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  • Sara Johnson

Back to the Beginning

I might be a bit of an outlier in how I feel about being a beginner. Many humans rush to get through the messy and uncomfortable beginnings of things. I find a fair amount of safety and comfort in being a beginner. What's harder for me is claiming expertise and authority.

I’ve been thinking about this in terms of my insatiable desire for learning and growth. I’ve often said “I’m a lifelong student.” As an actual student in my youth, I was ridiculously earnest. I loved back-to-school season. I cheered when I’d get the August letter from school informing me of my school supply list and class schedule. I’d grab the phone (it was attached to the wall in those days) and call my BFFs to see if we had any classes together. I was that weirdo that was my happiest on the first day of school.

The love of learning has never left me and I have remained a student at most stages of my life. Educational pursuits as a “grown-up” have included: a certificate of Organizational Leadership, a community herbalism class, ASL, mediation training (cut short by the first Covid-quarantine in March 2020), basics of embodiment with The Embodiment Institute, an anti-capitalist pricing class with Bear Hebert, and my Co-Active coach training.

Coaching is a wildly unregulated field and I didn’t need to get training to become a coach. The industry is so unregulated that anyone can use the term “coach” and charge other humans for "coaching." I decided to pursue coach training in order to develop some foundational coaching tools and add to the skills, experience and other education I was bringing into coaching. I also choose to do the training because I thought it would give me legitimacy as a coach (more on that later).

After much research, I decided to train with the Co-Active Training Institute. I liked that the Co-Active model emphasized being and doing. As the Co-Active website says: “Life is a paradox. By thinking we can keep the world black and white to make it simple, we are actually making it more complex. In life, “both” is what’s true in the world. There is no “or”; only “and.” The hyphen is the infinite possibility that lies in the tension that binds the paradox of all things together, stronger as one. It is wholeness.” I know I entered Co-Active training connected to the power of the messy middle, the “both/and” of it all, but re-reading those words on the Co-Active website I am aware of just how much alignment I found in this program that celebrates the gray areas.

Many Co-Active coaches will share that the training itself is pretty personally transformational. As you are developing skills to support coaching clients, you are also receiving coaching from the other coaches-in-training. You leave the 120+ hours of coach training (completed over many months for most people) having journeyed deep into yourself.

When I started my coach training I was in a highly transitional time of life after selling my house, leaving a decade-long career and taking a cross-country road trip sabbatical. The first class, Fundamentals, felt like a homecoming to me. I texted my then-partner, “I’ve found my place and my people.” By the second class, “Fulfillment,” my partnership had ended and I was at another crossroads. At the end of the class, I wrote in my coaching notebook, “What if your life was always on purpose?” This was a core message of the class that felt particularly potent at this moment in my life personally and professionally.

Earlier this month I got the opportunity to return to Fulfillment in a new capacity: as an assistant to a current cohort of coaches-in-training. I spent all day on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday supporting the leaders/teachers of the (online) class in small yet impactful ways. A big part of my role was going into breakout rooms with the students and coaching them and being coached by them, using the tools of Fulfillment.

It was in the breakout rooms with the coaches-in-training that I had an aha moment: I am not a beginner at this anymore.

I clearly saw the space between where these coaches were starting out and where I was as a coach: the space actually seemed rather big. I am not a beginner coach anymore!

For all of the years I have been building my coaching practice I have been saying, “I am a new coach.” I said I was a new coach in month one of coaching. I said I was a new coach in year one of coaching. And here in year four of building my coaching practice I am still saying and feeling like a new coach. I have said that “I am a new coach” as I inch closer to a fairly big milestone in the coaching industry: 500 hours of coaching. Five hundred hours of coaching will make me a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) according to the International Coaching Federation. This is a milestone a lot of coaches don’t hit.

When will I not consider myself a new coach?

I wonder if part of my “lifelong learner” identity is to keep myself comfortably new and beginning at something. There’s certainly some risk to asserting expertise. There's a risk of claiming expertise and not living up to it.

But there’s also the risk of losing something special about being a beginner. I ask myself: Will declaring expertise make me less creative? Less willing to learn and grow? Less adaptable? Less resilient?

In all my years of studying, learning, and being a student, there’s another piece of it that I want to examine: how to center learning in one’s life without making it about lacking something. Can I learn from a place of curiosity and not a place of not being enough?

I feel sheepishly aware that in all the professional spaces I’ve occupied there has been a fair level of striving to feel more comfortable and confident; striving to feel like a legitimate professional in my field. Education, webinars, conferences, mentors, and even overworking have been ways I’ve reached for that elusive feeling of having arrived. And yet, contradictorily, I also haven't wanted to arrive at expertise: being new provided a bit of protection. In the newness, there was more permission to fail forward. There was permission to stay unique, carve my own path, not be exactly the same as all the other “experts” in my field.

I examine all this as I reflect on the profound experience of returning to where my coaching journey began – the Co-Active classroom – and it being that experience that ushered in more awareness about where I'm at now.

The first day of assisting Fulfillment the leadership team met an hour early to get acquainted with each other and set intentions for the class. At the end of our time together, one of the teachers smiled and said, “We get to be our authentic selves as Co-Active coaches.”

This was actually the most freeing, permission-granting thing this “expert” Co-Active coach and teacher could say at that moment. My own fear of not being a good enough coach has kept me stuck in a tug of war between “I am new at this” and “I will achieve expertise to prove myself.” How liberating to remember that I get to be a skillful, trained Co-Active coach and utterly, imperfectly myself with hints of beginner energy, always. Co-Active is my foundation, not a box I’m restricted in. I get to bring my Co-Active skills and my somatic skills and that one improv class I took and my years as a gardener (metaphors galore) and my sabbatical experience and…all of me belongs here!

Perhaps by acknowledging the both/and of being new and not new anymore, I can get out of my own way in my coaching practice. I can put aside perfectionism – which NEVER helps me show up as the coach I want to be – and return to play and possibility. I can see what I already offer, while acknowledging the ways I can grow in service of myself and my clients. I can model being a coach who is creative and multifaceted in what she offers and not stuck in the belief that there is one way of doing coaching “right.”

I am starting to realize what I want as a coach and as a human is so obvious: the messy middle! I want to learn in order to grow my skills without it being about “not being enough” or about “arriving” at some perfect destination. And at the same time I want to maintain the perks of being a beginner: a wide view, bright-eyed curiosity, a willingness to take risks in pursuit of growth, and ample space to explore.

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