In 2010, I was feeling stuck at my job and thinking about making a big career change. I was the marketing manager at a small business in the urban forestry field. I loved the people I worked with and enjoyed some of my responsibilities, but not as many as I wanted, and I was concerned that I wasn’t very passionate about urban forestry. But I was having a deeply fulfilling experience doing something else: For two years I’d been volunteering in my free time with an animal welfare non-profit, and I considered pursuing a full-time, paying job in the field. A big change was exciting to contemplate, but it was accompanied by concerns that I would end up utterly consumed by the work, emotionally fatigued, and not earning enough to make a living. I decided that I wanted to see a life coach for guidance.
My brother and dad had both seen a life coach named David whom they loved. They cautioned that he was eccentric, but great. He required two two-hour sessions ($300 each), but beyond that, any contact with him was completely up to you. Expect to talk about everything in your life with him, they told me. Both of them confessed to occasionally becoming very emotional, even tearful, during sessions. I sympathized, but wasn’t concerned that this would be an issue for me (foreshadowing!).
In preparation for our session, David mailed me a thick sheaf of photocopied papers with chapter excerpts to read, several types of personality evaluations, a bibliography of resources for future reading, and a four-page list of exercises to complete. Each exercise contained questions and prompts in three categories: career, personal, and financial. Examples included times when I didn’t keep my word, times when others didn’t keep their word, successes, incidents about which I was still angry or embarrassed, things I spend energy keeping secret about myself, and things for which I needed to forgive myself or others. I had to list five unreasonable requests I could make of people (that was a really interesting one). Many of the prompts were intensely personal, and sometimes difficult to answer honestly.
David and I met a few weeks later, in April, in his apartment on the 34th floor of a Manhattan high rise. It was an unseasonably hot day, and sunny, but the apartment was dark and cool inside. We sat opposite from each other, in wingback chairs, with a coffee table and an ominous box of tissues between us. He reviewed a few of exercises I’d done out loud, but mostly we just talked—about my family, my relationship, my job, and my finances. It was a lot like an accelerated therapy session, except far more confronting. His coaching philosophy was based on what he called the “Five Tenets of Freedom”:
1) Be committed to your freedom more than anything else in your life.
2) Be willing to uncover—unconceal—wherever you are operating as a victim:
– Are you feeling victimized by someone or something else?
– Are you living your life out of some entitlement or being owed?
– Are you looking to be rescued or saved?
– Are you blaming someone else?
3) Face everything. Avoid nothing. What are you not facing or avoiding?
4) Don’t take life personally. It’s just part of the human condition.
5) Your freedom lies in your ability to connect to the whole—see yourself in every other person—rather than keeping yourself separate.
David’s coaching style, which was confrontational without being mean, reflected his deep belief in these tenets. He wasn’t interested in distractions, pleasantries, or small talk. He wanted to get down to business. As we started to talk about the career transition I was considering, the conversation got more difficult. We talked about my childhood passions—animals and writing—both of which have stayed with me into adulthood. David’s feeling was that I needed to examine those interests more carefully and reorient myself to make them more a part of my daily tasks and responsibilities at whatever job I was in.
“So… why do you love animals?” he asked me. He seemed genuinely perplexed. I didn’t know how to respond other than, “I don’t know, I just always have.” This was not sufficient. He pushed me to explain it further, something no one else had ever done. When I couldn’t, he didn’t back down. I remember his exact words. He said, “I’m not sure I buy it, that you just love animals. What is that really about?” I was flummoxed, and also a little angry, and that’s when I started to cry.
The tears were mostly out of frustration. I was embarrassed that I didn’t have a better answer to something I had spent years of my life thinking about and that felt so essential to who I am. I also couldn’t believe that he didn’t seem to accept or believe my first answer. Did the why really matter? David impassively let me cry and be frustrated. It took me a few moments to realize that I couldn’t end the conversation or walk away, that the only way to make the feeling I was having go away was to confront the possible explanations. I do feel an innate connection to animals, yes. But there was something else at play as well. In talking it through with David, I eventually realized that working with animals is one way I connect to a sense of vulnerability about myself and the world. My desire to help animals comes, in part, from wanting to protect that and to bring consciousness to a cause that’s important to me, to have people become more awake to it.
David suggested that there were areas where I could bring these interests more strongly to my work or the outside projects I did. He commented that he felt there were parts of my personality, things that I said were important to my day to day sense of wellbeing, that might make working in an animal welfare organization difficult. He also observed something unexpected, which is that there were elements of my day job that actually fit very closely to the day-to-day tasks I said that I liked. I began to think about ways to tweak and shift the responsibilities at my job to focus more in two particular areas: the writing and creative projects that I enjoy the most, and becoming more of an expert in trees and the urban forest (which was what most attracted me to my company in the first place). He didn’t encourage me to stay or to go, he simply helped me to isolate the essential issues and gave me some questions to think about.
I decided to stay at my job for the time being and see if I could create more space and excitement around the parts of it that I liked the most. One of the biggest changes I made was to approach my boss about starting a blog for our business, where I could write about trees, soil, urban design, and green infrastructure. I committed to writing and updating the blog three times a week. I asked other people to write for the blog, too, so that I could do more editing work, and wrote opinion pieces for other sites. I studied to become a certified arborist. These changes looked small, especially from the outside and especially at first, but each small thing developed into more responsibilities of my own design that I enjoyed and that stretched my role within the company. As my boss saw the value of the blog, it reinforced its importance to our business rather than being just a pet project of mine. That was over three years ago, and I am happier at my job now than I have ever been. I still do volunteer work in animal welfare in my spare time, which makes me very happy because it’s important to me. But it doesn’t consume my sense of self.
Not all coaches are created equal. A big part of a successful coaching relationship comes down to personal chemistry and to your own willingness to participate. Find someone who can deliver not just thoughtful advice, but thoughtful advice that you can hear. David’s “Five Tenets of Freedom” philosophy was a good fit for me. He managed to be encouraging and incredibly helpful without being a cheerleader. There were no pep talks or affirmations of my worth and value as an individual. He was direct and specific and demanding, and always respectful. He wasn’t satisfied with easy answers, and didn’t want me to be satisfied with them, either. While this was confronting and difficult at times, I ended up really appreciating it about him. I think of myself as an introspective and reflective person, but David forced me to examine my own interests and motivations with an honesty and rigor that I hadn’t before. He didn’t provide definitive answers about what I should do. He helped me figure out the questions I should be asking myself.
This post originally appeared on The Billfold. Image: Christina’s World, by Andrew Wyeth (1948)