Life Lessons from an Editor, a Sharp Shooter and Some Nuns


I couldn’t help but notice that Helen Gurley Brown died on Annie Oakley’s birthday this past week. What came to mind immediately was something my mother used to sing to me when I was a teenager:

“Oh you can’t get a man with a gun,” as the Irving Berlin song goes. “With a gun, with a gun. No, you can’t get a man with a gun.”

Relax, NRA sharp shooters, Mom was talking in metaphor. That kind of independence, she figured, was frowned upon when trying to land a man. It was intimidating and emasculating.

But this was a time (the late 1970s) when Gurley Brown and Gloria Steinem and even The Mary Tyler Moore Show were well-entrenched in our culture and delivering other messages to balance that out. It was this Gurley Brown line of thinking that influenced me:

“The message was: So you’re single. You can still have sex. You can have a great life. And if you marry, don’t just sponge off a man or be the gold-medal-winning mother. Don’t use men to get what you want in life -- get it for yourself.”

It surprises me how even today some of my life coaching clients – especially those of my generation -- don’t get this way of thinking. Some do and could pretty much teach courses in how to be strong, vibrant, independent and female, but I find others struggle with their identity as it relates to the social order of things. Their self image is often tied up in roles where they are in relationship to others – mother, wife, daughter. Not so much seeing themselves as a whole person who may be all of those things.

As a coach, I love the challenge of this kind of client. Sometimes a divorce, illness or death forces them into building their own lives and they thrive. In some cases what is initially loneliness turns to solitude, a wholly different experience. It allows for room to reflect, to attract new things and people, and to reconnect with interests they once loved and began to neglect.

We all have those individuals we’ve met or admire from afar who have helped propel us along our path. I like to ‘collect’ examples, from my life and others, so that I can have one at the ready when a client needs a boost from a real, tangible individual who overcame or accomplished something. I want to at the very least get them nodding and at the most give them a push to action on their own goals.

For instance, upon discovering then-New York Times op-ed columnist Anna Quindlen, I was buoyed by the idea of another New Jersey Italian-American woman, also raised Catholic, having a voice in that forum. It validated my own decision to become a columnist.

Ironically one of my earliest female influences -- Roman Catholic nuns -- has resurfaced as a great inspiration this summer. They are currently under fire from a Vatican Doctrinal Assessment with regard to a number of issues, including the question of women’s ordination, their approach in ministering to homosexuals and “a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith” in speakers they invite to conferences.

Back when I was in school, it was Sister Benita who tapped into my love of words and showed me – drilled into me, actually – the importance of parts of speech and spelling. In my experience, nuns know how to run a classroom. Plus, it is very much the nuns doing the work in the trenches, helping the poor and carrying out the church’s mission. In most cases, their devotion to a spiritual life is not ego- or power-driven and they are not the ones transferring criminals from one parish to another in institutional cover-ups.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (which according to its website has “nearly 1,500 members who are elected leaders of their religious orders, representing approximately 57,000 Catholic sisters” in the United States) met in St. Louis last week and Pat Farrell, its president, gave a speech she called Navigating the Shifts.

“The human family is not served by individualism, patriarchy, a scarcity mentality, or competition,” she said. “The world is outgrowing the dualistic constructs of superior/inferior, win/lose, good/bad, and domination/submission. Breaking through in their place are equality, communion, collaboration, synchronicity, expansiveness, abundance, wholeness, mutuality, intuitive knowing, and love. This shift, while painful, is good news!”

While the wholly male Vatican continues to illustrate its denial about a changing world, the nuns are evolving with it, working with the people who, in their perception, Jesus wants them to help. Whether you’re Catholic or Muslim, Jewish or atheist, surely there is an admirable message in that – stand up for your principles even when they’re being challenged by daunting authority. I am awed.

The point of all this, whether it’s wisdom gleaned from a nun, a sharp shooter, an activist, an editor or your Aunt Joan, is to figure out how to apply it to your own life. This is the direction I take it in with my clients. Drill down on your wants and needs. Be out front or be behind the scenes, but borrow from those before you and then find your way. Put your twist on how to live and what to impart. No one person needs to be your hero or role model. Pay attention to what is going on around you and see what resonates.

I love that all these seemingly disparate things helped shape me and I continue to be fascinated by what else might.

For all Annie Oakley may have been told about “pistol packin’ mamas” and their ilk, she sure did OK for herself.

Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to