Client Interview: David
As the Vice President of Institutional Advancement & Enrollment at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, David Worley is no stranger to responsibility and performance, nor to introspection and personal improvement. In fact, he spent many years pursuing those things. Ultimately, he arrived at a plateau, and then he came to me.
Following is an email interview I conducted with David, which provides a good illustration of the experience of executive and personal coaching with me from the client's perspective.
JIM: Hi David - Per our discussion earlier, I'm reaching out to get your thoughts on the process of professional and personal growth that you've undertaken in our work together. I've been coaching you for about a year so far, so I think your perspective is comprehensive and valuable, and it will be helpful in my connecting with and helping other professionals facing challenges.
So, I guess a good place to start is: What made you decide to start coaching? And what kept you from starting sooner . . . or waiting longer?
DAVID: I think my answer to both of these questions is one and the same: pain and living a life that was clearly unsustainable.
I am a person who is naturally reflective. In my 20s and 30s I spent a lot of time and expense on therapy, spiritual development, and education oriented towards helping me grow as a person. Despite all of that effort, I came to a place where I just couldn't go any further.
In retrospect I realize my problem was tied to two things I faced: 1) I already was as self aware as I was capable of being on my own and (honestly) I found that therapy wasn't helping me unearth any significant new insights. 2) Even when I did catch a morsel of recognizing something new, I didn't have a way to act on this new realization that created lasting change and helped me move past my own challenges.
I had reached the figurative "bottom" of what I was capable of engaging on my own and I knew I needed a new kind of help that a therapist or my good friends couldn't provide.
In initially interacting with you I was blown away at your ability to identify things going on in me that others had overlooked and, more importantly, you were able to help me connect the dots with how these new insights were related to other elements that I had shared about my life and experience. You also have always helped me think about what a next step practice might be that would help me move past whatever blockage was impeding me. So, to say it more succinctly, your professional feedback was both uniquely insightful and actionable.
JIM: You're identifying a couple of things here that are critical to achieving all-new levels of functioning and well-being. One is the willingness to make effort to build the kind of life you want, rather than looking for quick fixes. The other comes before that: sufficient self-awareness in the first place to acknowledge that you were in pain, and an innate sense that a different kind of life was available to you, and that you were worthy of having it.
Many people either consciously or unconsciously bury their dissatisfaction with life in some way, or are aware of it, but resign themselves to it. They end up living within a pretty narrow band of human experience.
I think part of the problem is that many people don't think they are in pain unless they are feeling seriously depressed, anxious, or having trouble functioning. And, in fact, for many people reaching a crisis point is what opens their eyes to the potential for change and growth.
In your experience, though, are there more subtle ways of being in pain?
DAVID: That's a very good question and one that is difficult to articulate. I think your work in helping me focus on things that I deeply want has helped me see places where I am unsatisfied and thus experiencing the subtle form of pain you are referencing. Obviously, when the figurative shit-hits-the-fan almost everyone is aware there are issues, but I have found from my work with you that it is when things are going really well that I now actually see my subtler sense of pain (or lack). A good example of this for me relates to vocation.
So I used to be really driven toward particular outcomes for a particular level of promotion in my career. In pursuing the principles and practices that you have encouraged I can see, quite clearly now, that what I thought I wanted is not going to fulfill the underlying needs and motivators that drive me. Instead of being extrinsically motivated (outcomes, position, status) you have helped me focus on what I do have control over (attitude, how I spend my time, the ingredients I wish to have in my weekly existence). By moving towards these things I've become aware that these are closer to what I want and it’s given me a better (figurative) bearing on which to head.
Back to your question about subtle pain, by becoming more aware of what I actually want I realize the very, very subtle ways my current and past pain has compelled me to act towards ends that won't ultimately satisfy me. So it's by seeing what I really want, what I can truly control, and what is intrinsically attainable that I am able to move toward what will really make me happy.
JIM: I see, it sounds like you're describing the lower-grade but chronic discomfort of living a life that is at odds with, or at least not in alignment with, the deeper things that you really want. So many people struggle with this, even when, as was the case with you, things looked fine from the outside looking in. And you’re absolutely right, that people don’t get stuck like this intentionally, but because of powerful, primitive-brain forces that steer them toward comfort and away from discomfort, at the expense of their long-term well-being.
Now, this motivational shift you described, away from outcomes, position, and status: has it come at the expense of your productivity or success at work? That’s a question some high-functioning people might worry about: whether they’ll lose their edge.
And, how is your day-to-day life different nowadays? Has our work translated into any changes that other people have picked up on?
DAVID: Regarding the first question; I am not sure whether I am more productive, but I am certainly more focused on the things that matter and I think it has led to a form of work mindfulness where I am noting places I need to improve.
An example is that I recently realized I needed to do a better job at affirming my colleagues and speaking to their meaningful contributions to our work endeavors. Had I been more driven to status-related outcomes, I do not think I would have observed that I needed to do this. But, as I thought about what I value about work I have begun to be more attuned to what I think might help others. So mindfulness for myself has translated to mindfulness with others. Is this more productive? I am not sure. But I am more focused and probably more effective.
Regarding changes; I have heard through the grapevine that I used to be perceived as having a "my way or the highway" attitude towards people, but that since you’ve started coaching me I’m experienced as more flexible and collaborative. While I am still a classic executive type personality, which entails a healthy directive function with others, I think I have softened a bit and am more collegial.
Additionally, I should also note that when I am not paying attention to the domains you have coached me towards (physical, psychological, social, vocational) I tend to feel more frustrated in my personal and work life. When I am reasonably attentive to those elements I function better and am easier to engage.
JIM: You seem to have discovered for yourself that spreading your energy around, to tend to your needs and capacities in other areas of life, hasn’t been an act of taking your eye off the career ball. It sounds like approaching your work as a more whole, integrated person has actually improved your career effectiveness.
I think the shift in the way you relate with your colleagues is so important, too. In any system, including the workplace, every action we take as an individual affects everyone around us. Now your colleagues have a more flexible, collaborative, collegial, and affirming David to work with. So while improving your own life, you've helped to improve the lives of others, not to mention the effectiveness of the whole team.
Okay, so let's say you were talking to two different people, who are both feeling burned out, perpetually stressed out, or stuck in unfulfilling life circumstances, and they are weighing their options. Person A wonders if they're expecting too much out of life, and whether they should just make peace with the way things are. Person B knows that change is possible, and is committed to it, but for some reason—an issue of pride, finances, or some other one—feels like they need to do it on their own rather than avail themselves of expert guidance.
What would you say to each of them?
Regarding Person A:
I think I would just ask questions. My questions would be open-ended and looking to see how self-reflective they were. If they were rather oblivious to things I might just say something like, "I've felt the same way at times in my life, but you would be amazed at how your life can change if you make a concerted effort to live differently."
Regarding Person B:
This is the more interesting person for me because they are open to new ways of living. I have felt like Person B so I can relate to them better. I'd start by asking questions about what has worked for them in the past and where they are struggling. Related to the struggle I might point out that they are unlikely to come up with new solutions on their own so they will need outside help.
Being in higher education, I feel like Person B is the guy who says, "Why would I pay for graduate school, I can read the books for myself." To which my response was, "Yes, but why haven't you already?" Usually, a self-reflective person will say, "Good point." The fact is that we often cannot create change in our lives without prompting, support, and some form of friendly accountability. For me your coaching has served all three.
JIM: Thanks, David, I'm glad to be able to serve you in that way. So, to wrap this up, what would you say are your three biggest takeaways, or changes you've experienced, in our work so far? And any final thoughts for people who might be reading this?
DAVID: First, I think I understand why mindfulness is important and how to practically engage it for the life I want. Prior to working with you I would have seen meditation and mindfulness as important without connecting the dots to life strategies and outcomes. Working with you has helped me connect those dots.
Second, I have grown in my understanding of myself. As I said in an earlier response I think talk therapy reached the limits of its usefulness for me and thus your coaching has picked up where therapy left off to help me make actionable the self-awareness I do have. This in turn has produced greater insight into myself which has, in turn, produced more change (a positive feedback loop).
Third, by working with you I have come to understand that what will actually bring fulfillment are grounded internal (intrinsic) motivators specific to me rather than external (extrinsic) elements that I have typically pursued. This, coupled with mindfulness and greater self understanding, has helped me realize that what I actually want is much closer than I realize.
To the person reading this, you have probably already read a few of Jim's articles. You will have noted that they are profoundly insightful while also being meticulously tied to relevant contemporary research. I encourage you to contact Jim and hear more about how he might help you. I have found Jim to be one of the best investments you can make in yourself; you will not be disappointed.