Transitions: Big Ones, Small Ones, and Everything in Between

Bonnie Bell

First of all, let me just say that I have missed you! I was out of the office for almost a month for major but not life threatening surgery, and in a bit of a health transition ever since, but all is well now, and I’m back to work full speed, and ready to get back to normal with monthly posts about breakdowns and breakthroughs in career and life. Please stay tuned.

Transitions, big or small, refer in general to the “passage from one state, stage, subject or place to another.” That’s about the simplest definition you can find to describe the types of transitions that I want to focus on here. If you Google Wikipedia or any other online dictionary or encyclopedia, you will find mountains of examples of particular transitions, more than you need, from economic to musical, to the increasingly frequent use of the term “transitioning” to specifically refer to the process of gender change. The original use of the term “transition”, however, referred to the period during childbirth when the baby has left the womb and is in the birth canal but hasn’t been born yet. That’s when the screaming happens, if you get my drift…

My purpose is to bring into focus some of the ways in which we all can learn to recognize and more effectively manage the transitions in our lives, rather than being stymied or stumped by them. Virtually every client I have ever worked with is struggling with one transition or another, and by understanding certain features of transition, we can gain wisdom about them that will help us understand why they are always hard, always painful, and always hold great potential for positive growth; it just doesn’t seem that way while we’re in the midst of a big one, like the sudden loss of a loved one or a job.

The master of the subject of transitions in general was and still is psychologist, William Bridges, ever since he wrote his first book on the subject 25 years ago, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. The revised 25th anniversary edition is readily available via Amazon, as is the body of his work on the subject. Subsequent experts in the field owe their expertise one way or another to Bridges.

When the third new client I met with in the past two weeks triggered a conversation about the difficulties of being in transition, I knew it was time to spend a little time with all of you on the subject. See how many transitions you can find in these three client stories:

  1. A woman turning 30 who has just moved back to her birthplace in the Bay Area after living in a southern state for 10 years, and who is considering a career change because she hasn’t been able to find a job in her field.
  2. A 58-year-old minister who wants to move from the ministry into business, teaching
    or counseling.
  3. A 40-year-old entrepreneur, successful but frustrated in owning her small business, who wants to return to the hospitality industry to participate on the management level with a large, high-end international chain of hotels.

Anyone can recognize, I think, that these are all examples of difficult career/life transitions, but from what I already know of them, they each are headed in a right direction that makes sense for them, and they all did the right thing when they reached out for professional help. Why???

Transitions are always hard.  That’s the main thing you need to know (and remember) about transitions right up front. I guarantee that you have experienced a slew of them already, because you started out as a baby, became a toddler, then a preschooler and/or kindergartener, and then went through countless other major and minor transitions to get through primary school, junior high (OUCH! That was probably a particularly hard one!), high school and then on and on until either high school or college or graduate school kicked you out onto the rocky road of life to survive, thrive or flop. No doubt a mixture of both occurred in various situations throughout the ages and stages of your life to this point.  The transition to retirement is a huge, often unexpected transition, even if you think you are ready for it.  With retirements increasingly lasting thirty years or more, the question we need to ask ourselves beyond “How much money will I need in retirement?” is “What am I going to be doing during retirement?”

Transitions are always hard because we humans don’t like them. We don’t like to be between a rock and a hard place, neither here nor there. After all, biologically, we are hardwired for self-preservation, and when our instinct for food, shelter and clothing is threatened by the loss of a loved one or the loss of a paycheck, we tend to freak out, to utilize a highly technical term.

Transitions are always painful.  Once we “grow-up,” whether we are conscious of earlier painful transitions or not, we tend to minimize them, and can’t figure out why the next one that hits us between the eyes or ears is so hard. What we should get better at as we evolve is remembering that all transitions are hard and painful, and that mostly we do eventually get through them to the other side. On a deep level, transitions can yield rich wisdom about who we have been and who we are and what we want to be in the future, as long as we pay attention and learn from them. That is a good idea for a little homework you could each do about your own lives. Directions: Take some time to reflect on some of the major transitions in your life. Write them down. Then choose a particularly successful one to focus on: Describe what it was like? What was hard? What was the most painful thing about it? What did you learn? Was there a lasting change that turned out for the best?  Did you grow in wisdom?

Transitions are painful because they indicate loss, loss requires grief in order to resolve itself, and grieving is both hard and painful. Every transition implies a loss of something, even if you wanted the change and made the choice yourself. Examples might be that you made the choice to get married, or to move from the East Coast to the West Coast, or to take a job that seemed like the perfect thing. In such chosen situations, don’t be thrown for a loop because your initial joy and excitement turns into discouragement and depression after the deed is done. You are in the midst of biological and environmental stress produced by the loss of the familiar old and the fearful,
anxious new.

Because transitions are hard and painful, you are weakened and vulnerable to depression. Learn how to take good care of yourself while you are
in transition.

  1. Actively, frequently, remember the times in your life when difficult transitions actually worked out well — maybe even better than expected. This will help you build self-confidence, faith (in things hoped for but not yet seen) and determination to make them work out again.
  2. Develop what I refer to as your “Inner Resume.” Take stock of your gifts, talents, education, experience and character traits that are simply the truth about you. Write them down and memorize them so that you can claim them whenever you are vulnerable to other negative voices. Strong declarative statements about who you actually are very powerful.
  3. Ask for support from friends, family, and professionals if you need it.
  4. Do things you love to do. If it’s listening to music, or playing the piano, or reading a great novel, or taking a bike ride, do it!  It’s no doubt the fastest way to get yourself out of the negative voices and into what I call “Yes Energy”, the type of energy that automatically lifts you up and expands your thinking to higher levels.
  5. Avoid “No Energy.” These are activities or people that bring you down.
  6. Eat right, exercise, sleep well, take good care of yourself, love and forgive yourself. Put yourself in the way of grace (places where good things may happen) rather than in harm’s way. Pull out all the stops.

Sometimes, things work out much better than you even dared to hope. Trust me on this.

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More on Passion in Career and Life

Last year at about this time (1/14/14), I posted a blog, How to Follow Your Passion When You Don’t Know What It Is. You can find it by title in the Index to the right of this page and read or re-read it as a companion piece to this. Beyond that, you will see frequent references to the themes of “passion, following your bliss, living with meaning and purpose, living from the heart,” and other such related themes in most of my work and words. In the 1/14/14 post, I simply make one point about passion – that many people struggle with the fact that they don’t seem to have any passion at all, and that makes them feel defective, and/or deeply disappointed in their lives. I have never met or worked with a person who didn’t have any passions, but I have met with many people who did not know how to recognize them because they had a certain image of what a passion was supposed to look and feel like.

But there is so much more to say about passion! It’s a vast historic and contemporary subject, ridiculous to even attempt to approach in a blog. But for me personally and professionally, the experience of and or subject of passion emerges on a daily basis, and then when I go home, there it is again somewhere in the nightly news. I guess you could say I am passionate about passion, and I have a lot to say about it.   This week the story of ISIS captive Kayla Mueller, the 26-year-old from Prescott, Arizona, was all over the news. She is an example of a person so overtaken by her passion (in this case for the people of Syria) that she was willing to risk her life for it.

In the letter to her parents from captivity, she indicated that she had found the good in people even in those circumstances, that she had surrendered to God, and that she had no regrets except for the fact that she had caused them so much suffering. Here is an example of someone who in former times would no doubt have been referred to as a saint. She is also controversial, as were most of the saints. Some might call her naïve or foolish or crazy. She was nothing, if not passionate.

Not all passions are created equal. Passion is a word we toss around with increasing frequency, whether we are talking about a passion for a certain food or film or pastime or subject. In the career sense, it seems that everyone, from millennials to boomers, are searching for passion in their lives and work. But if you consult the dictionary, chances are it will begin with “The Passion”, which refers to the life, suffering and death of Jesus Christ, and on to multiple other definitions, all of which connote a certain out-of-the ordinary-ness; something intense; something highly emotional and/or powerful. Mostly we understand that if we say we are passionate about something, we mean we feel more intensely about it than if we just said we liked it or even loved it. We can be passionate about something or someone good for us, and/or something or someone not so good
for us.

Some people don’t search for their passion, their passion seizes them. An inexplicable energy or force or transcendent power overtakes them with an irresistible vision, and they cannot rest until they bring that vision into reality. It is usually not a skip down the lane. German filmmaker, producer, director, writer, actor and visionary Werner Herzog is an example of someone seized by passions and visions that drive all of his creative work. In his documentary film, The Burden of Dreams, you begin to understand that the vision is not always an uplifting joy but actually a burden. And don’t expect other people to love you for bringing your vision into reality. Controversy tends to follow
great passion.

There is no reasonable explanation for why you are passionate about whatever you are passionate about. Why is not really the question when it comes to your passion. Whether it is science or music or outer space, your passion can lead you home. Passions demand your attention. If you completely ignore them, you will not be at peace, nor will you ever get a sense that you are “fully alive”. If you try to bury them, they will haunt you. Follow your passions in order to find your way, but don’t expect smooth sailing. There will be turbulence.


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Happiness First; Then Success?

I received an early Christmas gift in late November that will make all others this year pale by comparison. It’s one of those priceless “inner gifts of the heart” that only the person receiving it can recognize or fully appreciate. You know what I mean; the sign that you have received one of these special gifts is that as soon as it appears from out of nowhere, automatic tears, the tender sweet ones, brim the eyes in gratitude.

In this particular instance, the tears appeared when I saw a new email from my client, “Pat”, about whom I wrote in a blogpost dated October 11, 2013, called Cleaning House: You Never Know What Might Turn the Tide. You might want to look it up, so you will fully appreciate the progress that occurred after I wrote that blog about an interesting success story. [And by the way, you can always access previous blogposts by title in the index to the right of whatever my current blog is. If you are curious or if you need some encouragement on any aspect of your current career/life situation, pick a title you like, and you might find just the words you are looking for.]

The point I made in that particular post was how you never really know which aspect of your “career pain” might need to be taken care of first – when it seems like everything needs changing, but it’s all become too overwhelming to change anything. In Pat’s case, the seemingly locked door that couldn’t be opened was her deep desire to hire someone to help with the housework, a responsibility that was totally hers because of the demands of her husband’s job, and one which made her feel like a maid. The captions in her early emails, between Skype sessions from my office in Oakland to hers in Europe, read “Drowning”.

According to her, both the room designated as her home office and the rest of the house were a mess, she was behind in her billing, she desperately needed to make more money, and she was sure that her husband would never agree to hiring a housekeeper, because she wasn’t making enough money from her own at-home business (writing, editing, tutoring, and translating) to justify the expense. Here she was with a Ph.D. in international public health, years of professional experience in the field, and the ability to speak four languages, and she was miserable, despite the fact that she adored her husband and two young kids. There were many tears during those early conversations.

“So what was the conversation like when you talked to your husband about hiring a housekeeper?”,  I asked during one session that began once again with a focus on the impossible situation she was in because of her inability hire a housekeeper. “What conversation?” she asked into the void that had suddenly appeared. As is often the case, the clarity needed on a particular issue emerged like an iceberg, and the “homework” for the next session appeared seemingly out of nowhere. She knew what she had to do. She had to have that hugely important conversation with her husband about her pain – the very thing she had avoided like the plague. That is a great example of how once the process of finding one’s way is in full swing, the necessary “homework” begins to be obvious. It emerges all by itself. Together we prepared for the conversation, as best we could, and then it took place.

When they finally had the conversation she had been dreading for so long, it was a huge success! It actually brought them very close together. He had no idea how bad she felt, and he immediately saw how hiring a housekeeper made perfect sense. Overnight, she had been thrown a life raft, and things began to change.

I just pulled up the lengthy caption history of emails to me, from Drowning in 2012, to Hired a Housekeeper!, to the present, and they read like this: Updated CV, Photos Attached for My New Website and Business Cards, I Got an Interview!, Interview Preparation, Narratives for My Interviews, Good News!, and in the fall of 2013,Things are Booming!

News in the “Booming” email included her success in winning a high paying translation project that called not only on her writing, editing and translation skills, but on her education and professional  experience in international health. Her newly-minted website and marketing efforts led to many new opportunities, including tutoring adults in conversational English, tutoring many more kids by marketing her skills to primary schools outside of her own neighborhood, and really experiencing increased confidence, joy and satisfaction in her work, all the while happily paying that housekeeper she cannot do without. She and her husband have begun working as a team to deal with personal and professional issues, rather than in uneasy isolation. These are amazing instances of building positive momentum in every aspect of her life.

But at the end of November 2014, after almost a year without contact while she was happily living her new life, came an email with this caption: My Life is So Beautiful! and the opening words, “. . . and you were the one who set me back on my path.”

Therein lies “the inner gift of the heart” with accompanying sudden tears. Some other time I could tell you about all the progress happening in her professional life and in the professional life of her husband, who has started his own business with three other close friends and colleagues, and even exciting news about how her kids are beginning to find their way. This leads to a conclusion I get to see fairly often in doing the work I love: when one person finds their way, the people around them tend to find their way too.

Is there anything in particular that might be blocking you from your Joy? Think about this as you move into the new year, and rather than making a resolution you won’t keep, take action on one primary thing that has been bugging you for a long, long time. Then tell me about it!

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The Case for Quitting Your Job – Even if You Still Love It

I didn’t make up this title or topic, but it definitely caught my eye when I saw it at the breakfast table on Monday, October 13, 2014 in the Encore section of The Wall Street Journal (“A Special Journal report on the New Retirement”). The premise for the article by staff writer Anne Tergesen was this: “Millions of older Americans are holding fast to their jobs, even though they could afford to retire. But, walking away just might be the best thing for their health and happiness.”

Really??? I had to read on, since this certainly doesn’t apply to the majority of people who come to see me for help with their careers, not to mention most people in the marketplace at large. Most of them would kill to find work they actually love, and if they found it, I seriously doubt they would ever think of quitting their job. It’s really not in our DNA as humans to give up homeostasis for uncertainty, especially if tremendous amounts of love are involved. That would be tantamount to a happy, healthy, tail-wagging dog leaving one perfect home to maybe find a more perfect home; it’s just not going to happen.

Over the 25 years of doing the work I love as a business owner, a blogger, and a Career/Life Coach, maybe this article is targeted at people like me! What a terrible thought!! I don’t even want to continue reading or thinking about this, but I am compelled to read on. After all, I am a baby boomer myself, and in many ways, this is an article directed toward me. The way I feel about retirement is in lockstep with most of my peers, who are nearing or already in the “retirement years” (now, 50 to 68), who want to keep working; I am also in lockstep with the 10% of baby boomers who never want to retire! (Department of Labor Statistics)

We all know that there are many baby boomers who wish they could retire, but they can’t because they haven’t saved enough money; however, many of these people go on to develop new skills, write books, start new businesses, etc. If some of them have done work based in physical labor (think athletes, construction workers, other laborers), they generally run into big trouble as they age, because the years can and do take a toll on the physical body, which normally cannot continue to sustain work based on physical strength. Such was the case in the earlier decades of the last century. Skipping to the post World War II years, we see the Knowledge Age emerging, which continues to the present. In the “professions,” people’s value derives from their education, training, and experience over time in such fields as medicine, science, mathematics, psychology, literature, architecture, finance, and, of course, technology. As long as these people continue to provide value and expertise in the marketplace, they can continue being in demand and continue to work long past retirement age.

But since in reality, every job and every type of work will eventually come to an end for some reason, what happens if a person doing work they love is “asked to step down” because others have determined that it is time? The article poses a few examples. . .This thought just might be the “show stopper” for those of us who are swept away with the love of our work.

My own personal experience in life and professionally as a Career/Life Coach has taught me that having some personal power and control over beginnings and endings is always less painful than “forced” changes and forced beginnings. Consider your own life experiences here. Being laid off or fired or replaced suddenly can be excruciating, while choosing to quit a job you love or hate, can be courageous and thrilling!

As mentioned toward the end of the article, Tergesen says, “The good news is that those who take the leap frequently report that there is more to gain than they imagined. Some say passing the torch through mentoring, teaching or otherwise advising, can be just as gratifying as carrying the torch.”

So, it appears that quitting the job you have had for a very long time, or even the work you love, might just be the best thing for your health, happiness and life in the long run. Think about it, as I will, but don’t expect any sudden or surprising moves on my part.

(Reference for further reading on the subject:  Mastering the Art of Quitting: Why it Matters in Life, Love and Work, Peg Streep and Alan Bernstein, 12/24/13)

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Falling into the Harvest

It seems like the very day after Labor Day I am ambushed by Fall. While I am still holding onto summer, still wearing my white jeans, and planning just one more barbeque, I don’t want to even think about Fall. This year the weather even joined the conspiracy in Berkeley, so we could have our patio doors open all day and the windows open all night. I could have sworn it was just the beginning of a long, hot summer.

As if all of nature’s plan were to kick me unexpectedly into Autumn, like an aggressive shove from behind into an arctic lake, September 2 was dark and cold, making it harder than ever to get out of bed. The first thing I did after forcing myself from under the warmth of the blankets was to go downstairs to turn on the heat, after which I raised the kitchen blinds, and right there before my eyes was a flying Wallenda-type squirrel streaking through a pile of dried leaves with a walnut in his jaws. I swear those leaves weren’t anywhere to be seen when we were tidying up the patio for our party yesterday! Next, when I went out to the driveway to retrieve the newspapers, I noticed the same circus squirrel digging around in the dirt for the perfect storage unit for his prize. None of this was going on just yesterday, that last, lazy day of summer.

Suddenly, before I’d had a chance to put the water on to boil for tea, it all crashed in, like a descent of crows, all nagging at once: Back to school! Back to work! Back to business! Winter is coming – the holidays! The New Year! So much to do!” When I arrive at the office, the phone is ringing a little more urgently. It seems to have dawned on people that they need help with their careers and new jobs  pronto! That means a new resume if they are going to find a job before Christmas or before the New Year when everybody else will be looking for a job. The rush is on. No wonder the squirrels are flying out of trees!

But then, after a long, busy day driving home from the office after dark, I was reminded of the admonition I had heard on the morning news – to look for the Harvest Moon in the night sky. . . I had forgotten all about it, but there it was hanging huge, ridiculously orange, ridiculously bright, just to the right of a dark mountain, a supersized Halloween Trick and Treat: The Harvest Moon! I could say that it brought me to my knees, but I was driving, so I just pulled over and stopped. I felt I had been forced to stop, to drink in the beauty of the giant, orange glowing thing, so close you could see the face. Wasn’t it dangerously close to Earth? It sounds absurd, but I swear, it seemed to be relaxed and smiling, saying, “I’m ba-a-ck!  Remember me? Look how beautiful I am! You forgot, didn’t you? You haven’t been paying attention, have you?”

Well, I am now. I have been filled with harvest thinking ever since you stopped me in the midst of my frantic tracks. I can’t stop hearing the chorus of Eastern-European peasants bending over in the fields at days end, singing a weary chorus of Bringing in the Sheaves… I see pumpkins on the vine, pumpkin pie, a fall festival of color and smells, drying vineyards, a celebration, all shouting, “It’s Fall. It’s the glorious Fall!”

This morning I woke up thinking about the new client I met with for the first time just yesterday. She is thinking about what’s next for her and how to keep doing what she loves to do, but with a little less stress and a little more time to enjoy this next stage of life, while she is still healthy, has so much to offer, and a chance to “give back.” Do I do retirement coaching?

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I do,” I find myself saying. “I have coaching clients from age 25 to 75. Every age and stage presents another transition, and transitions are hard—painful, even. Every transition is a time to celebrate, a time to grieve, and a time to plan for what’s next.” Same things I always say, no matter what life stage we are talking about, but they apply to various people in various ways, depending on their particular situation.

What an incredible first session we had!—this woman who called about retirement coaching and I.  It became obvious that our work will lead to the greatest harvest of all: the harvest of a rich, deep, purposeful, meaningful life, well-lived, and deeply appreciated. “This is the time to come into your fullness,” I say, “to come into your wisdom, power and peace!  But that it usually doesn’t arrive all by itself. You have to clear everything up, take charge, ‘reflect and capture’ what you think, claim who you are. And then to actually be who you are, know what you care about, what you believe, what your most important gifts and talents are, and decide how you want to live and what you want to do with the many years ahead.”

When the time comes that you are on your deathbed, you want to be able to look back on your life and be able to say, “What a great life I’ve had. I can rest now,” with the smile of the big, wise Harvest Moon on your face.

After all, that’s what it’s really all about, isn’t it?

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The Art of Possibility, Part III

It’s difficult to track all the long-term results of learning to think differently or more powerfully or with more possibility! That kind of learning can last a lifetime and hopefully ultimately results in a good life, full of meaning, purpose and satisfaction. I was more than startled when a former client of mine (from about 20 years ago) introduced me at a social gathering as, “the woman who changed my life.” I had no idea she thought that, even though I knew she was a very satisfied client. What I think she probably meant was that I helped her to think differently – and it had a big impact on her life.

The Benjamin and Rosamund  Zander book, The Art of Possibility, to which I have been referring in Parts I and II of this blog series, is filled with stories of transformation, from those of young music students to those of leaders within large corporations such as Hewlitt-Packard. These are stories of people who were profoundly changed by “practicing the practices” set forth in the Zanders’ book, changes which led to countless positive results in their lives. While we are accustomed to and want to hear “success stories” that resulted in making it to the top or becoming rich and famous, what about some of the hidden “inner triumphs”, your “hidden triumphs” that maybe no one knows about but you?

What about the attorney who has finally found her own voice and conquered the legion of negative inner voices having to do with the sexual abuse she experienced as a child? Or the businessman who has found peace after accepting his alcoholism and committing to sobriety?  Or the corporate trainer who searched for and finally found and reconciled with the father who abandoned her as a child?  Or the science teacher who managed to pull herself out of an abusive marriage and make a good life with her young son? These are amazing “inner” success stories that also need mentioning, all of which I have had the privilege of witnessing with my own clients over the years. They are also examples of what can happen when people begin to think differently – with possibility – and because they do, they can take effective action that leads to a better life.          

On a much lighter note, just last week, one of my clients, a bright young recent college graduate who has been experiencing what I call the “post-partum blues” following her graduation and return to the Bay Area, struck gold! As part of her “homework” in our work together, she did what I call a “soft search”: she searched softly, not with pressure or anxiety, and not with the intent of immediately applying to any particular job, but with an attitude that says:

With my gifts, talents, education, experience and values, surely there is something out there for me. I wonder what it is. . . Then explore. Be curious. Be creative. Follow the yellow brick road. Look at job descriptions, look for one that appeals to you, one that attracts you. Look for that one thing that lights you up inside and has you thinking, “I could do this! I have done this! I know just what to say in the cover letter and interview!”

What she found that had her all lit up inside with possibilities was a website she had never heard about before, Because she is a “values-based” person, who has loved volunteering for several different non-profits throughout high school and college, has outstanding communication skills, and is inspired by organizations to which she can make a contribution (one of the practices in The Art of Possibility, by the way) she realized she had struck gold! There were so many possibilities all of a sudden, that we found ourselves hot on the trail of possibility. Suddenly there was no struggle involved in developing a clear, powerful resume that not only says what she has done in the past, but reveals the kind of person she is, what her values are, and how her gifts, talents, skills and experience will help the organization achieve its mission. Suddenly, what to say in a cover letter became much clearer.

If you are confused, have no idea what you want to do, and are having a hard time relating to the practices revealed in The Art of Possibility: take heart. Sometimes you don’t know what you want until you see it! And once you know what you want, and you see that it actually exists in the world, you will be filled with the energy it takes to get yourself where you want to go!

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The Art of Possibility, Part II

I hope I was successful in the The Art of Possibility, Part I in enticing some of you to begin reading The Art of Possibility (Rosamund Stone Zander and Bernard Zander, Harvard Business School Press, 2000; Penguin Books, 2002). I will be touching on many concepts and practices from the book, while you are hopefully delving deeper into your personal copy on your own.

As the Zanders warn (or promise) in the introduction, this is not a book like many other self-help books that promise remarkable success and transformation in one sitting. The thinking behind the life coaching advice in “the Art” is based in neuroscience research and the original experience of the Zanders with real students in business and the arts. The Art requires adopting a complex set of “practices” designed to help thinking with possibility instead of thinking with long-established and mostly unconscious biases and habitual thinking patterns that serve to block possibilities.

Here is a quote from Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855, Danish philosopher and theologian), embedded on page 113 of the book, that speaks to possibility thinking:

If I were to wish for anything I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of what can be, for the eye, which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating as possibility? (from Either/Or)

The thing is, most people, in my own Career/Life Coaching experience over the years, and according to the Zanders, do not think with possibility. Most people tend to think toward the future with more fear and trembling than with minds wide open to incredibly dazzling possibilities. This appears to be the result, quite simply, of our biology, which is rooted in evolution and the scientific realities of self-preservation and survival of the fittest. Our minds, throughout evolution, have been “wired” to look out for threats and danger with extreme caution. While this is completely understandable, on the one hand, it does not exactly pave the way for thinking with the kind of possibility that can and does move mountains for some people. In other words, my own words, it is understandable, but not powerful. Fear and cynicism cause us to think small, with caution and limitation, rather than with possibility.

When it comes to matters of career choice, change and development, or of finding oneself in a major life transition, fear looms large. In the course of my own work, my clients and I work through a series of homework assignments together that are designed to help them begin to think with possibility rather than remain stuck in various fears about the future or with an overall attitude that is self-limiting and that actually prevents new possibilities for the future. Together, we work through at least two concepts that at first appear to be entrenched opposites—The Vision and the Voices.

This, too, tends to produce a sometimes transformation result in which the client is able to resolve their negative inner voices and reach a place where a new “wise, determined voice” appears that sounds a lot like this: This is who I am, this is what a want, and this is how I am going to get there. The “homework” that I do with my clients is, to borrow a phrase from Ben Zander when he introduces the “practices” described in the book, “simple, but not easy” (p.5). Simple and profound, I would say.

Anything described as a “practice,” rather than a rule, implies that as you practice, e.g., a musical instrument, ballet, cooking, meditation, centering, you get more adept. Practices are not intellectual concepts to memorize and eventually learn once and for all. As you practice them, you begin to learn and change in a fundamental way, and then you practice some more.

Here is a list of the practices presented by the Zanders in The Art of Possibility and a few words quoted from each chapter, which I hope will create curiosity and new thinking. Simply knowing about the practices will not create automatic change or transformation, although, I suppose you never know.  After all, anything is possible

The First Practice: It’s All Invented
A shoe factory sends two marketing scouts to a region of Africa to study the prospects for expanding business. One sends back a telegram saying, ‘Situation Hopeless STOP No one wears shoes’. The other writes back triumphantly, ‘Glorious business opportunity STOP They have no shoes’.” (p. 9)

The Second Practice: Stepping Into a Universe of Possibility
“Once you have begun to distinguish that it’s all invented, you can create a place to dwell where new inventions are the order of the day. Such a place we call the ‘universe of possibility’.” The authors call the world in which we are in the habit of living, the “world of measurement.” (p. 17)

The Third Practice: Giving an A
“Michelangelo is often quoted as having said that inside every block of stone or marble dwells a beautiful statue; one need only remove the excess material to reveal the work of art within. If we were to apply this visionary concept to education, it would be pointless to compare one child to another. Instead, all the energy would be focused on chipping away at the stone, getting rid of whatever is in the way of each child’s developing skills, mastery and self-expression.” (p. 26)

The Fourth Practice: I am a Contribution
“Unlike success and failure, contribution has no other side. It is not arrived at by comparison . . .” The questions “. . . Am I loved for who I am or for what I have accomplished? could both be replaced by the joyful question, How will I be a contribution today?” (p. 57)

The Fifth Practice: Leading from Any Chair
“I (Ben Zander) had been conducting for nearly twenty years when it suddenly dawned on me that the conductor of an orchestra does not make a sound. His picture may appear on the cover of the CD . . . but his true power derives from his ability to make other people powerful.” (pp. 68, 69)

The Sixth Practice: Rule No. 6
The only Rule:  “Don’t take yourself so g__ damn seriously.” (p. 79)

The Seventh Practice: The Way Things Are
“From the film Babe: The scene:  Christmas day on the farm. The pig, cow, hens and Ferdinand the duck crowd by the kitchen window, craning their necks to see which unfortunate one of their kind has been chosen to become the main course at dinner. On the platter is Roseanna the duck, dressed with sauce l’orange.
Duck (Ferdinand): Why Roseanna? She had such a beautiful nature. I can’t take it anymore! It’s too much for a duck. It eats away at the soul . . .
Cow: The only way to find happiness is to accept that the way things are is the way things are.
Duck: The way things are stinks!” (p. 99)

The Eighth Practice: Giving Way to Passion
“The practice of this chapter . . . has two steps:
1) The first step is to notice where you are holding back, and let go. Release those barriers of self that keep you separate and in control, and let the vital energy of passion surge through you, connecting you to all beyond.
2) The second step is to participate wholly. Allow yourself to be a channel to shape the stream of passion into a new expression for the world.” (p. 114)
(Editorial comment from Bonnie: Now that one is a lot to swallow at this point. Don’t let it stop you from learning from the other practices and tackling this when you’re more open to the practices, if you are.)

The Ninth Practice: Lighting a Spark
Enrollment is the practice of this chapter. Enrolling is not about forcing, cajoling tricking, bargaining, pressuring, or guilt-tripping someone into doing something your way. Enrollment is the art and practice of generating a spark of possibility for others to share.” (p. 125)

The Tenth Practice: Being the Board
“When the way things are seems to offer no possibility; when you are angry and blocked and, for all your efforts, others refuse to move or cooperate, or even to be halfway decent; when even enrollment does not work and you are at your wit’s end — you can take out this next practice: our graduate course in possibility. In this one, you rename yourself as the board on which the whole game is being played. You move the problematic aspect of any circumstance from the outside world inside the boundaries of yourself; with this act you can transform the world.” (p. 141)
(Editorial comment from Bonnie: Don’t worry too much about this one, although it is worrisome. It’s the graduate course and beyond most of us, it would seem.)

The Eleventh Practice: Creating Frameworks for Possibility
“The practice of this chapter is to invent and sustain frameworks that bring forth possibility. It is about restructuring meanings, creating visions, and establishing environments where possibility is spoken – where the buoyant force of possibility overcomes the pull of the downward spiral.” (p. 163)
Thank you for sticking with me, if you could or did. There’s a lot to swallow here, but it’s all practical Career/Life Coaching advice.   

Next time, in The Art of Possibility, Part III, the final part of this blog series, you will hear some heartening success stories from the Zanders and also stories from me about some of my own clients who benefitted from learning to think differently in the course of our work together and who discovered brand new and surprising possibilities in their careers and lives.

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The Art of Possibility, Part I

It’s been almost 15 years since Benjamin Zander, the beloved former conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, and his executive coach wife and business partner, Rosamund Stone Zander, wrote their national bestseller, published by and at the request of the Harvard Business School Press, The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life. But in case you missed it and its valuable life coaching advice, or forgot about it, I’m calling it to your attention. While it’s not exactly a light summer read, it is a book that could possibly change your life forever.

As I read the book this past year, I was amazed to find so many intersections and echoes between the Zanders’ original work and my own life coaching experience over the past 25 years. Even though this was a book right up my alley, I never paid much attention to it, because I thought it was a book just about developing a world class orchestra—until I came face to face with Benjamin Zander at a national Charles Schwab Conference a handful of years ago where he was a keynote speaker. Although I did not read The Art of Possibility even then, I became even more intrigued early this year when a number of our financial planning staff came back from a financial planning conference raving about Benjamin Zander’s keynote speech there! I finally embarked on the book, which begins with a paragraph that seems to challenge the reader to do some deep thinking right off the bat or drop the book and run for cover:

This is a how-to book of an unusual kind. Unlike the genre of how-to book that offer strategies to surmount the hurdles of a competitive world and move out ahead, the objective of this book is to provide the reader the means to lift off from that world of struggle and sail into a vast universe of possibility. Our premise is that many of the circumstances that seem to block us in our daily lives may only appear to do so based on a framework of assumptions we carry with us. Draw a different frame around the same set of circumstances and new pathways come into view. Find the right framework and extraordinary accomplishment becomes an everyday experience.

Whoa, Nellie. . .This is where I momentarily screech to a halt. Even though I trust that the Zanders know what they’re talking about in this seminal career and life coaching tome, even though I know that their work is highly respected and even revered, and even though I have already been inspired in person by one half of the “Roz and Ben” team, I just can’t imagine how they are going to pull this off. I think to myself, “That sounds way too good to be true. Who is ever going to believe that?”

What especially grabs me, though, gives me a chill, and tells me that I am about to do some very deep thinking is that I immediately know what the authors mean by their stated premise in The Art of Possibility:

Our premise is that many of the circumstances that seem to block us in our daily lives may only appear to do so based on a framework of assumptions we carry with us. Draw a different frame around the same set of circumstances and new pathways come into view.

But this requires a lot more explainin’ than I have time for here, so follow along in my next blog post, The Art of Possibility, Part II, but in the meantime, both for your personal satisfaction and for the valuable life coaching advice inside, I challenge you to read this curious, audacious, and powerful book!

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The Power of a Service Attitude

Jim and I just returned from an exquisite three-week trip to Japan during the legendary Cherry Blossom Festival, and we are refreshed rather than exhausted, as we most often are after an international trip. We had not travelled to Japan before, so were not prepared for the beauty we would encounter either in the cherry blossom trees themselves or the Japanese people. If you have been to Japan in the winter, summer or fall, but not spring, you at least know what I mean about the inner and outer beauty of the people.
Cherry Blossoms
Since our return home a little over a week ago, I have had the conversation about the incredible service attitude of the Japanese people with lots of friends and family, including my nephew, who has been married to a wonderful Okinawan woman for ten years, during which time he has spent quite a bit of time working in and visiting Japan; a client who worked for four very happy years in Japan for an American company, a friend who recently visited Tokyo and Kyoto as Jim and I did, and a young American-born Japanese woman who works in the architectural office next door to Bell Investment Advisors who has vacationed in Japan twice. Every conversation has included unsolicited remarks about the kindness, beauty, thoughtfulness, and peacefulness of the Japanese people. While we’ve all heard about the earthquake and nuclear disaster in northern Japan, and frequent news reports about the sluggish Japanese economy, it is not apparent to the naked eye. The stores, restaurants, and countless shopping centers are full of very happy looking, well-dressed groups of people enjoying themselves.

Tokyo is the largest city in the world, but it does not feel stressful, like New York, for instance. The first thing we noticed was how amazingly clean the cities are! I kept snapping photos of cleanliness – of the streets, the cars, the taxi’s, the trains, the busses, the subways, the train stations. They seem to have solved the countless issues surrounding the question of how to handle waste, garbage pickup, and recycling (there are 18 ways of separating trash!). In the three weeks we were in Japan, both in the big cities and smaller outlying towns, we honestly saw no litter – not a can, not a Kleenex, not a paper towel anywhere. If there was one that didn’t make it into a trash bin, the first person to see it would stop and pick it up, so it wouldn’t be there long. There aren’t that many trash cans apparent in public places, which would seem problematic, but it just isn’t. The restaurants and bathrooms have avoided masses of napkins and paper towels by offering hot, rolled wash cloths at meal time and by installing Dyson or Toto fast-drying hand dryers in just about all of the bathrooms in Japan.

The bathrooms are truly incredible: clean, clean, clean. I recall three that had little meditation gardens to look at on the other side of the wall in the bathroom. I could go on and on about the toilets – clearly the best in the world – but may be going into a little too much detail. Let me just say that America is way behind the Japanese in this regard. It took me a week to learn what all the buttons on the arm rests were for, but once I got the hang of it, it was truly a pleasure. . .  Returning to the average public restroom in America has been pretty dreary by contrast.

The work ethic in Japan is striking as well. The people are incredibly industrious and take their jobs – whatever they are – very seriously. Their “service attitude” is apparent at every turn. You get the distinct feeling that the shopkeeper, the sushi chef, the inn-keeper, the bartender, the cab driver, the ticket-taker, the information person at the train station, the barista, and the post office worker, truly care about you and just can’t do enough for you to make sure you are welcomed, you find your way, you enjoy your meal, your concert, your drink – WHATEVER!  And whatever service they provide for you actually ends with a bow. We observed this on the many trains we took – sleek, clean, beautiful, bullet trains that arrive on time. When the ticket-taker completes the task, he/she stops at the end of the car and bows to the whole car with what appears to be sincere gratitude for the pleasure of serving you.

On our second night in Tokyo when we got into bed, with the window of our bedroom ajar, we suddenly realized how oddly quiet it was outside, and we couldn’t figure it out. I know the sound of big cities at night – especially New York City. It’s always noisy at night with people’s voices, horn-honking traffic, and machinery at work. We heard two horn-honks the whole time we were in the country. There are millions of new, clean, energy-efficient cars swiftly moving along both narrow streets, broad boulevards, and first class highways, but even the drivers seem competent and caring. The taxicabs are literally spotless, and to prove it, the seat covers are made out of – you won’t believe me here – white lace! The taxi drivers wear white gloves!

Jim and I both talked about and thought about the effect the pervasive service attitude of kindness had on us and realized that we did not feel stressed-out. It made us feel really good – relaxed, cared for, safe, grateful, touched, and happy. We thought about our staff at Bell Investment Advisors, and how they, too, have a positive “service attitude” – not exactly the bowing type as in Japan, but a distinct service attitude, nonetheless, and one that seems to make our clients very happy and us very proud.

Two days after our return from Japan, we joined a team of about 50 volunteers, for the second of two workdays in April on a Rebuilding Together-Oakland (RTO) project made up of Bell Investment Advisors’ staff, their family members, and clients, along with the staff, family members and clients of the Wendel Rosen law firm in our building at 1111 Broadway.  We have participated in RTO for the past three years now, and we’re hooked.

IMG_3030RTO is a non-profit organization that rehabilitates the homes of low-income elderly and disabled people who are unable to provide adequate upkeep themselves.  Donations to the organization pay for the materials required for the projects, and volunteers provide the labor. It’s always so much fun to work side-by-side with your fellow employees in a different context than usual, and to work side-by-side with your neighbors for the good of someone you don’t even know who needs and appreciates the gift of your labor. The owner of the home we worked on this year, who has owned and run a children’s daycare center out of her home for years, was thrilled with the results, and deeply grateful, especially for so many extras she didn’t expect, right down to the beautiful, colorful flowers in her garden. The smiles on the faces of the volunteers at the end of a long, hard day say it all: you can’t help feeling good about doing something good for someone else. Kindness multiplies. It’s the same the world over.

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Gritty City Repertory Youth Theatre

As I hope many of you already know from the Bell Youth-in-the-Arts Grant page in the Community section of our website,, the 2013 Bell Youth- in-the-Arts Grant was awarded to Oakland’s own Gritty City Repertory Youth Theatre. Gritty City Rep was selected from a group of 35 other impressive applicant organizations, all of which have emerged in recent years to augment the dwindling arts programs available in the Oakland public schools. To learn more about GCR and the other nine finalists, please see

It is always painful to select one winner among so many worthy competitors, but in the end, the pain is offset by the joy of notifying the winner!  It is part of my role in the selection process to notify the top ten finalists of their standing and benefits and then the winner, in this case the Executive Director of Gritty City Youth Repertory Theatre, Lindsay Krumbein. She was thrilled, of course, to be recognized and encouraged by this honor on behalf of and along with the many students whose lives are being transformed by their participation in this innovative urban theatre experience.  She couldn’t wait to tell them at their very next rehearsal!

Next came the day for the actual delivery of the $5,000 check — an exciting and gratifying experience for all of us. It took place on a cold, rainy day in February at 1540 Broadway in Oakland where the brand new community theatre, Flight Deck, was already well under construction. Gritty City Rep has been selected by Flight Deck’s managing group, Ragged Wing Ensemble, to be one of a small number of resident companies, which means GCR will finally have a permanent home in which to house its administrative offices and to gather, rehearse, and perform.


In its earliest days, when Gritty City was just an idea, the “offices” were pretty much boxes, papers, a computer and phone at Lindsay Krumbein’s home. For the past few years, however, there have been several different places that have served as temporary homes. An irony exists here somewhere, as “Flight” Deck becomes the place where Gritty City finally “lands.” Our grant will help make this dream come true and will assist the group in mounting its first production there, Sharman Macdonald’s After Juliet, opening May 29 and running through June 7.

As you approach the theatre, you will realize that construction is also going on right next door, where a brand new “farm to table” restaurant, Township, is emerging. Both street fronts share the same orange slanted awning on the outside, which bodes well for both endeavors. When you attend one, you will connect with the other, a sort of “twofer” smack dab in the midst of our renaissance city of Oakland. IMG_5058

While the theatre appears relatively small at first glance, once inside, the innovative space opens up in unique and surprising ways, including movable risers to provide seating. The space can be arranged in a variety of ways, from proscenium, to thrust, to theatre-in-the-round, depending on the particular needs of each production.  I could also easily imagine the space being used for a variety of community events, e.g., concerts, public school gatherings, and Oakland Chamber of Commerce meetings.

If you happen to poke your head in the door anytime soon, you will no doubt observe a variety of worker bees wielding hammers, pushing brooms, drilling holes, wiring wires, finishing up — all being done by a broad mix of professionals and volunteers, all happily at work completely transforming this former eyesore of a building (a warehouse uninhabited for over 30 years!) into something entirely new that hundreds of people will enjoy beginning in May.

On May 29, opening night of Gritty City’s first production at Flight Deck, Jim and I will be there along with many clients, colleagues and friends. Please join us! …and be sure to approach us to let us know you are there as well.

2014 Bell Youth-in-the-Arts Grant applications are now available!
Oakland organizations can apply for the 2014 Bell Youth-in-the-Arts Grant by downloading the Grant Application and Guidelines below:

Download 2014 Grant Application
Download 2014 Grant Guidelines

Application Deadline: 09/19/14

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