How to Turn a Physicist into a Life Coach

How to Turn a Physicist into a Life Coach

My wife, Bobbi, and I moved to the Washington, DC area in the fall of 1983. We had been living in Lubbock, Texas, where I had a post-doctoral fellowship to build a pico-second spectroscopy lab. If you're a laser, science, and engineering geek like me, that kind of post-doc is your idea of a good time. But all good things must end, and I had landed a one-year National Research Council fellowship at the Naval Research Laboratory. It was potentially renewable for a second year. Bobbi and I figured a one- or two-year lark in DC would be a wonderful diversion before we settled down somewhere else to get on with our real lives.

 CC BY 2.5,

CC BY 2.5,

Of course, one thing led to another and before I knew it, I was a Navy civilian scientist working hard on anti-submarine warfare in our nation's capital. Ten years or so of that was enough for me and I left NRL to work at a small, entrepreneurial firm. When that didn't work out, I worked for a buddy who had recently left NRL to start his own company making one of the first (rather bulky and heavy) tablet computers. When that one didn't work out either, I started my own networking service company that I eventually abandoned. From a certain point of view, all of these entrepreneurial efforts were abject failures. However, they were fun, exciting, emotionally enriching, and, shall we say, educational. They call them hard lessons for a reason. But failure is how you learn what it takes to be successful. So fail early and often.

When I had had enough of failing on my own, I decided to work as a contractor for a company that was soon to fail rather spectacularly in a collective way. Again, the work was a lot of fun and, strangely enough, some of the managers of the company sought my technical and managerial guidance, even though I was not an employee of the company. (Perhaps that's why they failed.) Because of this experience, I learned a lot about how an organization can succeed or fail. After helping close down that company's local facility, I took a job at a small, high-tech defense company - what is known in the local parlance as a Beltway Bandit.

Working for this small company was great fun for me. I wasn't conscious of it at the time, but I chose this company because its dysfunction was a perfect match for my own. (This is similar to how we choose our mates, by the way.) Because the company was small, I got to wear a lot of hats and take on more and more responsibility. These were some of the happiest years in my technical career. Eventually, the company was sold to a mid-size defense contractor who had heard that software was the wave of the future. We knew software and they didn't. It was a perfectly dysfunctional marriage in an almost surreal manner. When they finally sold us to an even larger defense company, our reputation with our customers was in the toilet.

Meanwhile, I had continued to climb the corporate ladder, learn new skills, and make more bucks. But the higher I went, the more miserable I became. Partly because I was now part of the dysfunction but, as I came to understand much later, mostly because I was not living my life authentically - I was not being true to myself. But I didn't know then how to live authentically. I knew just two things:  I wasn't happy, and I did not want another job in the defense industry.

After two or three years of this misery - every day dreading going to work in the morning - I finally did something about it. In November of 2012, I committed (in a private ceremony with myself) that I would find another way to make a living, a way that would restore joy and meaning to my life. Here is one of my favorite quotes about what happens when we commit:

When we conceive an enterprise and commit to it in the face of our fears, something wonderful happens. A crack appears in the membrane. Like the first craze when a chick pecks at the inside of its shell. Angel midwives congregate around us; they assist as we give birth to ourselves, to that person we were born to be, to the one whose destiny was encoded in our soul, our daimon, our genius.

When we make a beginning, we get out of our own way and allow the angels to come in and do their job. They can speak to us now and it makes them happy. It makes God happy. Eternity, as Blake might have told us, has opened a portal into time.

And we’re it.
— Steven Pressfield, The War of Art (Grand Central Publishing 2003)

I still get choked up when I read that last sentence. Because he's right. Three months later, salvation arrived in the form of a layoff. With a nice severance check in hand and a recent, small inheritance I was on my way. And I was headed toward real estate developer land.

I have always been handy. I love fixing broken things, making them new again. And I love creating beauty, whether it be a landscape, a piece of software, an electronic box, or a house. In the town where Bobbi and I live, it's possible to buy a modest-sized house for $500K - $600K, roughly double its square footage, then sell it for $1.2M or so. If you're good at it, you make a tidy profit each time you do it. I'd seen many of these houses be transformed by the two or three developers who are successful at it in this area, and I was convinced I could do it, too. Maybe even do it better. There's a word for that attitude - hubris.

I already had some real estate developer experience. In 2006, I bought a townhouse and partnered with a buddy to remodel it. It was to become a rental property, not a flip. I was the financial backer, the planner, the designer, and the organizational side of the partnership. My buddy was the experienced builder who would get it remodeled. Except that my partner had a day job, and a slightly different idea about how important it was to get the job done so we could get it rented. In truth, I had seen plenty of signs that he might not be the right guy. But I ignored them because I wanted to work with someone I liked and who liked me. And who would not prick my delusional belief that I was fully in control of the situation. After many months of delay and tens of thousands of dollars that did not need spending, I bought out my partner and hired someone to finish the job. And it worked! The house rented in a couple of weeks, the tenants stayed for four years, and, eventually, it started turning a profit.

So, into this new real estate venture, I put four or five months and a fair amount of money into creating my own brand new development business. I had a team of trades people, bankers, lawyers, financial planners, advisers, and real estate agents. And I had potential investors just waiting for me to come to them with offers. Only, I never went to them. Once I realized that I had done everything there was to do except get the money and start my first project, I sat down to decipher why I was stuck. Eventually it dawned on me that I only wanted to do the front end, the part that would let me be creative:  find the property, imagine what it could become, estimate what it would cost to turn imagination into reality, buy the property (before those competitors got to it), work with an architect to put my vision on paper, and then turn it over to someone else to handle the operational side of things. It was that last part that was the stumbling block - I didn't want to do the day-to-day running of the show - so I would need a partner. I'd had a partner once and had learned the hard way that choosing your partner is probably the most critical and dangerous part of the whole venture.

So I killed it - very quickly, once I saw the truth. In retrospect, a wise decision. And that's when my wife came to me and said, "Now that you don't know what you're going to do, maybe you'd be interested in reading this book. It's called Finding Your Way in a Wild, New World." "Oh?" I said. "Who's it by?" "Martha Beck," she said.

I knew about Martha Beck from her memoir Expecting Adam, about her experience at Harvard while working on her PhD and discovering late in her pregnancy that the son she was carrying had Down syndrome. It's a great book and a great story. What I didn't know about Martha was that she had continued to write, mostly best-selling self-help books, the most famous of which is probably Finding Your Own North Star. Or that she was a monthly columnist for Oprah's O Magazine. Or that if you know about Martha you are very likely a woman. A woman who reads O Magazine. Maybe even a woman who has some issues with men.

When it comes to learning from my wife, it's safe to assume that I'm a slow learner. But one thing I had learned over the years was to pay attention to her when she introduces something with a certain tone of voice and in a certain way. Such as, "There's this book you might be interested in …" So, I worked my way through the book I affectionately called Finding Your Way in Wild, Wonderful, West Virginia, or FYWWWWV for short. It took a few weeks because it's one of those self-help books that actually has you do work. And, at the end of it, I looked off into the distance and said, "Well, if I believe this shit, I want to help people."

At the time of this writing, that was two-and-a-half years ago. It has taken nearly all of that time for me to figure out that I really do want to help people. And to figure out how I want to help people. And why I want to help people. And it has been worth every gray hair on my head that wasn't gray when I started down this path.

So, how did I become a life coach? Well, when I started reading FYWWWWV, it wasn’t hard to discover that Martha Beck had a life coach training program. And a life coach can help people, right? What was hard, was discovering whether I wanted to learn to be a life coach with her. If you look into it, you'll discover that men are rare creatures in the Martha Beck world. You'll also discover that there's a certain segment of her following that I will affectionately call the Unicorns and Rainbows contingent. If you're a hard charging, competitive, arrogant male and a physicist on top of that, you might be forgiven for having second thoughts about wanting to hang out with that particular crowd.

But the reason I eventually decided to learn from Martha was the same reason I believe everyone comes to her work - she speaks eloquently and passionately about authenticity and finding one's true self. In believing in yourself. In believing that you have something to give the world. Something that can make a difference.

That and the rather bizarre fact that I intended to immerse myself in a sea of women, a circumstance that would bring up all of my unfinished business with my mother wounds. But would also provide the opportunity to start to heal them.

And so I went off to life coach school. Actually, I went off to Martha's ranch in California for a three-day workshop called Escape from the Man Cage. Twelve men working with Martha Beck, Koelle Simpson, and Michael Trotta. Michael is, as far as I know, the only male instructor for her life coach school. Man Cage was another one of those suggestions from my wife. She showed me the flyer for the workshop. It contained a photograph of a labyrinth underneath some live oak trees in a pasture on the ranch. There was something mysterious and magical about that photograph. I was instantly mesmerized and instantly sold on the idea of going. So, I did. And my cohort, the September 2013 Martha Beck Life Coach Training cohort, started our tele-classes the very day after Man Cage ended.

My introduction to Equus Coaching™ came on the last day of Man Cage. Koelle and Martha coached us men while we interacted with horses. I've written elsewhere about why I love working with horses to coach people. It was at this workshop where I fell in love with it. Even though Koelle made me cry. Actually, the horse made me cry. Actually, my tears were tears of joy that overwhelmed me when the horse came over to me of its own volition. This is called a "join up." I've seen many, many people cry when the horse joins up with them. You won't understand it until it happens to you. For me, although I didn't fully understand it at the time, it was about finally starting to believe in myself in a way that was open, acknowledged, and authentic. No more hiding to stay safe.

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