Jan 242013

by Dr. Earl R. Smith II

We are not who we say we are. Rather we are who others say we are. Your reflection in the eyes of those who have come to know you is always more accurate than the image you strive to put there.


This is a tale of three clients. The details are an accurate reflection of each. The names and some of the circumstances have been changed to protect their identity. Or, better said, to keep others from realizing who they are. We are, after all, more than occasionally each of these characters. Sometimes to our benefit and, at other times, to our loss. This journey is better made less wondering who these people are and more thinking about how we can learn from their examples.

The Furtive Client

Mark came to me through a referral. A friend whom I had coached several years back had met him at a networking event. Mark’s story had compelled my friend to suggest that we meet. After a brief phone conversation, we arranged a time and place.

Mark’s story was fairly common. He had graduated from college with a business administration degree more than three decades back. His first jobs were with fairly large companies. The very first was with a fortune five-hundred company. He stayed with that employer for better than ten years. Promotions came regularly and, by the time he left, he was a vice president.

His second job was with a rapidly growing middle-market company that was a supplier to his former employer. He started at a much higher level in the company. The job lasted a little less than five years. During that time he was promoted twice. After losing out in an attempted palace coup, he decided that the big-corporate life was no longer attractive and focused on smaller “more agile” companies with “corporate cultures that were more human”.

There followed a series of roles in smaller and smaller companies. The first in the series was a company doing about fifty million dollars annually. The last one was a pre-revenue start-up. Mark had just been removed from the start-up team when we met.

The Initial Interview

Mark and I met over coffee at one of my favorite places. I always like to keep the first session relaxed and good coffee and service always helps. The red flags started to show up almost immediately. When I asked him to describe himself, Mark used words like iconoclast, devil’s advocate and contrarian. After years of experience with coaching clients, I have learned that these are code words for behavior that is yielding less than satisfactory results but, as well, behavior that cannot be stopped. They are code words that apologize for an individual’s inability to control themselves.

In nine out of ten interviews that start out this way I decide that the coaching engagement will not be a good idea. I wish the person well and we go on our separate ways. In Mark’s case I made such a suggestion. His response was that he really wanted to change the behaviors that were holding him back. After telling him that I would be particularly demanding as a coach, he agreed and we signed an engagement agreement. The agreement had an initial term of six months.

Wanting is Not the Same as Having

The engagement only lasted one week even though Mark had signed up for a six month one. We met to set the agenda for the coaching. The hour we spent together was roughly divided between my outlining a proposed agenda and Mark reiterating the characteristics that, in his view, defined his approach to life and relationships. Even though our conversations prior to signing the agreement had focused on the very agenda that I was outlining, his tendency to be an “iconoclast, devil’s advocate and contrarian” was clearly dominate during the conversation.

What was striking during that session was the contrast between his contention prior to the signing that “he really wanted to change the behaviors that were holding him back” and his behavior during the meeting. Of course, my overriding questions were “Why are you behaving like this? What‘s the point of agreeing to coaching and then sabotaging the process?” There was absolutely no sense to the behavior.

It’s My Nature

I was reminded of the fable of the frog and the scorpion. Finding itself in need of crossing a creek, a scorpion tries to enlist the aid of a frog. But the frog resists. “You will sting me and I will die”, worried the frog. “That’s nonsense,” replied the scorpion. “Since I can’t swim, I am at your mercy.” Well, finally the frog relents and the scorpion hops on its back. Half way across the creek, the scorpion stings the frog. “What have you done,” asked the frog. “Now we will both die.” The scorpion responds, “It’s in my nature.”

Some time ago I wrote an article titles Eleven Habits of Self-Sabotaging People. It has turned out to be one the most popular ones I have penned. Although some readers preferred to think that I was not talking about them but ‘others’, most realized that they were engaging in at least some of those eleven behaviors and there followed many conversations about how to stop. And that, of course, is the crux of any effort to change your behavior. You see, the underlying assumption of those who describe themselves as an “iconoclast, devil’s advocate and contrarian” is what I have called the ‘Completeness Doctrine’. In that article I made the following observation:

I have always thought of people who have stopped learning as a kind of “walking dead”. Their recourse seemed to be to the pettier aspects of life, instrumental interpretations of reality and the delusions that seem to be so necessary to maintain a self-image that awaits only the grave. But now I found myself considering the costs … the terrible costs … that the living are often called upon to pay on account of these “fossils-of-the-once-alive”.


I realize that starting this series with such a strong negative may seem a bit off-putting to many readers. But I have lived long enough and made sufficient mistakes in judgment to have earned a bit of license in that area. At least one that is self-awarded. I would leave you with a poem by William Stafford that may explain better than I could.

A Ritual To Read To Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

Life is poetry. Let it rhyme. Otherwise, What’s the Point?

© Dr. Earl R. Smith II


Green_Vest__1.jpgI provide mentoring to those who have both the courage and determination to make a truly transformational journey. My approach is heavily influenced by core principles of Zen Buddhism. I don’t offer quick fixes or follow the latest fads. If you are willing to make the long journey – if it’s time for you to come to know the person you really are and can become – if you intend to finally find the path you should be following – if you want to start living life you were truly meant to live – then perhaps we should talk. Send me an e-mail and we’ll arrange a time to chat.

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