Running On Empty

Earl R. Smith II. PhD

(Read More From My Blog)

I recently took a client who came to me through a good friend. She – his friend – was concerned for him and wanted me to help him if I could. Years ago, they had founded a company together and built it up to the point that another, larger company had decided that they just had to have it. The cash out was very good and both of them took off with their respective families for an extended and well-earned vacation.

When they finally got back together some six months after the sale, my friend was shocked at what she found. Her former partner was a mere shell of himself. The energy and enthusiasm that were his hallmark was gone. The glint in his eye and eagerness for meeting and besting the competition was gone as well. What made their meeting so poignant was she came back ready for battle and had anticipated that he would as well.

After an initial meeting I agreed to work with Daniel. To be honest, his case intrigued me. Although I didn’t have the prior experience with him that my friend had, I suspected early on that there was something going on that was very important. It took a while to sort it out.

Quo Vadis Domini? Instead of approaching the question of his lack of enthusiasm frontally, I decided to take a more oblique approach. Sometimes the walls that are built around the face of a challenge are far more formidable than those guarding the other approaches. This turned out to be the case with Daniel.

We started out by identifying interests that we shared and exploring them together. Cigars and good whiskey were two that we quickly identified. Very bad science fiction movies quickly were added to the list – the kind where you can see the zippers on the monster’s costume. Later on we discovered a common interest in Nietzsche and post-modernist philosophy. All of these shared interests allowed us to develop a solid friendship and a relationship of trust.

Sometimes you have to start out left in order to go right

When we finally turned to the core questions, the conversation was no longer between a stranger acting as coach and a person who used to be sure but was no longer. There is a reason that this was so important. The questions that he was asking himself were so close to his sense of identity that only in such an environment could they be discusses seriously.

Charting Your Own Course: Daniel had a confession to make. He had lived with the feeling that his prior life was made up by someone else and handed to him like a movie script. “I’m feeling like I’ve been an actor mumbling the lines written for me by someone else”, he observed. When we drilled down into that feeling, it became clear that he felt that way about his former partner as well as his parents and friends. “I feel like I am running on empty. Everything that I have done – all the success that I’ve achieved – seem to belong to someone else. I need to find my own life and live it authentically.”

I’ve encountered similar feelings by some of my clients. Sometimes it comes early on and, with others, it comes late in life. But the dynamics are always the same. The energy that drove them on to do things because they could do them seems to have brought them to a place where that energy has dissipated – leaving them feeling hollow and directionless. Now they face the challenge of doing things because they really want to do them. And the question comes – what do I really want to do.

Sitting and Thinking is Quitting and Stinking: Once we had the issues out in the open, my challenge to Daniel was to take the first step. “In what direction,” he asked? “I don’t care,” I replied. Clearly frustrated, he shouted back “how do I know which direction is the right on?”

“There is no right direction. There is only movement from where you are towards somewhere else. Take the first step. Make a change. Do something different.”

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