Doubting and Discovering Brilliance

March 19 is a significant date in my life and work.

More than two decades ago, in my second year of the MBA program at MIT Sloan, I carefully weighed which job offer would be the best fit for me upon graduation. I had a spreadsheet to analyze the options, and when its results aligned with my gut instinct, I was tremendously relieved.

This option made the most sense for me, given my needs, values and priorities. I accepted the offer from a Boston-based, employee-owned, boutique consulting firm with a strong practice in Organizational Effectiveness. I couldn’t wait to get started.

In the summer between that decision and my start date, my new firm was acquired. The principals I’d found inspiring, with whom I’d planned to collaborate, cashed out to go live their next dreams. Despite my careful analysis, my first day of work knocked the wind out of me.

Photo by Michael Nunes on Unsplash

The firm assigned me to work in technology development. At the kickoff meeting for my initial project, the managing consultant described our upcoming work as a “death march.” I swallowed hard.

Right away I inquired why our firm would accept a project expected to be a death march (a term I found incredibly offensive). I will never forget the leader’s response. “Eight million dollars, Debra. Eight million dollars.” I had a feeling I was in the wrong place.

For the next few months, our team worked on this project day and night. We were stationed in New Jersey, Sundays through Thursdays, about 20 minutes by car from Jochen, one of my close friends from high school. Each week I swore to myself that I would visit him.

Yet there was never a break from the enormous intensity. We were on a mission to make a large insurance company even more profitable. Although the work lacked meaning for me, I kept my focus and applied my skills diligently. I never made time to see my friend.

Eventually, thankfully, I rolled off that project. Shortly thereafter, at Thanksgiving dinner, Jochen’s elbow kept falling off the table uncontrollably. Days later, at 30 years old, still looking like the picture of health, he discovered he had lesions on his brain from full-blown AIDS. No longer would I allow my work to keep us apart.

Jochen and his partner asked me to use my research skills to find a clinical trial to help. I poured my heart and soul into that project. Within the short time frame until I presented them with treatment options, this vibrant man’s communication became limited to holding up one finger for “yes” and two fingers for “no.” After hearing his options and considering all the risks, he held up two fingers. Jochen Wünn died March 19, 1998.

It took a long time to forgive myself for not spending more time with Jochen while he felt healthy just a few months earlier. I realized any 30 year old, including myself, could be gone in four months. If I had four months to live, I did not want to spend them working on the types of projects that this consulting firm assigned me.

Although I didn’t necessarily feel ready, that moment compelled me to start living my next dream. On March 19, 1999, I filed papers that launched my company Connect2 Corporation.

For the year between Jochen’s death and the launch of my business, I struggled with questions. Despite my academic and professional success, I feared I had no Brilliance. What made me unique? Did the world need anything I had to offer? Would I be able to make an impact? Would it be worth paying for?

Doubting my Brilliance led me to discover my Brilliance. That year I read a lot of books and did a lot of exercises that helped me inquire about my gifts and explore how I might use them. I revisited my needs, values and priorities. I listed my top skills, my top interests, and my top qualities. I talked to everyone who would listen about where I could apply them.

I remember a funny conversation with my brother-in-law where I noted that my top interests and qualities might make me a successful stripper. That particular career choice, however, did not fit with my values.

Deep down I knew I wanted to start a professional coaching practice. I doubted whether I was ready. Should I get another job first? Go back to school? But time felt short. Life could be short.

Ultimately I decided that my relative youth was an asset I could leverage. I would start my coaching business, and if I failed I would have decades of my future career to recover. Beyond my youth, I was determined to leverage all my personal and professional experience to date.

The phrase “Leap and your net will appear” became my mantra. As of March 19, 2019, thousands of coaching and consulting clients later, I’m still leaping.

I am grateful for all these experiences and feelings, including the painful ones, because they have become part of my particular Brilliance. The doubting and discovering have gone hand-in-hand.

I am also grateful to everyone in my community who has supported me, learned from me, taught me and inspired me. Without all of you, I would not be celebrating the 20th anniversary of launching the business that has enabled me to live my life on purpose. Thank you.

Earlier this March another friend from high school passed away. Every time something massive hits, I need time and space to process. And then I revisit what’s most important. Am I living according to my current Unique Definition of Success? Am I serving from my full Brilliance? This time I think I am, yet I am still reflecting. If I find anything out of alignment, I have the chance to do things differently.

If you’ve ever made a careful decision and still sensed you’re in the wrong place, I’ve felt that struggle. If you regret a careless decision, I’ve felt that pain. If loss has led you to doubt your choices, you are not alone. Allow yourself the space to feel the struggle, regret and doubt. Then open yourself to what emerges next. The light that shines from within you during the darkest times is your Brilliance leading the way.


  1. Allison Berger

    Wow just read this and have a new appreciation for how you got into coaching. Belated congrats on 20 years of your business!

    • Debra

      Thanks! Now you know my life story!

  2. Cristin L.

    Thanks for sharing this personal story about when you made a choice to lead your own life. It’s a great reminder that we have more personal power than we think. I’m sorry for your losses, and glad that they helped you create a life that is meaningful for you.

    • Debra

      We do always have power, even if we aren’t in touch with it.

  3. Jessica Jones

    Such a moving story, Debra, and very timely for me. You’ll be happy to know that I am (finally) retiring as of June 7, and I will be digging back into all the wonderful work we did together, to help me plan my “Third Age.”

    • Debra

      I can’t wait to see how you use your brilliance in your Third Age!

  4. Carol Luddecke

    Thanks for sharing. Life is indeed short. I will think of you every March 19 from now on!

    • Debra

      That is so kind. I appreciate you.

  5. gingerburr

    Wow! An incredibly powerful story and clearly you are living your brilliance! Thank you for sharing it.