What do garden gnomes and swimming pools have in common?


On Instagram Stories I recently received a question that made me think about the work I do. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it really came down to garden gnomes and swimming pools—two things I love, and I’m not afraid to share. Seriously, do you know how many people tell me that they think of me or share something with me when they spot one of these two things in the wild or online? It’s more than you think!

My love of gnomes dates back to the film “Amélie” which came out the year I studied abroad in Paris. It instantly became one of my favorite films for many reasons, including for the gnome who traveled the world in order to encourage her father to get out and see the world for himself. A couple years later when I was teaching English in a French high school in a Paris suburb is when I got my first one. My aunt and cousin had come to visit and reignited my fascination with gnomes. On my way to visit their hotel, I passed a shop with the cutest ones in the window. I bought us all gnomes to go home with us. (Mine is pictured above).

As for swimming pools, I have my mom to thank for that. She was adamant that my brother and I learn to swim when we were quite young. Partially this was due to her own enjoyment in the pool, but I’m sure it was sparked by my dad’s lack of ability in the water (which wasn’t aided by an incident during summer camp as a kid). From an early age I was in swimming classes at the YMCA and making my way up the ranks of tadpole stages which the courses were named for.

Before you knew it this Pisces by birth was really a fish in the water. I lived for summer swim team, had a reasonable amount of success, and was regularly complimented about how smooth I was in the water.

Ok, Anne, we get it, but what does this have to do with business?
During my Masters thesis was when I started to swim more in Paris. I remember a distinct day where I was swimming laps and something I’d been stuck on finally made sense. As soon as I got home, I didn’t go straight to my computer as I normally would do, instead, writing out the ideas on index cards so I could move them around. I don’t remember exactly what the break through was, but I remember it being a turning point that got me excited to work on my thesis.

Swimming stuck with me after I graduated and would go on to start my business. The pool would be my refuge from stress, and water had a strange power to help connect things. I later got the idea in my head that I'd visit all 37 public swimming pools in Paris. It became a challenge and got me to see different sides of the city, and the quirky nature of municipal pools. Despite the fact photos are interdit (not allowed) I managed to sneak covert pics under my towel and share what I saw on Instagram with the hashtags #ParisPiscine (others have now infiltrated the hashtag) and #PAVswim (with pools beyond Paris too).

But this post isn’t about Paris or swimming pools, it’s about business. It’s about not being afraid to embrace who you are and celebrate your quirks. There’s no need to hyper curate what makes you who you are to be something you think people want. Fans of my work don’t follow me (or unfollow me) because of gnomes and swimming pools. Instead it gives them a look into who I am—a human—and I’ve given them a unique way to follow along my adventures.

The more we try to fit into the “formula” or status quo of what we think we’re supposed to be doing in our business, that’s when things start going wrong, and get to be not so fun. It’s these unexpected elements that help bring us, and our brand, alive. It makes us memorable and stand out from the competition. They don’t have to be front and center all the time, but they’re things we’re not afraid to embrace.

True story: I once brought my gnome to a big presentation I did on storytelling to a room full of Louis Vuitton employees. For me that was true success. Bringing my gnome to speak in front of a luxury group was never something I imagined. In fact, when I was first contacted about the gig, I was quite skeptical. Are you sure you want ME? I’m not luxury. But it turned out it wasn’t about luxury at all. It was about travel—also at the heart of their brand.

Believe it or not, they really did want my perspective. Not only did I get the job, I beat someone else out for it. I didn't take the traditional (boring?) route. I embraced what I do. And I also received one of the best compliments from a client when it was done: “Anne, you really listened.” I didn’t realize contractors can go in and do their thing without paying attention to the client needs and requests, but that comment made me realize it happens more than you think. My gnome knows how to listen and take it all in. The client was very happy, and so was I!

That was a few years ago. I can’t say I bring my gnome to all jobs (except my Amélie tour from time to time—we pause at the photo booth, bien sûr!—and if you look closely at my OpenClassrooms courses there’s often a little one who makes a cameo). As for swimming pools, they connected me to artist/illustrator Lisa Congdon. It not only led to me being featured in her book The Joy of Swimming (I contributed a page too about Paris pools), but it also led to a lovely friendship.

That’s the beauty of these quirky things that make me me. You never know what they may lead to. They’re always there, and I don’t always have to use them to make my point. There can be too much of a good thing. 😉 But I do know they’re in my back pocket if I ever need them. I embrace them as part of my story.

So what are your charms and quirks that have added unexpected value to your business or work you do? How have these things helped shape the view of how you see the world? Are they as silly as mine?

For more on my musings about swimming pools + French bureaucracy, check out my Underwater newsletter. You can sign up for my main newsletter here, or follow me on social media @pretavoyager. Find more about how to work with me—I take on quite the range of projects if you haven’t noticed!

Photo by Ashley Ludaescher. Shot on film.