My daughter learned how to ride her tricycle last weekend.
We cheered her on as she combined pedaling with steering and balancing. And as we did, I heard myself repeating the same instruction over and over: “Don’t look at your feet, honey. Look where you want to go.”
Move your feet
When we’re learning how to do something for the first time, we naturally fixate on the details. It’s a necessary part of mastering a new skill. Lily stared at her feet to make sure she was getting that part of the equation right. Were her feet still on the pedals? Were the pedals going around?
We can also get fixated on the details when something just feels hard or unpleasant. I’ve been riding a bike for decades, but the physical effort of pushing those pedals around and around can lead to fixation on just. How. Much. Energy. It. Takes. (I’ve had similar experiences while attempting to balance budgets.)
What are you fixating on? What feels difficult right now?
Pedaling and its equivalents are critical for getting us where we want to go. But moving your feet alone won’t do it. You also have to steer.
“Where do you want to go?” I’d ask Lily when she started to veer into a wall. She’d stop, look around, and point. “Okay. How do you get there?” She’d point her front wheel, and away she went. We continued this way – pedaling, steering, stopping, assessing, starting up again – all the way to our destination.
What would happen if you looked up from your feet? What would you see? How would you adjust course?
When Lily completed her first solo ride (four city blocks to a nearby playground), she was thrilled with herself. We celebrated with a snack and some runs across the bouncy bridge. Thirty minutes after we arrived, she was exhausted. The ride home featured a lot of stops to admire the flowers and was followed by a well deserved nap.
Pedaling and steering and balancing all at once takes a lot of effort. Just as important as keeping your head up is slowing down or even stopping to take a break. Give yourself credit for the effort you’re making. Recalibrate. Have a snack.
Then look up, remember why you started pedaling in the first place, get back on your bike, and get moving.
I’ve been learning to work less.
It seems counter-intuitive. I’m the only employee at my organization. If I don’t do the work, no one will. Everything I know as a person who grew up in a Western, capitalist society and came of age professionally in the nonprofit sector tells me I should be working 18 hour days. Getting it done. Building the business. Supporting my family.
The thing is, though, I remember working 18 hour days. Was I productive? Absolutely. Was I satisfied? Sometimes. It’s hard not to be when your identity is work and work is all you do. Was I energized? Nope. I was exhausted. Which meant I wasn’t terribly happy either. And I’ve learned that the old axiom is true: if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
So I’m learning, slowly, that taking care of myself really does mean taking care of my business and taking care of my family. I’m learning that I’m not a Type A personality at all. And forcing myself to act as if I am? Downright unhealthy. Turns out that letting myself sleep in occasionally and taking time for yoga practice before sitting down to work is the best way to assure a productive day.
How do you take care of yourself so you can take care of business? What will you do to take care of yourself today?
You may know me from my years at Arts Alliance Illinois. If so, you know that’s where I learned a lot of what got me where I am today: how to write a grant, run an event, manage volunteers, lead a meeting, build a community. It’s also where I fell in love with coaching.
Opening the door
My first exposure to coaching came in early 2004. Having conducted extensive research about leadership succession in arts organizations, we realized that people in our field needed more support if they were going to succeed as leaders. So we created a peer coaching program to address those needs.
We recruited facilitators and brought in marvelous consultants to train us in the art of leading peer coaching circles. Minutes into the first day of training, I heard a whisper in the back of my brain: “This feels like home.”
Coaching, they explained, is not about telling people what to do or how to do it. Instead, good coaching allows the coachee to (re)discover their own wisdom and be accountable to people they trust while reaching the goals they’ve set for themselves.
It seems so simple. Figure out what’s important to you, act in accordance with those values, get where you want to go. All of the leaders I’ve worked with understand that this is what’s necessary to succeed. But to a person, they all struggled to find the time to plan and reflect in order to make that happen. Coaching helped them make that time.
Almost immediately, I saw what a difference coaching made for those leaders. Having support from and being accountable to a non-judgmental partner helped them make huge shifts. I heard the change in their voices. They were lighter. Instead of road blocks, they began to see possibilities. Instead of bemoaning their lack of resources, they were tapping into new sources of support.
At the same time tension was easing out of our peer coaching participants, I heard it seeping into my voice. Everything about my days was slightly off. I knew I had opportunities aplenty at work, but I didn’t know how to make the most of them. I felt stuck. So I listened to that whisper and hired a coach.
In the course of working with her, I learned a lot about what is important to me. Collaboration. Developing people. Creating space for people to hear and learn from one another. And with Julia’s support, I began to see how I could do all of those things right where I was. I grew programs, I built my
network, I took on responsibilities instead of shying away from them. The tension drained from my voice (and my shoulders). I stopped feeling stuck and started celebrating my ability to make choices that align with my values.
A home of my own
What started as a whisper had changed to a full voiced mantra: coaching is where I belong. I followed a sudden instinct one bright November afternoon and signed up for a coach training program. If this was home, I was going to need a foundation.
Since then, I’ve worked hard to put a solid structure in place that includes 12 years of nonprofit experience, a year of coach training, the support of my own mentor coach, and a deepening ownership of my own strengths and values. And now, seven years after I first opened the door to the world of coaching, I’m living in the space I’ve created. There’s lots of space for light and air. I’ve even done some decorating.
There are plenty of finishing touches still to come. But just as it’s been at every professional home I’ve had, what really makes this space come alive is the people who join me here. The leaders who trust me to partner with them, the teams who are willing to learn from each other, the creative individuals who follow their own brave instinct that whispers, “the world will be better if you fully express your gifts.”
That whisper? It’s right. Listen. And if you’d like some help getting it to speak a little louder, come for a visit. I built this space just for us.
I'm interested in what keeps us engaged in our work, the world, and each other.