My journey & yours

I started my PhD envisioning that I would teach at the college level, but in the intervening years I came to really enjoy my work in the software industry, as well as the quality of life that work afforded.  I was also comfortably settled in Philadelphia, and unwilling to move for my job at that point.  So when I finished my PhD in 2004 I was a little lost about what I wanted, what my priorities were, and what I should do next. Late in the year I was at a low point in my career.  I had a crummy performance review in which I was basically told that my management saw lots of potential but I seemed unable to make the changes that would be required for me to advance my career at the pace I desired.

During that time I was lucky enough to be introduced to a coach named Shirley who helped me gain clarity about what I wanted, which in turn helped me develop the focus and poise that I needed to move forward in my professional life.  Not only did her style suit me well, but she had coached anthropologists at PARC and had worked in the Operations arena herself.  I was very lucky to have made a connection with someone who was such a good fit for me.

I’ve spoken about the process many times and to many different people, so I thought it might be useful for others to document the exercises that I worked through during the course of my early work with Shirley.  I hope you will find them as beneficial as I did!  I believe that much of this approach is based on Ellis’ book Falling Awake, though I have not read it myself.  The major steps we worked through included Values & Purpose, Appreciations, and Goals.  I personally derived the most value from the Goals work, but I also know that the progression through all of these steps is what enabled me to benefit from that particular exercise.

Values & Purpose

Our values describe how we see ourselves, our deepest commitments, the ground from which our actions spring.  When we say that we want to be more loving, wise, or joyful, we are in a conversation about our values.  We can balance our wants in the domain of circumstances (what we have to have) with our wants in the domain of action (what we want to do) and the domain of values (who we want to be).  We are more than just human havings or human doings – we are human beings.  Values are our fundamental commitments, our highest principles, the things in life that we consider worthy for their own sake.  Investing time and energy to define your values and then align your actions with them is a pivotal step on your journey to clarity about your life and your future.

These exercises are not a time to consider specific, attainable goals (things to have or do), but rather a time to reflect on more fundamental choices about who you are and who you want to be.  Complete the following sentence with several answers:  I discovered that I am committed to being … which means … For example, I have discovered that I am committed to being detached, which means impartial, unbiased, satisfied, patient, without distress.

Having a succinct statement of your overall purpose in life can be a huge help in determining what you want.  Your purpose is an umbrella, something that’s big enough to include all that you want in life – everything that you want to have, do, and be.  An effective purpose statement tells you when goals or behaviors are off-track.  With your purpose firmly in mind, you can make moment-to-moment choices with clarity and integrity.

Complete either of the following sentences: I discovered that my purpose is to … or I intend to … Prompt yourself with questions like What am I striving for?  What is the aim or goal of my life?  What am I determined or resolved to achieve with my life?  Some examples of purpose statements include:

My purpose is to live, learn, love, and laugh.
My purpose is to be loved and be loving.
My purpose is to have a great time and laugh a lot.
I intend to seek to release suffering and serve others.
I intend to promote evolutionary change and be a catalyst for growth.

If you have no idea what to write, put something down as a starting point.  I really struggled with this exercise, so I focused on how I wanted to feel, and continued to refine the statement as I became more clear through the Goals exercise.  It may also help to write a purpose for the different aspects (e.g. work, family) of your life.


This one is super-simple, and perhaps the most important exercise that Shirley gave me.  The task is quite simple – write down three things that you appreciate, celebrate, or enjoyed that day.  And do it every day.  I have the tendency to see my glass as half-empty instead of half-full, and this exercise really helped me see the positive things in my life, however small.  Writing them down also helped me see a pattern in the things – the most simple things, really – that give me joy.


As Shirley and I were getting to know each other through these early exercises, she asked me to send her my thoughts regarding my personal life, my anthropology, and my professional life, including what I liked and didn’t like about where I was, and what I hoped for the future.  Over time, I took that early content and incorporated it into the exercises which helped me get clear about my Goals and how I hoped to accomplish them over time.

  • For starters, don’t get bogged down in the moment.  Forget where you are right now and think about life in the future – anything is possible!  Make a list (or index cards or post-its) of all that you want in your life, big and small.  Don’t stop until you have identified everything that would give you the life of your dreams.  I typed my list in an email and sent it to myself, adding things over a period of a couple of weeks.  By the time I was done, my list was over two pages single-spaced.
  • After creating that exhaustive list, try to group the list in a meaningful way.  I had started with personal, anthropology, professional based on my early conversations with Shirley, but it changed significantly when I realized that I wanted professional and anthropology to be one and the same.
  • The next step is to rate the importance of the items in each category – A for now, B for soon, C for someday, D for deferred, O for obligation (I only ranked A, B, and O items).
  • And then the real work begins.  Within a category of ranked items, get very specific.  Not about how but rather what it would look like, feel like … with whom, where, when, etc.  It is so important to be specific because it’s much easier to manifest that way.  Focus on your desires and be honest about what you really want.  You can’t get there if you can’t admit the desire to yourself first!
  • Finally, starting with the As in each category, write down all the different ways that you can get those things. Think about what you would need to change in your daily practices to get from where you are today to where you want to be.  Focus on a two-year horizon, and get very specific about how you can get towards those goals.

As I mentioned earlier in this post, I found this exercise to be the most beneficial for me.  I actually accomplished some items very very quickly – some of them even before I finished the list – because I was so clear about how I wanted to achieve those goals.  In the year following the completion of my dissertation and my first year of coaching, I conducted my first anthropologically-grounded research at SAP, and I was promoted to Director.  In other words, the coaching worked for me!

So that’s it!  It’s been a couple of years since I did these exercises the first time.  I went back and looked at those exercises recently and much of what I wrote down still holds true.  However, it’s clear that both the goals and the practices need to be adjusted to reflect the reality of my life today.  So the final step in the journey is a simple one … iterate!  And enjoy!

3 Comments on “My journey & yours”

  1. Pingback: On being busy | Natalie Hanson, PhD

  2. Pingback: On being busy | Natalie Hanson

  3. Pingback: Gratitude | Natalie Hanson

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