Spotlight: Douglas Herr

Douglas Herr1 - Where are you from, and how did you choose to live in Middle Tennessee?

I was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and grew up following horse-and-buggies and getting smacked at school if my shirt was untucked. When I finished third grade, my family moved to Tigard, Oregon, just outside Portland. I went from Amish country to a liberal community and felt like a fish out of water for a long while. 

Puberty and boredom coalesced my adolescence into being a good student, and I was accepted at Cornell University to study engineering. Upstate New York got down to 25 below freezing in January, and I preferred the Oregon rain to the bitter cold so I moved back to Portland after graduating. 

When later decided to become a psychologist, I moved to southern California to do a doctorate. L.A. was in the midst of a seven year drought, and I just loved it. Sunny always! My pre-doctoral internship was at Texas A&M, and although I didn’t want to live in Texas, I decided to stay south of the Mason Dixon Line for the sun. I had friends who were moving to Nashville, so… friends, music and sunshine! I got here in ‘99. I did a 2 year stint in Oregon for a Mind-Body training called Hakomi, but I returned to Nashville to be faculty at the Vanderbilt Center for Integrative Health (VCIH). 

2 - What is your professional background, and why did you become a coach?

Although I’m so excited about where I am now, it’s been quite a journey getting here. I  got an Engineering Physics B.S. and worked on F-16’s during my undergrad, and I graduated knowing I didn’t want to be an engineer. 

After graduating, I did anything to pay the bills for a while - janitor, telemarketing, and working the door at TGIF’s. I knew everything about the world at a subatomic level, but I was a walking empathic failure. Then, through the kindness of a pastor, I got a job teaching 3rd and 4th grade for a year at a private school. A few months into teaching, I realized that I could see family’s dynamics manifesting in how children behaved at school. I learned more than any of the kids that year, but I had to do something that paid better. I found a low-tech engineering job (optimizing HVAC), which bored me senseless.  I owed my employer passion I didn’t have, so I needed to move on. I felt directionless until I read a positive psychology book and wrote a goal to get a masters in psychology. I started nightclasses and loved it. I completed my doctorate in clinical psychology in 1999.  

Like all psychologists trained during that time, I learned about mental illness. We didn’t study mental health. We didn’t even have a definition for mental health. Can you imagine hiring a lawyer who had only studied crime? Never the law? In psychology, I had found my calling, connecting with people to enrich their lives, but I didn’t trust the technology I was using. It was all based on what was wrong with people and a diagnostic system that I didn’t entirely buy. As my career continued, my misgivings about those issues deepened.

In about 2005 (neither Mark nor I can recall the year), I met Mark Robertson. He explained an ontological coaching model over coffee at Fidos. I was fascinated. The paradigm was positive. His coaching fit my way of seeing the world. As I write this, I imagine that conversation is why I became a coach. (I’ll be buying Mark lunch, now that I’ve realized that...) 

I kept that conversation in the back of my mind for years. I wasn’t ready to pursue more training as a coach at that time, anyway. I was too entrenched in what wasn’t working for me. On a positive note, I did pursue a lot of informal learning. I learned and practiced mindfulness, Isha Yoga, Native American earth- and community-based practices, Hakomi Mind-Body Therapy, and Imago Relationship Therapy. I hired multiple mentors and still do.

In 2011, The Vanderbilt Center for Integrative Health (VCIH, now the Osher Center) appointed me as clinical faculty. At VCIH, I learned Health Coaching with chronic disease and chronic pain patients. It was a positive and compassion-based approach, because focusing on the negative with these patients was a black hole.They were almost never going to get better. I learned the miracles of meditation and breathwork, functional and interpersonal neurobiology, Classical (Krishnamacharya) Yoga, self-compassion meditation, sound healing, conversational hypnosis, Non-Violent Communication, and HeartMath. I also functioned as part of a “world-class interprofessional team” as founder, the late Roy Elam, often called us fondly. We learned to communicate and get outside our professional silos and dialects, speaking in ways that everyone could understand, collaborating together from the yoga teachers to the PTs, the psychologists, and the medical folks. It was compassion-centered multidisciplinary medical treatment - truly, the experience of a lifetime.

In 2014, my career took a defining turn when I was invited to work with Vanderbilt’s Center for Professional Health (VCPH). Vanderbilt has the premier program in the nation for doctors with professional problems like anger or sexual misconduct, and they use a transformational education model resulting in CEU’s and saved careers. I still spend 20% of my time with VCPH, training doctors in mindfulness-based emotional intelligence, communication, conflict resolution, and  skills to help them have better lives.

3 - How did you choose your specialty area?

As an engineer, I was very concerned with how things work and getting to a solution. At VCIH (now the Osher Center), working with the most devastated patients, I realized that a variety of mindfulness-based interventions were good for even the most hopeless patients. More than that, I realized they were good for me. 

At VCPH, I realized the same skills helped distressed doctors become effective leaders. My mindfulness skills were being weaponized for the workplace. The model VCPH uses became important to how I work with all my coachees and patients, because it works. The first morning of a class at VCPH, the doctors arrive angry, hurt and ashamed. By the third day, they are saying, “Why didn’t somebody teach me this 30 years ago?” 

Last year, I completed Newfield Network’s Ontological Coach Training and loved it. It gave me tools to generalize the skills from VCPH to a broader audience. I am becoming a fulltime coach because I’m dedicated to helping people live from a positive place to create a positive future. I’m focused on leaders because I want to help more than one person at a time. When a leader transforms, the whole system benefits. I want to work at the fulcrum upon which the whole system turns, to change the tone from the top, to energize everyone in it. This is how I currently see my place of highest service.

I have to say, one of my professors would say that sounds like my “Mother Teresa” reason. On a deeper level, this is the work I’ve been seeking for myself my whole life. I’ve always prioritized my inner journey over my external success. I don’t say that as a statement indicating my virtue; it’s inescapable for me. It’s just how I’m wired. I’m doing this because I continue to become the man I feel called to be as I do it.

4 - What are the greatest challenges and greatest rewards of your career?

My greatest challenge has been clarifying my mission. I’ve always longed to know the big picture and how I fit into it. It’s not been obvious. I feel like pursuing my success is in some ways an artifact of wanting to make progress in my journey.

Corollary to that is staying clear on the value of all that I offer. I can guide to deeper places or quick solutions, and I can be disappointed that while doing one I’m not offering the other. I want to use parabolic interventions. In mathematics, a beam of light shone directly at a parabola from the right direction will always hit the center, no matter where it hits the parabola.   

My greatest rewards are breathtaking. The first is knowing that as I embody this work, I have authenticity and integrity. I’m happier than I’ve ever been as I contribute more than I ever have. 

The reward of seeing lives improve is why I love my work. I’ve helped people improve their daily rituals to be more productive and helped them through devastating health or marital crises. I have a passionate interest in every story that gets told in my office. 

The “last but definitely not least” reward is knowing that as I grow and enjoy my calling, I give my son a better father. Loving him is easy. I try to train him, but mostly I believe at the end of the day he’s influenced by my embodied example. I feel proud of what he sees and how I’m changing and growing as he is changing and growing.

5 - What is something that most ICFTN members would be surprised to learn about you?

I sing, play the guitar and write music. I rarely admit that in this town! The music I’ve written ranges from some mish-mash of the Indigo Girls/Cranberries to the repetitive Sanskrit chants used in Bhakti yoga. I used to sing in churches, weddings, as part of a small group called the Hangovers during my undergrad, a Stevie Ray Cover band in L.A. during grad school, and - oh, here it is, how could I almost forget this - I’ve sung at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. As a freshman, I was in the Cornell University Glee Club, and along with the Cornell Women’s Chorus, the Buffalo Philharmonic and four opera stars, we all collaborated to perform the second movement of Mahler’s Das Klagende Lied for the first time in the United States, or perhaps anywhere. I think it had been recently discovered as part of someone’s wallpaper in a house in Germany, or it had some other equally undignified pastime. 

6 - How do you enjoy spending your free time?

I’m a single parent with a business - what’s free time?!

Actually, although I’m excited to move more into coaching, I’m also pausing my career development to enjoy where I am. I’m learning to dance: Swing, Ballroom, Latin. I like that dance is embodied, a great way to balance my brain a bit. I love to kayak, and I want to buy a kayak in the near future and maybe join a boat club. I’m also really interested in gender dynamics throughout the lifespan as I try to figure out the dating scene as a half-time single parent after divorce. Oh, and occasionally I’m going on dates, too.

Douglas Herr