Building Blocks for a Full and Enriching Life
The Author’s Point of View
Before you embark on this process, I want to share three pivotal experiences that have shaped how I designed this process for others. These are just a small representative sample of the numerous opportunities I have been given to learn, grow, and expand my understanding of my place in the world.
Getting out of poverty
It was 1992 and I was living in a Minneapolis public housing community with my two sons who were then 2 and 4 years old. I had a stable job working for the federal government but I was only earning $8 per hour. My rent was subsidized and I received some childcare assistance but putting food on the table was challenging. I chose to get out of the violent, abusive relationship with my son’s father - the price of freedom was poverty. I was living check to check and fighting for survival. Not thinking about the future, I was associating with people who seemed like they could help meet my basic needs but were not good for me or my children.
One day, I learned that a person I was associating with was not who they claimed to be. When the police came to my home to apprehend him, a calm tempered undercover agent in his mid-50’s confronted me in my living room. “You seem like a smart girl,” the officer named John said. “Why would you associate with such a scumbag?” It was a good question!
This officer took a special interest in my success and over the next 10 years he mentored and challenged me to look at myself differently. He urged me to write down my goals and gave me crazy ideas like buying a house, having a real career, and maybe even earning a PhD. At the time, it seemed absurd. But John encouraged me, “If you believe in yourself just a fraction of how much I believe in you, there is no limit to what you can accomplish.” So, I followed his lead. I wrote down my goals. And one by one, with support and encouragement from my mentor, my mom, and my friends, I accomplished them all.
Through this experience I learned the power of coaching and mentorship. I developed an appreciation for the power inside of us that we often don’t even see. I became a true believer in the value of creating and documenting goals. I am forever grateful for John and the role played in helping me see my potential and for believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself.
Losing a job
By 2008, I had a achieved my goal of having a successful career leading a team of more than 50 people. As their head of strategic planning I had argued that better alignment of roles and positions was necessary to achieve their new vision and goals. About 2 years into the job, I received a call from my boss. “We have taken your advice and are going to reorganize. We have changed your role and decided it would be better performed by someone else. You still have a job but we’re not sure what we want to do with you. For now you will not have a title or any leadership responsibilities. All of your team members will report to the new person”. It was the first time that my career wasn’t going per my plan. I had goals! I wrote them down! How could they just take that away from me? I had invested so much into my career. It was the center of my identity and not having a title challenged me to question my purpose.
Thankfully five years prior, I had participated in a powerful leadership development program led by a petite and spunky psychologist named Violet Arnold. Her program was called Double Dutch representing the reality that many people face the challenge of jumping two ropes – one of their own authentic identity, and the other of what their organization and society wants them to be. Her philosophy that “the work ethic and the worth ethic are inseparable” taught us to become self-directed, self-managed, and self-empowered.
This life-altering experience gave me the perspective and the tools to take control of the situation. Violet gave us many frameworks to apply in our personal and professional lives, and one stood out as most crucial at that time. She described 3 parts of our identity: I Do, I Have, and I Am (Arnold, 2003). I realized that I had been so focused on the I Do (my title, my responsibilities) and the I Have (my authority, my degrees, my prestige), that when I had to introduce myself without those things, I was at a loss for words.
I went into deep meditation and centered my energy on trying to clarify my I Am. The more I meditated, prayed, and listened, the clearer my future became. “You are here to help people manage unplanned change and to be their best under difficult circumstances,” the message came back to me so clearly. That is when I decided to pursue my PhD. I enrolled in the doctorate of human and organizational systems program and began my studies in earnest.
I became convinced the experience of losing my position was part of life’s plan. I showed up to that empty office every day and studied, learned, planned, and prepared for what my Creator had in store for me next. I leaned heavily on my mentor Randall to keep me from overreacting and to find constructive things to do. At the same time, I began to explore other employment options.
About 8 months after I was ousted from my role, I was offered a position. “Thank you so much for the honor,” I replied. “It sounds like a great opportunity. However, I have just accepted a position with a another company – helping them manage change.” With the guidance from mentors, grace from God, diligence in clarifying my purpose, and resilience to pivot to fulfill my purpose in new ways; that painful experience transformed into one of the best things that ever happened to me.
Losing a spouse
In 2000, I had achieved my goal of marrying an amazing life partner who was the perfect husband. Scott Robinson was handsome, brilliant, kind, honest, and so committed to his family. After enjoying 13 years of bliss, Scott went in for hip surgery at 47 years old. On the day of the surgery I got nervous “It’s routine,” he reassured me. “Once I get this hip fixed, we can dance all night.” Well, things did no go as expected and he suffered a cardiac arrest. I stood in the room with his lifeless body, struggling to prepare to tell my children that their dad was not coming home again. Our youngest son was only 10 years old.
I thought about my work helping people deal with unpleasant, unplanned change and the advice that I have given many leaders. I decided to take my own advice. I talked aloud to myself, “Sonia, you need to first build their confidence in you as their leader. They need to know that you have the skills, the knowledge, and the strength to lead them through this difficult time. Secondly, you need to help them see a new future. It is hard enough to let go, they need something close and immediate that they can anchor their minds and hearts to. Thirdly, as impossible as it may be to imagine, they need to know that there will be some good that comes from this very difficult experience. Something beautiful is in store for them in the future. And finally, you must let them grieve. Sorrow, pain, and heartache is all part of the process of experiencing loss. Whether that loss is a job, a spouse, a child, a home – it is hard to lose something you love.” So, after this long conversation with myself, standing in the hospital room with Scott for the last time, I was ready to lead my family to a new life experience.
I share these three experiences with you to help you understand the perspective through which this program was designed. It is one of understanding how fragile, uncertain, and short life is. How much power we have – and don’t have – for what happens around us. But more importantly, I hope that it serves to inspire you as you embark on this journey.
The three beliefs
This process is based on three deeply held beliefs, developed through these three, and many more experiences. First, I believe that control is an illusion - we can plan and prepare for what is ahead, but the power of our future is in the hands of a power greater than us. Some call it karma – which we can influence through the actions of our life; others refer to it as divine order. Secondly, I believe that we have the power to influence how we manage the realities of our life. Our only real control is over the actions we choose to take – moment to moment, day to day. That said, this process is focused on letting go of the things that are out of our hands, while focusing on those things that we can influence to positively alter the state of our existence on this earth. Thirdly, my bias toward planning and preparing for the future has led me to miss the power and value of the present moment. At times, I have been so focused on my destination that I missed the beauty of the journey to get there. This is something I continue to work on every day and try to balance in this program.
I look forward to hear your success story. As you work this program, please let me know how it is going. You can post your testimonial at www.whatcouldyoube.com. I am here to support you and cheer you on!
Excited for You,
Sonia Alvarez-Robinson, Ph.D.