The Season of Tears

It's the season of tears. That time of year when middle-aged men and women make their way to college campuses around the country, with one of their biggest accomplishments in life in tow--offspring who are ready to leave the nest. It is an act of love and faith, to leave your child in a strange place, when you've been responsible for feeding, clothing, and nurturing them for the last 18 years.  A friend's text said it all: "I hope his roommate turns out to be a good guy." Indeed. For many kids, freedom could not have come soon enough. But for the mothers, and maybe even some of the fathers, drop off day is a day of fighting back tears. We worry that our kids will not have everything they need to be self-sufficient.  We wonder if they will make friends and if so, if they'll be nice friends. We hope that they are not feeling as bad as we are.  Trust me. They are not. It's been several years since my sons first went off to college.  My husband ended up taking each boy to school that first year, without me.  It seemed less painful to say my good-byes on the front porch, rather than a long, drawn out separation on a college campus.  As one friend said, "I think they kick us off campus at 7pm." The first year without your son or daughter at home is a bit like living in a monastery.  It's hard to get used to the quiet.  The food bills go way down. You have more time to yourself than what you know what to do with. Even if you have other kids at home, you still feel the absence of the ones who are not at home.  When my older son went away to college, I missed seeing his shoes. I felt the void of the empty chair at the dinner table. And the loads of laundry were so much smaller without his many t-shirts. Sure, there's texting and Skype video calls. And yet, it's not the same as living under the same roof. I became an accidental baker, sending homemade brownies and cookies every few weeks as a way to ensure that I still had sons and I was still their mother. Absence does make the heart grow fonder. I remember the anticipation and subsequent joy of my sons coming home for Christmas break.  For a few weeks, I savored the illusion that time had stood still, with the liveliness of a full nest. The transition to empty nester is a long one. Looking back, I can see how my boys blossomed into confident young men over the course of a few years. With each visit home, I could see the scales tip from our house as anchor to some other place they had chosen as their home base.  I could see their world expanding--what they were interested in, who they called friends, how they spent their time. My husband has always been clear that our job was to prepare them for an independent life on their own. He explained to our sons that they needed to go into the the world and seek their destiny.  That reassured me that the sadness created by their absence would turn into something really good. Both of our sons are now in their first year of working full-time, after graduating from college. (One graduated a year early, the other took his time finding a job.  It is how each has approached life--one in a rush and one in no rush.) I have enjoyed seeing how they are making a life of their own. Their old bedrooms have been turned into guest rooms. I like having extra room for family and friends to visit. It's nice having a bathroom that doesn't get dirty so quickly. The carpet stays relatively clean. My husband and I like making the food we want to eat, without having to accommodate finicky palates. We like feeling confident that if we don't finish that peach pie or chocolate ice cream tonight, it will still be there in the morning. As my younger son, Andy, prepares to move from Colorado to California for his job, I am anticipating tears. But these are tears of gratitude, for the fine young man he has become.   As he moves to a new part of the country, I am glad that he will have another adventure. It's in his blood to be an adventurer. My older son, Casey, lives 15 minutes away, in Boulder.  The short drive is deceiving, because it doesn't speak to how far the journey has been.  When one of Casey's younger cousins who is in high school visited recently, he remarked how Casey looked all grown up.  Casey replied, "That's because I am grown up."  'Nuf said. When my sons visit, they truly are visitors. They come...and they go, with a warm smile and a "thanks for the the meal" good-bye.  Which says to me that they have found a place in the world to call their own, on their own.  That's just about the best thing that any parent could hope for.

I Am Not a Career Coach

"I'm not a career coach."  I uttered these words to an acquaintance yesterday, after an event, where the speaker (a friend) had just finished talking about career reinvention. Photo by Erich Ferdinand. That's an odd thing to say for someone who has made her living for the last 13 years by helping professionals find more meaningful work. But it's true. I'm not a career coach.  What am I then? I'll get to that, but first some background. I seem to help others with whatever I've just been through myself. After I changed careers, from 20 years as an engineer to career coach and writer, I helped others make career shifts.  I started my business, Carol Ross and Associates in 2003. After I built a following, and established my brand with a clear story, I helped others do the same.  In 2013, I created the tagline, "I help misfits find their place in the world" and re-branded under Stand Out and Belong. I emphasized Self-Mastery, Story, and Tribe as the elements for walking your own path. I still identified with being a career coach, although a pretty non-traditional one. After the last 18 months of immersing myself in Great Story work, I have plumbed the depths of my inner world. I have uncovered more of how I get in my own way, by studying the ways of my Negative Ego. I have experienced the beauty, grace and courage to be connected to all of my emotions, including ones that I've been denying for decades. I have created magic, through my resonance. If all of this sound esoteric, it's not. Becoming intimate with my inner world has impacted my daily life, my relationships, my business. Each day, I step more into of my Great Story, one where I let go of proving, use my emotions as breadcrumbs back to my whole self, and learn about forgiveness.  I am experiencing, in a way I have never before experienced, how I am the author of my story. As I have dismantled self-sabotaging patterns of thought, feeling and behavior, I help others to do the same. As I have created magic, by focusing on my resonance, so have my clients.  As I have been able to hold more light, so it is for those I serve. This brings me back to the realization of my shifting identity.  I'm not a career coach.  The work I do helps professionals step into the job of their dreams. However, I don't care what your resume looks like. I abhor elevator pitches. I think it's nice to take an inventory of your skills and your likes and dislikes from past jobs. But that's just an attempt to satisfy your Negative Ego that you are doing something productive. It's scratching the surface of something that is much more profound: What you came here to do matters. Your life is a reflection of a soul-designed purpose. Yeah, I know the skeptic in your head when you hear words like "soul" and "what you came here to do".  She lived in my head for many years. I kicked her out a few months ago.  She stopped paying the rent. The eviction was long overdue. My skeptic was the part of me who didn't want to be disappointed. That's what would happen if I bought into a higher power, a more grand design of my life that is cloaked in mystery. What if there was nothing there? It would be like discovering that the Wizard of Oz was just an ordinary man behind the curtain. Ouch. What I know now is that my connection to a higher power allows me to stand  on higher ground.  I help others find their way to higher ground. When this happens they can see more, be more, get that dream job, live that ideal life. They step into their Great Story and experience the joy and responsibility of intentionally creating their reality, while working in partnership with the unseen. Yeah, that's another word to throw at your skeptic, "unseen". This is a long way from the title of "Career Coach".  What do I call myself instead? I'm not quite sure. What I am sure of is that I'm not a career coach. What I know is that I help those who feel lost in the wilderness of their career. And that in guiding them to higher ground, healing happens and truth gets uncovered.  That makes me smile.

Gifts of Joy and Playfulness

I grew up playing the flute, starting in fifth grade, and continuing through my freshman year in college. I was not particularly talented, but I worked hard. The musical notes were something to master as a technician. The competitions and auditions were a source of pride.  Being musical also paved the way to belonging. Doing well meant that I was part of numerous school groups as well as city and state youth groups. Photo by Zoltan Voros. Music also gave me an outlet for expressing teen angst. I could bury loneliness in hours of practice or give voice to an adolescent crush with a siren's song. Occasionally, it was a portal to joy. But mostly, I practiced out of a fear of being humiliated and a drive to achieve, rather than a love of making music. I perform. As an adult, I played sporadically. In my twenties, I played in a band that practiced during my lunch hour at work. Geeky engineers, gathering to make music.  In my forties, I was in a community band, made up of working adults who enjoyed playing together one night a week.  We weren't great, and our concert audiences consisted mainly of family and friends.  My husband would attend with our grade-school aged sons in tow. We made a deal that I would show up for their school concerts if they showed up for mine. About ten years ago, I abandoned the flute. Practicing felt hard. Even worse was the voice of my Negative Ego, berating me. Everything about my playing was inferior to what I remember I could do at 18 years old. Rehearsals were a validation that I was not enough.  With eyesight that would only get worse with age, and finger coordination that had deteriorated, I became discouraged. I believed the harsh voice in my head that said it was only a matter of time before I would be completely incompetent. I vowed never to let that happen. I stopped playing. I realize now that this is akin to closing my heart, so that I would never get hurt--and shutting out love and joy in the process. My husband, not being privy to the committee of voices inside my head, continues to see me as I saw myself decades ago. A decent player who is just a little rusty. Whenever he and I run into professional musicians (which is often in his line of business), he mentions that I am a flutist. Inside, I cringe. Last night, on the invite of my husband, I attended a concert given by an accomplished Venezuelan flutist, Marco Granados, who has a thriving career as a soloist.  The concert was organized by a former student of Marco's, and was held in a beautiful private home. An intimate setting for about 50 people, the audience was largely comprised of flute teachers and students and close friends of the organizer. We sat next to a high school junior and her mother. The daughter had the enthusiasm and vibrancy of someone who has found her passion.  The two of them had attended a master class given by Marco earlier in the day. The mother talked about Marco's love of teaching, remarking on his patience and thoughtfulness. I was intrigued to hear Marco play.  A man with a friendly smile, he was dressed in a dark shirt, dark pants, and an even darker bow tie. Without flute in hand, I would have mistaken him for a next door neighbor, stumbling upon a party. Before each piece he played, he provided cultural context, whether it was a dance that came from the oil-producing region of Venezuela, or a folk song inspired by Argentinian cowboys.  He spoke slowly and with a smile in his eyes, inviting the audience to drink in what they were about to hear. While the music history lesson was interesting, what was more striking was how he played. Yes, he had a rich tone, flawless technique, and soulful execution. But what I saw was more than that. This was a man who played with joyous abandonment, a musician steeped in playfulness, an explorer of the human heart.  Two hours after he started, Marco got a standing ovation. His first instinct was to wave the crowd off, as if to say, "Oh, no really, it's not necessary." After Marco finished playing, I stood in line to talk to him.  A young man was behind me and I asked if he was a student. He told me he was no longer a student, that he had stopped playing, and started again. And then he confessed, "It keeps me sane." When it was my turn to talk to Marco, I did what the girl in front of me did. I handed him sheet music I had purchased of two of his original compositions for his autograph. After he signed, I blurted out, "I appreciate your presence as much as your playing. Thank you for bringing YOUR joy." Something got stirred up inside of me. I found myself holding back tears, knowing that at any moment, I could be a blubbering mess, moved by the passion of a stranger. I told him I had been a flutist but had not played in a long time. I admitted that he had inspired me to play again. True to the nature of this man, he asked me, "Will you play again?" I don't remember what I said in response. But I was grateful for the question. As we left, the organizer asked if my husband and I would give a ride home to one of her flute students. "Mary" was one the youngest present, still in middle school, with a fresh face and a boy-like figure. We had a nice chat on the way home. When I asked her what she liked about playing the flute, she simply said, "I don't know. I just do." At 54 years old, I want to have the purity of a young girl who simply enjoys playing, the enthusiasm of that high school junior, and the courage of the young man in line who started playing again. I want to remember those young faces of the flutist. Thank you, Marco Granados, for showing me the joy and playfulness that is possible from playing the flute. What a huge gift you've given me. PS. Click here for a taste of that joy and playfulness. Marco Granados played this piece, just for fun, at the concert I attended.  It is his own composition.

Unexpected Gifts in My Closet

I love gifts. Especially unexpected ones. Photo by Andre P. Meyer-Vitali For as long as I can remember, I have put artifacts and mementos from my life in shoe boxes. In the early years, a shoe box became the keeper of handwritten letters, ticket stubs, and theater programs. In the middle years, I stored birth announcements, baby photos, and kids' letters to the Tooth Fairy and Santa Clause.  And more recently, my archives contained the markers of high school and college graduations, meditation retreats, and 50th birthday celebrations. This past week, I cleaned out my bedroom walk-in closet, in preparation for having our house painted.  And there on a high shelf, were the shoe boxes, a treasure trove of memories. Yet the real unexpected gift was finding journals from ten and fifteen years ago. In those pages, I met my younger self again, with all the angst that comes with parenthood and marriage, changing careers, and starting a business.  I first started journaling in 1999, as part of The Artist's Way practice of Morning Pages. What a gift to see the path I've traveled, to have compassion for the drama of my thirties, to remember the sweetness of young children and to feel the restlessness of being mid-career. Quite honestly, I had forgotten both the "good" and "bad" parts. In reality, there are no "good" or "bad" moments--only experiences that led to where I am now, and shaped who I hajournalve become. In re-reading my narrative of daily life, circa 2000 and 2005, I am reminded of my love for my children and my husband, the support I've received from mentors, bosses, colleagues, and friends, and the long standing bonds of family.  Photo by Jimileek I am grateful that this record exists, in my own handwriting. The mind trades in selective and fuzzy recollections, with a good dose of story-telling to fill in the gaps. To connect all of this to the visual images from photo albums is fascinating. I see the photo and think: "This is what I looked like."  But I read the journal and think: "This is what I felt." The emotional current in the river of life is what makes us who we are. Our outer "covering" is the result of that inner life. Thanks, Carol Ross, circa 2000, for documenting that emotional current and showing me in a deeper way who I am today.  

Falling In Love Again

When I took my first coaching training in 2003, I remember the feeling of a new world opening up to me--and the thrill of learning.  I soon discovered that coaching was not just a profession or a set of tools, but a way of life. The "being" of coaching translated into curiosity, playfulness, and exquisite listening. I began to peel off the layers of corporate "paint" that had accumulated from 20 years of working in large companies. I became more of who I was meant to be. I took additional advanced coaching training, putting new arrows in my coaching quiver.  It gave me great satisfaction to expand how I worked with both individuals and teams. But to be honest, I stopped learning the art of coaching after my first few years in business.  Instead, I focused more on the art of business--marketing, sales, product development.  The engineer in me was happy. Fast forward to 2011, when I burned out.  I was a mess. The engineer in me was frustrated at not having made a go of a second company, My Alumni Link (providing career development programs to university alumni associations).  The entrepreneur in me was ashamed that I had failed.  More importantly, the spiritual seeker in me was nowhere to be seen. I had neglected my soul for so long that I disconnected from the joy, magic and mystery of life. It took several years to rebuild, from the inside out--to upgrade the "operating system" of Carol, to reinvent my business based on service and gratitude, to return to the art of coaching. The result of this rebuilding is this: I fell in love again with life. And this past year, after being trained in a remarkable coaching methodology, called Great Story Coaching, I fell in love again with coaching. Today, my life--and my coaching--is infused with joy, magic, and mystery. I feel the joy of seeing clients break entrenched self-sabotaging patterns of behavior and step into a place of freedom.  Clients realize--and embrace--that they are whole, not broken. I delight in the magic of opportunities showing up for clients, opportunities that go beyond what they ever thought possible.  Clients land their ideal job or meet just the right person to help with a book. I savor the mystery of transformation. Clients report changes on many levels, from more confidence to physically standing taller to looking ten years younger. (Yes, hard to believe, but one client reported that after working with me, a friend remarked that she looked ten years younger.) No doubt about it, I am a better coach than I was a year ago. But even more, I am a better human being, having gone into deep emotional territory with my clients and myself. As I have let go of struggle (well, for the most part), in favor of embracing my Great Story, so have my clients. I know now that journeys are sacred, stories can hold us back or lift us up, and the future is determined by the resonance that we hold today, not the circumstances of the past. I am humbled by the magnificence of life and grounded by a deep knowing that I am connected to a higher power. This is what falling in love is like, to feel blessed to be alive and surrounded by all that is good. PS. If you are a coach and interested in learning more about Great Story Coaching, sign up for this free two-hour training on August 14, 2015.  When you sign up, you'll also get two downloads--a guide for what to listen for in the stories your clients tell you, and a Great Story Map that details the elements of the Great Story Coaching process. Photo by Christian Scheja

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