Barbara Sher: Isolation is The Dream-Killer, Not Your Attitude (Transcript)

Barbara Sher

Full transcript of career/lifestyle coach Barbara Sher’s TEDx Talk: Isolation is The Dream-Killer, Not Your Attitude at TEDxPrague conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: isolation-is-the-dream-killer-not-your-attitude-by-barbara-sher-at-tedxprague


I’ve something very important to tell you today. I’m so glad I was invited to this particular TED meeting. I really am, because it’s all about dreams, and that’s what it’s all about, and no kidding, that’s all I do. I also drink water.

When I was about 36, I had just gotten through a very bad year. I’d gotten a divorce, I had no money, I was in New York City, I had two very small children. I couldn’t get a day care center, so I couldn’t take a job. We stayed in welfare hotels in New York; that’s worth writing a novel about. They have cockroaches, so I would tell the kids, we could name the cockroaches, and we played “early computer games” with cockroaches on the wall.

But we got a day care center, I got a job, we got an apartment, and the kids were in school. And I was washing dishes when I was 36, and I thought, “By God, we made it.” The kids were great, I cried a lot, but we did it. We did it, that’s good, I’m proud of myself.

And then I had another thought. I thought, “Is this it? Is that what I get? Is my gravestone going to say, “Her house was frequently cleaned for very brief periods of time?”

I was going to do something; I don’t know what. I didn’t have particular talents, I wasn’t very good at things. But I figured, well, I just have a bad attitude, because that was about the 60s, and everybody learned about positive thinking, and “believing and you can achieve It,” and “create your own reality,” so I thought, “Hey, 36, maybe I’m really old and ugly and nobody will ever love me again, okay. But that’s not so old; I might live a while, I’m going to see if I can figure out what the hell my dream is and go get it!” So I went to everything.

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I stood in rooms where they all stand up and say, “I can do it! I can do it!” And I did that, but I still couldn’t do it. And they said, “Think positive”, they said, “Create your own reality”. I didn’t believe that, and you know what? I was raised in the ‘50s. In my day, if you said you could influence the universe to do what you wanted, or turn people’s sentences backwards, we called a doctor. I am not a “New Age” lady; I am an “Old Age” lady. And so I just gave up. I thought, “Well, look, I guess I’m going to be average; somebody’s got to do it.” And I tried to forget about it.

Now then something astonishing happened that didn’t just change my life; it has already, in the ensuing years, changed the lives of thousands and thousands of people. And that all started in my second job. I had a job in the evening where I ran an “encounter group”. And encounter groups were something that the psychiatrist had learned in the drug program where people attack you, until you cave in, and they scream at you, and yell at you, and you holler at them, and everybody feels better.

And I was in the group and he said, “You’re hired; you can be a leader.” Because I was good at it; in my family, we always hollered at each other. And it was a natural ability, I didn’t think much of it, and I had groups every night after work. I had one on Tuesday night, and this one is going to go down in history.

In this group there was somebody named Ronnie. At least that’s what I call him. I’ve been telling this story so long I don’t remember his name. Ronnie was different. We used to call him “Type B”. He didn’t have any feelings he was aware of. He came because we were basically his social group. But he leaked hostility. It just came out of him, and everybody laying their eyes on him really wanted to hurt him. And we had to walk him home every night after the class, but we were used to him, we liked him. And he was very valuable. Because people would come in who couldn’t get to their feelings, this one woman, I remember, came in and she said, “I quit law school to put my husband through law school; I became a waitress, and I put him through law school and then after that, he divorced me, and married somebody younger and prettier, and took the house and everything naturally, because he’s a lawyer and I couldn’t afford a lawyer, but that’s okay I guess, you know, if I wasn’t enough. But now he wants the kids because he says he can give them a better life, and he really can, but I feel funny about it.” I was looking at the group and the group was going “Grr!”

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I said, “Listen, you’d better get angry, or they’re going to find him and kill him.”

And she said ‘I’m not angry.”

I said, “Try.”

She said, “I’m angry, I’m angry.”

I said, “Ronnie, would you put your fingers in your ears?” He did.

And I said, “Look at Ronnie.”

And she would go, “Eww, I want to smack him!” And she said, “Ronnie, what do you dress like that for? You idiot!” And she switched over to her husband and she got mad at him, and she just went off like a volcano. Oh, it was so satisfying for everybody in the room.

And when she was done, she looked strong and calm like you always do when you get to your feelings. And she said, “I can’t believe I’m letting him get away with this!” And she said, “Oh Ronnie, I’m sorry!”

He said, “I’m always glad to be of service.” So, he was very helpful.

And Ronnie, when I’d have a go-around I’d say, “Do you want to work tonight?” Somebody would say, “Yeah, I had a fight with my boyfriend, I’d better work on my feelings,” and I’d say, ‘What about you?” And they’d say, “No, I’m good.”

And I’d say, “What about you, Ronnie?” just out of politeness, and he would always say, “I’m fine.”

This particular night that shall go down in history, I said, “How are you doing, Ronnie?” and he said, “I’m depressed.”

I said, “Oh! A feeling! Um..Why are you depressed?”

He said, “I hate my apartment.”

I said, “Why don’t you get another one?” They were very easy to get then, very cheap.

He said, “I can’t get another apartment because I’m too depressed.”

I said, “I think I fell for something.” And someone raised her hand and said, “You didn’t fall for anything. If you saw his apartment, you’d be depressed too.”

I said, “Oh. Reality. I like reality. Okay, why don’t you guys go out, get a Village Voice, and find him an apartment, we’ll have a painting party, I’ll bring a potted plant, and if he’s still depressed, I’ll send him to somebody who’s had some training.”

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And they said “Okay!” and they brightened up. You have to understand, these were neurotic New Yorkers. New Yorkers do not mind showing you that they’re neurotic. I was raised before that in Los Angeles and they’re crazy too, but they cool it. In New York they go, “I’m neurotic!” They don’t care. So these people cheered up, you could see it. So they went out, they got him an apartment, we had a painting party, it looked great, and the next Tuesday we had a go-around and I said, “How are you doing, Ronnie?”

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