Tribute to Barbara Sher and Finding Your Brilliance

May 20, 2020 |

Imagine fearing you’ll never find your dream career.

Then you join a group being led by a wise woman who helps people do just that.

The other participants are popping with ideas.

But you… no clue.

Then at the final meeting, you spy a National Geographic magazine on the coffee table.

On the cover is Koko, the gorilla who learned to communicate with humans using American sign language.

Suddenly you come alive! “I LOVE gorillas!”

“Great!” says the wise woman! “We can work with that!”

Of course you’re immediately skeptical. It’s not like you can make a living at it or anything.

But the wise woman says, “of course you can dear.”

That very 1978 National Geographic featured Koko’s teachers at the Gorilla Foundation.

Years later the grateful gorilla lover would tell the wise woman…

I had no idea where to start, even where I wanted to go. I only knew I loved gorillas, and you persuaded me to learn everything I could and get involved with the Gorilla Foundation.

Everyone told me I was foolish and I was afraid they might be right, but now I work with gorillas every day in one of the biggest zoos in America!

I’ve been to Borneo twice working with the apes, and I’ve even helped raise baby gorillas.

The wise woman would go on to tell countless others that their crazy dreams were possible too – mine included.

That wise woman was, of course, the uniquely gifted Barbara Sher.

Photograph by Mindy Stricke

And so it is with a heavy heart that I share the news that Barbara died on Sunday, May 10th.

For the woman who helped birth thousands of dreams to leave us on Mother’s Day seems fitting.

An early pioneer in the career coaching world, Barbara not only assured us we could create the life we want but offered us a path to do it.

Her first book Wishcraft: How to Get What You Really Want (and still my personal favorite) sold millions of copies.

In 1988 I too was searching.

So I organized a weekly Wishcraft group using our answers to the exercises to brainstorm options and create action plans.

It was an informal forerunner of what would later become another of Barbara’s signature contributions – Success Teams.

From that group came the idea for my first business – a line of humorous greeting cards which I drew, had professionally printed, and got into stores in New York, San Francisco, Hartford, and elsewhere.

It wasn’t a big money maker.

But the very act of doing it gave me the confidence to do what entrepreneurs do – try, try again.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Five years later I got another bright idea: Create a newsletter for other burned out cubicle dwellers.

After just one issue I realized it needed more voices than my own.

By 1994 Barbara had written her second book, I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was.

Would she be willing to be a contributor?

I got Barbara’s home number through her publisher (ah, the good old days).

Caught off guard when her answering machine picked up (remember those?!) I stumbled through my message…

Hi Barbara… you don’t know me but…

I’m starting a newsletter for people who want to follow their own road.

I know you’re really busy, but I’m a huge fan of your books and wondered if you’d contribute. You can reach me at this number…

She didn’t call back.

I was disappointed but hardly surprised.

Come on, Valerie. She’s a big author. Why would she want to be in your little newsletter?

Like the Rolling Stones said, you can’t always get what you want.

“Isolation is the Dream Killer”

Five weeks later on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I’m sitting alone in my kitchen close to tears. At that point, I had maybe 20 paying subscribers.

It was a dumb idea. I should have known it would never work. Who would want your stupid newsletter anyway?

When the phone rang I let it go to my machine.

After the beep, I hear a cheery voice apologizing for taking so long to get back to me.

It was Barbara Sher!

She was just getting caught up after her big book tour and would be delighted to contribute to my newsletter.

I nearly broke a leg lunging for the phone!

This experience taught me two things.

First, sometimes we need to ignore our “logical, practical” self – the one that assumes no one wants to work with or help us.

Second, even though being a solopreneur makes you both the head coach and the only player on the field, entrepreneurial dreams are still a team sport.

Does that mean everyone you ask to be a part of your team will say yes? Nope.

Barbara could have just as easily declined.

I would have been disappointed and a little (ok, a lot) down. But not deterred.

Because Barbara taught me that there are plenty of other people out there who really are willing and eager to cheer us on from the sidelines.

That you don’t need to believe in yourself, or love yourself, or have a positive attitude to get what you want.

You just need to find people who want you and your crazy idea to succeed.

Barbara’s mantra became, “Isolation is the dream killer.”

A concept she explains brilliantly in this 10 minute clip from one of her recent workshops.

If you’ve never read her work, I suggest you start with Wishcraft.

Then if you’re what Barbara called a “scanner,” a person who loves so many things, you can’t pick one, then read Refuse to Choose: Use All of Your Interests Passions and Hobbies to Create the Life and Career of Your Dreams.

When I think of Barbara, mostly I think of the regular people who, thanks to her, are living their dreams.

Monkey Business

When Barbara’s friend and assistant Patty Newbold told me of her death, I mentioned how moved I was by the gorilla story.

Patty assumed I was talking about primate artist, Robin Huffman!

“Wait,” I said, “you mean, there’s another gorilla story!!?”

How many career coaches have the distinction of being the catalyst for not one, but two people turning a love of apes into a whole new life?

Here’s how Robin tells the story on her site…

I fell in love with a monkey… a fragile, frightened blue-faced infant, who fit in the palm of my hand. Her name was Maasai.

It was 2007 and I was volunteering for the first time at Ape Action Africa primate sanctuary in Cameroon. My job was to care for her. When she looked up at me, I knew life would never be the same.

At the time, I’d spent 29 years as an interior designer and project manager in a global firm.

I took three months off from hectic New York City to volunteer at an ape and monkey sanctuary in the jungle.

Deforestation and exploding human populations are wiping out the non-human primate families in the world’s last rainforests. For these vulnerable displaced creatures orphaned due to escalating bush meat hunting and the illegal pet trade, sanctuaries provide rehabilitation, care, and a safe haven.

During that transformative summer, I not only raised three infant monkeys, I painted signs for the sanctuary.

The manager asked if I could “paint a monkey.”

Despite having no formal training in painting, I rendered colorful Maasai. My primate portrait career – and my calling – were born.

I’ve been caring for them, painting them, and beautifying sanctuaries ever since. Once I learned first-hand of their plight, I left my career and shifted my focus to help, with a profound sense there was no time to waste.

It All Began With Barbara Sher

Naturally, I had to know more about Barbara’s role in all of this.

Robin told me she met Barbara in 1998 at a Learning Annex workshop in New York.

Like me, she’d been moved by the story of the woman who became a surrogate gorilla mother at the Bronx Zoo.

Six years later Robin went to Barbara’s first ever Scanner Retreat on the Greek island of Corfu.

Did it help? I’ll let Robin tell you:

“Even though I talked about running a B&B, Eleanor of Aquitaine, renovating medieval castles in Europe, and animal massage, everyone said to me, ‘Wow. You really love gorillas, DON’T you!’ I thought, if that’s what I’m broadcasting, I’d better pay attention.”

A week later she wrote her ideal job description.

The details were fuzzy, but it involved something to do with animal protection or cultural preservation in Europe, the UK, or Africa.

Notably, Robin said she also, “wanted to work for a hero who sought an adjutant to help brainstorm and implement projects.”

Then she said, “I had an epiphany that the place I could get closest to gorillas will never be the Bronx Zoo. It would be where it’s a desperate situation, where some donations and sweat equity meant something.

I Googled ‘gorilla orphan’ and ‘gorilla rescue’ and up popped a photo of Rachel Hogan at Ape Action Africa with two baby gorillas on her hips and a headline that read, ‘Do you want to volunteer?’”

She raised her hand and nine months later was in Cameroon, working at Ape Action Africa and living her dream job description.

Of course, no dream comes without sacrifice.

Robin returned to her job for a year before resigning and selling her condo to fund what would turn out to be 3.5 years in Cameroon, nine self-funded trips, and another year and a half volunteering at sanctuaries and an environmental research/lemur center in Africa and the US.

Patty told me, that in between Robin slept on a lot of friend’s couches in New York working just long enough to afford the next trip.

Today, Robin is a self-taught painter specializing in large scale close-up portraits of apes and monkeys.

Robin and the woman who encouraged her were bonded for life.

Barbara with Yoda at Robin’s first ever art exhibition in 2016 at her former design firm (never burn those bridges!).

Making Dreams Happen

There was another Barbara who moved me to escape from cubicle life — Barbara Winter.

In 1990 I attended her workshop in Hartford — three years before her wildly popular book Making a Living Without a Job.

By 2000 the Changing Course newsletter featured reprints and excerpts from both Barbara’s.

Over time my dreams got bigger.

In 2003 I asked “the Barbara’s” to team up for a four-day workshop and retreat called Making Dreams Happen.

I’d do all the work if they’d show up.

After all, it takes no more effort to think big than it does to think small.

Happily, it was an offer they couldn’t refuse.

Here’s a few photos of the three of us in Boulder, Colorado.

(Nice to finally work with people my own size!)

The second photo is thanks to Kimberly Stewart, pictured below.

Kimberly was among Barbara’s early Success Team leaders and later went on to train with me to be a Profiting from Your Passions coach where I encouraged her to launch her business Be Weird Make Money.

As Kimberly and the other 56 attendees will attest, it was a magical experience.

I personally count Making Dreams Happen among the top three experiences of my life.

I’m clearly biased, but I happen to think the very best of Barbara’s brilliance was on full display over those four days.

I’d read all of her books.

And more recently, I watched several of her videos on YouTube.

But here I got to witness the force of nature that was Barbara Sher.

Because she wasn’t just giving talks. She was helping to lead an interactive, roll-up-your-sleeves workshop.

Over the four days, Barbara led the group through exercise after exercise.

One helped people deal with the inevitable critics and naysayers.

Another involved a fun way to figure who was (and wasn’t) potential buyers for our future businesses

Attendees had all sorts of dreams including…

…create a support network to help families dealing with mental illness

…run tours to off-the-beaten track places in France…

…be a sports marketer…

…start an invention incubator for women inventors

…open a combination theater, café, bookstore…

Barbara expertly guided the group through multiple Idea Parties using her signature Wish-Obstacle model.

It begins with the phrase I wish I could… but I can’t because.

Seventeen years later the one that still sticks in my mind was the attendee who’s wish was to start a pool exercise program for overweight women, but couldn’t because she had no pool, no money, and no experience.

Guess what?! We helped her see a way!

Since Barbara’s passing, I’ve gone back to listen to her portions of the workshop.

It scares me to think how I almost didn’t tape it.

I was not exactly flush with cash and it costs thousands to have an AV person on-site to record professionally four very long 10 and 14-hour days.

And since back then recordings were on CDs, the post-production costs for editing, producing, and packaging 24 CDs would be many thousands more.

But sometimes you just have to trust your gut.

I’m glad I did, especially after many Facebook friends spoke of how much they loved hearing the recordings.

In honor of Barbara Sher, I’d like to share with you the first of her eight sessions.

Click here now to listen to Finding Your Hidden Gifts.

This is first and foremost a tribute to my friend Barbara.

So a huge part of me was hesitant to even mention that the option still exists to get the entire Making Dreams Happen series.

But after listening again I realized it would be selfish not to share this treasure. And also, that doing so would be a way to give back.

In honor of the impact she’s had on the gorilla lover who wound up working at the Bronx Zoo, Robin, me, and the millions of others who Barbara moved to action, from now through Labor Day a portion of any sales will go to one of Barbara’s favorite charities — Ape Action Africa in Cameroon.

The British statesman and novelist Benjamin Disraeli wrote, “Most people die with their music still locked up inside them.”

Barbara Sher was not most people.

Rest in peace, my friend.

For the full story of Barbara’s journey from single mom on welfare to a best-selling author and career change legend click here.

I look forward to reading your own tributes to Barbara and how she inspired you to follow your dreams.

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