Biggest Strength

“For the icebreaker activity, find a partner, and try to discover their biggest strength.”

Heaven help me. I’m here in the city, tongue-tied, at a meeting of the College of Organisational Psychologists. The theme is Coaching Skills. I’ve been a coach for twelve years, I tell myself in my head. I am a registered psychologist.  So how come, when Martin and I begin talking, I blurt out, “My biggest strength is I can do lots of push-ups.” I want to sink into the floor.
“How many?” he asks.
I pause. “I don’t know. I’ve not tested myself lately. Fifty, maybe?”
Where do we go from here? I wonder.
He says he’s not going to enter a push-up contest with me. We both smile.
I ask him of his work as an organisational psychologist, and I ponder the path I left in 1999. All around me, there is talk of selection tests, performance management, leadership. It is my world, yet it is not my world.

When the time comes for Martin to introduce me to the group, the first thing he mentions is I teach BodyPump. Heads turn, a murmur fills the room. They are surprised too. I smile and nod.

What I am really thinking is: I don’t belong here. Just like at the Society for Industrial and Organisational Psychologists meeting in Montreal when I was still in graduate school, pursuing a Ph.D. My claim to fame at that event was not my research, but the fact that I won the women’s 5k race. There weren’t many women psychologists who ran.

At this event here in Melbourne, I shift uncomfortably in my seat. How do I explain who I am, what I do, to this group? I stumble over the words in my head. I am an inspirer, my Facebook Page says. I’ve written books. I coach. I speak. And yes, I teach BodyPump, three times this week in fact. Because BodyPump allows me to say what I came here to say: you are more than you think you are. And I can prove it to you. Come, lift this barbell, do this push-up, yes, on your toes, prove it to yourself. This is not theory. This is not talking about exercise adherence or motivation. This is front-line stuff, sweat and guts and tears. How do I explain about adventure racing and the woods, and how they informed my writing, how my books take people into the dark to show them the way back to the light?

We sit in the room on Queens Street in Melbourne, and talk about motivation theory. Self-determination. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The speakers are passionate but their words don’t resonate in me. Not like the words scapular retraction and rotator cuff. Not like the words mountain biking, trail run, boogie board.  I listen, and wait, reflect on similar lectures back in New York City a lifetime ago.

Then we come to the coaching section, where I coach, with another participant observing. This frightens me, being observed. What if I am awful? What if I’ve forgotten how to coach? But when we begin, the person I am coaching somehow opens. The observer is there, but I’ve forgotten him. I become absolutely involved in this woman’s problem, in hearing her, in searching for the threads of her speech which contain her answer. She is effusive, hands waving, voice lifted, eyes shining. At one point, I stop her. “So this new work, this is like your dream, then?” Our eyes meet. I see tears in hers. “Yes, it is my dream.”

In that moment, I know I am in the right room, the right profession. Theory informs; I am here simply to gain some extra theory to underpin my work, to provide an extra scaffold on which to hang my questions.

But beneath that, I am here to remind myself who I am, what I do. Someone asks me later if I’ll be drawn more into work as an organisational psychologist. I look away. I will always be a maverick, wearing more than one hat, shifting and changing, hard to still. “No, I don’t think so”, I reply, after a long pause.  In my head, I’m realising that I’ve carved out an ideal path, the path that lines up perfectly with who I am.

At the end of the workshop, I tell the woman I have coached I’d like to continue to ponder her problem – it bothers me that we haven’t had time to fully address it tonight. She looks surprised. “You do this because you really love it.”
“Yes,” I say. “I do.”

At a crossroads

As I prepared my talk for the book signing last weekend, I had the chance to contemplate why I wrote Akilina: Out of the Woods.  At first, I thought I would tell everyone about myself, then about how Akilina came to be.  I ran through the talk aloud a few times, but though the words were all true,  something was wrong in the telling of it.

It wasn’t as if I had created this book — it was more like this book had created me.

One day, in 2003, I’d sat down in Starbucks on Caine Road in Hong Kong, as I often did.  Staring out the window at the traffic, at the people hustling by, I contemplated my path.  Then I opened my notebook and began writing.  I was “practicing” my writing, going deep inside to write about what I was feeling, but writing about it in the third person (she was feeling this, she was feeling that).  I only wrote one page that day.  It was about a woman who was alone at the end of a trail, who didn’t know where to go next.

That woman was me.

You see, I’d created a successful personal training business in Hong Kong, was known as an inspiring BodyPump instructor, and was meeting everyone’s needs but my own.  For years, I’d worked to combine the physical and mental nature of my work — I was both a psychologist and a personal trainer, but somehow, I had lost the psychology side of my work.  This was my crossroads.  I didn’t know where to go next, how to continue my quest to inspire large numbers of people, while being true to both of my passions.

So I began to write about it.  To write myself out of it.  I wrote of dreams I’d had, frightening experiences, uplifting experiences.  I wrote of what I knew — running in the woods, scrambling up waterfalls, facing down my darker side and learning how to let it works it’s power in positive ways.  I wrote to free myself from where I’d gotten stuck.  And I wrote to free others, by sharing what being stuck felt like.  To figure out how to break free.

I wrote the first draft of my book in three months, and then we adopted our children.  Having tiny babies, I suddenly saw just how self-absorbed the heroine in my novel was — perhaps how self-absorbed I had been myself — and rewrote the book to turn around the fate of a baby lost in the woods.  As my babies grew, my book grew.   It began as a 90-page novella and ended as a 364 page novel.

Reading the final draft before sending it to the printer, I saw that this book was all I was — hugely physical, a combination of dark and light, with a large dose of self-doubt and what I hoped was a larger dose of courage.

The book complete, I looked around myself, and realised I was no longer stuck.  Through my writing, I had forged a new path for myself, as coach, writer, and inspirer.

So to tell you how I came to write Akilina is really to tell you how I came to write my own life.  Now, a mother of two, a wife, content at the place I have reached, at the ability to once again motivate both mind and body, I see this novel for what it was: a pathway forward.

What I hope, when I look deepest within myself, is that this book forges pathways forward for all who read it.  Sometimes, when readers approach me with a certain look in their eyes, a look which says, thank you, now I feel less alone, I feel I have achieved this.  Helped them find their path again, as writing this book helped me find my own.

Photo shoot for Bayside Literary Festival

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In two hours, I am scheduled to be photographed with a group of writers for the Bayside Literary Festival.  Imposter Syndrome is hitting hard!  Yes, I am a writer.  Yes, I’ve published two books.  Written for newspapers and magazines and talked on the radio.

And yet…

First of all, I’m not sure what to wear.  That’s me up above…that’s what I wear in real life…when I’m doing my true passion, adventure racing  And that’s the passion that has driven my writing — the link between physical and mental, between body and soul.  I suppose I’ll have to go in gym gear, but does this undermine the serious nature of my work?  I tried getting dressed up in “smart casual” clothes for a Bayside Business Network meeting.  I looked the part, but I felt a stranger to myself.  Luckily, I don’t own any high heels, so I couldn’t make the mistake of wearing those.  By nature, I move fast.  I’m like the kids in the playground at school who run everywhere they go.  I can’t do that in heels.  And I have to ride my bike to the photoshoot.  So gym gear it is.  At least that’s decided.

I’ll tell you the truth.  My real dread is not the clothes.  My real dread is that someone will say something about grammer — like that time someone in my writing group said, “he uses too many adverbs”, and my mind went kerchunk and I was back in High School English, bored to tears, and writing stories in the margins of my notebook as the teacher discussed that horrible little white grammar book that still sends shivers up my spine when I see it in writing sections in bookstores.  I love words, shaping sentences to convey meaning — I just don’t want to box my sentences in with rules.  I want them to run free, and wild, and a little out of control.  Like me, I suppose.  So yes, worrying about grammer is giving me the shivers too.

An aside.  I submitted a book to a writing center for feedback once.  The editor, the critic, the bearer of scary english-teacher words stalled my work.  I had handed over my power, asked if the work was good enough and when she said no, I ran away trembling for a year.  I think we’re all afraid our work is not good enough.  But somewhere we have to draw a line in the sand.  Do the absolute best we can.  Then become that kid who says, “Yes it is!” when the critic says, “No it’s not.”  Because is the end, saying nothing is worse than saying it a little wrong.

Back to the photoshoot.  The smile for the camera thing is worrying me too.  I can climb a mountain, scramble up a waterfall, abseil down a rockface.  But I can’t smile on cue.  My face re-arranges itself into some strange shape, that I think should resemble a smile, but when I see the photo it doesn’t.  I want the photographer to hide out in the woods, to catch me on the trail, where I’m lost in the heart of the moment, and the smile is coming from deep inside.

Well, here’s what I’m going to do.  I’m going to wear my gym clothes, ride my bike fast into the wind, let the wind blow away all these scary thoughts.  Then I’m going to go have this photo taken of me exactly as I feel in that particular moment.  I think people come to me for authenticity.   Not for grammar.  For guts.  Time to find them again.

Funny how the little things can be scarier than the big ones!

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Postscript…

Ah, the irony — all the other authors seemed just as nervous as I was.  And the most nervous of us all?  The photographer!  She had a new camera that she wasn’t sure how to work.  I’ll post the good photos when I get my hands on them…

Heart-soaring moments of joy

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It is a cool autumn day in Melbourne.  I began the day downcast, wondering how to go about furthering my mission.  You see, I’d just had a huge success.  I’d published my second book.  Fought against the odds to get the printed book made, the eBook created, managed to figure out the US tax system to get the book up on Amazon.com, to get a print book available for my US custumers via CreateSpace, and on and on and on.  I’d set up a YouTube Channel, a Facebook Page.  I’d even tried Facebook and LinkedIn ads.  I had followers.  And yet, I had begun to see why the big publishers don’t want to deal with new authors — the work to make us visible in this world is enormous.

And I’d bit off this task.  This enormous task.

With two young children, two small kittens who like to sit on my lap and bite my fingers as I type, and a husband across the hall looking for work.  With a garden to look after.  A house to clean.  Laundry and groceries and school pick-ups and how in the world was I ever going to do this…

I took a deep breath.

This is my mission.  To show people what can be done.  With persistence.  With great determination.  By chopping and changing and ducking and weaving and keeping trying when the mountain seems ever so high.

Because if I can do it, so can you.  That’s why I must make Akilina: Out of the Woods a success.  To show others the way.

Join me on this journey.  There will be heartache, tears, frustration, no doubt.  But there will also be heart-soaring moments of joy.

I will lead the way.  I promise.