River Of Life

Apr 25, 2022

My story is like a river with lots of bends and turns, little ones and big ones. Sometimes, it felt like wild water rafting, sometimes like surfing in flow and synchronicity, sometimes like drowning or paddling against currents trying to catch my breath.

I learned how to swim, at least. Floating with the stream makes it easier. Going against it is hard. Yet how does one figure out what is with, what against?

I didn’t experience some kind of awakening, a big bang, one striking midlife crisis. I didn’t all of a sudden wake up with the question: “What is my purpose?”

Rather the question. “Why do I do what I do?” was ingrained in my life and my decisions ever since I can remember.

Kids don’t stop asking, “Why?” and I never stopped asking until today.

So, here is my story:

I actually have to start when I was a teenager. I had that dream in those days. Whenever I was running, when I was walking, whenever I had a moment to dream, I saw myself sitting at a big round table with politicians signing a peace agreement. It could have been politicians from Palestine and Israel in that picture, or Russia and the USA during the Cold War – those were the days. I was sitting with them at the table while they signed, and it felt great. I wasn’t really aware of what my role was – something around mediation, something about being a bridge between the conflicting partners at the time. At that young age, already I was looking for meaning. Something that would be meaningful to me and give me a feeling of joy, peace, love, being here for something bigger than myself.

There were no big choices to make during my school years; life felt safe and easy with good friends, parties and sports. The first real decision to make was what to study after graduation. I went for medicine. It seemed like a good idea and, in particular, my parents thought it was a great idea. I wonder if that was actually the main influence. Nevertheless, I believed it was meaningful to study medicine: you can work anywhere on the planet, you can do something good for people, and helping people means reducing suffering. The reality was that during the first semesters of studying medicine, I realised that the style of learning didn’t resonate with me. All input was mere facts: information about biochemistry, physics, anatomy, etcetera, not connected, and my ingrained need of answering the question of “Why” wasn’t satisfied at all. Of course, that changes later during the studies and for sure should be different working as a medical doctor. Yet during the first semesters, I had to push hard, and my frustration increased. The prospect of helping people felt eons away.

Working in hospitals didn’t change my experience for the better. The sense and smell of physical pain got to me; I couldn’t handle it well. Instead of feeling empowered to help, I felt helpless.

Watching my fellow students, my feeling of being in the wrong place increased. They seemed to be more at ease, more confident, prouder to be there. It was the first time I thought about the concept of “place of best use.” No matter if I rationally think it is a great job, is it the place of best use for me? Can I be and give my best? Can others do a better job?

The answer of “this is not for me” got clearer and clearer. The magic moments I take from these days are witnessing babies being born. So beautiful. Magic indeed. When the doctor said: “Welcome to the world,” it brought tears to my eyes. Pure life at its best.

So, what now? What is my place of best use?

We had one psychology class that really resonated with me. I loved that particular course, the analysis of psychological illnesses was pretty basic then, and yet it lit a spark in me of curiosity and engagement.

I made a choice: I left medical studies and switched over to psychology. Some people thought I was crazy (especially my parents). The reputation of psychology was still somewhat negative, less worthy for sure than medicine, and with a connotation of “only weird people study that.” Against all odds, I did it.

Some years later, I received my master’s degree in psychology. There wasn’t a day of regret in all those years. It was the right choice. The way of thinking, of asking questions, of analysing in the field of psychology is so me. I could ask, “Why?” all along the way.

I majored in work and clinical psychology, not completely clear where to end up with it. Yet I didn’t really have to think that through because towards the second half of my studies, I got a call from a friend who was working as an executive assistant in an IT consultant firm: “Hey, we are hiring talented people and there’s a program called ‘Get the Best.’ Why don’t you apply? And if they take you, I get money.”

I wondered if she believed I had talent or was only after the money. And even more so, I was  wondering why on earth I should be an IT consultant. In those days, I was still bathing in the  “saving the planet” arrogance, and being a consultant seemed far away from that aspiration.

She put a lot of arguments on the table: “It’s good money, good learning, a cool experience, and I will write your CV and take care of all the paperwork.” I guess the learning and no hassle with the process convinced me to say “Yes.” Not long after, I found myself in an assessment center in Frankfurt wearing the first of many business suits to come.

I passed it and ended up with a really attractive contract in my hand. Baffled, I asked the hiring manager why they wanted me in their company. After all, I was a hippie type, the wanting-to save-the-world kind of person. Besides I didn’t even know what the World Wide Web was, I had no computer, no IT skills… to become an IT consultant?

He didn’t bother much with the answer: “We can train you.” I said “Yes.” It was tempting to be trained in something about which I had no clue. Learning and personal growth were and are very high on my list of what gives meaning to me.

The start was hilarious. During the first week, I ruined a computer by putting a floppy disk in the CD ROM slot (young people reading this might wonder what I am talking about). So funny. My learning curve was steep. It was great to have so many talented people around me. A totally new world. Flying around. Meeting zillions of people. Learning and learning.

During a training in Chicago, I went out to a bar with my peers sharing my dreams of having a positive impact on the world, wanting to make this world a better place. We were laughing (and drinking). They called me “recruiting error” – a hippie in the business world. We ended the night betting on me being a United Nations employee on a mission by 2004. I couldn’t think of any other organisation being more in line with my ethics, values, and dreams. I won the bet, but that comes later. After a couple of years, my learning curve flattened. Similar projects, processes, topics. The repetition caused a voice in my head to become louder: “Move on!”

The economic crisis hit and led me to an easy way out. We were offered to take a flexible leave: We could take off three to twelve months, still getting one-third of our salary. The only obligation: we had to come back within 24 hours if we were needed. I think I was the first one who called human resources going for the twelve-month option.

I put all my stuff in storage. Packed my backpack and left for Central America with my best friend. Up for: Freedom. Adventure. Independence. Self-determination.

We were so happy, excited to have months ahead with no restrictions, no fixed agenda. Our plan was to start in Mexico City and make our way down to Costa Rica, and we promised ourselves to not miss a single beautiful beach along the way. Paradise.

We had no fixed agendas, yet I had a hidden one: Not to come back.

Plan A was to look out for social projects along the way. Maybe there would be options for me to engage in. Plan B was to make a living as a diving instructor (with the little detail of not being qualified yet). And there was the thought of combining A and B: Making a living at the beach and engaging in meaningful projects alongside.

We found the perfect place to go for the missing diving training: Roatan, an island of Honduras. I convinced my friend to stay long enough for me to sign up for the rescue and master diving classes. So far, so good.

Until the river of life showed me otherwise. I had a diving accident. In a rescue training setup, I dislocated my shoulder. Being under water, in a wetsuit and far away from help, it took hours to rescue me from the situation. The shoulder was ruined. Plan A, Plan B and my hidden agenda to not come back were ruined with it. And the end of diving, surfing, beach volleyball… I ended up having surgery back home and needed months of recovery to use my arm again.

While recovering, I got a note from a friend. He had seen an ad by the foreign ministry looking for young professionals to be sent to the United Nations. I applied, of course.

I remember sitting in the garden with my mom saying, “If I get the job, I will be the happiest person on the planet.” I got it – and was the happiest person on the planet.

A few months later, I sat on a plane to New York to start my job as an Associate Expert with the Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The next adventure. And I won the bet. It was in 2002. Who would have guessed?

To me, it felt like meaning was inherent in that organisation. Wasn’t the whole U.N. created to make this world a better place? I loved it. My learning curve was high again. I met fantastic people. And we had tons of fun in Manhattan. What a gift to be part of this world. My day-to-day job turned out to be somewhat bureaucratic, though. Despite the overarching meaning of the whole organisation, I didn’t feel in the best spot to apply my skills. The question: “Am I in the place of best use?” came up again.

When the opportunity arose after a couple of years to move to Rome and work for the World Food Programme, I took it. One of the best decisions in my life, I would say.

WFP is a front-end, emergency agency of the U.N. family. It felt much faster. On the spot. Its purpose right in front of me. I remember one magic moment flying in a helicopter across the Sudan. Looking down onto the savanna with tears in my eyes, deeply touched. What a gift to be able to work here. To be paid for a job that is so close to my heart. To be paid to travel to all these places. It didn’t feel like a job. It truly felt like being on a mission. No doubt about purpose. Inherent. In my face.

Another important learning happened during the same mission.

I was assigned to visit a UN camp in South Sudan where living conditions were almost humanly unbearable. Landing in the middle of nowhere it became apparent to me that we had actually no place to sleep, the little clay houses being unusable since they were besieged by thousands of bats. What to do? The two emergency workers on the ground proved their flexibility putting beds under the open sky, covered by mosquito nets only.

The night approaching, I started to feel more and more uneasy. After all, I was in the desert with two men I had never met before plus two local guards walking around with guns to protect us. Not to forget there was a brutal war going on just outside of the wooden fence of the camp.

I lay down on the bed seeing only shadows of the guards circling around me in the pitch dark, sometimes their flashlights checking out the camp area.

I took a deep breath while looking at the limitless sky. The most beautiful sky I have ever seen. No cloud in the way and no electric light disturbing the vastness of the universe.

I told myself there is nothing, absolutely nothing I can do. I have no control over this situation. That very moment I just decided to feel safe and protected. By the men around me. By the fence across from me. By the stars above me. I realised and felt that trusting can be a choice – independent of the circumstances. I slept deep and sound.

Life got even better during this period of time. I fell in love. I met a German lawyer on one of my home visits and we became a couple. He moved in with me and life was perfect. Rome was followed by New York again, where I had another assignment. Living in Manhattan together he got a call – a job was offered to him in Munich. A great opportunity for his career.

That moment I probably took the most untypical and radical decision ever; I left my career to follow him. Several values were driving that choice. Fairness: He supported my career, so I will support his. Family and friends: I would be closer to loved ones at home. And our intention to have a family of our own. The timing was perfect. And in my mind, it was the absolute right decision. Strangely it didn’t feel right, which I stubbornly ignored.

We didn’t last long back in our home country. We were a good couple in my world. We were not good together in his. The breakup was bad. Very bad. And I was too exhausted to leave and resume my old life. The river of life took me here, and I stayed. I was lucky to find a great job as head of people and organisational development in a semiconductor company. Kind of back to the roots. Back to business. It helped me to pull myself back together. It was my first global leadership position, and I loved being responsible for an international team, being in charge of the learning and development of the company.

Before I could become complacent or ask myself my favorite question again, if I was still in “the place of best use,” the company went bankrupt. No decision to make. I learned what it meant to close a company and let go of thousands of employees. Huge learning and I hope I don’t need to do it again. A completely different thought came up during that time. And I could hear my dad’s voice in my head. He continuously said: “You can’t work for anyone. You never did and will never do what others say.” Well, yes. They were poor supervisors who had to cope with me.

In 2009, I created my own business and have worked as a leadership coach and consultant ever since. I was introduced to Oxford Leadership the same year, and I joined this great network of passionate people. And again, what a gift. I can choose what I do; each and every day it is a free choice. Accompanying leaders on parts of their life’s journey and asking them about their “Why?” is meaningful and fulfilling to me. It feels like I do what I always loved: being in conversations with people. My friends used to say, “Give her a chair and a person to talk to, then she is happy.” So true. Deep conversations absorb me; I love to listen to people’s stories, motives, dreams, aspirations, I love to stay with them wondering, laughing, crying and creating. With curiosity and in the spirit of exploration, time and time again, I am fascinated.

I have to admit that a hidden agenda is driving me also: I believe that leaders who are connected to their purpose can make a huge difference, purpose guiding them to use their power wisely. I am in the second row now, serving my clients, supporting the creation of healthy teams, striking strategies, working for sustainable solutions, and fulfilling lives.

This kind of work also demands a lot of me. It takes energy to “swing” with the clients, stay focused 100% and hold a container for people in which they can create. Yet it doesn’t feel like a job. It is part of me, part of my life.

I sometimes question my concept of “place of best use” nowadays. Is it still valid? Or is it rather a matter of who do I choose to be? With an emphasis on being rather than doing?

As of today, I cannot describe this chapter from a real metalevel perspective. There are no retrospective conclusions yet since it is NOW. My assumption is that this is the path I will stay on. Who knows?

And yet the story doesn’t end here. The river of life had one radical turn for me along the way: I was very sick during this last decade. It would go beyond the scope of this chapter to share the details of the illness. Yet I intend to write a book about my insights at a later stage. It gives me peace to think that someone else might benefit from my experience.

The question of “Why?” almost drove me nuts while being sick. There was no straight forward diagnosis, all very complex, and I just couldn’t figure it out. Life slowed down during this time, and I had even more time to think and learn. I spent months researching, looking for answers and healing in the fields of medicine, psychology, and spirituality. I was wondering what comes first – body, mind or spirit – and I tested any healing method crossing my path on myself. It wasn’t one method that helped me recover. Folders of diagnostics and analyses, great experts in their fields, much trial and error and patience, time and time again, led to improvement.

Bound to home a lot I embarked on another rewarding journey – writing my first book together with a friend and colleague: “The Golden View: The Key to Self-realisation and Becoming Conscious.” Honestly, I underestimated the time and energy it would need. But we did it and proudly published the book in German in 2014 and in English a couple of years later.

All medical indicators look pretty positive as of today. I should be amazingly happy and relieved about it. Yes, I feel less fear, less tension. Yet I am still searching for humility and gratitude inside me after that rollercoaster. It has been a slow recovery. Not one “eureka” moment. It felt like hard work, and I wasn’t able to accept this part of the river fully, I went against it often in my mind. The struggle left some traces, which I am still trying to overwrite. Some days, it feels like waking up after a nightmare with a racing heart, still sweating. Like fog lifting, trying to orient myself.

I wanted to run always, not walk. Travel, not stay. Laugh, not cry. I wanted to conquer the world and I didn’t. My ego was screaming loud. I climbed uphill and am on my way downhill now. Which is great. I made it. And I am wondering if I am wearing the right shoes for this part of the path.

It dawned on me during those years that I might not be the center of the universe. I couldn’t pretend anymore that I was en route to having a tremendous impact on the world. My ego hated to tab into my own insignificance, and I didn’t figure out how this could be liberating as some people claim. I wish I could say I am wiser, calmer and enlightened now – after all. Oh well.

Peace is emerging in me only recently. My ego is quieter most of the days.

I love my friends, my animals, nature, my work. I feel more connected to all around me. Less searching for “kicks” (well, a little less). The river didn’t flow as I wanted. Surprise. Yet I am still here and curious to see where it will lead me next.

I see us all in one boat on this river of life. And only together can we overcome any challenges ahead of us.

Regardless of how impactful my life will be in the end, no matter what is still to come, I will for sure base my decisions on answering the question, “Why?” And my intuition has to go along with the answer: “It just has to feel right.”

Simone Alz

Leadership Companion, Sweden

Having begun her career in a renowned management consulting company as a human performance and change management consultant, she then worked for the United Nations in both New York and Rome. As an Associate Expert for the UN Department of Economics and Social Affairs, her remit included strategic personnel allocation and staff delegation and development. In her role as a staff counselor for the UN World Food Program, she not only worked as a psychological advisor but also provided crisis intervention and training for staff at headquarters and on WFP missions. She then went on to develop crisis intervention programs for the UN Department of Safety and Security. 

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