Home » How to Figure Out What You Really Want: Ashley Stahl (Transcript)

How to Figure Out What You Really Want: Ashley Stahl (Transcript)

Full text of career coach Ashley Stahl’s talk: How to Figure Out What You Really Want at TEDxLeidenUniversity conference.

Notable quote from this talk:

“When we go into fear, we give away our power and we disconnect from who we really are and what we really want.”

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Ashley Stahl – Career Coach and Author

It was 2:45 PM on a rainy Friday in Los Angeles. My dad was just brewing a cup of coffee in the kitchen when he answered a call from an unknown number. He froze as he heard a woman violently crying and screaming on the other side of the line.

Next, a strong masculine voice came on. And he said to my dad, “We have your daughter, and if you don’t listen to every single word that we say, we’re going to kill her.”

My dad paused, he lost his breath for a moment, and he managed to ask, “Can I talk to her?”

“Do you want us to break her arm?” They taunted him.

Now, you have to understand I am one of two daughters. And sadly, just six months before this phone call came in, we took my big sister off of life support. I’ll never forget the day that she died.

My dad looked at me with this grief, with this heartbreak, bigger than the entire sky, and he kept repeating to me, saying, “Now I only have one daughter left.”

So, as anyone would when they’re in fear, he gave his power away, and he desperately said to the kidnappers, “This is my only daughter; I’ll do whatever you want.”

“Are you alone?” the kidnappers asked him.

And in that moment, he locked eyes with my mom across the kitchen, pressed his fingers to his lips, silently begging her to remain quiet. And he said to them, “Yep, I’m alone,” as he scribbled on a napkin.

He wrote, “Go outside, quiet, call 911. Ashley’s been kidnapped.”

My sweet mom, she hurried outside with her hands trembling, and she managed to call 911.

Meanwhile, my dad was being commanded by the kidnappers. “Get in your car,” they said to him. “You’re going to the bank, you’re keeping us on the phone, and you’re going to pay a ransom. And if you don’t cooperate, we’ll be sending you her body parts in the mail.”

My mom let the police know to meet her at the bank, and she tiptoed in the car so that they wouldn’t hear her. The conversation in the car to the bank was all over the place. In one minute, they were asking my dad how his day was. In the next minute, they were threatening to rape me.

They pulled up at the bank, and my mom went to meet the police officer, and meanwhile, my dad stiffly walked into the bank with his phone on in his pocket as promised so that the kidnapper could hear him wiring the funds.

Meanwhile, as all of this was unfolding, I was actually sitting in my quaint, little Beverly Hills office, conducting a podcast interview.

I remember throughout the conversation with my guest kind of seeing my phone light up across my desk and not thinking much of it. No, it wasn’t until my guest left that I saw a slew of missed calls.

And most importantly, I saw one text message that I’ll never forget. It said, “This is the police. I’m with your family. Please call.”

Now, in my early 20s, I worked in counter-terrorism at the Pentagon, in Washington, D.C., so believe me when I tell you that my imagination of what could go wrong is so colorful.

But in that moment – I’ve never gotten a message like that, thinking that maybe whatever was on the other side of that text message was going to ruin my life.

So I sat there, and I mustered the courage to finally call. He said, “This is Officer Johnson. Is this Ashley?”


He said, “Please confirm your name.”

I said, “This is Ashley Michelle Stahl. Is my family okay?”

Next thing I knew, I heard commotion. He yelled across the bank to my dad, “Mr. Stahl, hang up the phone! She’s on the line; it’s a scam!”

I heard a ton of commotion, and then my dad grabbed the phone from the police officer. And he came onto the phone with me with a voice sounding more fragile than I’ve ever heard him before. And all he said to me was “Is it you?”

I said, “Yeah, it’s me.”

And for the first time ever, I heard my dad break down and sob. He didn’t sob like that when I was a little girl. I remember one of his businesses went under, and our family went through an incredibly hard time, and he didn’t sob like that.

When I was in middle school, I came home one day, and he told me he had stage III cancer. And he didn’t sob like that the day my big sister passed away. Never.

He kept asking me if it was me, as in I felt like I had to prove that it was, so I said, “Yeah, Dad, it’s me. We dressed up as hotdogs together for Halloween. You love cheesecake. I just signed my book deal. It’s me, Dad.”

And he met me with one question. He said, “Can you please just come home?”

So I was on my way. I remember walking through the front door of my parents’ house, my dad rushed over to me, and we hugged heart to heart, and I felt his pain in a way that I’ve never felt on another person.

It was in that moment that I also realized that parents aren’t superhumans, that they’re just people – like you, like me – doing the best that they can.

He walked me through the phone call from start to finish, and I couldn’t believe that for two entire hours he was living one reality while I was living a completely separate one.

But knowing that the truth always leaves clues, I couldn’t help but wonder, how did my supersmart dad get so duped? And did the crying woman even sound like me?

And how did he manage to give his power away so quickly to a bunch of strangers?

So, eventually, I managed to ask him, “Did you ever doubt that this was real?”

And he gave an answer that we all tend to give when life corners us and we buy into fear. He said to me, “I didn’t think that there was another option.”

Thinking about that, he went on, about how we get so scared, and how somebody was screaming on the line, and you don’t have time to think about that. And that totally made sense to me.

But throughout the rest of the night, I sat there in so much sadness and some anger, looking at how traumatized – I’d never seen my 75-year old dad so traumatized – wondering how could somebody do this to another person?

And it was in that moment that something completely unexpected washed over me. And it was compassion. Not just for my dad, but for the fake kidnappers.

I wondered, why would somebody choose a career path of scaring people like that and robbing them of their life savings? The only answer I could come up with was maybe they didn’t think they had a better option, or, you know, maybe this is what their parents taught them, just like my parents taught me what was possible for me in my career, or maybe they don’t have the awareness that there’s another way.

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