All photos/art by Jorg Meyer
The complete interview with life coach Cheryl Richardson:
Cheryl Richardson knows a little something about the path to success. For nearly two decades she’s helped her clients boost their personal achievements and quality life. She’s brought her brand of lifestyle coaching to The Oprah Winfrey Show, is the host of her own call-in radio program, heard weekly on XM satellite radio, and is a New York Times best selling author. Her fifth book, The Art of Extreme Self Care (Hay House), was published in January. We sat down with Richardson at her home on Massachusetts’ North Shore.
YANKEE MAGAZINE: I understand that early on in your working career you had to pick up the pieces after a tragedy and start anew? How did you do that?
CHERYL RICHARDSON: When I was in my early twenties, I was working for my dad’s tax consulting business, making good money, more than even my friends who were college graduates. But I was working crazy hours, sometimes as many as 18 a day. Then one morning we got a call saying the office was on fire and I watched as everything I worked for, burned. It was a shock, and it was upsetting, but it was also a catalyst because it was the first thing that made me stop and go, Okay, hold on here, I’m crying because my adding machine is gone. What does that tell me about my life? It was really a gift and the gift of any kind of challenge, whether it’s a small challenge, a huge challenge, or a global challenge, is that it forces us to look at what we’re doing. It can be an opportunity that leads you to create a better life.
YM: Based then on what you went through, what do tell someone who’s looking at a crisis of their own, via an ever-shrinking portfolio or a possible job loss?
RICHARDSON: We have to remember to stop and breathe. Most of us when we’re faced with fear–and the stop market is such a beautiful metaphor for this–we impulsively do something, like pull the money out right away, which is not always the right thing to do. When that happens, the chances of making a mistake are far greater. One of the things you need to do is look around and say, okay what do I need to do immediately in order to take care of myself and my family and so I can create some breathing room and step back and take a look at what’s happening and maybe gain a different perspective on that level.
YM: Which of course begs the question: how did we even get to this point?
RICHARDSON: I think the simple answer, which is really quite complicated, is that what we’re facing is connected to there being a lack of consciousness. We’re asleep in our lives. And when we operate in an unconscious way, like many of us do, we don’t really make the best decisions. So, for example, if I’m overworked and stressed out, and I decide to spend money as way to give myself a temporary reprieve from that anxiety, then I might just slip into unconsciousness and spend more than I have, and before you know it, I have credit card debt. Or, if we look at it at a systemic level we have credit cards companies that encourage people to spend money they don’t really have. Why? Well, if we have systems made up of unconscious people we can perpetuate that behavior. Whether it’s me going out and charging for things I can’t afford, or the lending practices of banks, it’s about being unconscious. That’s the problem on a fundamental level.
YM: Is it possible, then, to find the “good life” in these uncertain times?
You can’t re-adjust what the good life means to you without first making the raising of your own individual consciousness a priority, otherwise you go back to the way it was. I actually care less about you revisiting what the good life means to you and more about getting you to really just stop and ask, How do I feel about this life I’m living? Sometimes, I’ll be driving down the street and think, if this were my last day on earth, would I feel happy right now in this moment with how I’m living my life? And that begins that conversation, that deeper conversation about the good life. A good life is an authentic life. Is life good all the time? No. Life sucks for a lot of people right now. But how connected are you to your own inner wisdom. To your soul. To the people in your life, beyond the superficial cocktail level chitchat? Are you having deeper conversations with people, and yourself and not about whether the SUV is okay or the house is okay.
YM: It seems as though the modern day world is built around distracting us from taking care ourselves on a personal level. How do we get around that?
RICHARDSON: We have got to learn to manage technology. Are you letting technology manage your life or are you managing technology? That’s something we really have to learn. Like, rarely do I have ringers turned in my home. I hate them. They’re like a call to action. The phone rings, your body goes tense. I’ve rarely have voicemail on my cell phone. At one point I had to put it on for a client who was traveling around the world. My friends would call up and go, oh my god what happened? And I’d say, don’t get used to it, it’s coming off soon.
YM: What’s one important endeavor you tell clients to try and do when they want to rethink how their life is organized?
RICHARDSON: Our greatest asset is our time and energy. One exercise I have my clients do–and it’s a very simple and powerful–is create what I call an Absolute Yes list. These are five things they deem a priority for the next three to six months. It could be your health, your financial well-being, a big project at work, or taking care of an aging parent. Put them on three, three by five index cards in numbered order and stick them in a places you see on a regular basis–by the phone, on a desk in your office, I’ve even put one on the dashboard of my car. What it does is raise your consciousness about how you’re spending your time and energy, particularly on those things that aren’t on the list. If you find yourself complaining about things that you don’t really want to do, that’s really just an indication that you’re making unconscious choices and decisions. You’ll soon find that you’re starting to spend your time and energy on the things that really matter.
YM: It could be argued that you’re really just teaching people to be more selfish. Are you?
RICHARDSON: The path to selflessness begins with being selfish. I’ve been asked, aren’t you just teaching people to be selfish, and I’ll say, yes, that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m teaching you to care about how you spend your time; to spend more time with your wife instead of at work; to not take your work home with you on the weekends. Eventually you’re going to feel better about yourself, you’re going to be better to be around and all of a sudden, you’re going to be a better husband, better wife, better partner, and soon you’re going to see the world differently. I’ve had CEOs of companies who’ve never thought a day in their life beyond their computer screen, who suddenly become incredibly selfless. I had one who went out to throw a bottle away in the rubbish and he suddenly stopped and thought, I can’t do that, I have to recycle. He had never recycled a day in his life and now he cannot recycle. Then what does he do? He goes on to create a recycling program at his company.
YM: Have we let our working life dictate, too much, how we feel about ourselves on a personal level?
RICHARDSON: We’re looking for things outside of us–our jobs, our 401Ks, our salaries–to define how valuable we are. And when we lose touch with our internal center and we spend so much time on what’s going on out there, those labels mean something and that’s dangerous place to be located. We need to do the opposite. So when we see that our 401Ks have gone down, or we are losing jobs, what ends up happening is that our external reference for our value disappears, and hopefully you’re forced to go inside and say, okay, I’ve been allowing the outside world to define who I am and that needs to change.
YM: You write a lot about monitoring what goes into our minds. Why is that important?
RICHARDSON: Our thinking does have a direct affect on what shows up in our lives that’s why it’s so important to monitor what goes into our ears and eyes. What we watch on the news, what we read on the Internet, what we listen to in your car, has a direct effect, not just on our physiology, but on our emotional state as well. You may think that it’s is informing you but it’s informing you in a way that’s not necessarily benefiting you. How do you feel when you look at your portfolio? And can you do anything to change it? Now, you might say, I can’t stomach this, I need to sell my stock. Okay, great. But if you’re not going to do anything to change it, then you need to ask yourself, how do I feel when I look at my portfolio? If you don’t feel good looking at it, then you need to stop doing it because it’s affecting you. It’s not just affecting your body and emotional health, it’s setting your mind up to think in such a way to think more of the same.
YM: What’s the key, then, to finding the right kind of balance in our lives?
RICHARDSON: I always tell my clients, work smart not hard. The people I admire are people who do so little with their time and so my goal is to give you more time to ponder. To just be. To just imagine. To allow yourself to be filled with wonderment about your life and the world. We’ve confused intellect and knowledge with wisdom and insight. Business people get their best ideas in the shower, or driving in the car or while on vacation. Why? Because their analytical mind is engaged in something else. Or they’ve finally given themselves a break to just ponder a different picture of life. That’s what I want. Not to be more efficient and organized, but to be present in the moment. And for most people to be present in the moment requires them to be doing less, not more. People say to me all the time, can you teach me to be more organized, more efficient with my time? Probably not, because you can’t make sanity out of an insane situation. Most people live insane lives when it comes to how they’re using their time. What I can do is help you take 30 percent off your plate. That’s how I want to start. Let’s look at what you have on your plate. Most people can’t even see the meal, they have so much crammed on it. See what the heck is going on.
YM: Is it in our New England character, which is driven so much by a robust Puritan work ethic and a constant quest for perfection, capable of the changes you’re talking about?
RICHARDSON: Of course. Yes, we have a tendency to be conservative, maybe more reserved in our belief in what could be but what’s great about being a Yankee is we have the adventure mentality. That, I can do whatever it takes to make happen. There’s tenacity, a commitment that we have to staying with it, that can work to our advantage. A discipline. A great life begins with an open mind and that’s something we could take from our West coast buddies. If we just let that mind and ask, Who am I? What do I want with my life? What am I happy with in my life? Things will improve vastly. I’m a Yankee and it worked. If it worked me, it can work for any human being on the planet. There’s nothing special about me.