Part 1: Unpacking at the beach

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Imagine you’re taking a drive to a beach cabin with a trusted friend. This person is someone whom you admire, and he’s invited you out for a night to talk about how life is going.

After you’ve settled in, the two of you decide to walk along the beach to visit a nearby restaurant for dinner. Along the way, he asks you about your life plan—about the buckets in your life where most of your time and energy are invested.

Perhaps you might answer as most of us would: my wife, my children, they’re the biggest buckets.

Rather than nod along, this friend invites you to see things a little differently: he proposes that your life priorities must begin with you, your spiritual health, your mental health, your physical health. Without these being tended to internally, none of us, he contends, would have much to give the key relationships in our lives.

There are no alarms to set on this trip. No hourly agenda with checklists or required business manual reading. The point is to relax, to enjoy being away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

The next morning you wake up, and after pulling up a chair along with a cup of coffee, your friend hands you a stack of envelopes.

“These are letters,” he says. “They’re letters from your siblings, your wife, your best friend, all talking about how they see you, what they value about you. Why don’t you grab a blanket and read them?”

As you sit on a bluff on the beach, you realize these letters are filled with the people dearest to your heart, speaking truthfully and lovingly about who you are to them.

When you’ve finished reading the letters, your friend has your favorite breakfast ready and he asks, “What did you hear? What were you hoping to hear that you didn’t?”

Led by his disarming sense of ease, you start unpacking your life with this friend, possibly in ways you’ve never done before. About an hour later, your friend unrolls a long piece of paper, about three feet long and 18 inches wide. It’s marked with the words: “Age 1 – 10,” “Age 11 – 20,” and so on.

“Above this line, I want you to write all the positive memories from each decade and below the line, write all the negative memories,” he says.

Your friend walks out the door to run some errands, and for the next 90 minutes you fill out this timeline of your life—the good and the bad, the specific and the abstract. Everything goes on this piece of paper.

When your friend returns, he invites you to walk him through each decade. As you explore the things you wrote down, he starts unpacking even more, picking up on subtle things and gently exploring topics like how your parents expressed affection to you, how you were perceived as an adolescent, personas you took on to compensate for insecurities.

“We all have the potential for false identities dictating who we are in life,” he said. “You’ve taken a false identity into your jobs, but I know as your friend that’s not who you are—your friends, family, your wife in those letters, they know that’s not who you are.”

And so the day progresses with your friend. This effortless sharing, with moments of serious contemplation and joyful laughter. You feel something new being unlocked inside you, and there’s no one single thing that contributed to it. It was a blend of many things: of being treated to unfettered hospitality, of having someone listen to you as a trusted, empathetic friend, and being in a place like the beach where the vastness of the ocean can’t help but remind anyone of their precious place in the earth.

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This is a coaching day I spent with Daniel Harkavy, the CEO of Building Champions. He leads a team of executive coaches in Lake Oswego, Oregon, who are committed to helping leaders unpack what it means to be effective in all areas of life. Not everyone will experience something as deeply personal as I did, but they will touch base with a coach as deeply invested in your growth as Daniel was in mine that weekend.

In two weeks, I’ll be sharing an interview with Daniel where we explore some of the philosophies and methodologies that have guided his organization for the past 20 years, many of which he employed during his weekend with me. I hope you’ll stay tuned.