It was pitch black as I marched with 5,000 strangers to an open-air parking structure chanting at the top of our lungs, “YES! YES! YES!” The only light I could see was the glow of red and orange from beds of burning coals reflecting off the ceiling. What was I doing?
We’d spent the entire day—over 14 hours—at renowned life coach Tony Robbins’ Seminar, “Unleash the Power Within” (UPW), pre- paring for the highly anticipated firewalk. This act of walking barefoot over hot embers was touted on the Tony Robbins Firewalker website as “the ultimate metaphor for working through life’s challenges and obstacles—and our own fears and insecurities about them. Firewalking is a potent symbol of all that’s possible when you take those first literal steps to a freer, more fulfilling future.”
Those who had already crossed this threshold at past UPW events described the act with reverence, as if it was the holy grail of transfor- mation. People came from all over the world and paid a premium for the privilege to step their naked feet across those roasting rocks because, according to Tony, “If you can set your mind to do this, then you can achieve just about anything.” Now I was paranoid that if I didn’t take the plunge, the opposite would occur—I’d accomplish nothing and fail at everything. My stress level mounted.
All around me people began to karate chop the air with ninja sound effects and pound their chests with the intensity of a warrior. I stood frozen, clinging to Tony’s promise that “no one was going to let you walk on fire if you were not in state.” This was my only move.
After watching terrifying videos of five foot high flames—the final portion of the prep—we began our procession to the firewalk like a brainwashed mob. Before I knew it, I was on deck to walk across 12 feet of fiery coals burning at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit without wearing shoes or socks. Since I couldn’t seem to stop myself from taking this deranged step, I trusted Tony’s assurance that someone else would make this choice for me.
Stepping up onto the “cool moss,” a patch of grass at the edge of the blistering rocks, I turned to the volunteer firewalk lady who, per Mr. Robbins, would be the one to save me, and let out a guttural cry over the din of the crowd, “I AM NOT IN STATE!”
Smiling like a Stepford wife, she looked back at me and cheered, “MAKE! YOUR! MOVE!”
“I DON’T HAVE A MOVE!”
“MAKE YOUR MOVE!” she shouted again, like this was fun for her.
“BUT... I AM NOT IN STATE!” “GOOOOOOOOO!”
At that moment, everything stopped. How did I get here?
Three years earlier, I made a life-altering choice. I left my career as a successful television executive to become a certified life and executive coach. After working in the entertainment industry for almost two decades, I was no longer feeling satisfied. Though I loved my team and the brilliant creators with whom I worked, I felt it was time to leave that business and serve in a more meaningful way.
As a devout people collector and people connector, I was convinced that when I left the corporate world, at least 20 of my 2,500 plus contacts would pay me to coach them on a regular basis and my new business would build itself. I was wrong. Three years later, my severance, clients, and belief ran out. I couldn’t pay the bills. I questioned my choice to leave the security of a high-profile job and jump into the unknown based on a gut instinct.
At the same time, my 15-year-old dog who was suffering from debilitating arthritis had to be put to sleep; and my best girlfriends— all of whom had lived within a 10-block radius of me—met their husbands-to-be and moved away. I was 40-something, single, broke, and unraveling. There was only one thing to do. I grabbed the remote and started flipping.
Scrolling through the channels, I saw Tony Robbins on QVC. I’d never stopped on this network before, but on this night, I paused. Mr. Robbins seemed to be talking directly to me saying, “Stef, for a mere $398, I will make it all better. I will restore your faith and renew your energy. I will rekindle that fire within you!” Desperate, I scrounged for a credit card that wasn’t yet maxed out, picked up the phone, and bought that hope. And as a special bonus, I received a free ticket to Tony Robbins’ live event, “Unleash the Power Within.”
Though I barely scratched the surface of the multi-product package of Tony’s teachings, a few months later I signed up to attend the semi- nar, which included the firewalk. The thought of walking on fire terri- fied me. I didn’t want to do it, but I didn’t think I had a choice. I’d been feeling so alone and aimless that I told myself this activity was the cure to “fix” me. I started to believe that I needed this “magic bullet” to snap out of my funk. And Oprah did it, so it must be okay. Now here I was, standing on the edge of the walk of flame.
When the woman yelled, “GO!” again, I left my body and my better judgment and booked across that burning bed yelling “COOL MOSS! COOL MOSS! COOL MOSS!”—a trick for the brain that Tony had taught us earlier to focus on something other than what is actually hap- pening. A few seconds later, I was standing on the other side, jumping up and down with fellow participants, pretending to be thrilled that I’d just deemed myself powerless and walked on fire. Then, I felt my feet throbbing.
I started yelling, “MY FEET ARE BURNING! MY FEET ARE BURNING!” My plea fell on deaf ears as smiling faces nodded to me in what seemed like slow motion. The “YES!” chants of the conditioned crowd faded into the background. All I could hear was my thumping heartbeat.
Panicked, I tried to find water to walk through and get relief. The soles of my feet had to be peeling away. I had visions of my skin falling off like tender meat from a bone. I was on the verge of a full-on nervous breakdown. Staggering over to some steps where there was light, I sat down and prayed. When I found the courage to peek at the damage I’d done to myself, there was nothing. My feet were soft and smooth. Still, I felt the fire burning inside of me, and not the kind I’d been looking to ignite.
While everyone else around me appeared to have taken a hit of ecstasy after this certifiable experience—or maybe before—I was berating myself. Why did I do this? What was I thinking? What did I really believe was going to change in my life by walking on flaming coals? I wanted to scream, “FUCK YOU, FIREWALK!” More painful than my feet was the fact that I had disregarded my distress and bowed down to “Reverend Robbins,” as I’d heard him referred to by his disciples throughout the weekend. I was angry I’d let this happen and that I looked to the outside world to light a spark inside me.
The next morning, exhausted and still reeling from the previous night’s escapades, I entered the massive auditorium to a buzz of firewalk fans flying high. I tried to convince a few folks that Tony should consider renaming the event “Unleash the Power Within and Give it to Tony Robbins.” No one was joining my cause.
As the weekend went on, I developed a stomachache that felt like being stabbed in the gut. With each passing hour, it got worse. I started to worry that in this room of 5,000 strangers, no one would take care of me if I passed out from this pain.
Adding to my agony was my own inner voice chastising me. Pay no attention to your physical suffering. It’s distracting you from this likable, wise man and his mind-blowing program that you need in order to move forward. Without him, you have nothing. Tony knows things. He’s the teacher. You have to whip your life into shape. Listen to him! Now my head was hurting, too.
On the final day of the seminar, I reluctantly took my seat, resigned to my fate, and got situated. Counting the milliseconds for the weekend to end, I asked my bright-eyed neighbor in the chair next to me to con- firm our release time.
“This is over at noon, right?”
“Oh no, sweetie! We go until seven tonight. I wish it would never end. Wasn’t that firewalk fantastic?”
Using every muscle in my body to restrain myself from strangling this woman, my face contorted.
“Sugar, are you okay?”
I looked down, and realizing that I wasn’t handcuffed to the chair, the doors weren’t chained shut, and no one was holding me hostage, I sprung up like a jack-in-the-box, packed up my pens, unleashed my power within, and stormed out. The second the crisp air hit my face, I saw one, lone taxi waiting like my getaway car. I jumped in and I was free.
That moment smacked me in the head and woke me up to a recurring pattern in my life. Like a bad movie montage, I began to think about all the times—in addition to the firewalk—where I had believed and acted as if I had no choice and also without consciously making a choice. I cringed reliving the consequences that followed. From that point on, I was determined to change this.
At the time I signed up for the Tony Robbins event, I needed money, I needed a plan, and I needed my life to change. Instead of looking at what I could do to change the mess I got myself into, I handed over my power and looked to others for answers. In doing so, I diminished myself and my value.
While following the pack toward the firewalk, every cell in my body was imploring me to step aside. Because of my fear of failing to get what I came for and paid for—inspiration and motivation—and also my per- fectionism to complete what I started, I squashed my anxiety, vetoed my gut, and put myself in harm’s way. Had I stopped to heed the call of these cues, I might have taken a beat and chosen to make a U-turn. This experience led me to deconstruct how my life experiences were affected by choice, the conscious and unconscious.
As I began to apply this awareness to my work coaching leaders, executives, working moms, and more, I also became attuned and sensi- tive to the language my clients—and I—were using and how that shaped businesses, relationships, and communities. Supporting my clients to identify where they were and were not taking personal responsibility became an effective way to gain clarity and assess how their results were directly tied to their choices. Choosing to get more deliberate around thoughts, words, and actions became an essential component in trans- forming their lives and leadership. Mine too.
A few years after my firewalk experience, I signed up for a 90-day leadership training program. Part of the curriculum included a ropes course—a challenging outdoor personal development and team building activity consisting of high and low elements. One of these high elements was called a “pamper pole.” It involved climbing up a telephone pole that swayed, lifting yourself to a standing position on a wobbly plate at the top of the pole without holding on to anything, and then jumping off the pole to catch a trapeze swing taunting your arrival or demise.
No part of me wanted to take this plunge or participate in any component of the ropes course. The whole thing felt like firewalk 2.0. Though I was determined to be a proud and active member of this leadership team, I didn’t know how that could happen without going through this part of the program. Would I give my power away again and go against my gut because this is what I should do, or would I learn from my lessons and choose to do something new?
On the first day of the leadership training, the facilitator mapped out the program and the ground rules and asked by a show of hands if we each agreed with what had been laid out. Everyone raised their hands but me.
The facilitator walked over to my seat, looked me straight in the eye and inquired, “What’s holding you back?”
Meeting her stare, I said, “I’m fully committed to participate in every part of the program... except the ropes course.”
Heads turned. Jaws dropped. Eyes popped. “Have you done a ropes course before?”
“I have not.”
“Would you be open to trying it?”
“I would not.”
“Why don’t we see what happens when we get there?”
“I can tell you. I won’t be doing that part of the program. I’m all in on everything else.”
She broke our stare and walked away.
Six weeks into the leadership program, it was ropes course day. I reluctantly got up at 5 a.m. to be at the facility by seven. It was cold, dark, and damp. I knew I was about to face peer pressure that would be cloaked in the vein of team support. I began to doubt my decision.
The ropes course instructor explained how the day was going to pro- ceed, the gear we were to wear, and the safety measures to take. Then he modeled how to begin each activity.
“You’ll stand in front of the challenge you’re about to partake in and state the following, ‘My name is ___________________ and I choose to do this event.’”
As we dispersed to the individual stations, one by one, my teammates affirmed their choice to participate in the event at hand and did so. When it was my turn, I stood and declared...
“My name is Stefanie and I choose NOT to do this event!”
Each time I spoke those words out loud, the group stared me down with a mixture of envy and resentment, while I did a happy dance. All the dread and pressure I’d been carrying around about the ropes course dissipated in an instant. Owning and asserting my choice filled me with a sense of lightness and liberation. It put the power back in my hands. It helped to heal my experience around the firewalk and restore trust in myself. It was a game-changer.
Let me ask you...
- Where have you let choice pass you by?
- In what circumstances or relationships do you feel you don’t have a choice?
- Have you ever given your power away?
We’re making choices every second of every day. It’s not just the big life-altering decisions that impact the trajectory of where we’re going; it’s the little choices—the ones that come up in the minutes and hours of each day. If we’re handing over our power to someone or something else or operating on autopilot and not making thoughtful choices, we create unwanted outcomes and end up feeling powerless.
When you own that the choice is yours and give yourself permission to choose, you’ll be energized. You’ll align with the truth of who you are and your core values. You’ll let go of thoughts and beliefs that are weighing you down. You’ll choose to take charge of your life with purpose. And you’ll have much more fun living and leading with ease.
As a society, we’re replicating patterns that aren’t working for us. We’re not taking personal responsibility for our actions, our thoughts, or the ramification of our words, which is causing rifts and divisions in ourselves, our families, our communities, and our nation. This isn’t about finger-pointing or fault, but rather about reclaiming our agency to choose with more cognizance who we are, what we think, how we behave, what we say, and the impact of those choices. When we step up as the leaders of our lives and choose with intention, we feel better. We’re happier. And we experience more peace, inside and out.
Choosing may not always be about taking the easiest route; it may be choosing what’s best over what feels good. Like my experience with the ropes course, it may be choosing to set a healthy boundary, which may irk or disappoint others. It may be choosing from a place of faith, like leaving a job or a relationship, which might bring up fear. Choosing to grow, choosing to let go of being right, and choosing to be imperfect can often feel like choosing discomfort over security. Ultimately, though, choosing creates freedom.
We are ALL creators, creating all the time. But what is it that we’re creating, not just from a results standpoint, but energetically? What are we pouring into the thoughts we think, the choices we make, and the actions we take? Worry? Stress? Anxiety? It’s time for us to become aware of what’s been unconsciouslydriving us and consciously make different and better choices going forward.
In this book, I’ll break down the three variables that impact our hap- piness and success:
- Personal Responsibility
I’ll provide a toolbox for you filled with thought-provoking, per- sonal inquiry and simple, practical exercises designed to help you choose to live and lead with more joy, ease, and purpose. When you’re thriving in that vitality, you change the way you do business, you do health, you do relationships, you do life! And the best part is that you already pos- sess the power to actualize all of this.
The choice is yours.