I am 54. Almost exactly two years ago my treatments for breast cancer had been successfully concluded. I had overcome chemotherapy and radiation treatments, my hair was growing back – and my right breast was still in place. Even before I entered the period of illness I had been quite interested in the topic of “self development” but in the 6 months of sick-leave and during the ensuing confrontation with the “why” of the illness I immersed myself still deeper into the subject. I read my way through most of the pertinent literature, completed six diary books … and slowly learned to sort out the sheep from the goats.
Barbara Sher is 74. She has been working successfully with people for 40 years, for the last 30 years she has been publishing about and practicing her very own kind of “career and/or life counseling.” She created the concept of “Success Teams” and travels the world, today as always, sharing her deep-felt knowledge that we owe it to ourselves and to the world around us to find and live our very own, very special talents. And to be able to find exactly what makes us “burn” (and makes us whole), we need the help and support of a group. This group motivates us, keeps us on track – it is a freely chosen control medium to help us get where we want to be – while at the same time offering a wide gamut of information supplied by all the other group members. Barbara Sher lives in New York and gives seminars and workshops all over the globe.
Should I really fly to Corfu to participate in the Sher-workshop? I am a bit overwhelmed by the cost, which seemS beyond my budget. I have also been on vacation twice this year, will my boss let met go away for yet another week? Do I NEED this workshop after all?
After receiving a pleasantly high tax return payment I decide to be good to myself and I book the week on Corfu. It is a fact after all that I learned the most from Barbara Sher’s book during my introspective period in the last two years. With her down-to-earth, up-beat approach and the many practical exercises, she made me grow and understand and bring a lot of floating details together and I found myself understood in a way that none of the other books quite managed to achieve.
Funny thing: for the longest time I had skirted around reading her books, being turned off by both the titles and the cover design of the English originals, to me, a rational German with a rather zen-type design taste, the books looked at first sight much too “positivistic American”, too “tchakka, I can do everything.” Only after a woman friend with a very critical mind repeatedly nudged me to read them, did I finally give in.
Only to find out that nothing could be less true: Barbara Sher is no guru of positivism, doesn’t sell easy answers or promises easy wish fulfillment. Barbara is a colorful strong personality, vivaciously matter-of-fact, practical and seasoned. She has weathered the peaks and valleys of life herself and she doesn’t want to turn us into “better people”. No, quite the contrary. She is more than aware of and realistic about the incredible resistance in us which tends to immobilize us, sometimes totally, sometime partly. If we want to work with our talents, want to live our passions, then this resistance needs to be overcome. And, according to Barbara, this can be done by approaching it in a loving and playful way, and by being very respectful towards our own personal imperfections.
I am on the Greek island of Corfu and have a couple days to prepare fort the workshop. I make a map of my life again, of my several lives in Germany, in the U.S., in Italy, in Holland. I see again how important the student exchange year in Cleveland was, how enriching the years in college in Ohio, how difficult but instructive the two years in Italy. I look back on returning to Germany, acknowledge the solidity of two decades of working in PR as a single mom, cherish the more recent developments of a new husband in The Netherlands (getting married in Las Vegas 5 years ago). I try to look with renewed respect upon my collection of diplomas (beginning with the B.A. in psych, the translator’s diploma, the NLP master, the yoga teacher), gather before me my many activities: the longtime interest in Buddhism, travels all over the world, my small and not very successful enterprise of a gallery for modern art from Nepal and publishing a first book of Nepalese short stories and poetry.
Where do I see my own ONE VERY SPECIAL TALENT ? And why can’t I ever seem to become a real specialist in the one perfect passion? Am I complaining on a very high level? Will Barbara Sher, with her special intuition and experience, come up with something totally new for me? Have I been on the wrong track all along? Or totally off any track? I am so very intrigued …
We are 13, and there are even four men in the group. Five of us come from Germany, one woman from Switzerland, one from Ireland, four from the U.S. and then there is a woman from New Zealand, living in London. Most group members are in the 35 to 45 range, I am the second oldest. Almost all of us are academic achievers and work in jobs ranging from good to very good, but somehow the work doesn’t seem to make us quite happy. We are all only too aware of the enormous diversity of our interests and we are suffering from the fact that we don’t seem to be able to commit ourselves to the one big passion. We’re painfully concerned that we’ll never amount to much of anything if we keep on dabbling in so many fields!
Without much ado or introductions we immediately begin with a typical Barbara-Sher-exercise: we separate into threesomes and get busy with the "Lying game“. Everyone has three chances to conjure up a wonderful life and tell the other two about it (e.g. as a famous opera singer, traveling the world, as a medical doctor in the Himalayas saving lots of lives), the wilder the better. That gets us loosened up and is fun.
In a second step I have to turn my back to the two others and they talk about me, describing my personality, while I have to be quiet and just take notes. It is flabbergasting how close tot he real me they get in their descriptions, how much they learned about me so quickly. It seems almost magic that this “good gossip” comes so close to reality.
After this special kind of introduction we all try to express why we are here. It becomes apparent very quickly, that we are so overwhelmed by possibilities (and talents) that we can’t possibly decide what it is that our heart really calls for. Barbara Sher decides to deliver some theoretical basics: we have lost our ability to feel what is really important to us (children can do that, but if we become very level-headed and responsible too quickly, then we loose the sensibility for the things we really love).
Society at large expects from us that we turn into specialists, but – according to Barbara, and here she has come up with a unique concept – there is a special group of people, she calls them "Scanners,“ who just tick differently: they go wide instead of deep, the need broad horizons instead of deeply diving into one subject. In the past these kinds of people didn’t have such a difficult time: they were highly respected even, they were renaissance people (see Da Vinci, or even more recently Albert Einstein). But today what counts is highly specialized knowledge, is the lone fighter.
With passion Barbara Sher continues to address her favorite topic, namely that, "Isolation is the dream-killer.“ To break the barrier of this isolation she has created the concept of success teams, groups of 5 to 7 people who get together regularly over a period of 10 weeks and longer. During the weekly meetings they learn tools and techniques to help each other discover their dreams, to sharpen them, to turn dreams into manageable goals, to break them down into small steps. Sometimes the group just generates ideas, sometimes people are actually personally assisted in their steps. What always works is the “control” exercised very naturally through the group: members promise to do certain steps until the next meeting, the get a reminder call from a buddy in the group during the week. And if you haven’t made any progress until the night before the next meeting, you’ll be sure to make some kind of move even this late date because you are held accountable by the group!
Sher is totally convinced that we owe it to ourselves and to the world to discover our own special talents, to accept them and to live them! Once we have really understood what makes us “burn,” then doing it won’t feel like work. We have to find out way back to a deep child-like curiosity; what makes us feel good, makes us feel whole, what moves us, what would we simply not want to miss doing?
To find out more about this we go through a variety of exercises in the days to come. As we are all Scanners, we have special problems with getting the focus right. Most of us also battle with our overemphasis on rational thinking, we get stuck in our heads. But we have to let go a bit, swing with our feelings, experience deep-felt wishes again.
And we have to watch out for a grand fallacy that makes scanners frantic and realize that we actually do have TIME. We won’t die tomorrow (that’s more easily said for the people without a history of cancer, of course), we have time to do things we love in a timely sequence. She reminds us of a very basic tool for “sequencing” things that Scanners tend to forget: the calendar.
And Scanners need to use at least a 5-year calendar. Such a calendar will relax Scanners into the reality of doing all the interesting things they want to do in sequence, each following the other in blocks of time, or even returning to earlier passions in cyclical way.
Some of us get stuck, though, and can't understand why we often just can’t seem to move forward, that we endlessly remain blocked. During the workshop there are several deeply moving sessions with individual group members, during which Barbara Sher works with "old baggage,“ where people get a chance to discover what it is in the make-up of their family background that might keep them so very blocked. When they are able to go deeply into old memories, old feelings, when they can allow these feelings to surface we catch glimpses of great sorrow, even grief. But we can also see and share the great relaxation after the waves of distress and pain have subsided.
When asked why these old issues come back to haunt us time and time again, even after having worked on them extensively in therapy, Sher answers in her typical down-to-earth way: it’s only natural that these feelings come back again and again (even when if they become a bit less powerful every time), because we are living beings, reacting to our environment and the people around us. We carry our own personal history and we have to confront it whenever it appears – just as we always have to eat and digest every day, have to drink and cannot escape going to the toilet some time later.
So we are called to develop the courage to create first goals for ourselves and present them in front of the group. What is our goal? What is our obstacle? The whole group reacts in a brainstorming session to our goal and the barriers we confront. It is absolutely amazing to see how many helpful pointers and actual leads come from the group. Someone actually knows someone who might help personally, or someone else has just incidentally read something about the solution to exactly my problem, or has heard about it or actually experienced it her of himself. It is incredible and downright inspiring how we motivate each other to come up with still better advice. …
And to further sharpen our dream we work with another of Sher's fantastic tools, the "self-correcting scenario“. Sher is herself an absolute master in this process of correcting a scenario, but some of us also quickly excel in asking just the right questions. After some brief explanation of an ideal scenario Sher amplifies the vision further and continues to ask again and again whether the subject is envisioning things correctly.
Even the most uninspired rationalist reacts to “wrong turns” in this vision-creation and slowly the mists lift and the vision becomes more clear. Now we are finally capable of imagining an ideal day in the future. We have come out of our heads and into our feelings and imagination. We have found our way back to our dreams.
There’s the dream of the single mom whose son has fled the nest and now she seriously wants to dedicate herself to writing. I envision with her the day of her departure for the third book presentation tour (she, in the fantasy has, of course, already published two successful books before).
Or there’s the business consultant who is finally celebrating his success singing in renowned jazz clubs. In my own “ideal day” I am standing with a steaming cup of coffee in the garden of my retreat center in Southern France. A lot of guests come to find out more about themselves in a variety of courses and workshops, but there are also resident artists from Nepal who reside in a special art studio. Everywhere on the grounds and in the building is modern art from Nepal and my book about the art scene of the Himalayan ex-kingdom is selling well…
I have finally managed to find a synthesis for my combined interests in art + Nepal + psychology. I am happy.
And happy I am here and now, happy that the pressure is gone. Happy to know that there is nothing wrong with me, that there are others who tick just like I do. Happy to know I have the time and – most importantly – the permission from myself to follow my diverse interests in my own personal way and in my own time. No longer judging myself because my goal is not the ONE GREAT PASSION and specialization but instead making progress – with my new friends behind me – on my own personal path, playfully, joyfully AND with power!
Information about the author and her work with Nepalese art/literature and a budding Barbara-Sher-Network in Holland via www.chautara.nl