How to Be:
Three Life-Changing Lessons from a Remarkable Woman
About a month ago, I lost my mentor and dear friend, Mary Kogen. Mary was, on the surface, my college piano and pedagogy teacher. She taught me technique and chord progressions, how to break the binding of your music so it would lie flat (I was horrified), which Chopin piece to introduce first to young students (the a-minor Waltz, fyi), sightreading and keyboard skills, the pronunciation and meaning of “appoggiatura,” when and how to use the una corda pedal, and a million other things you’d expect from a college music professor. All interesting and useful, if you’re going to be a piano teacher or performer… but not the least bit life-changing.
What Mary really taught me, was how to be. She taught this through direct instruction in piano lessons and classes, as well as through the books she chose as required reading (sooooooo many good books!). But mostly, she taught me by being herself.
I could probably write a book myself on everything I learned from Mary, but for now I’ll share the three things that most dramatically affected my teaching, my coaching, my communication, and my life. All three touch upon your ability to learn, to connect with others, to capitalize on opportunities, and to make an impact in the world. Thank you, Mary!
1. Be Playful.
It’s a serious, scary world out there. Now more than ever, you can drown yourself in distressing news and become engulfed in anger or anxiety. And certainly, those feelings exist for a reason. They can do you good! They reveal your values and your hopes for the future. They can spur you to stand up for yourself and fight for what you believe in.
Yet living perpetually in a pit of despair or an inferno of rage doesn’t do anyone any good. My wonderful Mary expressed anxiety at times, and she definitely got angry! But she didn’t live there. She lived with joy and humor and playfulness. She’d joke and tease, roll her eyes, dance and laugh. If I showed up to a lesson irritated, she’d say, “Okay, I give you 30 seconds to rant and rave and then we need to move on to the lesson.” For 30 seconds she’d egg me on and stomp her feet in pretend rage and then when the time was up—scales and arpeggios! Ellen Langer, an author Mary recommended, says, “Turn work into play and play into work.”
And Mary laughed constantly. Big, hearty laughs. I do that, too, and I definitely got it from her! My friend Sari once introduced me by saying, “This is my friend Rachel. She will laugh at everything you say.” Another time, Sari was working in a room adjacent to where I was coaching; after, she said, “I love how much laughter I hear coming from that room!”
As authors Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas write in Humor, Seriously, “When we laugh, our brains release a cocktail of hormones that make us feel happier (dopamine), more trusting (oxytocin), less stressed (lowered cortisol), and even slightly euphoric (endorphins). By working humor into our professional interactions, we can serve our colleagues this powerful hormone cocktail, and in doing so we can literally change their—and our—brain chemistry on the spot.” In addition, humor has been linked to an increase in personal power, the ability to create interpersonal bonds, creativity, and resilience (pgs. 43-44).
Laughter truly is the best medicine—not only is it good for your body and your mood, it’s good for your image, your relationships, and your ability to communicate. Mary was one of the most charismatic people I’ve ever known. Humor and playfulness formed the foundation from which she built every meaningful interaction, though it never felt like she was “building” anything. She was simply being her playful self.
2. Be Curious.
It’s hard to be curious in a serious, scary world. Why poke your nose into unknown territory? What if you find something you don’t like!? Or something dangerous!? Or something that just smells really, really bad??
In order to keep yourself safe from what’s different or dangerous or smelly, you build walls and boxes. You do, I do. Probably even Mary did. Mary wasn’t immune to boxes, but she continually asked, “What if we throw out this box? What then?”
87%* of the breakthroughs my clients experience in coaching sessions come simply because I provide them with a different frame, a different lens. What if there were no rules? What if you couldn’t fail? What if money wasn’t on the line? What if your job was secure? What if you had all the time in the world? What if you’re already worthy of love and respect?
You don’t live in a world with no rules or failure or money, but considering the possibilities and cultivating curiosity creates a safe homebase from which you can imagine phenomena… And those fantasies are important. In those mental wanderings, you find out what you want and what you need and what you hope and what you can achieve. I remember one client who looked on impending retirement as “a lonely island of isolation.” All it took was a mindset of curiosity to uncover what could turn that island of isolation into a sea of possibility.
Not to mention, being curious is a fairly practical communication skill when it comes to having conversations. I coach clients who struggle with small talk to simply ask questions in order to keep a conversation going, but it can quickly devolve into an interrogation if you aren’t actually curious about the other person! “Who?? What?? When?? Where?? Why??”
Mary was just so interested. You always felt like you were the most important person in the world when you were with her. Whatever you said was just so fascinating. And it wasn’t a show. She wasn’t trying to woo you or manipulate you (most of the time) or gratify you. She truly believed she could learn something from every human being on earth (even if it was simply, “This person is an idiot!”) and honored every human being accordingly. She was fully present and open to what might be. That’s what it takes to learn, grow, and seize the opportunities of each day. Be curious!
3. Be Trusting.
I saved the best, and hardest, for last!
SERIOUS, SCARY WORLD ≠ BE TRUSTING
I get it. Trust is hard. It can be hard even to trust the people you know and love and … supposedly trust. But Mary taught me that you can create your own safe place from which you can extend trust. That doesn’t mean the world is wonderful and you won’t sometimes get hurt. You will sometimes. The world can be a painful place. And getting hurt sucks! Yet, sometimes the risk of getting hurt is a reasonable price to pay for true connection.
Mary taught me:
Trust the learner.
When you’re the guide, that’s the most important time to listen. Your student or client or protégé will tell you what they need to learn and how they need to learn it. Not, perhaps, in words. That’s the tricky part. But if you are open and curious and present and listening… you can be an amazing guide.
Not all of yourself. There’s a part of you that wants to tear you down and hold you back—your Inner Critic or, as my friend Shell calls it, The Gremlin. There’s part of you that wants to give in to your most selfish and base desires… but those aren’t actually good for you. Dig deeper. Trust the part of you that knows what’s good and right and beautiful and nourishing. Dig into that.
Lead others to trust their best selves, too.
Another huge part of my coaching practice is helping clients find and rely on the traits and skills they already have. I got this from Mary, too. She did not pull any punches, but she also was a great encourager and a great caller-outer-of-strengths. If I tell a client, “You’ve got this! You’re going to do great!” it’s because I know it’s true, not because I’m trying to make them feel good.
Trust the Higher Power.
You may not believe in a Higher Power, but I do. I’ve had too many positive experiences not to. It’s there, and it’s actively working, and it’s bigger than anything you can imagine. If you believe there’s something bigger and stronger out there, it makes it much easier to step out right now from a place of love and peace.
Baby steps. Maybe start by simply trusting the process. Mary was a huge believer in the process. “Life is a journey, not a destination.” Every day you learn, and one of the things you learn is faith.
I would not be who I am or where I am in life had it not been for Mary Kogen. The lessons I learned from her, though, go beyond her or me. They are keys to life. I hope you will take them, use them, and live a long, full, joyful, productive, and inspirational life with them, just as she did.
*I totally made this stat up, but it’s probably pretty close.