How to fall apart and still be strong

Last month I sat in circle with women from my neighborhood. It is something we have been doing somewhat monthly since the results of the presidential elections. The circle had been called in order to create a safe space for women to share and process their thoughts – without fear of being judged, without fear of receiving unsolicited advice, without fear of being made wrong. My role that night was to hold and facilitate that space, and as we spoke, and as I felt myself wanting to speak, I found myself completing…and totally…FALLING…APART.

Just a few days before, my husband had been laid off from his job, and to top that off, just days after that he ended up in the hospital for kidney stone surgery. (Hey Universe, we are still wondering why you decided to send him a double whammy, but we trust you…) With the challenges hitting us at both the health and money level, I found the uncertainty, fear, confusion and despair of the week’s happenings starting to build and grow until it burst out of me in a rush of sadness, anger, many words of anger, many I-don’t-knows, tears, and f— f— f— f— f— this!

Truth be told, we had been through similar challenges before, and for days I had been handling the situation with an outwardly steady acceptance. However, the deep deep deep down inside decided that it was way past time to show up. At first it sounded like this: “I don’t think I can do this again.” And then like this: “I don’t want to do this again.” And behind that message, I realize I was also signaling “I don’t think I can be strong for you in this circle tonight.”

Strong. Why strong? Somehow, I had made up in my mind that to hold a circle, to even be in the role of coach, or wise woman, or leader, that I needed to be strong for everyone. That I needed to provide structure, safety, and some kind of assurance that the space was strong enough and safe enough – and me by extension — to hold whatever showed up.

But you know what? A circle doesn’t rely on one point. It is made up of the connectedness between an infinite number of points.

That night, in circle, I felt the power of that connection. In that moment of total weakness and vulnerability, I found myself incredibly heard, supported and loved. I found myself sharing the truth and depth of what I was feeling, and as the words came rushing out and revealing that tender vulnerable place I could no longer cover up, I also found myself being buoyed by the strength and vulnerability of the women in circle with me.

What did I learn? I learned a concept that I have understood at an intellectual level but never truly gotten at an emotional and very personal level. I learned how there is strength in me showing my vulnerability. I learned that I can both fall apart and still be strong at the same time. And I also learned that I don’t need to do this alone.

How are you allowing yourself to fall apart these days? And what is it that helps you still stay strong?

In love, gratitude and persistence,

Carolyn Ou is an Executive/Leadership Coach and founder of Sandbox Consulting, as well as Associate Director of Leadership Development at the Chicago Booth School of Business. She is passionate about coaching emerging and unsung leaders and believes strongly in the power of conversation to pave the way towards greater understanding and connection.


If you don’t know where you’re going…

Wow, you’ve got so many options. You’re talented, you’re hard-working and you’ve basically created a name for yourself by being able to take on whatever projects and challenges get thrown your way. And doing them well. That’s your superpower. You’re a master of all.

You rock!

Now I hear that you’re wanting to do more than react to what’s immediately in front of you. You’d like to be more intentional about the next step you take in your life and career. Yet the pressure of needing to actively define what your future looks like has got you paralyzed. All you know for sure is that it’s got to be a better place – and right now it’s feeling a little grey and fuzzy.

First of all, I want you to know that all of this is okay. And secondly, I’m going to bust a few myths that might just be holding you back:

Myth #1 – You need a completely fleshed out plan before you take any action

The truth is, intensive planning is very likely a way in which you keep yourself in status quo. It’s a safe and familiar place for you, and it’s a great way to avoid action. Your life/career path isn’t an event like a wedding, in which you can control (for the most part) the details of the day. Your path is going to have surprises, some of them unwelcome, and some of them providing critical feedback to help you decide what happens next. TRY THIS – Let go of the Microsoft Project Plan and take a moment to quickly draw or jot down the plan that you can envision thus far. I’ll bet you anything it is good enough to take one simple step forward, in the name of creating a different future for yourself.

Myth #2 – You can figure this out on your own

One of your talents is definitely the ability to do things on your own. In fact, you’ve become quite the superstar in that regard, teaching yourself new concepts and tools, mastering new areas of expertise, figuring out the most complex problems and ALL BY YOURSELF! Consider, however, that even though this has been successful for you in the past, it’s not enough to get you to that next stage in your career. Remember that quote from Einstein? “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Well it’s true. Stop your own insanity now, and TRY THIS — For just one day, push aside your need to do it yourself, and ask the people you know for their ideas, their feedback, their support, their opinion. It won’t hurt – I promise!

Myth #3 – You should be grateful for what you have and not go looking for something else

Hmmm, this mindset seems to come from the risk-averse corner and is usually voiced by people who want to see us safe – people like our parents. It is true, we need to be grateful for what we have. At the same time, looking for something else does not mean that you are being ungrateful. I think that over time, we have collapsed the two into one smushy belief. So let’s un-smush it. Good! Now you get to be grateful for what you do have, and you also get to look for what you want, because I’m pretty sure you’re not finished with this life of yours!
Now that we’ve cleared some debris from the path, what are you seeing? What big or baby steps can envision taking towards that awesome future vision of yours?


And for those of you whose vision still feels murky, I share with you this passage from Alice in Wonderland:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”(1)

Apparently, the above passage has often been misquoted as the following: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” I give you the misquotation as well – use it wisely!

Wondering with you!

Carolyn Ou is a Career/Leadership Coach who excels at devising and delivering simple solutions to address complex problems in leadership, careers and life. For more information, or to schedule a complimentary consultation, email

1. Source:

Where HAS the time gone?

It’s April, otherwise known as the beginning of “Q2”, our good friend the second quarter, who heralds spring, tax day and all kinds of reminders that time is flying.
At this point in the year, you yourself might be wondering, “Where HAS the time gone?”
And perhaps your inner nag has been reminding you too too much that you were supposed to have [fill in the blankety blank] by now!
If this is the case, here are a few simple steps to help you identify where your time has gone.
Using the above graphic as a guide, follow these steps:
  1. What’s a goal that you set for yourself this year? Write it down the blue box.
  2. What are the key steps you need to take to make it happen? List those in the grey boxes along the path. Add more as needed.
  3. What’s been distracting you along the way? Make note of those in the yellow boxes along the zigzaggy route.

So, where has your time gone??

You tell me…!

Carolyn Ou is a Career/Leadership Coach who excels at devising and delivering simple solutions to address complex problems in leadership, work and life. For more information, or to schedule a complimentary consultation, email

Less than perfect

In one of the first episodes of “Fresh off the Boat,” Eddie, the eldest kid, comes home with straight A’s on his report card. He swaggers into the room, his arms waving his report card above his head, to the tune of victory. But when his parents see the results, all they can think is that school must be too easy!


I admit, I both laughed and grimaced during this scene, as it reminded me of some similar experiences from my own childhood. It also struck fear into my heart with the realization that I am guilty of often buying into the same mindset — the mindset that whatever we do is not truly good enough, that in practice, perfect always falls short of perfect.

Arrrrrgh, what an annoying and obvious trap!!!! Can you believe we’ve been buying into that?!??

How many times have you failed to celebrate and acknowledge your own accomplishments, able only to beat yourself up for having missed something?

How many times have you totally crushed another’s sense of accomplishment by pointing out something they should have considered, should have done differently, should have said with more clarity, should have should have should have should have!??

How many times more will you look completely past the expression of joy and satisfaction on someone’s face and dash it to pieces with multiple suggestions on what they can do better next time?

In pursuing perfection we don’t achieve perfection, we just create frustration, lack of achievement, hopelessness.

It’s time to let it go, and here’s a simple way to start:
  • Remember that intention I asked you to create last month? Yes, the simple one, the one that wasn’t laden and complex. Write that one down again.
  • Take that intention now and make a list of all the ways in which you have been living it out for the past 30 days.
  • Yeah, I hear you already starting to beat yourself up. I don’t care how short the list is. I don’t need to hear whatever excuses you think you need to make. Stop berating yourself for what you didn’t do. Really, just stop!
  • Put that list up. Celebrate what’s on the list. Do something nice to reward yourself.

Try to stay in that place of celebration and acknowledgement for at least 5 minutes a day for the next month.

And remember, less than perfect….is perfect!

State your intention!

Intention2A top performer at a consulting firm once told her partners that her goal for the year was to achieve a “3” on her annual performance review. In that world, a “3” meant that you met expectations, compared to her ongoing track record of “1’s” that indicated her stellar contributions and performance.

For her, being public about the 3 was of utmost importance. A 3 meant that she would be able to achieve some level of balance in her life, which until then had been about work intruded on her weekends and evenings, about constant travel, about eating and sleeping poorly. She was living a life of all work, no play, and she knew that it was neither sustainable nor desirable.

Her intention was clear. She was committed to staying at the firm but needed it to commit to her as well in, a whole new way.

Sometimes we make things too complicated for ourselves, setting a multitude of overwhelming goals and loading them with 100 related tactical activities. It’s a checklist from Hell, and it’s one that can really distract us from what we really want and can achieve in our lives.

If you’re already feeling overwhelmed by the redonkulous year you’ve plotted out for yourself, maybe it’s time to just simplify, to find your “3,” so to speak.

If you were to state your intention for the year, what would it be?

Quick! It’s right there on the tip of your tongue! Write it down, now!

Right there with you this year,
Carolyn Ou

Executive/Leadership Coach
Sandbox Consulting

What’s your calling?

There’s a lot of pressure on people to completely figure something out before making a decision. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “What’s your dream job?” “What’s your calling?” “What will your legacy be?” And so, because we like answers, and we want to guarantee super-fantastic results for ourselves, we engage in all kinds of exploration to find out the answer that’s going to make it all make sense. Self-help books, online assessments, coaching, therapy, silent retreats, active retreats, accidental retreats, conversations with friends, family, mentors, teachers and more.

We get lots of input.

All this data can be overwhelming, because hey, as human beings, we do have a choice, and as talented human beings, we have the ability to accomplish a variety of things. As a result, that future vision for ourselves can often become quite a hybrid beast as we try to incorporate all sorts of possibilities into one big, beautiful perfect picture.

If this sounds familiar to you, I’d like you to consider the possibility that it doesn’t have to be that complicated. That while you can concoct and run simulations for hundreds of different scenarios, you’ll do better to step away from the chatter and listen to what you’ve known all along to be true.

So let’s do it now. Step AWAY from the noise and get really quiet for a moment, or two, or three. And instead of asking what your calling is, ask yourself, “What’s calling you?”

Make good friends and keep them

Many years ago, in the days before I headed off to college, my father sat me down to give me advice on how to make my way in the world.

“Chia-lin,” he said, “Mommy and I have provided you with a good home and education. Now you’re going off to college and you’ll meet new people from all walks of life. When you’re there, I want you to be sure to make good friends and keep them. I’ve been watching and studying how things work here in America, and that’s how this world works. With good friends.”

My 18-year-old self really had no clue what Dad was talking about. However, over the years his words have come back to me over and over again, guiding me, challenging me and becoming clearer and clearer in their meaning.

I have watched my parents create and nurture community over the years. From helping to create a credit union that helped fellow Taiwanese with their financial needs, to monthly dinners with friends, to offering advice or comfort to ones in need – my parents have been making good friends for many years. Good friends they’ve managed to keep in a multitude of ways. Now in the Golden Years of their life they have an amazing group of friends to champion them, laugh with them, cry or celebrate with them.

It’s easy in a world full of terms like “networking,” “social networks,” and “relationship management” to lose track of the true value of friendships and connections in this world. Apparently, all these networks have great value in an economic sense. And that’s just lovely, but that’s not what I want to drive the way I create relationships.

Let’s not forget this simple truth — the good friends are the ones who can be there on your journey with you. They’ll help you make it through that job transition, that life milestone or those personal moments of triumph or crisis. The good friends are the ones who can truly champion you, see you for who you are and still love you regardless.

So yes, go forth and make good friends. Create meaningful relationships and nurture them. Because, as my wise Father said so many years ago, and lives so now, that’s the way the world works.

Still learning from my Dad,

Carolyn Ou

Saying YES when you want to say NO

So you said YES the other day, and deep down, your gut was screaming out NOOOOO! Not again!

It’s the same old story. In an effort to help out or to save the day, that YES comes flying out, time after time.

In many cases, we say YES just because we can. Because helping out has become second nature, and quite frankly, we’re pretty awesome at swooping in and saving a project, at rejiggering an entire process and creating something even more efficient, or at putting into action something that’s been in idea mode for waaay too long.

So how’s it working for you?

Yeah, I thought so.

One way to break out of the cycle of YES is to get really honest with yourself about what’s on the other side of YES. Very likely, it’s not what you have rationalized on the surface – more likely, it’s what your gut has been trying desperately to tell you.

The next time you are tempted to say YES, ask yourself these questions, and be sure include your gut in the discussion:

  1. What exactly am I saying YES to?
  2. In what ways will this support and energize me?
  3. In what ways will it drain me?
  4. What would I rather be saying YES to?

Wishing you a future of guilt-free and liberating NO’s, as well as clear space for the exhilarating YES’s you very much deserve.

Getting in tune in work and life

My daughter recently started singing in tune, this after several years of belting out the songs of Katy Perry, Pink, Taylor Swift and other artists in her beautifully and happily dissonant way.

I don’t know about the child developmental factors that paved the way for this. What I do know, however, is that if I had spent the past couple of years trying to rigorously teach her to sing in tune, it’s possible she would have gone silent. Instead, I gave her the time and space to sing happily, screechily (and sometimes annoyingly) out of tune. I gave her the opportunity to do it incorrectly, so to speak. And little by little, she is starting to find her notes. Little by little, she is learning to carry a tune.

We can be so patient with our children, allowing them the time and space to explore, grow and develop their skills and strengths. What would happen if we were to allow ourselves the same opportunity? What if, instead of beating ourselves up every single time we fail at something, we allow ourselves to try it again, and to fail at it again? At some point, a truly big learning would occur and, I imagine, we’d find ourselves singing.

This year, I have decided to allow myself the freedom to try and fail in several areas of my life and work. I invite you to do the same — here are some guidelines to help you make it happen:

  1. Identify an area of life in which you are stagnant, stuck, in the muckiest of muck
  2. Make a list of the many ideas you’ve been concocting in your head, the many ideas that you know will get you out of this stuck place. Make a list, on paper, not in your head. (You know I hate it when you keep all that brilliance hidden!)
  3. Cut up each idea, put ‘em in a jar
  4. Pick one. Commit to trying it.
  5. If you succeed, pick another.
  6. If you fail at it, 1) you don’t get to beat up on yourself, and 2) you get to try it again, perhaps in a modified form, but you get to try it again, and again, and again until you get it right.

Here’s to a year of getting in tune by starting out of tune!

From the Sandbox,


Step AWAY from the whirlwind!

People have been complaining of whirlwinds and vortexes this season, me included. It seems that Fall has been a time of intense and overwhelming activity that we have single-handedly generated and created for ourselves.

See that Tasmanian Devil over there? He has been whirling and swirling for the past 6 months, because he told himself to get off his lazy arse and start becoming a productive and valuable human being. Now he’s miserable, sick and burnt out. But busy, yes, busy!

Or see that turbulence over there? That gal is over-analyzing every little word, phrase and event that has been happening around her and coming up with enough personal doomsday scenarios to complete Nostradamus’ sequel. Not a happy camper.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Here are a couple common whirlwinds and suggestions on how you might step away from it all:

This whirlwind derives its power from fear –fear of the future and all the misery you believe it holds for you. It can start simply, with a few phrases dropped by a boss, or a few unusual actions and decisions made by a partner. Then your over-analytical mind takes over, simulating an infinite number of possible negative scenarios that ALL MUST BE PREVENTED. I liken it to an episode of Scandal, where every single message, decision, or even facial expression is assumed to be part of a darker deadlier and convoluted plan. Attempting to control it all creates the whirlwind, the trap, the misery, the fear.

HOW TO STEP AWAY: Instead of trying to prevent an infinite number of scenarios, create one simple, positive vision that you can focus on. It could be a word, an image, a musical sound. I think you’ll find that all the other swirling, whirling detritus clears quickly once you have a clear vision for what you want to create.

As a society we’ve bought into the mindset that stillness and inaction are not productive uses of our time. As a result, when individuals engage in downtime, there’s a tremendous amount of guilt and self-flagellation that go along with it. The truth is, we need that downtime to process, to simmer and to let your creative essence play and be playful. What happens more often than not, however, is that we start creating ways to be “busy” or at least to appear “busy.” Because busy = productive, right??!?!  NO!!!!! Busy really just means busy.

HOW TO STEP AWAY: Find the source of most of your over-activity-generation. For many of you, it’s probably your phone, your social media addiction, or your email inbox. Turn it all off for 10 minutes a day and chill. Let me know how it goes.

So go ahead. Step away. Dance away. Breathe away from the whirlwind. It’ll be okay. Image