My life hit a wall right on schedule–about the time I turned forty. What was odd about my wall was that I wasn’t trying to break out of a corporate prison or soulless job. The reverse, in fact. I was trying to stop wandering the world and find something serious to do.
When I was teenager, I’d hitchhiked to Alaska and lived in a wood-heated cabin with an unheated outhouse. I worked on the Alaska pipeline, pissing in the Arctic Sea and playing poker on the company’s dime. In my early twenties, I settled in Florence, growing fat on pasta and red wine. From Italy I dropped down to Tunisia and crossed the Sahara, turned east through the jungle and wandered the savannas of east Africa before re-crossing the Sahara north through Sudan and Egypt. Heading east, I wandered for another half year across South and East Asia, with some minor opium and gem smuggling on the side, before returning to Alaska.
A short time after returning, on a back country ski trip up a distant ridge, my skiing buddy casually mentioned he planned to sail his boat into the South Pacific.
No way. I’d never sailed and was stunned anything so small (27 feet) would leave protected waters. Two years later, I launched a 25 foot wooden boat into the Gulf of Alaska, not knowing how to take in a reef, navigate, or that I got sea-sick, and sailed her alone around the world.
On my final ocean passage four years and 37,000 miles later, I promised myself no more world travels, no more wandering, no more adventures. It was time to dig in and make a contribution to the planet; to have a job that meant something to me; a job that popped me out of bed each morning excited and hot to make something happen.
For two years, I ran the Alaska Environmental Lobby. It was no fun and I bailed, recovering in a remote cabin writing novels no one would publish. Years later, I tried again, running a far larger environmental group also in Alaska. Every day when I woke, my belly clenched and I counted the days I had left of the 5 years I’d promised myself I’d stay. Five years was two and half times longer than I’d ever before held a job.The short story is that I couldn’t do it.
Objectively, the two environmental jobs were dream jobs. There are patches of forest still standing, streams full of fish still running cold and clear because of our work. I worked with Senators, Governors (Sarah Palin among them), tribal leaders, and fishermen in tiny hamlets tucked away in the forest. We won some great victories, gleefully handing certain powerful people their heads and, at times, we had our heads handed to us as well.
But it was painful; there was no joy, no satisfaction and something in me pushed, sometimes desperately, to get me back to the sea or to my cabin in the woods.
I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t make my life work when it came to work.
I know now. I know that each of us can be trapped inside our understanding of ourselves, limiting what we can do and who we can be. It is when we bump up against these limits, when we want more joy, meaning, and human connection than our understanding of ourselves allows, that we feel blocked, frustrated, or dead in the water, as if the salt were leached from our lives.
If I’d had a coach, it would have been different. Today I can do with ease what I would not have done five years ago. I can call a friend and ask for a referral client, I can listen to a wing-nut and not lacerate him with righteous anger, I can hold a person to account, and I can tell friends my love for them. It was a quirk of who I am that I ran from people and into the wilderness chasing wild horizons. I can dominate parties with believe-it-or-not stories no one else can match. But, in time, that world grayed for me and I wanted more. I had no idea how to make it happen. All I knew to do was put my head down and force myself into situations I thought would make me happy. It didn’t work. Running the environmental groups was as stressful for me as living in a low-level war zone.
When clients do what they could not do before, when their hearts open, when they grasp a star once out of reach—my day is made. It is why I coach.