Just before lockdown, I ran into a student whom I’d worked with a year ago. She was in the office of a local university where I coach PhD students on how to write their dissertations. She was there to pick up her diploma.
When I first met this woman, she’d been trying to write her thesis on and off for a decade. Her original academic advisors had long ago left the building. She was on her own now, with a newly assigned advisor, who wasn’t even in her field, and struggling with debt, deadlines, and concomitant mental health issues.
“Working with you was transformative,” she told me when we met. “You were the first person to talk to me about my work for more than 15 minutes in 10 years.” She was beaming. The slouching person near tears I’d worked with a year earlier had morphed into a confident and accomplished vision of health.
I’ve written before about why I enjoy being a writing coach. Unlike editing, where you basically fix a person’s writing, coaching is about cultivating that ability in the writers themselves.
This support can take all kinds of different forms. One client I worked with was an undiagnosed dyslexic. We spent six weeks going over the basic rules of grammar, devoting one entire session to the comma.
Another client wanted help crafting essays for his business school applications. The schools wanted him to tell stories about himself, but he’d never written in the first person before and felt uncomfortable.
Most of the people I coach are at some stage of writing their doctoral dissertations. With them, it might be about helping them re-think their introductions so that these provide a roadmap for the entire paper. Or showing them how to construct a literature review that won’t bore the reader.
Most of the time, it’s simply about asking them a series of questions to help them articulate their core argument in one sentence and explain why it matters.
As a coach working with someone over time, you don’t just help the person with their writing. You help them to feel confident about doing all these things on their own.
Lockdown has intensified my relationship with the people I coach, especially the students. Writing a PhD can be a very lonely process. Most of the time, you’re holed up in a library, poring over a bunch of obscure texts and trying to make sense of them.
Occasionally, you go visit your advisor for feedback, and their job is to make you feel even worse about your writing.
But during lockdown, students are stuck in their bedrooms. They can’t derive comfort from an impending coffee break with their friends or from the shared struggle of looking up and seeing a hundred other people tapping on their keyboards in a library. Worse, most of the feedback from their advisors now arrives via email.
So when I talk to them, it often feels like I’m the first human being they’ve spoken to in ages. This connection is good for them. But it’s also good for me.
I’m finding that one of the silver linings of lockdown is how much I’m enjoying my daily, face-to-face connection with students. It’s become a high point in my day.
I wonder sometimes if I would enjoy my coaching work as much if I were younger. I doubt it. A recent episode of Adam Grant’s fantastic Work Life podcast probed the difference between “fluid intelligence” and “crystallized intelligence.“
The former refers to the ability to solve problems in novel situations and tends to peak when you’re young. The latter, which emerges when you’re older, is the ability to use knowledge acquired through experience.
I think the reason I’m enjoying coaching so much right now is that it affords me this ability to transfer the knowledge about writing that I’ve acquired through 30 plus years of experience.
As someone who’s spent a fair bit of her life in a classroom, the rush is no longer so much about how I come across to the students or how I perform. It’s increasingly about what they take away from our interactions.
Research suggests that the difference between older and younger managers is that whereas younger managers are all about self-advancement, older workers are much more other-directed. They are more collaborative, more empathetic, and more inclusive. They listen better and delegate more.
I think this is what Robert Rauch calls wisdom in his book The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After Midlife. Wisdom is not only, or even primarily, about knowledge and expertise. It’s about cultivating a greater ability to focus away from ourselves and towards our community.
What is your experience with coaches, councilors, and advisors? In which stage of your life did you need them? What did you learn from them? If you are a coach, at what point in your life did you enjoy your work the most? Please share your thoughts with the community!