Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The second half

I recently posted a picture on Facebook of all the books I have authored, ghostwritten, or contributed to. Including foreign and second editions, it comes to almost 30 books. And if I included the books I don't have copies of, or the technical publications I've contributed to, it would be nearly 50% larger.

In response, I got a nice compliment from a Facebook friend who is in her 30s. I replied by saying that her shelf would be even better someday. (And I wasn't just being nice: she is an incredible writer.) Which got me to thinking: I didn't even publish my first book until I was almost 40 years old.

In fact, almost everything I "do" nowadays, I started later in life. I was nearly 45 when I gave my first paid public speech, and nowadays I make much of my living from speaking. This year, at age 56, I just finished the graduate work to become a psychotherapist, as mentioned in another recent blog. And my interest in communications skills dates back to my first management position, nearly a decade into my original career as a software engineer.

Aside from the obvious lesson that it is never too late to start things, I've learned a more subtle lesson as well. Many of the biggest things in my life have been happy accidents where, at the right time, someone cheered me on. I would love to say that my success as a writer was planned ever since I was seven years old. In reality, I didn't have a clue early on that I would ever pursue this. After all, I was a "C" student in writing in college, and never published a thing in the first few decades of my life.

What changed was that in the 80s, my wife and I took a night-school writing course together in Los Angeles, and people told me – for the first time in my life – that I was good at it. From then on I thought of myself as a writer. Eventually the rest of my life became a process of learning, growing, and becoming all the things I thought of myself as. Or dreamed of being. I wish I had known that decades earlier – who knows what I might have done in all that time. But it is never too late.

I truly believe that no goal is too ridiculous to pursue if you want it badly enough. For example, I am thinking right now of an engineering classmate from my Cornell days. I have never met him, but every few months I would read in our alumni news how he had a day job as an engineer, and did standup comedy at night. Or public access television. Or acting. I used to think to myself, "how will he ever merge these different interests?" Here's how – he eventually became television's Bill Nye, The Science Guy.

So what new direction could you start, right now, for the next phase of your life? And more important, what kinds of well-placed encouragement might change the lives of people around you? I am far from through growing and changing, and so are you.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Rich Gallagher, MA MFT

A few years ago, as my writing and speaking career was starting to take off, I said to myself, "I make much of my living having people get angry with me in front of large audiences. Why not spend my off-hours putting myself in the middle of other people's family conflicts?"

So by the middle of 2005 I quietly started living a second life: first as a volunteer crisis counselor, then a 50-something graduate student in marriage and family therapy. And now I can finally say it: Rich Gallagher, MA, MFT. After four years of classes, term papers, and nearly 600 therapy sessions with clients, I have now finished the graduate work to become a psychotherapist.

This is not a career change. Rather, it gets added to the eclectic mix of things I do for a living. (More accurately, I will go from being an off-hours student to being an off-hours therapist.) And I had both practical and emotional reasons for doing this.

First, the practical ones. It adds depth to my "day job" of teaching workplace communications skills, many of which borrow from techniques used in psychotherapy. My most recent book How to Tell Anyone Anything, now a staple of my consulting work, was based in part on my graduate work - and my next book will be the first to have "MA, MFT" after my name. Another practical reason is transitioning to a retirement that is no longer that far away. I will never be happy sitting around watching daytime television, so I thoughtfully chose a new profession that I can practice for as long as I like.

But there are emotional reasons as well. Like the kid who dreams of being a fireman, I always wanted to be a therapist someday. Counseling people has attracted me ever since I was a young boy wanting to be a Catholic priest. For a number of reasons, some very personal, I ended up pursuing a technical career after college, but becoming a therapist later in life finally keeps a decades-old promise to myself.

Perhaps the biggest reason is that this stuff really helps. I ran several "Anxiety Camp" group programs where average participant anxiety scores consistently dropped by about 60%. I've had the pleasure of seeing relationships get closer, workplaces function better, and people work through grief or divorce to start living renewed lives. Therapy clients are generally very good people dealing with the life issues we all share, and it has been a pleasure to be at least a small part of their growth and healing.

Above all, it is a gift to enjoy something so much that the journey itself is worth it. Think, for example, of the person who loves horses so much that they don't mind cleaning the stables every night. This is exactly how I felt about the 14-hour counseling shifts, the crisis interventions, the housecalls all over rural northern Pennsylvania, and the 30-page papers. All a pleasure and all very much worth it.

I couldn't have done this without a lot of support from others, starting with my darling wife Colleen, my family, and my close friends, few of whom escaped being psychoanalyzed for my course assignments. Northcentral University made this all possible with a pioneering, fully accredited online MFT program for working adults. I was fortunate to be mentored by two of the nicest and most talented clinical supervisors, Wendy Hovey, LCSW at Guthrie Health and Kate Halliday LCSW. Even the IRS gets a tip of the hat: Thanks to tax deductions and spreading my expenses over time, I am graduating debt-free.

I also can never repay the friendship and practical help of the Ithaca Therapists Group, a digitally-linked community that was always there for me. Whether it was client referrals, hooking me up with supervision and clinical opportunities, coming to speak to my therapy groups, or simply encouraging and supporting me, I cannot thank its members enough (and won't forget to pass it on).

What happens from here? Hopefully lining up the two years of part-time supervised practice required for NYS licensing, and then getting my full LMFT license and hanging out my own shingle. But that's the fun part. From here, pretty much the only thing that stands between me and being a therapist is being a therapist. Thank you all for supporting me on this journey.