My intentions weren’t entirely honorable when I struck up my first conversation with Charles Zook eight years ago. He was sitting next to me poolside at an unconventional retreat in Northern California, and I was admiring the redheaded woman he was with. She was naturally pretty, poised, and exuded intelligence. The woman was clearly into Zook, and I was curious what he had going for him.

Zook struck me as an A-hole, too polished for my liking and displaying a confidence I deemed as arrogance. I quickly wrote his story in my head: Stole multiple girlfriends in high school, dated the Homecoming Queen, can’t remember the names of even a fraction of the women he slept with, and riddled with STDs. As it turned out, the woman he was with had a similarly negative first impression.

Charles Zook

Her name is Sandy, and Zook told me they met doing a singles communications workshop assignment where participants were asked to approach the person in the room they’d least want to interact with. Sandy made a quick beeline to Zook. They’ve been married for nearly 20 years.

Hmm, I thought. Maybe I’d been approaching dating all wrong. Instead of asking out the women who most appealed to me, maybe I should try the opposite. I admired Zook for not being offended by Sandy’s strong statement as to how she perceived him. My defensive instinct would have been to tell her to f… off and reaffirm her negative perceptions.

“What do you do,” I asked, defying an unwritten retreat rule not to ask someone their occupation.

 “I’m a coach.”

Coaching in those days was still in its infancy, and I regarded it as just another passing California fad, like lava lamps, love beads, and granny glasses. I asked a slew of questions, which Zook mistakenly assumed showed a respect for his occupation.

“You seem quite interested in what I do,” Zook said. “Perhaps we can do a session together.  There’s no charge for the first two sessions.”

“Thanks, but I’d feel guilty doing two sessions and then not continuing,” I replied. “I don’t think I’d make a good client.”

“The reason I don’t charge for the first two sessions is that I’m not committing to working with you,” Zook said. “If after two sessions I don’t think I can make a difference, I let the client know.”

“This guy is more arrogant than I imagined,” I thought to myself. “He thinks he’s going to fire me!”

My Adopted State

So began a relationship that quite possibly saved my life. When I met Zook I was living in New York City running a PR and crisis communications firm. I never took to the Big Apple in the three decades I lived there and working in PR was toxic to my soul.  But my business was successful, I liked my colleagues and most of my clients, and I had a great network of friends and professional contacts. Being risk adverse, I never even considered an alternative life.

Zook has an international clientele and conducts his sessions over the phone. He wastes no time getting to the crux of what ails you.  When we did our first call, a Wall Street client was treating me badly, but he paid well and on time, so I just took the abuse.  I was taken aback by Zook’s recommendation to resign the account. “If you don’t treat yourself with respect you shouldn’t expect respect from others,” he said.

The advice was counterintuitive to my longtime thinking that being in a service business required unlimited submissiveness, but I heeded Zook’s advice and let the client know I would no longer serve as his punching bag. I expected he’d fire me, but surprisingly the bully quickly backed down. From then on, I followed Zook’s counsel to just do my best work and stop my chronic worrying about being fired. In my first year working with Zook, my company had a banner year.

Zook taught me the importance of listening to how I speak to myself and frame things. He always began our conversations with, “What’s it like to be inside Eric today?” I did my calls with Zook after business hours gazing at the depressing corner of 42nd and Third I could see from my Manhattan skyscraper office. My answer was always the same. “I’d rather be in Napa where you are.”

Life in the Big Apple

One day Zook called me out: “You know Eric, California has no law that says you can’t move here.”

I gave Zook the litany of reasons I couldn’t move, but Zook dismissed them all as excuses.  He talked about the importance of identifying one’s vision and values for life and then living in integrity with them. He pointedly said that if I chose to remain in New York, I needed to acknowledge that I didn’t really want to move to California.

Zook then offered some counsel that proved to be a watershed moment: “I’m not going to offer you any guarantees except this: “If and when you ever decide to move to California, I’m confident your only regret will be why you waited so long.”

I did make the move, albeit after living a bi-coastal life for a year.  And Zook was right: I wish I had done it when I was younger. California, particularly Los Angeles where I’ve ended up, is a tough place to move at this stage of my life, but the New York Post offers me daily reminders why I left the city. Taking my dog hiking year-round on the off-leash trail 20 minutes from my house also helps.

In addition to his corporate clients, Zook works extensively with couples. I’m confident in saying that if he can’t resolve a couple’s relationship issues, they probably shouldn’t be together.  I still haven’t found my Sandy, but that’s because heeding Zook’s relationship counsel is, for me, much tougher than following his business management advice.

Charles Zook

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