Mindsets On Steroids: A Conversation With Steve Piacente

In my Mindsets on Steroids blog series, influential leaders share their secrets to help you win by finding your inner desire to change, ignite your passion, and instill life patterns. If what you were doing right now would get you there, you would already be there.

Steve Piacente is an award-winning journalist and novelist and is the founder of Next Phase Life Coaching. Originally from New York, Steve earned a bachelor’s in communications from American University in Washington, D.C. before moving to Florida to report for a local paper. He then moved back to Washington, where he spent several years as D.C. reporter for papers in Tampa and Charleston before becoming a speechwriter in the federal government. Steve also earned a Masters in Fiction from Johns Hopkins University and published two novels. He now works with clients and students as a professional life coach, communications trainer, and adjunct professor at his alma mater.

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Tell is about your background and career path.

“I was at American University during Watergate. If you were interested in writing and you were at American University during Watergate, you had no choice but to become a newspaper reporter. My senior year I interned at the Washington Bureau of the Baltimore Sun and fully expected that I would become a journalist covering the White House and Congress as soon as I graduated. Part of that came true. I did become a reporter, but there were no jobs in Washington.

“Instead of covering Congress and the White House, I wound up covering high school sports in Naples, Florida. That was interesting because I brought the tenacity that I had seen in Woodward and Bernstein to covering high school sports, and that didn’t go over so well with the local high school football coach… I eventually wound up back in Washington as a correspondent for the Tampa Tribune and, later on, the Charleston (S.C.) Post-Courier..

“After the newspaper career ended, I went into the U.S. government as a speechwriter at the U.S. General Services Administration. I spent 10 years at GSA as both a speechwriter and a communications manager. At one time I was actually running the entire communications department of this big federal agency.

“In 2013, I made my next move, to The Communication Center, which specializes in media and presentation training. People who have to make a lot of presentations or speak frequently to reporters come to us to hone their skills.

“I also went back and got a Master’s in Fiction from Johns Hopkins University, and that led to the two novels. A third is in the works, plus a non-fiction book aligned with my coaching practice. I became a certified life coach in the last year.”

Lasting change starts with inner desire. What internal triggers have set change in motion in your life?

“I’ve come to believe every moment is an opportunity to define or redefine ourselves. Do we want to settle or keep challenging ourselves? The phrase that always made me cringe is, ‘good enough is good enough.’ I’ve kept adding to the communications framework that I started building three decades ago as a journalist. So the internal trigger is a drive to keep improving plus a healthy dose of intellectual curiosity. I believe that when you’re passionate about something, you really don’t think about how much time you’re putting into it, so it’s never laborious or tedious. To me, it’s always felt like there aren’t enough hours in the day.”

Journalism has have gone through an incredible transformation over the last couple of decades. How has that affected you and how did it lead to the next phase of your career?

“About 15 years ago, right after 9/11, my paper called and said that because of financial reasons, they couldn’t afford to have anyone in Washington anymore. If I had a life coach in that moment, I would have had a much easier transition into something else. As it was, all I’d ever done was reporting.

“We had three small kids at the time and I felt like my world had kind of come to an end. Washington newspaper jobs are hard to find, especially at regional papers, which tend to promote from within. I was stumbling around like, ‘what do I do now?’ If I’d had a life coach then, it would’ve helped me learn what I realized by myself after several months of stumbling around… What I found was that the skills I learned being a reporter were transferable to several different disciplines.

“First of all, if you can write, you can always find work. If you write well, you can land yourself something better than a mundane job, which is what happened and how I became a speechwriter.”

What was it like making the transition from hard-hitting journalist to speechwriter for a government agency? That seems like a drastic change. Were you bored at your new job?

“It was a significant change in mindset and I had to come to grips with that… GSA is the buying arm of the government. I was writing about new courthouse projects. I was writing about these big acquisition purchases that GSA was doing on behalf of other federal agencies. Not exactly scintillating stuff.

“One of the things you learn as a regional correspondent is how to write your way on to the front page. Big breaking news is not always happening, so the challenge becomes, can you write something well enough or creative enough to work your way on to the front page? When I got to GSA I had to figure out how to make some of this boring stuff interesting.”

What’s an example of an interesting project you worked on at GSA?

“In the early ’80s, work began on a construction project in lower Manhattan. As the bulldozers were rolling, they uncovered what turned out to be an unmarked burial ground. It was full of caskets that contained the remains of early Africans who were brought to the U.S., many as slaves. These people essentially built the East Coast and never were credited.

“Sentiments ran high over how to move forward, and the situation took more than 10 years to resolve. Part of the compromise involved bringing the remains to Howard University in Washington. They did DNA analysis and from that we learned who these people were, what they did, where they came from, how long they lived, how they died, about the tremendous work that they did, and the backbreaking labor. We learned about their customs. All of this went into speeches I wrote that were delivered at various stages, including the opening of the African Burial Ground National Monument in New York, which anyone can visit today.”

Passion fuels explosive growth. What ignites your passion?

“Lots of things. Here are a few: Turning a blank sheet of paper into a page of writing that touches readers’ emotions or persuades someone to consider a different point of view.

“Coaching a client through severe stage fright or having a student find his or her unique voice.

“When I was reporting, I loved making the front page, and it was either because of good piece of writing or because I discovered new information to shed light on something that affected the public.”

Consistent life patterns are often the missing component to greatness. How do you find discipline in your life?

“It starts with finding what you’re passionate about… I think that the two (discipline and passion) kind of work hand in hand. I spoke earlier in a work context, but when you find what makes you feel truly happy and fulfilled in other areas – personal relationships, health and fitness – even fun and enjoyment, then discipline becomes more of what makes you happy. That’s how I look at it and that’s how I coach my clients. The problem I find is that too many people settle. They rationalize that things are good enough and then discipline becomes tedious instead of effortless.”

What are some of those personal passions for you?

“I was lucky enough in high school to find a girl who blossomed into a beautiful woman and special educator. She’s been my wife since 1980, so I’m pretty passionate about her and our three children. Two of those children now have children of their own, so we now have two granddaughters, which is crazy. The notion of your child having his or her own children is something you never imagine. I can’t think of anything I’m more passionate about than all of that.”

What is one result of change, passion, and discipline in your life?

“First, I’m never bored. Two, I don’t waste time, and because I’ve always strived to be objective and consider multiple points of view, I stay pretty balanced.

“When I was younger, I looked at time as infinite. As I’ve gotten older, I realize that it’s finite. My objective now with myself and with everyone whom I coach is to help them realize that – even if they’re 24 years old – we do have a finite amount of time. So, bottom line – figure out what you’re passionate about and do a lot of it.”

Steve’s 2010 novel Bella won an Indie Excellence Award and the Readers’ Favorite Gold Medal for Dramatic Fiction. His 2012 novel Bootlicker won the Readers’ Favorite Silver Medal for Southern Fiction. You can find more info on Steve’s writing at www.stevepiacente.com. You can also learn more there about his work as a communication and life coach. Follow him on Twitter at @wordsprof.

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