Astrid Baumgardner on Career and Life Transformations

In a candid conversation with Notes on The Road, Astrid Baumgardner shares her own remarkable transition-following a near-death 36-hour coma-from Lawyer to Life Coach, now guiding others through their own life transitions and developments.

With a strong background in law and non-profit arts organizations Astrid talks on what artists have to learn from lawyers and how she has inspired many to take control of their destiny and realize their best selves.

Describe your transition from Lawyer to Life Coach.

I had a career as a lawyer for almost 25 years, and it was in two parts: one was a series of short stints at large law firms that ultimately led to a partnership in the law firm. I really wasn't very happy being a lawyer, and so I switched to the New York office of a French law firm, which was a lot better because I was a French major in college and speak fluent French, but it was still law. While I was at my French law firm and as my children got older, I started volunteering for arts organizations and accumulated a very big nonprofit arts résumé.

I realized that I need to feel very connected to the work that I do and feel passionate about what I do so in the year 2000, I was able to switch from law and go into the nonprofit sector as the Deputy Executive Director at the French Institute Alliance Française. I also realized that being a lawyer was not the best use of my strengths. I was looking for ways to be more involved with people, do more strategic thinking and run things, so the French Institute job was great for that.

That chapter of my life came to an end when I got downsized. I realized that this was an opportunity for me to start creating my own thing, so I went into partnership with another fellow to do management consulting to nonprofit arts organizations. From that, I transitioned into doing my own consulting for non-profit arts boards. At the same time, I became the Board Chair of the American Composers Orchestra, and then joined the board of a domestic violence organization and did pro bono legal work for victims of domestic violence. Then I started to study at Julliard. While all of this was coming along, I kept thinking, I know I have one more big gig left in me, and I don't know what that is.

How did you know that?

It was very much a gut feeling. I thought to myself "Everything I'm doing is very cool, but something is missing, and I don't know what that is.' And so I was sort of humming along in my life and all of a sudden I got violently sick. It was a fluke occurrence. I had an outpatient treatment at a doctor's office, and then thirty-six hours later, I was practically dead on the floor of the emergency room. I went into a coma. Thank God I pulled out of it.

I spent a month in the hospital, and the next six months of my life were essentially dedicated to rehab, just getting me back, because when I left the hospital I had just started talking again, I couldn't walk and I was really a mess. But, the interesting thing was that I woke up from the coma on my birthday. I knew it was my birthday, and I knew that that meant that there was a reason that I had survived and so I started feeling-just in the back of my mind-there is a purpose here.

One day during my rehab, I was sitting on my couch and I had this absolute gut feeling, crystal clear, that my mission was to help people through difficult life transitions. It was a huge revelation. I mentioned it to my best friend who said, "That job is a life coach." And that's what did it! I went on the Internet and started researching life coaching. I began connecting with life coaches to discover what they did, and how they got their training. Within a month, I was enrolled in a course at NYU, and then I switched to IPEC, a private training institute that I felt was more in line with my philosophy. I underwent nine months of pretty rigorous training and started my coaching practice half way through my training. My coaching business just grew from there.

What do you see as the most important aspects of allowing for changes and transitions in somebody's life? So many people talk and think about making changes, but it is hard to do. What are the essential ingredients?

That is a really interesting and complicated question because it depends on why you want to change, right?

As a coach, I would say that the reason people hire me is that either they are really stuck-they don't know if they want to do the thing that they are doing-or they are really scared. So I would say the first thing is a feeling that something is missing from your life and that you are committed to doing something about it.

There are lots of people who sit at their desks at their law firms or at their accounting firms or wherever and say, "Oh, this is horrible! I don't want to do this," but they don't really do anything about it. The people who actually make the changes are the ones who know, somehow, that they can do it. And maybe they don't know how that they can do it, but they are committed to somehow taking charge of their lives and taking the first steps toward making a change.

What about the makeup of a change? Once somebody says that they are committed what process do you see people going through from desiring a change to having completed that change?

For some people, they want to do it on their own, so they buy a book (you know, there are millions of self-help books out there about how to change your job, how to change your life). Some people hire a life coach. Some people do it through therapy. Some people do it just by talking to all of their friends. But the essence of it is trying to get information about who you are. Some people just sort of have a flash of inspiration: "Okay, I see!" I think that's pretty rare! I really do think of change and transition as a process. It usually comes on when there is some big life event. For example, in my life, I had this cataclysmic illness that propelled me into high gear. That's why I mentioned that while I was doing all of my "cool" stuff, there was this nagging feeling that I knew there was more, and then this tsunami hit me with the illness and I thought, "This is the time. This is the time to do something big."

I think that for a lot of people, something happens that propels them into higher gear. Either they lose their job, or they're sitting at their job doing their work and saying, "I can't take it anymore, and I've got to change," or they are in a relationship that ends and they say, "That's it! I've had it with this pattern. I'm going to do things differently," or something like that. Those are the people who are ready to change. I really believe that the world is divided into those people who believe in their personal power and the people who don't.

What kinds of things do you do as a coach to get people to come into closer contact with their personal power?

I think my whole philosophy on coaching revolves around two things: The first is tapping into your authentic self-your best authentic self-and then understanding that you have the power to change. I always start with a values assessment where I ask my clients, "What are the principles that govern your life?" By knowing those principles, you can gain a lot of clarity.

My clients will say, "Wow, I'm the kind of person who needs private time, or I need personal growth, or I need to learn, or I need a challenge, or I need security or relationships." And once you narrow it down to the top five to seven things that are really important to you, you can start looking at how your life unfolds in light of those values. How are you honoring those values? How are you living those values? For so many people right there, that is a huge insight. When you compare your current life against these values, often people feel this sense of disconnect or dissatisfaction that they are not honoring their values. So that's one really great way to start getting some clarity.

Another thing that I think is a powerful motivator of change and learning to nourish your best self is to see what you are good at. I am a big believer that life is a whole lot more fun and rewarding when you are playing to your strengths rather than compensating for weaknesses. I have my clients take a strengths assessment to discover their strengths. Again, we see how well you are utilizing your strengths in your current life, and if you are not, how could you be utilizing your strengths? This is another great eye-opener.

A third thing I notice is that many people feel stuck because they feel a sense of flatness in their lives. They are not excited about anything. For people like that, I help them discover their passions. Many people have forgotten what it is that they love, so the idea is to reconnect with your past. Sometimes you have to go back to childhood and remember what you loved playing with and what you loved best at school and what you liked to read or what movies you liked or what Lego things you built-whatever it is-to recreate what you love about life.

We then put together the things that you love-your passions-the things you are good at-your strengths-and the things that are important to you-your values. Right there, you will gain an incredible sense of clarity and a direction for where you want to take your life. The more you open yourself up, the more you will feel a sense of personal power by knowing how to take charge of your life. That is why I believe that the world is divided into those who are doers, and those who are afraid to do it. The doers do believe-even if they are stuck-that they do have the power to take charge over their lives and to go after the things that they really want.

There seems to be a slight misconception or an uncertainty about what exactly coaching is. Can you clarify the distinction between coaching and other things that people might arbitrarily lump it in with, such as consulting or therapy or something?

Absolutely. The three big things that often get compared to coaching are consulting, therapy, and mentoring. Coaching is really a partnership where I as a coach bring my strengths and experience as a coach and work with you the client who is an expert in your life. Coaching is a dynamic partnership. One of the fundamental underpinning of coaching is that it is not advice. I do not tell my clients what to do. I help you discover who you are, what works best for you, how your brain works, how your psyche works.

We also look at what has worked in your life and what hasn't worked so well and we build on that. It goes from knowing what your feelings are to asking, "What actions are you going to take this week?" For example, I might make some suggestions like, "Other people in your situation have tried this. What do you think?" Or, "This is a book that has helped a lot of people. How might you use it?" rather than say, "Go and read this book." I will never do that. Or I will never say to somebody, "You really like to paint, so you should go and get a degree an MFA." I would never say that, because how do I know what's going on in your brain? The whole process is about my asking a lot of deep and interesting open-ended questions to get your creative mind to kick in and to provide you with the answers. It's not a navel-gazing exercise.

We may do some reflection on the past but it always in the frame of, "What is your goal, and what is the result you want?" I am also conscious of people's goals and what they want to get from coaching. Every action is designed to help the client get closer and closer to a goal. It's a partnership of self-discovery and action taking that is based on the idea that the client has all of the answers and that the coach facilitates that discovery and action-taking process.

So, the client has all the answers.

That really is the philosophy of coaching. Even if I suggest something or share a personal story or share an experience of another client-which I always do anonymously because it is totally confidential-it is to get that person thinking, "Hmm, how might I apply this to my life?" With consulting, you hire a consultant when you want an expert in an area. The consultant comes in and says, "Here's what's wrong, this is what you need to do, here's the solution," and then the consultant disappears and you are left with a series of recommendations that you implement on your own.

In coaching, I help clients develop action plans. In fact, a lot of people keep me on as their coach long after the action phase because they like the accountability. They say, "I'm going to do this, and please help me make sure that I do this, and I'll check in with you, and let's see what works out from that." The consultant disappears after he or she has given the recommendations whereas coaches are always there to help implement the action plan and help to fine-tune it in order to see what is working. Now let's talk about therapy. Therapy is about healing people from past wounds. Coaching, on the other hand, is much more focused on the present and the future. There is some overlap between coaching and therapy, because coaching can go very, very deep.

I mentioned the whole notion of helping people unlock their passions from childhood, but the point of that is to rediscover those passions now so that you can apply them into your present life and build with it toward your future. In therapy the focus-and this is very general-is more on healing from the wounds of your past. The therapist's general goal is to get people to functionality, whereas in the coaching relationship, the goal is to get you into high gear and to really help put your best self in an ideal situation to follow your dreams. I have been trained to do a lot of cognitive-behavioral restructuring; in other words, taking people's thoughts and examining what those thoughts are and helping people to change their thoughts so that they have more positive, confident, take-charge types of thoughts that will stimulate the client to take positive actions.

There is definitely a certain overlap at certain times with therapy, but again the focus is all on your goals for the future. The third thing that often gets compared to coaching a lot is mentoring. I mentioned before about what people do when they want to make transition. Sometimes they will go to a trusted advisor like a family friend or someone with more experience in your profession who will share his or her perspective. So it is very much about, "This is what I did, Son; why don't you try this?" Again, it is more advice and getting one person's view as opposed to coaching where the philosophy really is that the client has all the answers.

Among the artists who are your clients, you focus on musicians, or it has sort of evolved that way?

I started out with musicians, and then word of mouth, my website and blog and my speaking engagements have enabled me to attract an amazing group of clients. They are all people who are self-employed, creative people who want to do their art for a living, so they hire me to help them get there and succeed. That requires knowing who you are at your creative best, knowing what creative projects are most fulfilling for you, and also how can you make a living doing this. So that is the focus of my coaching with my professional creative clients.

What do you think artists can learn from lawyers? What from your background as a lawyer do you feel as if you have to offer artists?

Great question. I always categorize myself as a right-brain, left-brain person: someone who is really creative and who is also organized and analytical. I think it really does enrich my coaching because I can I can listen to people kind of rant and wander around, and at the end of the session I can pull together the themes and patterns and say, "So it sounds like this, this, this, and this..." In other words, I help organize creative thinking. I think that that is why a lot of my artist and musician clients enjoy working with me because I can help them put a frame around their thoughts and put things together for them very successfully.

I attribute that my lawyer training because I was taught to think through problems step-by-step and to break things down and to be very analytical. I am a very strategic, big-picture thinker. I naturally go to putting together lots of pieces of information and finding a common thread (that is one of my top strengths!) I find that a lot of artists-and I know that this is a bit of a generalization-have all of these brilliant, fantastic ideas, but sometimes it is hard for them to get organized and break things down, and I really help people do that both in my individual coaching practice and in my workshops at music conservatories.

Tell us some more about your workshops.

My workshops are all about the intersection of career development and personal development. The topics include Career Planning, Branding, Networking, Time Management and Goal-Setting. I love doing workshops because of the group energy. It is so exciting for me to facilitate the learning that can occur when similarly situated people get together and share their experiences. I particularly love doing workshops at music conservatories because I find that the students are so open to learning. I have been fortunate to do workshops at Yale, Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music where the students are not only incredibly talented musicians but they are also extremely intelligent.

I pack a lot of information into my workshops and I love how my students can't seem to get enough of this knowledge! In addition, my workshops are experiential so that the students learn by doing. I create a lot of materials that the students use in the workshops and then they can take home the lessons of the workshop and begin making changes in their lives. A lot of students hire me after attending my workshops because they are eager to make important changes so that they can be authentically successful in their professional lives.

By being in contact with these great students, I feel a tremendous sense of optimism about the future of classical music because I hear so many creative ideas about how to make music relevant to our society and culture. It is an honor for me to work with these brilliant thinkers and help to make those changes happen. It just reinforces my sense of mission about making the world a better place.

What are some of your daily habits that keep you in this high-energy state where you are always receptive to a variety of people in a variety of circumstances? I am sure that clients dump a lot of stuff on you at times because they want to get things sorted out, even if they are really motivated. How do you keep yourself highly motivated on a daily basis?

One of my fundamental things is that I journal every day. My journal is for my day-to-day well being. It gives me an opportunity to dump out everything that is on my mind. If I need some clarity, I just write and all of a sudden I gain some insight. It's my way of working things out. It's my way of approaching myself; it's a great energizer. Secondly, I have to say music. I play the piano, and that is one of the best ways for me to get into my flow space and feel really connected. Thirdly, just listening to people. I must say that I can't think of a session in which someone doesn't feel better after the session than before the session. It makes my day when I hear someone say, "Wow, I never thought about that before!"

That's why I do what I do, because I find it so rewarding and so energizing. I have to say that I am really blessed with an incredible network of friends and family, and my relationships are very important to me. I spend a lot of time nurturing my relationships because they give me so much. I do a lot of interesting things-I'm a life-long learner (one of my top values): I have to be learning all of the time. I feel luck to live in New York City where there is always something to learn, and I just love it. And then I relax.

This year I started watching TV, which I have never done. I got hooked on Grey's Anatomy, and now I am hooked on The West Wing, and it just brings a really great release. Also, I do a lot of writing. I write a blog and articles on the intersection of personal and career development and I do a monthly newsletter. Believe it or not, these TV shows give me a lot of ideas! It's fun because I like to make connections with things. That was the start of my blog: I have always had a lot ideas, and I felt that writing my blog once or twice a week would be more fun for me than waiting once a month to write an article. I have a lot of things going on that help keep the energy going.

What do you love about being a life coach?

I love the whole process of change and transition, and it gives me great joy to be the facilitator of that for other people. I also personally find this very rewarding work because I am always learning from my clients. And that's what makes this work so interesting because even if I did have an idea about what somebody should do, I am always surprised by the kind of answers that they give me. I just applaud anyone who has the courage to say, "I want to make a change," because it really does take a lot of courage. Changing the status quo is really hard.

The people who do it are going to be happier because know they have the courage to stand up and go after what they want. It's not necessarily a straight line, and that's what is so great about the process: there is so much learning that occurs along the way. I always say to people that sometimes the journey is more important than the destination. In putting this whole notion of change and growth into practice, you can get to a certain place and then you move on from there, even if that was a great place to be for a while. There are always more possibilities. I am a great believer in possibilities because we just never know what's going to happen, so we have to stay open for the opportunities that life may bring to us.

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