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

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.

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!”

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.”

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?”

He said “I’m happy!”

I said, “Wow! That’s great! “OK! So who wants to work tonight?”

He said, “Wait a minute.”

I said, “Yeah, Ronnie?”

He said, “Well now I want a woman.”

I said, “A woman?”

He said, “Yeah, I have a place to entertain now.” We had to be emotionally honest in these groups so somebody looked at a woman, said to him, “Ronnie, women hate you.”

He said, “I know, fix me.”

And they said, “Fix you?”

I said, “Why not? What the hell! Stand up, Ronnie and let’s take a look.” Ronnie, he didn’t look good. He had one positive attribute: he was extremely clean. That’s where it ended. His pants fit wrong. He looked wrong. He talked wrong. So the women took him to the store and got him better clothes, and the men took him to the gym where he could stand up straighter and he wouldn’t be in such danger all the time, and when it was his turn to work on Tuesday nights he would stand up and try to pretend he was, basically, a human. And somebody would come to him and say, “Hello,” and he would say, “H-u-llo!” And she’d say, “Not like that, that’s disgusting!” He’d say, “Give me another try,” and finally after about six months, he said, “I think this is as good as I’m going to get.” We looked at him and said, “I think it’s true.

“Okay, let’s set a date for a party and let’s go find some women.”

So after that, everybody would come in every week saying, “I got one! I was in the supermarket and I saw this woman standing there; she had one can of cat food and one frozen dinner”.

And I said, “You want to go to a party?”

Someone else said, “I was walking down the hall of my apartment building with trash, and I heard somebody crying. And I saw too many wine bottles in the trash, so I knocked on the door and someone came to the door and said, ‘Yes?’

I said, “You want to go to a party?”

We got innocent visiting cousins from Ohio, and we had the party. It was a triumph. Nobody talked to Ronnie. But he’d learned how to make hors d’oeuvres, and he was very happy. And when it was over I said, “You know what, guys? Keep throwing parties; you never know, Ronnie could find somebody. But it’s good for everybody, I want you all to do it, it’s good for everybody!” They said okay, and they did. And he found somebody. She was actually quite cute to look at, but she was very peculiar in her head. But, hell, it was Ronnie, and so we were very happy. And they didn’t come as often, but she would drag him in to confront him. She liked that idea. And I don’t remember what she would confront him for, except for one thing, and this is what happened on the big night.

She came in, she dragged him in, somebody had been working, her dog had died and she was crying. When she saw them come in she said, “It’s okay, I’ll wait”. And they walked in and I said, “Yeah what’s up?”

She said, “I have to confront Ronnie because he uses too many adjectives and I think he does it on purpose.”

And I looked at her and I said, “I wouldn’t take that from any man; take him down.”

So she went, “I’m angry at you, Ronnie!”

And he said, “I’m sorry!” And then they were done, they hugged each other, they walked out of the room, they were so happy. And somebody looked at them and said, “What a pair of dingbats.”

And I said, “What’s wrong with this picture? Ronnie is the only person in this room with a good apartment, who is not sleeping alone, including me.”

I said, “Listen, listen. What if we got together every week and you told us what you wanted?”

“We don’t know what we want.”

“Well, we help you figure it out and then we made you do what you want to do? I mean the world makes you do what you have to do; you have to pay your taxes, you have to show up, what if we made you do what you want to do? You could have your dream; you could have any dream!”

They’d go, “Barbara, we’re too neurotic.”

I said, “What are you talking about? We could put a man on the moon, we got Ronnie a woman!” And we did it. And amazing things started to happen. Right in that group, we got somebody into law school and through law school, and she started a law firm with another woman. Somebody adopted a kid, and somebody went to Cairo. We got wonderful things. So, my wish was to create a workshop, and I did, and everybody helped me. I went around the country; didn’t make money but I had a lot of fun. And I went around the country teaching people how to be in these Success Teams, because they were just great.

And then at the end, I’d say, “I’m going to prove it to you; give me an impossible dream.” These are all true stories, I couldn’t make these up. I was in Greenville, North Carolina, and I said, “Common on, tell me an impossible dream; I want to show you something.” A woman stood up and said, “I want to dance with Patrick Swayze.” That’s from “Dirty Dancing.” So you could hear women say, “Yeah, you and every other woman alive on earth.”

And another woman waved her hand. I said, “Does anyone have ideas?” A woman raised her hand, and said, “Patrick Swayze’s mother has a resort 30 miles away; I work there on the weekends. He’s coming Wednesday, I’ve danced with him, I’ll take you up; you want to dance with him?” That was nothing.

Somebody stood up, she was crying, she said “I want an animal refuge for old dogs and old animals. They just don’t get treated. It’s terrible, even farm animals,” and I just said, “What’s your obstacle?” Because I’m going to teach you something about “wish and obstacle”; that is the secret. If you don’t learn it, nothing happens.

And I said, “What’s your obstacle?”

She said, “What’s my obstacle? I don’t have any money, I don’t have any land, I don’t have a license, I don’t have any training; I have nothing. I can’t do it!”

And someone waved her hand, they always do, and she said, “My friend’s mother just was in an auto-accident, she hurt her back, she won’t be able to run her refuge anymore. She can’t find anybody young to run it for her. She’s got a license, she’s got the money, she’s got the land, she’s even got the animals!” And it wouldn’t stop. Oh God, I’ve got so many.

Oh, yes, there was a woman in a group and she said, “I make harps; I make them from a special kind of wood they have in England, and now it’s gone. The last tree is gone. There is no tree left, I can’t make any more harps!” Someone in the back raised her hand and said, “Are you talking about such and so?” and she gave a Latin name, and she said, “Yeah!” She said, “My brother has a big stand of those in Australia. Come back here, I’ll give you his number.”

Every time; it never fails. This is a funny one; there was a lady in New York, a very weird looking lady, and she got up in the aisle, and she said, “I need a chimp. I’ve got to rent a chimp.”

I said “What?

“I’ve got to rent a chimp.”

I said, “A chimpanzee? You want to rent?”

She said, “Yes.”

She said, “What I do is during lunch hour, I go through the big corporations with a chimpanzee and a bunch of cute little toys for kids, and everybody comes out into the corridor because I have a chimpanzee and they buy all the stuff. And the chimpanzee costs me about $200 a day, and I sell about $400 a day, so I’m making a living. But they just raised chimpanzee rentals up to $600 a day; I’m out of business!”

A woman in the back, dressed very nicely, said, “I think we can do better than that.”

I said, “You rent chimpanzees?”

She said, “Yes, and giraffes, rhinoceroses, and horses.”

I said, “In New York City?”

She said, “Yes.”

I said, “Why?”

She said, “This is where the commercials are made. We’ve got trainers too. We’ve got everything.”

I thought, “Blow me down. You never know who you’re talking to!” We’re all the center of enormous amounts of information and connections that we don’t need and we don’t think of, unless somebody asks us.

So I began to realize that I had found the absolute guaranteed secret to success, and boy, did it have nothing to do with positive thinking. Oh boy, nothing.

Here is the punchline: Isolation is the dream killer, not your rotten attitude. You can hate yourself, you always do, you know it. You wake up and go, “I’m fat.” You know you do that. If you wake up in the morning and say, “I’m here!” your wife will kill you in your sleep tomorrow night. And I’ll help her. And you can’t walk around faking feelings, I mean to yourself anyway. I just feel bad that everybody started it. So that says, “Cross out Positive Thinking.”

And this says ”Here’s a team.” Right? Not necessarily closest friends or parents, because they’ve got attitudes about you. Strangers are great, absolutely great. So here’s what you do: You get a team. You figure out what you want, and then you say, “Here is my wish, and here is my obstacle. Here’s what I want, and here is why I cannot have it.” If you don’t say both those things, nothing happens. We are problem-solving animals. If you say, “I’d love to be a ballerina.” Everybody goes, “Mmm.” If you say I’d love to be a ballerina, but I’m 44 years old. Every mind starts working. Even if people don’t like you, they’ll solve your problem: “I heard about, 44-year-olds, there’s one in Boston. There’s a new ballet troupe, I read about in a magazine, I’ll find it.” People want to help. Amazing things will happen to you.

I’ll give you my last stories because they’re so good. Someone called me from Toronto. She was a Success Team leader and she said, “We have an accountant in Toronto, I have to tell you the story. We had a group with six people; there were five women, and this guy. And he was so helpful; he knew everybody in town, he got them bank loans, he introduced them to everybody. But he never wanted anything”.

Finally they said, “Listen, you have to tell us what you want. We can’t take anything from you anymore!”

And he said, “I can’t tell you; it’s too stupid, you’ll laugh at me.”

And they said, “Oh no, absolutely not”.

Barbara Sher says, “You never laugh at anyone’s dream.”

He said, “Okay, well, I want to be a cowboy.” So naturally they all laughed.

Someone said, “What’s the obstacle?”

He said, “What do you mean? What’s the obstacle?

He said, “First of all, I don’t even know if there are cowboys, I liked cowboy movies as a kid and I wanted to be a cowboy, that’s it. I don’t know if there are cowboys. Second, I’ve got a business; I can’t walk away from my business and just hope I can find a cow. What are you talking about?”

Someone said, “Wait a minute,” and she called her roommate. She remembered her roommate had an uncle in Alberta who was a rancher. And pretty soon he called. And we said, “Turn on the speakerphone.”

The guy said, “I hear you’re an accountant. I’d like to fly you out one week a month to do my books.”

And the accountant said, “You can do it on the Internet.”

He said, “I know, I don’t want my business on the internet.”

And then the women kicked him and he said, “I want to be a cowboy.” He said, “You can be a cowboy; just finish in two, three days, and you can go on a drive we always have them.”

He said, “You have cowboys?” He said, “Yeah, if you had steak this month, somewhere there’s a cowboy.” So he did it. He sent back photographs. He went out, he became a cowboy, and he does his Toronto accounts on the Internet.

But the best story of all, and the one I want to tell you most of all, happened in Memphis in the summer. August was very hot, and I was asking for impossible dreams. A woman in the front row raised her hand, and I said, “Yes, what’s your dream, what is your wish and what is your obstacle?”

She said, “I’m tired; I want to go on a cruise.”

“Okay, what is your obstacle?”

And she said, “Well, I’ve got three: money, I have a sick daughter at home, — an adult daughter, I can’t leave her for a second, I could hardly get here — and I’d rather not mention the third.”

And before I could ask if anybody had an idea, a guy came running up the aisle in a white T-shirt with a number on it, a pair of shorts, waving a piece of paper, and he grabbed the mic and he said, “I ran for the Heart Association this morning and I won a cruise for one. My wife isn’t going to let me go on a cruise for one person; you take it!”

Everyone got excited and they all applauded that she had her cruise and didn’t have to worry about money. She said, “That’s so sweet, but I really can’t leave my daughter.”

And a woman on the aisle raised her hand and she said, “I’m a public health nurse and every year, we have to keep our license, we have to give ten days of pro-bono free work, and I haven’t found anybody and it’s already August, so can you use ten days?”

Everybody got excited. And I said, “I think you’re going to have to tell us your third obstacle.”

She said, “Well, it’s embarrassing, but my daughter’s in bed because she’s been physically injured and she’s frightened. Because her ex-husband is stalking her.” And the room fell silent. I mean everyone thought, “Oh, shit!”

A voice came from the back of the room. I never saw this man’s face, I will never forget his voice, he said, “I’m a cop, what’s his name?”

She went on the cruise. But here’s what I want to tell you: We depend on each other’s dreams coming true. What do you think is going to happen now that she went on that cruise? It’s just a cruise. But her daughter’s going to get well; she’s not scared anymore. Her daughter’s going to become a teacher. Her daughter is going to understand kids who are scared. Her daughter is going to understand kids who are physically scared because she gets that. Every time you make someone else’s dream come true, it echoes. No magical New Age way, it echoes in practical, wonderful ways. You have to, you have to. You have to figure out what you want, and you have to ask for help, and you have to remember “wishes and obstacles.” And you have to let people help you because you have to go after your dreams, and never tell me you can’t do it. Just remember: we got Ronnie a great apartment in New York and a woman, a crazy woman, he loves with all his heart. We can do anything. That’s what I wanted to tell you.


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