Julie Mitchell's CoachNotes



Learning in the dark: Grief, loss, and other taxing teachers

Old schoolhouse in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

A dark one-room schoolhouse in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (TN).

This is my first blog from the dark. I feel like I’m sitting still, stuck at the barely visible desk in my photo, aware of sunlight and vast space outside, but not ready to move from my quiet, sheltered spot. How does one learn alone in the dark? I’m figuring it out. It helps to be near a window.

Normally, when I write in this public space, topics come to me from the outdoors. I’m on my feet, walking and then sharing information from a light, energetic, positive perspective. Not today. My feet are tucked under me on the sofa. I’m feeling vulnerable. I’ve been moving slowly (or not moving at all), working through disruption and despair.

My beloved father — a healthy, active, eternally optimistic, youthful 78-year-old — fell suddenly on February 27 while taking a walk. He was diagnosed with a fatal, fast-growing brain tumor in late March, declined with stunning speed after having a stroke, and died on April 15, tax day in the US. Benjamin Franklin wrote “… in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” These inevitable events will be linked in my mind forever.

Often, I invite friends, loved ones and clients to use taxing life experiences as opportunities for growth. It’s time for me to do the same. I am determined to “walk my talk” in uncomfortable territory.

In my world, nothing is more certain than the need to learn and find meaning from life’s sudden, shocking losses. Yet I’m impatient, aware of subtle or direct messages to “get on with it.” That’s the American way. Who has time to be sad? Isn’t giving in to “negative emotion” a sign of weakness? NO! It takes COURAGE to have an open heart and to feel deeply and completely. (I’ve needed convincing to come around to this way of thinking, but it feels absolutely true, despite being taught otherwise by a culture that worships being cool, rational, and too busy for authentic human experience.)

After months of jarring losses and reaching my 55th birthday in June, I am questioning everything about how I live, work, and learn. I want to make the best of my remaining years. This requires allowing space and time for the difficult lessons life is teaching me now. It’s becoming clear I must accept — rather than fight — grief, darkness, and taxing, exhausting feelings. It’s not my goal to get rid of sadness, nor do I want “closure,” as that feels like denying myself access to my Dad’s wisdom, love and spirit. I want the window of learning from loss to remain open.

For years I thought I knew about pain, after saying good-bye to loved ones and cherished dreams, weathering a divorce, care-giving for a dear friend who lost her cancer battle, and the list goes on… but there is more to discover in the dark. One of the best things my Dad ever said to me, with a big smile, was this: “When I think of you Julie, I think of ONE BIG LEARN! You always are curious about what you can learn in any situation, and that’s a good thing.” In that moment, I felt loved and visible for who I am: A passionate, life-long learner. Thanks for seeing that in me, Dad. I miss you very much. I will keep on learning, even in the dark.

Get moving! Evidence for walking on campus (and elsewhere)

Photo from a walk at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Photo from a walk at the University of Michigan.

This article (link above) affirms what I’ve observed in my neck of the woods (at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill, specifically): Smart, creative scholars leave their desks and walk for inspiration or problem-solving. Professors-on-the-move tend to be more lean, fit and healthy, too! After years of working on campuses, I’ve noticed many professors sit at their desks all day and seem to live in their heads, with little interest in the mind-body connection…

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A Monday morning walk and positive self-talk…

Julie Mitchell:

It’s Monday morning and I found my walking motivation from this 2009 post. Hooray for self coaching. :-)

Originally posted on Julie Mitchell's CoachNotes:


“I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit.”

-  Thoreau

This morning was alarming. The clock radio jolted me awake at 5:10, in the middle of a dream. I was out the door at 5:35, stepping into fog and the sticky central North Carolina air. I woke with grim determination to start the week on a positive note, practicing what I preach to my clients. (I’m lousy at coaching myself, because I ignore most of my advice.)

Like Thoreau, I am disturbed when parts of me are missing during a walk, or during other endeavors. However, during summer slug season in the South, I’m doing well just to get my body moving through the neighborhood. If mind and spirit are elsewhere, perhaps they don’t feel like walking! Nevertheless, today — the beginning of a challenging work week…

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The upside of down time: Work less, accomplish more

Crazy-busy and working to death? Take a break before your eternal rest.

Crazy-busy and working to death? Take a break before it’s time for eternal rest.

I jumped for joy reading 5 reasons why you shouldn’t work too hard (in The Washington Post). I am an instant fan of author Brigid Schulte’s work and can’t wait to read her book! My favorite quote:

But remember that inspiration comes in the shower, on a walk (emphasis added), in a moment of rest, not when your nose is to the grindstone.

Growing up in a culture that venerates working hard, being a go-getter, and doing whatever it takes to finish the job, I, too, have engaged in stupid, competitive, winning-by-losing “I’m too busy” conversations.

How often have I been caught up in boasting — disguised as complaining or commiserating — about who’s the most buried in work, stressed, overwhelmed, swamped, slammed, exhausted, wiped out, ad nauseam? Ugh.

How sad to feel inferior — a loser in the non-stop energizer bunny business game — because I need six hours’ sleep to function reasonably well, and perform best with 7 hours (4-5 hours being the badge of honor for a “serious” business owner). I’m weary of feeling judged or resented, too, as in this comment from an acquaintance: “Well. Lucky you. Must be nice to actually have time for a walk. I’m way too busy to even consider it!”

I’m coming out as a person who needs quiet time to accomplish my best work. I’ve learned something about time management and goal setting. “Down time” steps up my creativity, clarity, and connection with clients to achieve their goals.

I can put nose to grindstone or shoulder to boulder when necessary. I’ve had happy periods of extraordinary energy, productivity and flow, being so absorbed in business matters that I lost track of time. I have climbed and conquered mountains of work, but I’ve also suffered altitude sickness, and worse.

Through painful consequences of over-work I’ve learned I require breaks, from a few minutes to clear my head, nurture my heart, and rejuvenate my body and brain… to real vacations, retreats and even sabbaticals. (During a sabbatical in 2002 I founded Coachwalks, had the honor of caring for a beloved friend in need, took courses to enhance my skills and did the most rewarding volunteer work of my life.)

An important note: I’m aware of how privileged I am. I can afford sick days, vacations and the occasional sabbatical. I’m grateful for a wonderful self-employment benefit: more vacation days than corporate clients who have so little time off. “Take a break” advice is pointless and absurd for too many people forced into working their butts off to survive, buy groceries, or pay rent. Bless them all.

I believe policies need to change to give low-wage earners a break… but that’s for another blogger, another day. This post is for other fortunate people who might consider taking a stand for down time (a rare and courageous stance when it’s more popular to pursue lots of stuff and money).

Years of “way too busy” times taught me that I never win through wiping myself out. I need to be thoughtful, open-minded, rested and not overwhelmed if I’m to be a helpful consultant, communicator, teacher, learner, friend and human being.

A final thought: It’s dangerous to admit I don’t live to work (yet I love and am very enthusiastic about my work)! Self-employed folks are drilled in laboring harder, faster, better and longer. The argument I hear most often for a relentless focus on business is this: How else can an entrepreneur succeed in an era of rapid change, customer demands, and intense global competition? Well, it helps to redefine success.

I don’t have millions of dollars, but I’m grateful to have extraordinary, rich work/life experiences and to enjoy loving relationships on my “down time.” My best ideas and creative business solutions come up during walks, vacations and times of rest.

Is this true for you, too? I welcome your comments.

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Snow day and a winter walk

IMG_2938My plans changed today, thanks to a bit of wintry precipitation and below freezing temperatures closing schools, canceling business meetings and evening events. What to do with an unexpectedly quiet January weekday in my home office?

Lately I had been thinking about how open, distraction-free time (i.e., away from digital screens, devices, clutter, responsibilities, and “to do” lists) is increasingly rare for me and everyone I know.

Suddenly, I had extra free time, but additional things commanded my attention (ranging from tax-related documents in need of organizing to an intense desire for a homemade treat, which sent me straight to the kitchen).

I looked out the window at one little inch of snow and recalled my peaceful winter treks through much more of the white stuff when I lived “up north.” I know how walking in any weather calms anxiety, stimulates creativity and gives me the energy, space and time I need to be more sane and effective.

Yet, I felt lazy: Aren’t snow days about staying warm and cozy, inside? Fortunately, I discovered words I wrote 11 years ago, encouraging clients to embrace winter walking:

COACH-WALKING IN WINTER? (YOU CAN DO IT!) Walking in the winter is a magical experience, and I am not one to wimp out because of a little snow! Working and walking with me is an opportunity to move forward, tap into your strengths, listen to your intuition, and focus on here, now, and where you want to be, one step at a time. Walking, in fact, is a perfect metaphor for the coaching process. You start off in a particular direction, toward a desired destination, result or outcome. An experienced partner on the path can facilitate your arrival, through helping you identify opportunities, alternative routes, or obstacles along the way. 

This was all it took to get me moving… I’m all for magical experiences, and figured I might burn off some calories from the chocolate-chip pumpkin bread I baked earlier. I enjoyed making fresh tracks and picking up a stick to mark my “snow day” (photo above).

Are you a winter walker, too? If not, I encourage you to give it a try, with or without a coach!

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Want New Year wisdom? Get moving to boost your brain.

Want to be healthy, wealthy and wise? Get moving!

Be a wise old bird in the new year: Walking boosts brain power, at all ages.

Here’s inspiring, good news as we step into the new year: Scientists have found more evidence for the wonders of regular exercise, above and beyond weight loss, disease prevention and perfect “six pack” abs.

If you’re over 50 (like me), the reasons to get moving intensify and multiply. A sexy, lean body may be nice, but what about having more energy and maintaining a sharp, active mind as you age?

Whether you’re young or old, exercise improves memory (including test performance), regenerates brain cells and stimulates creative thinking. Want more information? Check out these words of wisdom about how physical activity benefits the brain.

I favor walking, but any movement lowers stress, improves mood and enhances cognitive ability. For centuries deep thinkers have noted how problems are solved by putting one foot in front of the other.

Now, nearly every day I find another article summarizing research by neuroscientists, physicians, biological anthropologists and others. More organizations and business leaders are becoming walking evangelists and I say “HOORAY!”

No matter your age or fitness level, I encourage you to open your mind and do your body some good. Find a way to move more often in the new year, with colleagues or in solitude.

Happy new year and happy walking!


Gratitude, Goodwill and Grace: Gifts of the Season

Red and green scene. Happy Holidays!

I was grateful to notice this red and green scene on a bright December day.

It’s December 25. If you celebrate Christmas, may yours be merry and bright. Whether or not this holiday is a holy day in your tradition, I hope this season brings you gratitude, goodwill and grace.

As the glorious strains of Handel’s Messiah fill our home I’m reflecting on what I’ve been learning through another year of walking and talking with extraordinary clients and other companions. I’ll keep it simple:

1) Be thankful. Even on the darkest days and most lonely paths, there is something to appreciate. Look for it!

2) Show goodwill toward colleagues and even “competitors” or those you dislike or don’t understand.  It takes courage to be bighearted instead of small-minded. Be one of the brave ones!

3) Grace someone with your presence in a time of need, or through simple acts of behaving honorably and professionally in challenging circumstances. Try being a blessing instead of a burden.

Gratitude. Goodwill. Grace. These three free gifts were offered to me many times in 2013. I’m deeply touched by everyone who thanked me, expressed warm congratulations and good wishes, or listened with patience and kindness in my times of need. May these gifts be yours this holiday season and into the new year.


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