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Lifelong Learning: Unlocking Your Endless Potential with Dr. Marcia Reynolds

Updated: Apr 20

“Wandering isn't just about intellectual curiosity; it's about actively seeking new experiences and growth opportunities ... I’ve come to realize that there are settlers and wanderers in life. Settlers excel at building and maintaining, while wanderers thrive on exploration and change.” Dr. Marcia Reynolds

How can you find time for learning and growth amidst a busy schedule? Dr. Marcia Reynolds, author of Breakthrough Coaching and Coach the Person, Not the Problem, urges us to prioritize learning as a fundamental value. She advocates for adopting a mindset of "wandering," characterized by curiosity, where we inquire, challenge assumptions, and embrace learning from others. Regardless of our experience or expertise, maintaining humility is crucial, recognizing that mastery is an ongoing journey leading to boundless potential.

Stephen Matini: Has it become easier to be a learner as you mature?

Dr. Marcia Reynolds: When you ask about learning, it's almost as if it serves different purposes at different times in my life. But I do value learning, and I'm not sure if that's an inherent or inherited value because it was a significant part of my culture to prioritize education, learning, and questioning. I really appreciate being taught at a young age to question rather than simply accept. 

I've always had this hunger to learn more. If I hear something, I want to delve deeper; I don't want to just accept it at face value. However, the way I approach learning has evolved over the years. When I was younger, I pursued numerous degrees, and when I finally slow down my business, I will probably continue down that path.

Now, my learning is more focused because I'm deeply invested in coaching and understanding how to improve it further. Although my learning journey has narrowed, the hunger to learn remains, albeit for different purposes.

What's important is that learning is a genuine value for me, not just an obligation. I genuinely enjoy it. So, even if you don't particularly enjoy researching, think about what topics would fascinate you the most and delve deeper into those. I've narrowed my focus now; it's not just about learning in general but about learning with a purpose.

SM: When people say they don't have time to learn because they're so busy, what would you tell them?

Dr. MR: Well, first, I would ask them, "What does learning mean to you?" You might have a specific idea in mind, like sitting somewhere and reading books or attending classes, which you feel you don't have time for. 

You can combine learning with networking, even in a work meeting, by asking questions to understand others' perspectives and perhaps arranging to meet with them later. For instance, you could ask, "What led you to believe that decision was the most correct? I'm genuinely interested in your perspective.” 

So, being curious about someone else's viewpoint is also a form of learning. Consider what would be beneficial for you to learn more about and how you could engage with people to learn without necessarily having to attend formal events or classes.

SM: Have you noticed a change in the way people approach learning over the years?

Dr. MR: As you mentioned, it seems there's a connection with the idea of not having enough time, so whatever is presented as an opportunity to learn must be immediately applicable to one’s work. Although I'm not certain if that's entirely new. Having previously managed training departments and holding a second master's in instructional design, the focus was always on making learning practical.

It's nice if people enjoy sitting and listening to someone speak, but if it doesn't translate into actionable changes, is there a return on the investment of time as well as money? 

While the importance of taking action during and after learning has always been recognized, there seems to be a growing demand for it now. It's more about the evolution of teaching methods rather than a complete change. Even my latest book, Breakthrough Coaching, includes more resource tools and exercises to serve as an interactive guide for readers to work with.

I've structured the book this way to help readers grasp the concepts I'm trying to teach. It's about engaging with the material, whether alone or with others. There are questions throughout the book, not only for coaching purposes but also for self-reflection. Understanding oneself is crucial. So, I do see a shift towards engaging people's minds and encouraging them to take action as a more prominent aspect of how we teach.

SM: You have been involved in coaching for a long time. How do you perceive coaching today compared to, say, 5, 10, or 15 years ago?

Dr. MR: I enrolled in a coaching school back in 1995, so I've been learning and coaching for quite some time. Recently, while working with and adapting my foundational Breakthrough Coaching course into a self-study format, I had to sit through and analyze 32 coaching demonstrations that I conducted since 2020. It was quite a task.

What fascinated me was observing my own evolution from 2020 to now, despite having coached for over two decades. I noticed a shift from coaching sessions lasting 40 minutes to now, just 15 minutes, where we achieve breakthroughs swiftly.

The real transformation occurred when I fully embraced the role of being genuinely curious about the person I'm coaching and their perspective. Instead of being the expert directing the conversation, I focused on being a thinking partner, aiding them in their thought process. Every reflection and question I posed emerged from our interaction, aimed at exploring their thinking and expanding it.

As I became more committed to this approach, the coaching sessions became more profound, delving deeper and generating insights that led to swift, lasting changes in their mindset and actions. Like any skill, mastering coaching requires foundational knowledge and deliberate practice, so gradually the skills are applied automatically, without thinking. I have now reached a point where I can create a shared space with the person I'm coaching, where our conversation unfolds organically, revealing incredible insights.

This journey demands belief, trust, and continuous practice. Fortunately, having been in the field for so long, these principles have become ingrained in me. However, I'm constantly learning and refining my understanding of what effective coaching entails. My aim is to articulate these insights and share them with other coaches to enhance their practice. 

SM: Is there one specific contribution, client, or achievement that you are exceptionally proud of?

Dr. MR: There's always this one woman that comes to mind. She was tough, resistant, and would often get angry with me. Despite this, I persisted and simply asked her questions. I knew these questions would challenge her, but I had the courage to ask them anyway. There was a block she needed to explore if we were to make any progress.

On our first day, she expressed her frustration working for a global pharmaceutical company, feeling she deserved to be CEO but wasn't recognized. She contemplated leaving. I suggested we spend six months exploring her options before making any drastic decisions. I encouraged her to base her choices on her desires of the work she wanted to be doing rather than fleeing from what she disliked.

We delved into her leadership style, aspirations, and possibilities. Eventually, she became the head of a medical clinic and later the head of Health and Human Services for one of our states. The next time I saw her, she sent a limo to pick me up from the airport. It was a significant achievement because she could have easily jumped to another job.

This ties back to what you mentioned earlier about wandering. Wandering can be intentional, seeking the next challenge, or aimless, driven by dissatisfaction with the present. Initially, I struggled to pick just one accomplishment, like the woman who secured the CEO position after her division was divested, a shift that wasn't initially considered. I've coached many women and men to see themselves as leaders capable of making a difference beyond their initial expectations.

Witnessing people discover, create, and muster the courage to pursue their desires without being told what to do or receiving advice is incredibly rewarding. Having the privilege to be part of that process is truly amazing.

SM:"Delightful" and "privilege" are beautiful words to describe that feeling. Do you ever feel anxious about needing to perform while staying present, or are you naturally present now?

Dr. MR: For the most part, I don't think about it when I'm coaching, so the anxiety isn't really there. Whether I'm working with coaches, conducting demos, teaching, or hired by companies, it doesn't seem to be a problem anymore. Sometimes, though, when individuals hire me, there may be certain expectations. Just this week, I received a request from someone who described the individual as a super power.

I found myself wondering, will I be able to let go of feeling in awe of this person and challenge him when necessary? It's important to ask myself this question because if I can't be an equal partner, then I can't effectively coach. It's interesting when this feeling arises; it makes me reflect on what about this situation intimidates me, whereas normally, nothing else would. But it still happens. So I get to chose who to be in the situation just as I would coach someone else to do.

SM: What does mastery mean to you?

Dr. MR: Back in the early 2000’s, the International Coaching Federation gathered what they considered the top 100 thought leaders in coaching at the time. We met in Vancouver and had discussions at our tables. 

My group tackled the question of whether mastery in coaching is attainable. What we concluded is that it's not a destination; it's a continuous journey. Richard Heckler, a fellow table member and a multiple black belt in Aikido, emphasized that in martial arts, you're never the master; it's always about mastering yourself on the path of mastery. There's always more to learn and develop.

The same applies to coaching. If you think you've "made it," you're mistaken. There's no such thing as a comfort zone in coaching; you're either advancing or regressing. Many experienced coaches have commented on my demos and classes, admitting they had become complacent until they saw there's always more to learn. 

Some may refer to me as a master, but I don't identify with that label. I'm on the same journey, continually learning and growing, especially through teaching.

SM: Who exactly is the “wanderer?”

Dr. MR: When I pursued my doctorate and reached the dissertation phase, I delved into understanding the neuroscience of learning and leadership. However, I soon realized the enormity of the task. I thought to myself, "I'll never finish a dissertation on this topic in my lifetime." I felt overwhelmed and empathized with those who never completed their dissertations.

Then, during a lecture, a speaker discussed gender dynamics in the workplace, but his portrayal of women didn't resonate with me or the women I coached. His descriptions felt off. This prompted me to embark on a research journey. I discovered that women were often stereotyped with the same challenges: not speaking up, not leaning in, and so on.

However, my research unveiled a different reality. Many smart, strong women in the workplace didn't fit these molds. They craved meaningful challenges and growth opportunities. They weren't interested in climbing the corporate ladder but rather in expanding their horizons. Learning and growing with new challenges was more important than titles. A colleague, knowledgeable about archetypes, referred to them as "wanderers." It struck a chord with me—I realized I was one too.

Throughout my career, I'd hop from one job to another every five years or so, exploring different industries without hesitation. I didn't mind joining a company without fully understanding its operations; I'd figure it out along the way. This journey culminated in my book, Wander Woman, which resonated with many, including younger men who identified with the wanderer mindset.

In coaching, I've observed that women are often willing to embrace change and take risks, trusting that they'll find something better. Wandering isn't just about intellectual curiosity; it's about actively seeking new experiences and growth opportunities.

While learning plays a role, wandering is more about physical as well as mental exploration. I've come to realize that there are settlers and wanderers in life. Settlers excel at building and maintaining, while wanderers thrive on adventure and change. Even in my coaching practice, I find myself constantly evolving, developing new programs, and exploring different avenues within my field.

People often ask me if I plan to slow down as I grow older, but the truth is, I'm still deeply fascinated by what I do. There's always more to learn and explore, and until that curiosity fades, I'll keep wandering.

SM: Is training as appealing to you as coaching, writing, and speaking, or do you have a preference?

Dr. MR: I do enjoy writing. In my early years, I was primarily a writer and teacher. When I transitioned into coaching, it was challenging to define myself solely as a coach. While I do appreciate coaching, I believe my true passions lie in writing and teaching. Writing, for me, is a form of sharing. It's not just about crafting the words; it's about addressing what I perceive that people don’t understand or know how to do. I share what I most needed to learn!

Teaching complements my writing. Often, when I teach, I find myself compelled to document my insights. However, I must admit, I'm not fond of exclusively teaching through Zoom. I love live interactions. The pandemic certainly put a damper on that aspect.

One fact that surprises many is that during the last decade of my corporate career, I dabbled in fiction writing. I have three books sitting on my shelf, waiting for a potential update. Writing fiction served as an escape from the stresses of working in predominantly male-dominated tech environments, where I often found myself as the sole woman in the room who had to be very loud to be heard. 

SM: Do you believe it's possible for an executive to embody both a learner and a wonderer mindset?

Dr. MR: During the pandemic, I found myself coaching several executives in a company. Although I wasn't coaching the CEO directly, he occasionally reached out to discuss books he'd been reading and how they could be applied to leadership.

He seemed eager to explore various topics yet lacked someone to engage in meaningful conversation with. However, his explorations often clashed with the company's values, posing a challenge in reconciling personal growth with organizational goals. This underscores the essence of learning. Can you create a widespread culture of learning where dialogue and even debates about new ideas is valued?

I believe that when leaders adopt a coaching approach, they engage in an active learning process that supports looking at new ideas, which leads to innovation. Coaching, in my view, serves as a learning technology rather than merely a tool for productivity or problem-solving. My research since the late eighties has focused on uncovering the creative insights that learning can spark. It's a transformative process that alters perspectives and facilitates sustainable change—something companies increasingly seek.

Starting with curiosity, leaders can initiate profound learning moments. For instance, by simply asking, "What do you mean by that?" leaders encourage individuals to reflect on their statements, fostering mutual understanding. Subsequently, delving into the factors underlying a belief or decision prompts further reflection, asking, “What experiences in your past have led you to your beliefs about this situation?”, enabling both parties to broaden their perspectives. Through these simple yet powerful questions, we embark on a journey of shared learning and expanded understanding.

SM: You mention that coaching is a learning technology for sustainable change. Among all the possible words you could have chosen, why did you opt for "technology" and "sustainability"?

Dr. MR: It's worth noting that I spent eleven years immersed in the tech world, so it's ingrained in my vocabulary. I prefer the term "technology" over "methodology" because the latter feels restrictive. Viewing coaching as a technology suggests a comprehensive process rather than a rigid method. 

Regarding sustainability, it's a prevalent term in many industries, emphasizing the quest for lasting change. Similarly, in learning, sustainability is paramount. People might leave a classroom feeling enthusiastic about the training, but revert to old habits when faced with discomfort. Coaching helps them navigate these obstacles, fostering the courage and confidence needed to persist until new behaviors become ingrained. 

A coaching approach nurtures sustainable change by addressing not just what individuals do but who they are. It's distinct from skill-based learning, where the focus is on observation, trial, and repetition. When it comes to leadership and personal growth, it's about embracing a holistic approach.

SM: You've authored several books, and soon, a new one will hit the shelves. Are you as excited as you've been in the past, or does it feel different this time? How are you feeling about it?

Dr. MR: It's a different experience this time around, especially given the immense success of Coach the Person, Not the Problem. While my previous books have performed well and continue to sell, Coach the Person exceeded all expectations. It's become one of my publisher's bestsellers. Naturally, there's a sense of anticipation. Most of those who bought my previous book will likely pick up the new one, Breakthrough Coaching, so I anticipate it will do well.

However, there's also a nagging thought: what if they don't enjoy it as much as the last one? Authors often grapple with self-doubt during the writing process, wondering if their work will be well-received or criticized for being repetitive. Spending countless hours crafting something, only to question its value, is a common struggle.

With the new book launch, I find myself contemplating the possibility of it not meeting expectations. While it's unlikely, given the success of my previous book, there's always that lingering doubt. Yet, I remind myself that those who stand to benefit from the book will discover it, regardless of its initial reception.

SM: If I were to read your upcoming book, what would you wish for people to take away from it?

Dr. MR: I want people to feel more confident and trust in the coaching process— to embrace the role of a thinking partner rather than defaulting to telling others what to do. 

I often encounter the question, "But what if they really need my advice?" My response is simple: "What led you to believe that?" Most often, people already possess the answers within themselves; they just lack the confidence to apply them.

The goal is to stimulate connections and neural pathways through coaching rather than simply providing solutions, which merely pacify the brain. Coaching activates the brain; my aim is to ignite that activation in others.

Please check Dr. Marcia Reynolds' groundbreaking books Breakthrough Coaching and Coach the Person, Not the Problem and use the affiliate links to support Pity Party Over at no additional cost to you.

🎧  Listen on your favorite platform: Listen to the episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, or your favorite podcast platform.

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