll also find party experiences in South Africa that you just wouldn’t find anywhere else – like Mzoli’s butchery. Yes, in Cape Town, one of the most popular party spots is a butchery in the middle of a large shanty town called Gugulethu. They only sell meat and samp (a porridge-like substance made of corn). You buy your meat raw and they cook it for you over an open fire – if you want to be fancy and have salads, utensils, drinks and so on, then you bring your own! The place rocks all day – great party music, people come dressed in everything from their dirty overalls to their suit and shiniest bling, and we party together out on a dusty street sidewalk. You’ll mix with students, politicians, high-powered entrepreneurs, artists, tourists, unemployed drunks and more. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere that’s so “come-as-you-are” with so much mixing across different personal income statuses, skin colors, religions, ages, sexual preferences and so on.

So there are the pockets of high crime and awful racism in South Africa, but there are also these examples of diversity, love of difference, ground-breaking platforms for speaking of the truth, homegrown creativity, humor, technological innovation, new music genres and a willingness to innovate and just “get the job done” rather than faffing with bureaucratic rules and restrictions.

How did you end up in Calgary?

Our moves have usually been determined by 2 questions: is there stimulating work for us? And would we be exposed to different experiences? Andy got the opportunity to work for a great company and, being from South Africa, snow is a novelty to us, so we thought, “Hey, let’s go live in a very snowy place for a while…”

Was it easy for your husband to get the visa to work here?

When we came over to Canada in Feb 2010, there were specialist IT work permits that were easy to get, and he already had the job offer, which made it easier. In October last year Canadian immigration dropped this specialist IT work permit, so it’s now more difficult to get a work permit. South Africans generally have a tougher time getting permission to live and work in other countries than Canadians, Americans and Europeans do, but governments open and close their borders in reaction to economic changes so the visa opportunities change every few years. If you’re not self-employed, your best chance of being able to work in other countries rests on being a young degreed professional in a growing industry.

What do you think of Calgary?

For us the most important factor in determining whether we feel “at home” in a new city is the friendships we form. In Calgary we fairly quickly and easily found a few really excellent folks and formed strong friendships with them. We’re very proactive about seeking out and nurturing new friendships, but we also liked that many Calgarians seem to be quick to invite you into their homes for dinner (as opposed to meeting in pubs and restaurants like folks tend to do in London). I think this helps develop the intimacy and sense of community more quickly.

We also love the Rockies and often head out into the mountains. We’ve enjoyed the snow – it still amazes me how beautiful it is, and we’ve been enjoying snow-shoeing, snow-boarding, curling, and Andy’s joined a hockey team.

I do miss the diversity, multi-dimensionality and dynamism of South Africa and London though. In comparison, Calgary is fairly one-dimensional in terms of art, culture, work, design, architecture, lifestyle and food choices. I’ve also been surprised (and frustrated!) by the endless bureaucracy that has to be negotiated whenever we want to do anything in Canada. Getting anything done is slow because of the 6 to 12 month bureaucratic run-up that has to take place before you have the necessary permissions to test out new experiences. And chatting with a lot of our friends here who are new to Calgary, it seems difficult to first break into the Calgarian job market – Calgarian employers seem to strongly prefer people with Calgarian experience.

What is the Kidney Raffle that you are working on?

We’re running an online raffle from 7 till 9 June. Seth Godin, Martha Beck, Pam Slim, Danielle LaPorte, Adam Baker and 40 other top authors, coaches and teachers (including you – thanks, John!) have donated an array of personal and business development prizes totalling over $12K for raffle participants to stand a chance to win. It’s a “donate-what-you-wish-when-you-enter” raffle because we wanted to open it to anyone anywhere in the world, with any budget. We’ve set a goal to raise $45K for kidney research through the raffle.

Can you please tell us about your baby and personal health problems that lead up to the Kidney Raffle?

I have an hereditary kidney condition and last year while I was pregnant my kidney health deteriorated significantly, placing both my life and our daughter’s life at risk. We endured a lot of really difficult conversations with doctors who urged us to consider whether it was wise to continue the pregnancy, considering the risks. We were already in love with and totally changed by our daughter, so ending her life was just not an option for us. When we discovered these concerns for her and my well-being, the “Juggernaut” nickname we’d given her stuck, as we and all our friends and family hoped that she’d prove to be “an unstoppable force.”

But at around 5 months gestation, we discovered that her heart was no longer beating. I’ve written about the day we delivered, met and said goodbye to Juggernaut – both the best and worst day of our lives. Juggernaut was our first child and because of the risks involved in another pregnancy, we won’t try to get pregnant again, so it’s been a tough series of losses to deal with altogether – my health, our precious daughter, the chance to ever birth a child naturally.

How has all this changed you and your husband?

We’ve been changed in so many ways by the weird mix of the miracle of becoming parents and the trauma of being faced with our own mortality and the reality and mystery of death. I’ve actually had a personality change reflected in my Myers-Briggs profile. I used to be an INTJ and now I’m an INFJ, so I’ve shifted from making sense of the world and making decisions by way of rationality to relying more on emotional intelligence instead. That makes sense – I think both birth and death are so mysterious that it’s impossible to fully understand them and the experiences we had last year were impossible to manage or control with rationalism, so we were forced to learn to make decisions with our hearts.

Also, loving and losing Juggernaut opened up emotional worlds I had never experienced before and I seem to have a more intense emotional reaction to life these days. I’ve been surprised to find that, although I still sometimes experience deeper sadness than I ever though possible, I also often feel more peace, awe at simple things in life, and a greater capacity for compassion and love than I ever thought possible.

I think being faced with death and the heart-opening experience of growing and loving a child has made us realize the preciousness of life in a way that we didn’t feel before. And because of that, we’re much clearer about what’s important to us and much less willing to compromise on our values or be something that other people want us to be. Health, emotional wellness, community and contribution are our clear top priorities and we’re doing a much better job of living those priorities these days. The Kidney Raffle project has affirmed these priorities – the sense of community and contribution has been incredibly healing for me and I’m hearing from many folks who’ve been involved that it’s been really healing and helpful for them too.

Are traumatic events like this necessary to get people to focus on what is important in their lives?

Good question. There is a prevailing view in the personal development world that all traumatic events are actually “gifts” sent to you to help you be more of the person you’re meant to be. That perspective jars with me. As a Social Worker, and as a South African, I’ve lived and worked with many people who experienced trauma that did not make their lives better or help them to be more of the person they wanted to be – it broke them and made them mentally ill or awfully cruel instead.

I think what trauma does is it completely breaks our prevailing belief system – that’s part of what makes it so painful and shocking. At that point, there’s enormous potential as we begin to adapt and learn a new belief system, and we’re really at a fork in the road where we can let the breaking down of our old selves open our hearts more in love, or close our hearts more in fear. Through a lot of hard work and soul-searching, we can turn the trauma into treasure and learn a new belief system that’s much healthier and supports much more authentic future choices. But I don’t think that’s automatic.

The trauma itself is not the gift. The gifts are the resilience of the human spirit to be able to create treasure out of the bits of trauma, and the community that surrounds that person and supports them to do so.

As a life coach, what do you see as the biggest barriers holding people back from pursuing their dreams?

I’m a big fan of Brene Brown’s research and model for living a meaningful life. She says that the biggest thing that gets in the way of us pursuing our dreams and being the person we want to be is shame. I used to think it was just generally fear that got in the way, but I think she’s right in that all our fears essentially stem from two major fears: fear or failure and fear of rejection. And perhaps it’s really just one fear – the fear of rejection, because we fear failure only because we believe failure will mean we’re not good enough and we’ll be rejected by others.

Shame is both a social and individual dynamic – we shame each other and we shame ourselves, and the pain of feeling that shame demotivates us and disconnects us from our resourcefulness, creativity and confidence, and then we don’t pursue our dreams or be the person we want to be.

We’re held back by shame and to become more of the people we want to be and pursue our dreams, we need to develop what Brene calls “shame resilience,” where we build a lifestyle and daily habits that make us more able to protect ourselves from being shamed by ourselves and others. Building compassionate communities around us is a big part of building shame resilience – you can’t build shame resilience in isolation, because shame is partly a social dynamic.

What can readers do to support the Kidney Raffle?

Thanks for asking, John! There are 2 ways you can be a part of Kidney Raffle and make your contribution to the community:

  1. 1. Join us from 7 to 9 June at Kidney Raffle and make a donation when you enter the raffle to stand a chance to win one of the awesome prize bundles.
  2. 2. Help us spread the word about Kidney Raffle so that more people will contribute and we can reach our goal of $45K for kidney research. You can do that by joining our Facebook page and if you help to share about Kidney Raffle on Facebook or Twitter, we’d like to thank you with a gift of 17 inspiring and info-packed author interviews from my Bottom-line Book Club.

Kidney Raffle – Make a donation to win some fantastic prizes.
Kidney Raffle Facebook page – Fantastic author interviews with Cath Duncan’s coaching tips and summaries. – Cath’s private coaching blog.
Cath Duncan on Twitter

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My name is John Bardos. My wife and I gave up our business, house and possessions in Japan to search for more meaning and fulfillment in our lives. We've discovered that a satisfying life is about rich experiences, quality relationships and meaningful contribution, NOT consumption.

5 Responses to Interview with South African Native, Cath Duncan

  1. Jannell says:

    Wow! Cath, . . . amazing intimate interview. I completely agree with your perspective about trauma and found myself nodding a lot. Thank you for the detail about South Africa; Mzoli’s Butchery sounds like a fun experience. Good luck on reaching your Kidney Raffle goal – I’m going to check out the site now.

  2. Avraham Manchester says:

    I have a hunch that if media specially movies would not bombard us so much with the idea that we must make money and be rich, there would be lots more people asking that question, is there stimulating work for us? btw, perhaps if there was not a kidney problem, she may have turned out like everyone else. great post, as usual.

    • John says:

      Thanks for the comment. Cath was pretty grounded to begin with, so I don’t know if she would have ‘turned out like everyone else’ but there is no denying that tragedies affect our lives.

      My impetus to give up my old life was definitely affected by several deaths in the family and the wake up call that life is damn short.

  3. Amika says:

    Great interview! It was really interesting to learn more about South Africa from someone that is from there, and the raffle sounds like a great cause, too.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    What a candid interview and a wonderful cause. I’d read Cath Duncan’s writing before, but your interview really gives a glimpse of her stories too.

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