Hey, what's with the Amelia Earhart fixation? It's a fair question. We've got Oprah and a zillion other cultural icons on tap, 24/7. Why bother with a quaint hero from a bygone era? Here's my super-condensed attempt to hit the highlights of why I believe Amelia Earhart is so cool and inspiring.
For starters, she’s dead. She’s not going to do something dumb that betrays our trust, like Lance Armstrong did with his doping. Second, she won't send us emails with tips on how to manifest our greatness, declutter our kitchen drawers or level up our game. As icons go, she's surprisingly relatable. She worried about bad hair days, wore pants to hide her shapeless legs and exhibited both workaholic and germaphobic tendencies.
Amelia is intriguing because she’s an antique, a classic like Grace Kelly. When we hang out with Amelia, we slow down and tune out our Twitter feed. We can step into a time machine and study her human-scale achievements. Her flaws and setbacks give us permission to beat ourselves up a little less. Heck, we may even sleep better at night.
Today, we can study the totality of her life achievements from a calming distance. No modern-day distractions need come between us and our discovery of Amelia. In an era of 24/7 bloggers and bloviators, Amelia stands out because she didn't just talk a big game. Every time she stepped into the cockpit, she put her life and ego on the line. She earned her fame. But she didn't always get it right. She botched landings, nose-dived into ditches and got hopelessly lost. She'd just powder her nose and smile for the photographers. This makes her, in my view, a badass mentor.
Amelia may have lived before the era of social media and TED Talks, but she was remarkably current in how she went about living her life. She marketed her own minimalist clothing line, promoted branded luggage and hugged babies on cross-country book tours. As an instructor at Purdue's engineering school, she urged women to pursue careers and delay marriage as long as possible. When people asked her why she didn't have children, she laughed and she said she preferred to stay "child free" so that she could focus on flying.
Her fame gave her a launch pad for promoting the cause she cared most about: equality and freedom for women and men. If a man wanted to bake cakes or a woman build engines, why not? Her views on gender equality were revolutionary in the 1930s.
Mental illness, alcoholism and possible out-of-wedlock pregnancy
I always imagined Amelia as having a sane and sensible Midwestern childhood. That's what she suggests in her books and her articles in Cosmopolitan magazine. But the reality clashes with this view. Her father was an alcoholic dreamer who couldn't provide for his family. Her mother was mentally ill, spending money like a royal even when the family could barely pay for food. For years, the Earhart family vagabonded from place to place, dodging creditors and trying desperately to keep up appearances. They lived in big houses they couldn't afford to heat.
The family's nomadic existence made Amelia's teenage years particularly isolating. Her high-school yearbook tags her as the "girl in brown who walks alone." As a young adult, she dropped in and out of colleges and never graduated. One rarely published photo shows her in a nurse's aid uniform, looking wary and several months pregnant. Biographers are mum on the topic of a possible out-of-wedlock pregnancy. We'll never know the truth.
A late bloomer motivated to make a name for herself
Amelia was 23 when she discovered her love for flying at a local airshow. Most women her age were already married and having kids. She was still finding her way, apparently unconcerned by her lack of direction. She had scraped together pocket change for the thrill of a short flight over the hills of Los Angeles. The feeling of weightlessness exhilarated her. Where others saw risk and financial ruin (it was extremely expensive to fly), she latched onto aviation as the way to make a name for herself. And make good money. Money was always a driving motivation for Amelia. Her desire for financial independence would serve her well as an entrepreneur and builder of a lucrative brand franchise. But it took years before she converted her passion for flying into a viable career. To make ends meet, she drove trucks, dabbled as a photographer and did menial tasks in the back office of the phone company. She just kept zigzagging along.
Intensely private, gritty, receptive to feedback
Amelia gives us hope because of how much and how long she struggled. She was a 31-year-old social worker, a "spinster," when she soared to international fame as the first woman to fly the Atlantic. Grit, not raw talent, got her there. One day she was a nobody, and the next the French press ran zinger headlines like "American aviatrix flew the Atlantic, but can she bake a cake?" As an introvert and intensely private person, Amelia handled her overnight fame with seeming ease. In fact, she got copious coaching from her business manager, George Putnam. She was a receptive student. Before the cross-Atlantic flight, she rehearsed how to present herself, tell her story and promote women's roles in early aviation. She was humble enough to realize she didn't have all the answers.
Master of the soundbite
Hers was a tricky story to tell, so she mastered the soundbites that would play well to an international audience. On that perilous cross-Atlantic flight, she did nothing but sit at the back of the plane like a "sack of potatoes." Those were the exact words she kept repeating, over and over. The more she tried to deflect attention to the pilots who did the actual flying, the more people loved her. From a storytelling standpoint, her modesty and truth-telling were absolute genius. Her fame spread like a prairie fire.
Enough with the celebrity worship
In these times of idealizing our celebrities, we may downplay our own achievements and convince ourselves our lives are a boring version of the story of the truly great. Not so fast, Amelia tells us. Don’t let the icons get you down. Expressing our stories, genuinely and gracefully, is one of the most important gifts we can give each other. But we need to honor that story. When we master the stories we tell, we can change our destiny. In the next blog, we'll explore the secrets of how Amelia developed her storytelling skills and did just that.