Two fish and awareness

“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?”  The two young fish say nothing.  The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

These are the words that David Foster Wallace used to begin the Commencement address he gave at Kenyon College in 2005.

I find this a great short story.  How often do we find ourselves just going through the motions in life, missing out on what is really happening around us?

It is so typical to go through life in an unconscious mode.  We go about our daily routines, our 24 hours in a day, without really being aware of what is going on.  We can all relate to driving from one place to another and not remembering anything about the drive.  How about listening to someone speak or being in a meeting yet remembering almost nothing that was said later on?  Right now, they are painting the Dayton Marriott, but I can’t remember what the old color was even though I passed by it hundreds of times.  Might there be some person in our life that is looking for support, but we don’t see “the water”?

There is so much going on in the world around us, but we are in too much of a hurry to notice.  So that begs the question, What is your “water”?

The training I received at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland talked a lot about awareness.  The idea is that a coach’s role is to help the other person understand the “here and now”.  Only by grasping what is happening right here, right now, can we choose to make change.  This applies to life with or without a coach.  How often are our kids, our neighbors, our work colleagues or spouses trying to tell us something that we miss?  Heck, think about what WE try to tell OURSELVES and miss out on.  We are all besieged by a lot of messages and thoughts.  It is hard to understand where we are right now.  But it is critical for success, happiness and piece of mind.

Wallace in his speech talks about how we need to be “conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience“.  We are all capable of “constructing meaning from experience”.  Sometimes we feel like the world is against us, for example, when we are in the “slow” line.  More often we ascribe no meaning to things that happen around us.  It takes time and effort to construct meaning from those things going on around us.  But what “water” are we missing by not putting in the effort?

If you want to read the entire commencement speech, it is available here.  It is relatively short  –



Coach vs. coach


Recently I saw an article written by another Career Coach (like me) that was posted on LinkedIn. I was amazed at the differences in approach between his definition of the coach role and mine.  In fact, his focus on careers was almost 180 degrees different than mine.

His lead paragraph was “A coach provides the strategy, tactics and best practices to quickly and successfully achieve the desired results in a rapidly changing and competitive environment.”

This got me thinking about how different that is from the style of coaching that I employ.

The word “coach” can mean a different thing in different circumstances.  A world class athletes employ a coach who knows specific details of the sport.  The coach is expected to fine tune the athlete’s technique or build a workout program that fits the athlete’s needs.  While they may also deal with the mental aspects of the sport, often that is secondary or focused more on trying to prepare the athlete for specific situations. In fact, many athletes use a different coach for the mental aspects of their sport.  But a coach for the local pee wee baseball is simply trying to teach the fundamentals of sports to the children.  Same job title, different role.

Let me give you a different kind of example.  A “manager” at a McDonald’s or Taco Bell or a call center has to provide a certain set of management.  They will need to focus on the most basic of skills – scheduling shifts, getting workers to work on time, basic customer service, micro managing the day-to-day operations.  Contrast that with a “manager” who is managing a group of engineers or financial analysts or salespeople.  This role requires a totally different set of skills.  Here the manager is guiding the department towards a goal.  Most of the work needs to be left up to the creativity and knowledge of the people working for the manager.  Imagine if those managers micro managed or scheduled people’s hours.  Having been in a position where that happened, I know it is not fun and rarely leads to optimal results.

So, we can have different roles for the same position depending on the needs of the “client”.

Later on in the article I noted above, the author writes, “the Coach – someone who knows “the ropes” and is qualified to help guide and train you.”  This person is very focused as a Career Coach on assisting the individual in getting interviews for the right job.  They want to help the person write the optimal resume, learn how to brand themselves on Linked In and position themselves for the right network.  All very worthy goals.   It fits for a select type of client.  The framework of the relationship is that the coach is the expert on the process and techniques.  The client is there to be guided by the coach for a specific outcome – the best job.

The coaching I learned and I practice revolves around the client.  The coach and the client are co-equals in the relationship.  The fundamental principle is that the client is the expert – about themselves.  The emphasis of the coach is in helping the client build awareness around their current circumstance.  It is helping the client reach some awareness (maybe an “ah, ha” moment) about themselves.  Once that awareness happens, then the change required to explore careers can happen.  The client takes action (including initiating changes) based on their new knowledge, not because the coach has a proven system they impose.  Change cannot occur until the individual fully understands their present situation. The coach is not “providing strategy and tactics”.

Both models work.  Both can be accurately described as “career coaches” (just like we have a lot of different “managers” that are appropriate to the individual circumstances).  But the techniques are very different.

My point is that any of the coaching models is viable for a person, depending on their circumstances.  But is is my belief that change can only come from you.  The coach can only help you become aware of you.



Our priest was speaking about differences that people have.  Differences can be in race, gender, interests, tastes, religion, etc.  A lot of times we have differences of opinions or the environment we grew up in.  The gist of the message I got from him is that we have to be willing to understand that we have different viewpoints.  We don’t have to agree with the other person.  But we must be willing to consider that others look at things differently than us – and be comfortable with that.

Failing to acknowledge and honor those differences is divisiveness (creating dissension or discord). The dictionary describes divisiveness as “forming or expressing separation by difference of opinion or feeling; disagreement; dissension”.  Divisive shares the same root as “divide”.  Essentially, you are putting a divide, a chasm, between you and the other person.  That divide is basically impossible to see across.  In fact, you are not interested in even understanding what is on the other side.

I really liked what our priest had to say.  As I thought about it, I’d like to add another element to his point.  That is being dismissive.  Dismissive means lack of interest, being scornful or disdainful.  To put off from consideration, put aside or reject.  None of those are very positive words in that definition.  When you treat someone else in a dismissive way, you lack respect for them.  You do not even deem them worthy of your consideration.  They are below you, not worth your time.

See how that escalates?  We may be different.  But if we treat each other in a divisive way, we are now enemies.  And if we dismiss the other person, it is as if they don’t exist, their opinions or way of life do not matter.  They are not worth considering.

We all have to realize that on the side of opinions and differences is “passion”.  If something is important to us, we have a passion about it.  And passion can sometimes get out of control.  It can overwhelm our normal nature.  That is how we can move from “differences” to “divisive” to “dismissive”.

How does that work in practice?  What if you and I had 10 things we could consider (issues like taxes or immigration, opinions on whether the opera is riveting entertainment or not, or what sports teams we root for).  Five of them we agree on.  Five of them we disagree on.  So how do we view each other knowing we have these differences on five subjects?  If you are certain that you are right on all five areas of difference, then I must be wrong.  If you or I are unwilling to see that each might have a viewpoint that is acceptable, then we are being divisive.  We are unwilling to work together.  We have a divisive situation between us, with no chance for reconciliation.

How does it escalate to being dismissive?  For some people, one issue of disagreement with another person is all they need to create separation from the other. This is where passion comes into play.  Abortion, Immigration, or gun rights are examples of issues that have preeminence for some people.  If there is a difference of opinion on a hot-button, passionate issue like those, there is only disagreement and dissension.  There is no chance for an acknowledgement of differences being okay.  In fact, generally people will dismiss the other person as insensitive or a heathen or a liberal/conservative or uncaring or uninformed or stupid.

But how do we work together if one of us dismisses the other?  Is one person’s passion so much more right than the other person’s passion that rejection and scorn are the only reaction you can have to the other?

I am not suggesting you give up or concede your beliefs and opinions.  Those are core to you.  But is it too hard to ask you to acknowledge a “difference” exists without moving on to dismissing the other and having a disdain for them?

Food for thought.

P.S. If I want to take this a little further . . . . What I really find fascinating is when you put religion into the mix.  In theory, God created all of us.  So He must have created our differences – in color, gender, interests, opinions, etc.  Yet if He created those differences, how can you justify when someone else has a view opposed to yours? It gets real circular here.  I guess some can blame the devil for taking the other person over.

Getting better at thinking

Most of us want to get smarter or want to be better decision makers.  I think we all would like to be able to show we have learned something.  Showing results – improvements in self or just being able to cite some facts to others to show our intelligence – provides a rush of good feeling.

In a course I am taking, Daniel Kahneman, Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs Emeritus at Princeton and 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize winner said the following about trying to get “better” at thinking:

“do not think that you can generally increase the quality of your thinking because I think that you really cannot.  But if there are repetitive mistakes that you are prone to make, if you learn the cues, the situations in which you make that mistake, then maybe you can learn to eliminate them.”

Kahneman, and most research, indicates we can’t become overall better at the general principles about thinking.   But he holds out a carrot, a way to improve one aspect of our thinking.  “Learn the cues” is all about building awareness.   What situations cause you to act – or react – in a predictable ways that are detrimental to your quality of life?  Are you aware of the cue before or after you act?  Do you ever think about how you think?

How great would it be to be able to be in a situation and be able to “pause” time in order to really think things through?  But we don’t have the opportunity generally to pause time.  As Kahneman went on to say further, “People feel great when they hear of all these ways of doing things and controlling themselves.  But when they are making a mistake, they are so busy making it that they have no time to correct it.”

So we are back to that enemy of ours, time.  The world is complex and ambiguous.  We don’t have enough time.  We generally do not have enough resources to make most of our decisions.  And the feedback we get (or that we give ourselves) is usually pretty ineffective.  So we go through life making the same mistakes (big and small).  What do we do?

Do you ever remember as a little kid being told to “slow down”?  How about being told to “count to ten” before you do something?  Those were lessons we were given to deal with our adolescent brains.  We needed to be taught how to control our impulses for just a moment.

Guess what?  We can do the same thing as adults.  We can be introspective, to pause to “learn the cues”.  We can practice getting better at thinking and making decisions. Here are a couple ideas: 1) Work at awareness of ourselves and our environment.   2) Pausing (“count to ten”) before we send that text or tweet or post or e-mail. Might there be something in there I don’t need to say?  3) Revisiting the cues.  What were the consequence of our actions based on that cue?  Build awareness around what we might have done differently.  All it takes is the will.  And the acknowledgement that you are only trying to improve a small part of your life.

As Kahneman said,  “those situations where you are prone to make a mistake, slow yourself down . . . (and) sometimes you need someone else to help you do that.”  If you feel like you can’t slow yourself down, enlist someone else to help you.  Maybe you work with a friend or a coach.