In my work at Stanford my colleagues and I often demonstrate various coaching skills by coaching each other in short (10-20 minute) sessions in front of a class of students. We determine ahead of time who'll be coaching and who'll be getting coached, but nothing else is pre-prepared or scripted. It's all live--the "coachee" comes in with a real issue, and the coach does whatever they think will be useful for the coachee.
Last week I was coached in front of our new Leadership Fellows by my (brilliant) colleague Yifat Sharabi-Levine, and even though I expected something valuable to come from the experience, I was surprised by how provocative it turned out to be.
First, some background: Over the past few years I've become increasingly interested in the implications of neuroscience research for the practice of coaching and interpersonal effectiveness more generally. This summer I lined up a series of books on neuroscience and cognitive psychology that I planned to read, reflect upon and write about. I started with William James' Psychology: Briefer Course to provide a historical foundation and then jumped ahead 100 years to Antonio Damasio's Descartes' Error. So far, so good.
But then I hit Joseph LeDoux's The Emotional Brain, and the intense intellectual stimulation I experienced as a result was a double-edged sword. I took pages and pages (and pages) of notes, but ultimately stalled while trying to distill what I learned into a post I could publish here. (I'd come dangerously close to the same fate while writing my post on Damasio's book--and I finished it only by giving up on trying to edit it down to a reasonable length.)
Life's kept me plenty busy the past few months, but I certainly could have found the time to finish this essay--and yet I didn't. One might say the perfect had become the enemy of the good. But even this formulation, which I've found useful in getting "unstuck" many times, failed to help. And then the Fall Quarter started at Stanford, and I knew that any meaningful treatment of this material was going to have to wait. And that just pushed me past mild irritation into full-fledged anger at my failure to get this damn thing done. And then two useful things happened:
1) I realized that my perfectionism was not only crippling me as a writer but was also starting to affect me as a coach. As a writer, my perfectionism was preventing me from tackling a project because I didn't think it would be good enough--but who's going to miss one unwritten essay from me? I could let that slide for a long time. But as a coach, my perfectionism was taking me to task at a deeper level because I couldn't resolve the sort of issue I help clients and students with all the time, i.e. perfectionism. The irony doesn't escape me, but my perfectionism was telling me, "Coach, heal thyself!" and then judging me harshly for failing--and that bothered me.
2) And then I had this mini-coaching session with Yifat, which I went into knowing I wanted help on this issue but with no specific outcomes in mind. In a lovely and creative move, Yifat had me talk to my perfectionism, literally speaking to her hand, which she held out in front of me. I wanted to tell it "Back the fuck off!" and I did, speaking louder and louder as Yifat literally stepped away. And then I realized that I didn't want my perfectionism to leave--I just wanted to be in a different relationship with it. In our conversation I had metaphorically envisioned my perfectionism as a snarling dog, threatening me, keeping me cowering in the corner, practically paralyzed. And that's not sustainable--it's stressful and boring. But my perfectionism has also served me well in many ways over the years, and I don't want to part with it. I want to maintain it as an aspect of myself, but with a different relationship to the rest of me. I want it to be a partner who'll support me, who'll challenge me, who'll help me achieve great things. And I began to envision it transformed from a snarling dog into a happy companion.
This is hardly the first time I've wrestled with this issue--it's one of my perpetual challenges, and I've made progress on it in many areas of life. But this was an particularly important chapter in that story, and I'm eager to see what happens as a result. Thanks, Yifat--I'm very grateful.