Liberty Tillemann-Dick, 27
Lives: Denver, Colorado
Nominated by: Paige Crosland Anderson
Interviews like this remind me why Friday Best exists.
Liberty Tilleman-Dick is the middle child in a family of thirteen, all eleven children were homeschooled before going on attend Yale, John Hopkins, Cambridge and the like. She describes herself as Jewish though she was raised as a Mormon before leaving the church in her teens. Her incredible family includes a grandfather who was the only Holocaust survivor to serve in the U.S. Congress as well as a multitude of eccentric, creative, genius others that you can read about here. She has worked with Pulitzer prize winner Daniel Yergin and (as a spin-off from that) alongside Bill Gates and more recently married her best friend Premal, who joined his own large Indian family to hers.
She believes in being happy NOW, not constantly working towards it. She is brilliant.
Check out the blog she writes with her sisters here.
How do you answer when people say to you, What do you do?
I have a small boutique consultancy that I run with my sisters. We specialise in curated consulting dialogues—which can sound like corporate mumbo jumbo! [Laughs] We’re good communicators in our family, and we put that skill to work for our clients, distilling big ideas into more consumable products.
Right now, we have a big contract doing policy work for a major pharmaceutical company. We also do some work in the energy industry and academia. Basically boiling down big ideas to a fourth grade level. It helps our clients spread their messages while simultaneously allowing the general public to process and own the information they’re receiving.
Is your background in pharmaceutical or energy or is it just incidental that you are working in those areas now?
My background, as far as what I studied, was the history of science, medicine and technology. It was a slightly random specialty, but I just loved it in university. It was the more personal side of all of these big innovations we take for granted. There are the major infrastructure pieces like bridges and other engineering marvels, and I got to learn about the people who designed and built them. Or the scientists who worked tirelessly researching, say, genetics. It was sobering to learn about the advances in understanding and treatments they made, but I also got to see folks like James Watson and Francis Crick (discoverers of the structure of DNA), as real people, with real flaws. I found it all very refreshing!
I think that people want to be happy now, not in the distant future.
I planned to go into public health as a way to reach the masses. I got a job right out of university with the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington D.C., and I thought it was my dream job. But, I wasn’t as fulfilled in that position as I would have expected. Now, it’s not that I have any specific specialty within pharma or energy, but I know that I’m really good at what I do, and that’s fulfilling.
It’s interesting that you say that you had thought you’d found your dream job but it didn’t turn out that way. A lot of the women we speak to have a similar story: they thought they wanted to go one way then they found themselves going another way. Where do you think this notion of the ‘dream job’ comes from?
I don’t know…I’m impressed by the people who have that vision and stick-to-itiveness to hold to something and follow through with it, but only so far as it actually brings them personal fulfilment. I have a lot of friends from college who went on to be bankers, because that was going to make them money. They thought that was the most important thing—that money equaled comfort. I know a couple, one of them was in banking, the other was an engineer, and it was the responsible, right thing for them to do. They did it for three years and were like, ‘This is terrible. We are not happy. We love each other but this is not the life we want to live.’ So they cut and ran and moved to Costa Rica where they just started managing other people’s hostels. They’re so much happier now.
I think that people want to be happy now, not in the distant future. You need enough money to not worry about making rent or putting food on the table, but you also have to find personal fulfilment.
Tell me a little about your family and your sisters. You had quite an unconventional upbringing, you were home schooled and you are the middle child of eleven!
Oh, my family. They’re a handful! We were raised by what people often assume were hippies, but really my parents were extreme counter-culturists. They met at an Ivy League School in the seventies when all their classmates were about free love and drugs, sex and alcohol. They went from being thoroughly agnostic youth to joining the Mormon church, which was kind of a big thing. We were raised very Orthodox within the Mormon Church, but, true to my vivacious mother’s M.O., without a lot of the conventions that are encouraged within Mormonism. It’s a very conservative culture, but we were politically Liberal—and I still am. We were also very civically involved.
There was a lot of camaraderie but also healthy competition. I don’t know, it’s hard to crunch all that my family is or was and has been down into a succinct package. They always have, and I assume always will, defy every logical expectation of them. But, they’re fantastic. I also have a wonderful husband. He is my very favourite person. That said, aside from him, I really was born into the best club in the entire world. I just can’t say enough nice things about my siblings.
I believe you have some Jewish background also? And that your grandfather, originally from Hungary, was actually a Holocaust survivor who went on to serve in the US Congress?
Yes, my maternal grandparents are Holocaust survivors. My grandfather was the first and only Holocaust survivor to serve in the US Congress. His name is Tom Lantos, and he served for twenty-eight years. He was the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Congress when he passed away in 2008. He and my grandmother, Annette, are the true embodiment of the American dream. They were from Budapest in Hungary and my grandfather came from a family of intellectuals. My grandmother came from a very well to do family of jewel merchants—her first cousins are actually the Gabor sisters.
They had what you could kind of call an arranged marriage from a very young age. My great grandmother met my grandfather—who was a very precocious little seven-year old—at her jewelry store. He came in (either by himself, or with an uncle or something), to buy a brooch or trinket for his mother for her birthday. My great grandmother overheard this hilarious conversation taking place from the back room where she was, and she came out and sort of took over from the clerk. She fell in love with this delicious little blonde, blue-eyed boy who was very aggressive in what he wanted and what his expectations were, all the while not having nearly enough money to buy what he knew was an appropriate and worthwhile gift for his beloved mother.
So, my great grandmother sent him home with something that was probably way more expensive than what he could afford. Meanwhile, my other great grandmother was no dummy, and demanded an explanation for the lavish gift. This led to a return trip to the jewellery store, where these two matriarchs struck up a friendship and introduced their children: Tommy to Annette, and they were inseparable until the war broke out.
Then, my grandfather’s mother was taken to Auschwitz where she was killed and my grandmother spent most of the war in Switzerland, but was separated from her family. Her mother was in hiding elsewhere, her father was killed in the streets of Budapest, and her grandparents—who she was very close to—were also killed. For his part, my grandfather spent a significant portion of the war as a prisoner in a forced labour camp. He was engaged in rebuilding a bridge that on an important supply route that kept getting bombed out. The allies would come and bomb it, and the Arrow Cross (the Hungarian Nazi party) weren’t going to waste their own forces doing the hazardous job of keeping it running, so he was there rebuilding this bridge as it was continually bombed by the people trying to liberate him.
We were taught to take pride, and never be ashamed of who we are. And we were taught that humanity is a frail thing.
He escaped a number of times from that camp. The third time (I think), he escaped; he made it to a safe house run by this Swedish diplomat, Raul Wallenberg. My grandfather was Jewish, but he was very fair. He was a tall, super blonde, blue-eyed guy who just does not fit your general Semitic stereotype. So he worked then bringing in food and medicine to the safe house. Most of the residents would have been too conspicuous if they ventured out onto the streets, but he would put on a Nazi uniform and go out to bring back supplies. At the end of the war he was reunited with my grandmother, and soon after he got a scholarship to come study in the States.
How is that story part of your own now? What is the legacy left behind by your grandparents?
My grandparents and mother wanted us to have a deep love of Hungary and a true appreciation of where we came from and who we are. The embrace of their history came a bit later in my mother’s life. It was, as you might imagine, an extremely traumatic experience. Especially because it’s not like either of their families were particularly observant in their Judaism back in Hungary. They were, and are, Jews. I am a Jew. And we are very proud of it. But, it wasn’t something that they brandished. It wasn’t even a main definer of who they saw themselves as. My grandmother would put up a Christmas tree and throw open the window to welcome the Christ child—as was custom then—at the same time, they would light a menorah.
So my mother was not raised with any religion. In freshman year of college she went through a crisis of faith, as one does, where she just wanted to find a philosophy that she could tie herself to. She looked into a lot of different faith traditions (everything from Judaism to Transcendental Meditation) before she became a Mormon. So we were raised very devout Mormons, but I will say that there was an added emphasis on the pieces of the faith that aligned with Judaism.
There was a lot of reverence for that piece of our past. When we were planning a big family trip to Europe, it was very important that we went to Auschwitz to see where my great grandmother spent her last days. We were taught to take pride, and never be ashamed of who we are. And we were taught that humanity is a frail thing, and it is all too easy to surrender to the abhorrent, base nature that allows people to target others for what they are rather than by their actions or what they contributed.
So, it was the major part of my upbringing and continues to be, maybe even more so. In college, I actually left the Mormon faith, and though now I don’t particularly identity as anything, if I am forced to answer the questions ‘What are you?’ I say that I’m Jewish. I am genetically Jewish. I am one half Ashkenazi Jew. There is nothing I can say or do about that. And I’m proud of the tradition of those stories and the heritage of these people who are my people and their gumption to get through the crap that it’s been slung at them, this population, for literally thousands of years.
Your husband was born in India. That’s another culture to throw into the mix. Another tradition to honour at home I imagine? Tell me more about your husband.
He’s the best. I feel very lucky. For a girl who grew up Mormon in Middle America to find such a perfect match and companion in a boy who grew up in massive city in India is kind of extraordinary.
He has a lot of aunts and uncles and cousins, and they are real family unit. So he’s used to having people who are just interested and a bit meddlesome—but all in good fun and with good intentions. So integrating into my family—which tends to be a really daunting task for many people, just because there is a lot going on and we are not, any of us, shrinking violets—was very easy for him. He just slipped in and it felt like he had always been there.
Oh, definitely, I am the middle-est of middle children. I don’t mind it so much though, because a lot of the stereotypic, slightly negative middle child attributes I think are places where I really shine.
On the other side, the beginning was a little bit rough. He has cousins who have arranged marriages, and that was kind of what they thought was going to happen for him. No one else had ever married outside of their very specific culture, so I think the idea of someone who was very “other” entering the family was intimidating for them. But since we’ve been married it has been really lovely. His mother is such a sweet, loving person. Every moment I spend with her, it is just so clear where my husband’s best attributes come from. She is extremely smart, and has an incredible can-do attitude. The first time I met her, she sort of offhandedly told me the story of his birth. She is a dentist and went into labour at work. Her water broke, and she went to the doctor who told her nothing would happen for another couple of hours, so she went and put in five fillings, made dinner for 25 relatives who were visiting from America, set everyone up with ice cream and a movie, and then went back to have a baby. She was 23 years old.
Going back to your own family for a second, I wanted to ask what it was like growing up as the middle child in such a large family? Do you identify as a middle child? Is that part of who you are?
Oh, definitely, I am the middle-est of middle children. I don’t mind it so much though, because a lot of the stereotypic, slightly negative middle child attributes I think are places where I really shine. I am really good at supporting people. I don’t love being the centre of attention. I like making other people happy. I find those things rewarding.
So while I definitely have had mopey times, I wouldn’t change it. The bright side of it is I am really close to all of my siblings. There’s an eighteen-year age gap between my oldest brother and my youngest brother, so the two of them, they don’t have much that they can relate to. There’s a generation of difference there! Whereas I’m dead center, so there’s not that far to go on either side for me. Because of that, I have shared experiences of growing up, becoming who I am today and who I want to be with each and every one of my siblings. And that’s really neat.
That’s a great way to look at it. I hadn’t thought of that. Age can make a huge difference.
And if you had the opportunity to give any advice to your younger self, perhaps to that self that left the Mormon Church, what would you say to help her through those years or to prepare her for what’s coming?
You know it’s so hard because I was very lost as a seventeen year old. I felt often times very alone and this piece of myself, which was my faith, had been so massive, it had, in many ways been my everything. Feeling it slip away from me was very traumatic. It was traumatic for me, and also for my family. And yet, it was an extremely important part of my evolution over all. I guess if I had to talk to me back then, I would say to be gentler in my processes. I was moving in the right direction but there’s no reason to be as harsh and emotionally violent as I tended to be. So often my heart was in the right place, but I wasn’t as sensitive to others in those moments. So, I guess to be gentler overall and to realise that there is this strength from sympathy and empathy and if you can master that, and hone that skill, it’s extraordinarily powerful.
That’s good advice. And lastly, what do you think that we should be talking more about?
If I had to say something that needs to be held up and championed more, it would be the value of tenacity.
When I was studying the history of technology, I realised that so many of these people who we now praise as brilliant innovators, they screwed up a lot before the solution was found. I believe in the tenacity of the human race. Today, more than ever, we have this massive population paired with these massive, daunting problems. But that means we’ve never had so much brainpower to throw at a problem. Maybe, yes, the difficulties have never been this big before, but we’ve never had this body of intelligence to solve it before either. I think that it’s important and worthwhile to highlight the issues that we’re facing, but I think that it’s also really important that we don’t get downtrodden by the bleak potential that could be in front of us. Instead we need to use that to fuel our own creativity and to fix things.
I think that’s my favourite answer to that question so far. I’ve never thought about it that way but you’re right there’s so much potential to solve so many problems but it involves people coming together and working on it. That’s perfect note to end on.
Things I Love
Walk and Talks (Especially with my husband Premal)
Be they genetic or gathered, the experience of true belonging and ownership over a people is, to me, the quickest way to quiet a mind and nourish the soul.