As we grow older, our responsibilities increase, and with that a nagging fear — Am I on the right path? Some researchers called it a mid-life crisis. However, the roots of this question begin during our younger years.
This week, I interviewed somebody who has faced some of these questions regularly and has managed to come out with lessons each time. Allow me first to introduce her.
Ruth Kearns Wollmann is a talented coach who believes in the power of human potential and leads with a strategic mind and a big heart. Ruth is a certified professional co-active coach and an experienced trainer and facilitator.
Graduating with an MA from Oxford and a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, England, she started her career as a research scientist in Cognitive Psychology and went on to spend 14 years as a consumer insights professional and business executive in P&G.
In 2012, she left P&G to take a leadership and pastoral role in the Swiss church, ICF, during a period of significant organizational change before launching her Coaching Practice in 2017. Ruth hosts a podcast, “Your Path to Success,” designed to encourage, inspire, and equip people on their leadership journey through interviews, stories, and best practices.
Watch the entire interview by clicking on the thumbnail below or read excerpts in this blog.
David: You work with leaders to discover their personal path to success in work and life. Take us all the way back. How did you get started?
Ruth Kearns Wollmann: There were two decisive moments. I have been doing coaching of this type for about seven years now as my main activity. The first step for me was understanding that the biggest impact I could have would be to invest in other people and release them into their purpose and calling. This was back in 2006.
But then there was a whole period when I was understanding how to put that into action. The second decisive step was having the courage and conviction to leave my corporate job, go into pastoral ministry, and coach people full-time.
David: How have you navigated your own path to success? Because it is quite different being in the corporate world and then moving into ministry, right?
Ruth: The easiest way to explain this is through the lens of my faith because I have made many mistakes in my life and career. What has worked has been when I have listened to God, and I have been able to obey and do what He says. Around 2006, I started to understand my life’s purpose better and who God has called me to be, who I am really, who I am in Christ, but also who I am as an individual, because I believe that God has made us all unique for a reason. None of us is the savior of the world. That’s Jesus, but He calls us to bring His kingdom in partnership with Him. Understanding that part is key.
I began to understand this, however, not through teaching a church or in a Christian context, but through this coaching course. I learned that God had given me a gifting around listening. I was in this coaching course. We had to give acknowledgement to the people in front of us. There was this lady standing in front of me, who I found irritating. But I just opened up my hands and said, “God help.” And I started to speak. I began to say something. I remember a few of the things I said, but what I most remember is she looked at me and said, “You are like a white witch, you know?” I was speaking these words into her life. It was a Sunday and that Sunday evening I went straight to church and I asked the Lord if this was a prophetic gifting?
I was learning something in a secular context, then asking God what that meant, and then putting everything back in His hands. Then I took a three-month sabbatical. I went to Capetown and worked in a prison ministry for three months. I set the time aside to listen to God about my future. I wanted to understand how these coaching skills and my business skills could be used in the context of serving other people in a ministry. I journaled a lot, and when I came back, I was promoted. I returned to Geneva in a big corporate job and started serving in the church. That was good and bad at that time. Some things I did well, some things I did less well.
But a crunch point came in about 2012 when my pastor challenged me to quit my job and go work for the church as a pastor. I really required a lot of discernment. I asked God if this was His voice or my ego because I felt flattered that someone asked me.
I went back through all my journals and read what I had written. There were things that people said to me in my connect group. One day, while sitting down with God, I asked him reluctantly if He was not calling me to be a pastor. It was the last thing I wanted. My family had many pastors, and it was just not something I wanted. I had to be convinced by God that this was His voice.
Navigating your path to success is about listening to God, reading His word, taking His wise counsel, putting these things together, and then daring to take action.
So, I left my job, and my salary was cut by two-thirds. At that time, I didn’t know how to make a budget. So it’s the practical side with the spiritual side and the courage to obey and take a step of faith and trust that if I make a mistake, God will give me some grace.
I felt like God told me I would be a pastor, but not in the way I thought. So we do hear God, but we are not perfect; we don’t hear him properly sometimes. And then we have to retune and recalibrate from now and again. Am I still on the right path? What’s next? And how can I do that now where I am now?
David: How did these radical decisions change your view or definition of success?
Ruth: I think our definition of success evolves over our lifetime. When we are younger, there are expectations of us, whether it be from society or from our family of origin, or people we respect. I grew up in a clear educational environment. There was a path ahead of me that I was supposed to follow. So, success was equated with academic success and getting a good job. It is quite natural when we are in our 20s because we want to establish ourselves in the world and figure out who we are.
Moreover, we become like the people we surround ourselves with, and that became clear to me when I took my three months of sabbatical, drove around in a beaten-up VW Golf, and lived with minimal resources.
When I came back, I saw all my colleagues had big cabriolets. But I also knew these were not the things that made us who we were or made us happy or successful. We also think about people’s opinion of us. But our definition of success has to be about what is driving us and what our motivation for this is, rather than external measures of success that other people might have. As we get older, particularly when we get into the middle of our life, there’s a crunch point where we have to ask ourselves all these things we have created for ourselves — family, home, lifestyle, degrees, academic achievements, or work achievements.
David: So what is your two-sentence version of your definition of success today?
Ruth: Success for me is about every day becoming more like Jesus. That’s where we are created to be in a relationship with Him, and God, to become more like Him and transformed into His likeness by the Holy Spirit.
My life purpose is who I am and my impact on the world. I am the moon that shines into people’s souls and calls them forth to dance in the rhythm of life. For me, it’s about reflecting God’s light into people’s lives and calling them from their place of confusion or darkness into the light so they can dance in His life.
Success is also letting go of the things holding me back in Him, my past hurt, and my wounds, and stepping more and more into that so that more people are released into His purpose, and His kingdom will come.
David: Some people would say that’s a great definition of success, and others would ask us, is this a midlife crisis? Are we unsatisfied with the status quo, or what’s happening?
Ruth: I don’t care if it was a midlife crisis. There’s so much data that work stress peaks at 45, and job satisfaction hits a bottom. People grow more and more responsibilities in their life, so they naturally ask themselves what next. We may even be wired that way. But look into the Bible. Jacob had a massive midlife crisis before God called him Israel, he struggled with God. But if that struggle leads me to be able to let go of some ego, my need to be right, my need to be in control of my life and to surrender to God, then it’s worth it.
This is more than just about me and my success. This is about my role in God’s purpose of bringing His Kingdom through His people. If a crisis leads to that type of awakening, then bring it on. This questioning is healthy. We should question ourselves regularly, at least every five to seven years. Am I still on the right path? Is this still where I am supposed to be? What more do I need to let go of? What more do I need to embrace to live what God has for me and become more like Jesus?
I am going through a period of my life where I am having to face some of my dark side in a way that I was pretty flippant about before, some of my pain, and so on. And that’s not easy. But it’s biblical. The more we open up, the more Holy Spirit we will get. God only gives us as much as we can bear.
David: How can we navigate the maze of midlife questioning? What would you recommend?
Ruth: We need three things to move forward. First, we need to face reality. Just write down what is clear, what you think is going well that you don’t want to change. And also what’s working and what’s not working. What are my hopes and dreams, and what are my biggest fears? The things that hold me back. Get some help around things that are difficult for you to face on your own. Help may look like a coach, but it might look like counseling or therapy or a friend. The second step is reimagining success. You have had a definition of success so far. What’s your definition from now on? What do I reimagine success to look like? Ask if you are living out your purpose. Write some things down, and get help with that.
The third thing is getting the support you need to navigate a path like a personal GPS to get from where you are now, the current reality, to where you are going. Your resources could be external; they could be a course, structures, or processes. If you are a believer, you have the Holy Spirit as your guide, you may have other resources internally that you can use to help you navigate your path.
You are going into the unknown. You are stepping out into the unknown. What will give you the courage and the safety to step from A to B, and how will you navigate that path?
David: How often should we engage in this exercise? Is that a yearly thing? Is that every five years?
Ruth: I do it every year or every mid-year. I review where I am going with respect to where I wanted to be at this point. Around seven years, I start to get a bit itchy, and like how the French say to ask oneself and be willing to look at yourself. For most people, it’s between five and 10 years when they have a bigger question, and it can be triggered by something external. Maybe they get sick, a family member gets sick, or they lose someone important. Or around birthdays when people hit 40 or 50, or even for some people, 35.
David: What is the role of other people in our lives in this retrospection?
Ruth: Post COVID, I see so many people who are no longer in fellowship or in community, and it’s a real danger and risk for us not to surround ourselves with other people. To think that we can do it alone is one of the most challenging areas, and it also can be an area of sin or an area where we might fall.
David: What is the number one thing you want us to take away from our conversation?
Ruth: Your daily habits and practices are what is going to make the biggest difference. So we talked a lot about defining purpose, where I am going to go, and big decision points, but your life is lived out in your daily practices and habits. So don’t neglect that. Keep it simple. What can I do today to live out my purpose? Not what will I do tomorrow, what did I do last week? What can I do today? The compound interest effect is real.
Note: Connect with Ruth Kearns Wollmann at Your Path to Success.