Career Coaching Icon's New Book Echoes Our Collective Migration from Craving "Success" to Seeking "Meaning"
I first heard of Laura Berman Fortgang about 12 years ago, when I worked at Time Warner and enjoyed a perk of working for a large media company: Free magazines. Laura was featured in a business article about a new, emerging practice called career coaching. As a business and career writer, this was an area of interest to me, new ways of doing well at work. I liked that Laura approached business coaching not from the standpoint of how to tactically do one's job better--this is not typically an issue with high-performing Type-A executives on the East Coast--but more how one can perceive one's job differently. By looking at how we prioritize, and shifting misperceptions we've built in our minds about how we must do work, we can perform better AND be happier with our careers.
Later, in 2000, I read another story about coaching that featured Laura, who at this point was THE career coach. Though the story refers to coaching as "the Wild West of HR" Laura was critical to bringing in to the mainstream. She was the first career coach on Oprah. She'd written a book called Take Yourself to the Top, which spoke to this emerging need to make sense of the globalizing business world while still maintaining a sense of sanity. The title suggested, however, that though we might need to re-think our obsession with succeeding, we still couldn't jump off the treadmill. Rather we needed to learn to enjoy it. As a young professional at an emerging Web start-up with no family obligations or hobbies, this was music to my ears.
In 2002 I was introduced to Laura through a consulting partner and wondered how, in a short meeting, I should suck all of her knowledge out of her brain and store it for myself. We were meeting to discuss how we might help Laura, who at this point had forged a path for thousands of newly annointed career and life coaches and was seeking to understand the next step for herself. I was fascinated by her story, not only because I would consult for her, but because I was afforded an early view of her next transformation.
Laura's life had consisted of flying to Fortune 500 companies to speak en masse to employees, building a coaching program for coaches, and writing books. I was convinced that Laura was leading the life I wanted someday. But she seemed, in some small way, over it. I noticed that she worked harder than I'd seen anyone work to fit it all in while still being availble for her husband and three children. She was tired. I saw that, even while she spoke and wrote, and continued to be a force in the personal development world, she was looking for the next big thing. Not the next big trend, but the next personal revelation. She was no longer as passionate about simply succeeding.
Her work began to reflect this soul-searching. She enrolled in the seminary to become an Interfaith minister; something that I only marginally understood and chatted with her about from time to time, thinking her classes were like my semi-weekly meditation stints, which I took up to help me write and ended when I saw that they held no "professional" value. But Laura stayed committed to it, despite securing a contract for a new book that I--and likely most of the people who had been displaced during the downturn of 2000-2002--was dying to read: Now What?: 90 Days to a New Life Direction. Having emerged from my start-up's dissolution and second-guessing what I could bring to the corporate table, she couldn't write the book fast enough for me.
I went back to the corporate world and had to hang up my consultant hat. I'd been in touch with Laura here and there; she's a fiercely loyal holiday card writer. But several months ago we connected on Facebook, and I saw that she had another new book out, The Little Book on Meaning: Why We Crave It, How We Create It. I've got a stack of books on my dresser from PR folks that I intend to get to, but this one I knew I needed to read NOW. I waited a few weeks to bring it on my vacation earlier this month, and I ended up devouring this book in two days.
So why did this book sing to me? Like Laura's other books, she's hit a nerve of the collective sub-conscious. Sure, we want to do our jobs better and avoid being laid off, but somewhere deeper we want something else, just as Laura herself wanted to go deeper with her practice. We want to know that regardless of where this economy leaves us, we can find peace within ourselves. In my case, I've reached a place of greater satisfaction with my career direction and want to continue to find ways to tie all the areas of my life together. I'm finally understanding what Laura was experiencing in 2002.
I can best describe Laura's book by telling you what it is not: It is not inspirational without being practical. I recall titles like Neale Donald Walsch's Conversations with God and Deepak Chopra's Creating Affluence--all fine for quotable doses of spiritually uplifting concepts, or a taste of quantum physics, but Laura approaches spirituality like a buddy, willing to share deeply personal stories that tugged her in directions of understanding. You aren't reading a "guru", but someone on a familiar level who is incredibly gifted at sifting through the differences between unquestioning, fear-based faith in a higher being and simple moments of divinity.
I was particularly moved by how Laura shared deeply personal facts about her life that I was not aware of before. Coaching was, for Laura, a second choice of a career, and one that she entered having felt she'd failed at being an entertainer. It makes sense to me now, when I went to see her speak in the Bay Area and she ended her talk singing, why she had been seeking the next step in her coaching. Though she'd attracted audiences by educating them, she personally needed to inspire by emotionally and spiritually moving them. Readers will also realte to her own struggles with parenting, judging others, and inner-peace (yes, Interfaith ministers can still be rankled by obnoxious people on airplanes). Like memoir writer Elizabeth Gilbert, she takes a naked approach to enlightenment, and tells her story with a mommyblogger's candor.
Born Jewish, Laura backs away from dogma that no longer makes sense to her. She recalls going to temple as a child and then having a moment of clarity:
By the time I was sixteen, one particular sermon ended my particiation in any organized religion for a great long while. I still have the image vividly available to me of the rabbi leaning over the pulpit--white-knuckling both sides of it with his aging hands. He jutted his face out to the audience, squninting his eyes closed behid his Coke-bottle glasses, and said: "You don't do good deeds because you are a good person. You do good deeds because you are a good Jew. ...I no longer blame Judaism for my earlier disdain of organized religions, but it was those early experiences that made me realize that all the religions claim the same virutes to be their own and claim their path as the ultimate one to God.
She approaches some of the big questions of life using a multitude of belief systems and cutting them with common sense. In approaching the question, "If God exists, why do bad things happen?" she had to explore her own doubts, in no small part stemming from the suffering of her son, whose struggles with epilepsy has posed one of the greatest challenges to her belief in the necessity of evil to illuminate good.
This book felt to me to be the missing piece for Laura, who has now completely surrendered to a stronger calling than even she could have realized 10 years ago. We keep hearing that this recession is signaling a reshuffling of the deck, not just in terms of industries re-creating themselves, but in our own journies toward meaning. Unlike previous books in which she engaged us as an expert, Laura provides us no blueprints for finding the next step, but creates a space where we may discover it for ourselves.