“What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
I heard this question from Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day,” for the first time in 2006 in an evening program about life coaching at the New York Open Center. At the time, my life was completely full as a mother, wife, IT project manager for a major pharmaceutical company, and caregiver for my mother whose cancer would soon take her life. I wanted so desperately to fulfill each of my roles well, but somehow I just never felt on top of them all. The timing felt lousy, but the question persisted: what did I plan to do with my one, precious life?
Something deep inside was calling me to look at my life in a whole new way. The safety of a regular paycheck and society’s definition of success no longer felt like enough—a different life path was calling me strongly; one that involved helping others, and that call was impossible to ignore.
So, in September 2006, I followed that call and enrolled in the Coaching for Transformation course. In 2007 I was certified as a life coach, but that was just the beginning of what was about to unfold.
The road leading up to that day was the path my hard-working, working class parents had dreamed of for me. They believed that hard work, strong values, Christian faith, and education would change the course of our lives. My parents sacrificed so much to give me and my brother the opportunities for higher education they never had for themselves, growing up poor and Black in the 1920s and 30s.
With a 4-year scholarship and my parents’ help I went to college, and after graduating got a job, got married, bought a house and car and had a son. Wasn’t that the path to the “American Dream?” I had so much to be grateful for but felt that something was missing—something I couldn’t quite grasp and which I felt ashamed to admit out loud. The material signs of success were there but deep inside things felt really off track.
Therapy, self-help books, religion, prayer, journaling and spiritual exploration were all important parts of my journey that helped me move from depression to feeling okay, but the questions of right livelihood and life purpose still plagued me. During and after my coaching training, things began to shift.
While learning to help others live their best lives, major changes started unfolding in my own life. Through my training, I became skilled in the power of curiosity, full presence, acceptance, deep listening, and empowering questions to open people up to the possibilities that lay dormant or not fully blossomed within them. I learned how to tap into the wisdom of the body.
As I received coaching, I started seeing growth and positive changes in my personal and professional relationships that really blew my mind. I felt like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. The analytical, left side of my brain, opened to the wondrous world of the right side of my brain—filled with images, metaphors, movement and insights drawn from deep within.
As I learned how to help others access their resourcefulness, creativity and inner wisdom, I was amazed to see how much more of those very same things I accessed for myself as well. I began to feel much more connected to my African roots and to the wisdom of the ancestors I had ignored for far too long while juggling everything in my overly fast paced life.
In 2008, after months of sacrifice, I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in Ghana, Togo and Benin in West Africa. From the minute I stepped off of the plane in the dark of night in Ghana, I experienced a very powerful and visceral sense of coming home. Although the slave trade my ancestors were subjected to made it impossible to know exactly where in Africa they originated, I felt their presence strongly in Ghana as we toured the route that enslaved Africans traveled and the dungeons where they were housed before being shipped to the Americas.
As I spent time in rural Ghanaian villages and felt the strong sense of community there, a place of emptiness and longing in me began filling in and a new, strong connection to the ancestors, to old ways and to community began to emerge. There was much to learn from this place.
As I deepened my connection to my own culture, authentic self and ancestral wisdom, I also developed more cultural awareness—becoming curious, accepting and respecting of others’ beliefs and cultures in ways that build bridges and connection instead of silos and distance. I learned that releasing judgment and withholding advice can create a deep pool of discovery and possibility.
Several themes began to emerge for me: community as a village, equipping our youth to be successful, caring citizens who live by values that enhance life for all, supporting the adults in their lives so we all serve the youth more effectively, and supporting people to communicate, collaborate and advocate in ways that help them achieve common visions.
Those themes and my growing desire to make a difference, led me first to the Alternatives to Violence Project in 2010 where I trained to become a co-facilitator for prison conflict prevention and conflict resolution workshops.
My time spent in weekend workshops in heart-to-heart conversations with men and women caught up in the criminal justice system, helped me discover my true life’s work—using my coaching skills to support people in community settings to co-create the positive changes they are working to bring about in their lives and communities. I began to more clearly see the impact of poverty, abuse, addiction, educational inequalities, joblessness and mass incarceration of Blacks and Latinos in low income communities of color.
The weekend prison conversations and insights launched me on a path that now has me using my coaching skills in innovative and fulfilling ways in a number of community settings. It’s clear to me that the skills that supported my transition from a depressed overachiever with low self-esteem to a confident business owner committed to personal, organizational and community change can equally empower and support transformation in others in cities like the ones in north Jersey where I grew up.
Today my life is full, but in a very rewarding way. That fulfillment comes by helping others work to overcome the obstacles that get in the way of living the lives they want for themselves, their families and their communities. This comes in many forms: supporting individual clients, training people to become professional or community coaches, teaching coaching skills to educators, nonprofit service providers and community members, or volunteering coaching at a homeless shelter. Regardless of the venue I’ve discovered that in serving others, I receive much more than I give. Although that’s never the intention, it’s definitely a reward.
I’m continually amazed that a single, thought-provoking question can alter the course of someone’s life so significantly. It happened in my life and I see it every day with the people I work with as a coach. The question that I heard that evening in 2006 contributed to me leaving the safety of the corporate world to start my own business as a coach and eventually to become a leader of the training I stumbled upon that Friday evening.
Powerful questions continue to drive me personally and as a coach, trainer and facilitator—from supporting individuals to bring their dreams to life, to the work my colleagues and I at Leadership that Works do to train coaches and make coaching skills available to people everywhere.
The Mary Oliver question still stands out to me to this day, and I’ve finally answered it. Instead of just dragging myself to work each day, I’m living my life purpose: doing the work I love; helping others live their lives with the hope, fullness and passion they desire and deserve, and supporting people in communities to collaborate, empower and advocate so all residents can thrive. For me it was through my coaching training that I answered the questions that led me to find, and live, my life purpose. What is it for you?
Here are some questions for you to consider in your exploration:
- What are five things that make you feel really alive and happy?
- What’s a dream you have for your life?
- What’s an issue you really care about?
- What’s your commitment to co-creating a change you want to see?
- What’s one step you will take today to make that change a reality?
- What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
About the author:
Sharon Y. Brown is a Certified Professional Coach, a member of the International Coach Federation (ICF) and a faculty member at Leadership that Works. In addition, Sharon is committed to teaching coaching skills that help individuals, families, organizations and communities thrive and to bringing coaching services to people who have not traditionally had the economic means to access them. Learn more about Sharon at www.collaboratechange.com