“I have a myriad of examples of where pain has helped guide me to finding my purpose” with Dr. Savitri Dixon-Saxon and Fotis Georgiadis

I have a myriad of examples of where pain has helped guide me to finding my purpose. And, whenever I have stretched beyond my understanding of my abilities, the catalyst for the stretch has been extreme discomfort and often times, pain. I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Savitri Dixon-Saxon, vice provost of Walden University’s College […]

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I have a myriad of examples of where pain has helped guide me to finding my purpose. And, whenever I have stretched beyond my understanding of my abilities, the catalyst for the stretch has been extreme discomfort and often times, pain.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Savitri Dixon-Saxon, vice provost of Walden University’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, is a licensed professional counselor in North Carolina and national certified counselor. With a 27-year career in higher education, Dr. Dixon-Saxon has been an administrator at Walden since 2005. She started her career at Walden as the program director for the MS in Mental Health Counseling and most recently served as the dean of the School of Counseling and the Barbara Solomon School of Social Work and Human Services. In 2013, Dr. Dixon-Saxon was named a ‘Woman Worth Watching’ by the Diversity Journal.

Thank you for joining us! What brought you to your specific career path?

It was my intention as a very young woman to be a television journalist. I was always told that I was a great communicator, and broadcasting seemed like the right career for me. However, it was probably in my senior year of college that I realized that I had not been as proactive as I needed to be in setting myself up for success in this career, and I did not like the world of work in television journalism.

There I was post-graduation with no real career leads, dissatisfied with my career of choice, and unsure how to redirect myself. One day, in what could only be called an emotional break caused by significant frustration on lack of direction, I shared with my mother that I wanted to help college students be more deliberate in getting ready for their careers and identifying the right career path. I wanted to do whatever I could to prevent others from feeling like I was feeling at that moment.

Neither my mother nor I knew what that career would be. But as fate would have it, she was taking my sister on a college tour the next day, and the person hosting the parents was a graduate student in a program called student personnel services. This was a program for student affairs generalists who work in a variety of roles in student services in higher education — doing exactly what I shared I wanted to do the night before. I enrolled in and graduated from the program, and, as a result, I had the opportunity to work in a variety of positions in student affairs administration.

In these positions, I was responsible for supervising and developing — not just the scholar — but the whole student. While working in student affairs, I started to realize that I wanted to get more specialized training that prepared me to work with students in a more clinical capacity. Training in professional counseling would help me be more effective in my work, so I went back to graduate school and completed my doctorate in counselor education in 2002. For three years, I gained as much clinical experience as I could and taught counseling to graduate students part-time. I then found a position that allowed me to take full advantage of the various skills I had, specifically those skills as a higher education administrator, mental health clinician and educator. My career path has not be a direct line, but everything, including that degree in journalism and mass communication, has contributed greatly to any success I have today.

What does it mean for you to live “on purpose?” Can you explain? How can one achieve that?

Living on purpose means a few different things to me. First, living on purpose means recognizing life is a gift each moment and we should take advantage of every opportunity to learn, feel and love because we may not have that opportunity again. It means not taking life, good health and ability, a sound mind or people and their presence for granted. It also means living with intention and honoring your talents and passions by looking for opportunities to feed your soul, brain and heart.

The key to living on purpose, in my opinion, is to be self-aware. Living on purpose requires moving through the world authentically and contributing from a place reflective of your unique talents, so you must be engaged in an iterative process of self-awareness. When I was a little girl, my daddy taught me that it’s hard for an eagle to be a chicken or vice versa. While my daddy certainly showed some bias towards the eagles, the reality is that the eagle and chicken are valuable to the world’s ecosystem, but both must understand their value. Living with purpose starts with self-awareness and preparing yourself for opportunities to live in your purpose even when you do not see prospects for those opportunities on the horizon.

Do you have an example or story in your own life of how your pain helped to guide you to finding your life’s purpose?

I have a myriad of examples of where pain has helped guide me to finding my purpose. And, whenever I have stretched beyond my understanding of my abilities, the catalyst for the stretch has been extreme discomfort and often times, pain.

I previously described how I got on my career path and how dissatisfied I was with my life post-undergrad graduation. The day I told my mother what I wanted to do, I was in extreme pain. I was so disappointed with my life because I was not prepared to be successful in my career of choice and I wasn’t qualified for anything else. Additionally, I really didn’t have knowledge of any other career that would match what I was passionate about.

However, I had someone around who cared enough about me to push me and try to understand what my passion was. I took a chance and verbalized it. If there is anything I would want someone to know about using pain as a tool, it would be that I have survived every one of those painful experiences with the belief that it could get better or by telling someone that I was in so much trouble I didn’t know how to find my way out of the pain. The key is having a vision of something better, working hard even when no opportunity exists, and not being distracted by someone else’s journey.

The United States is currently rated at #18 in the World Happiness Report. Can you share a few reasons why you think the ranking is so low?

I really believe that the reason that the United States is ranked #18 is because we are convinced that we need the things we don’t have to be happy. The machines that make the economy in the United States are marketers who create needs in us that we didn’t know existed, and our cultural attitudes that happiness is tied to the acquisition of more things as opposed to living a life where you can be of service to others.

We work with the belief that more money results in more things, which will make us happier. This mentality makes those who are not able to acquire those things make social comparisons and feel dissatisfied, while those who are able to buy all of the things they want are disillusioned because those things did not result in real and lasting happiness.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

One of the things I realize is that when you hold certain positions, people are more apt to listen to your opinion about the world and watch your behavior as a guide to how they should act. That is a huge responsibility that requires you to constantly study the world and the social issues in it.

What are your 6 strategies to help you face your day with exuberance, “Joie De Vivre” and a “ravenous thirst for life?” Can you please give a story or example for each?

I know that life is finite. I also know that it is a gift and an opportunity that can be hard sometimes. Each day, we have the opportunity to make it count and try to apply the lessons learned in the previous days to the new day’s challenges. But with all its uncertainty and fragility, I love it.

Begin the day with gratitude that I’m awake and safe, and I have another opportunity to become better and learn more. In my hardest times, I give myself five minutes to write a list of all the things for which I am grateful. Then I give myself three minutes to write a list of all the things I desire. My strategy is to take less time focusing on the things for which I am dissatisfied or the things that I want. What I have learned is that, for me, it is so easy to write the gratitude list. It is much harder to write the list of things I desire, and it winds up being a much smaller list. I get more content and appreciative of what I have like love, good health, friends, family, books and jazz, and I recognize where I can strategize and focus on the things I desire.

Live and work for my family and to demonstrate my gratitude for the sacrifices my ancestors made for me to live better, freer, and to have more opportunities. I want to make sure that their life was not in vain. I am most conscious of my grandmothers and their sacrifices for future generations of family. I am not nearly as smart, wise or good as they are, but my opportunities, by comparison, are immense in great part for the ground work they laid. My parents, as young adults in the civil rights movement of the sixties, were strong activists, so I was raised with the awareness that freedom and acquisition of rights does not come easy for a lot of people. I see each day as an opportunity to make my ancestors and my parents proud and see my life as a manifestation of their hard work and dreams.

Give positivity, acceptance and encouragement to as many people as I can because I know that some people do not get much of that and it is a way to build relationships. I have worked with someone who has become a dear colleague, and over the years we have traveled together for work. She speaks to everyone with sincerity, and one of the things I noticed was that on long trips she would start to develop relationships with the hotel staff. For example, as we would walk to the elevator, she would inquire about a housekeeper’s sick child or ask if it was an easy commute to work that day. She takes a genuine interest in people. One day, I remarked on my observation and she told me that there are so many people in the world you encounter without one person saying hello to them. She said she wants to make sure that she does her part in correcting that. I have adopted that, not just in my interactions with people I casually encounter, but as a strategy for relationship building in every setting.

Demonstrate to others that hard work is rewarded. Each day is an opportunity to teach my daughter through my example so that she is prepared to contribute to society as an adult. My daughter has seen me work four jobs at a time and on my MBA full time while I worked as an associate dean for two schools at Walden University. She has also seen me start my day at 4 a.m. and end at midnight. But, she has also seen me play just as hard and take the time for service and family.

Care for the people I love, treat them like treasures for whom I am grateful, and act as if each interaction with them will be my last. I want to win an award for the best hugger in the world or favorite auntie. I try to create memorable experiences with family, especially the children with whom I interact. Every year during the Christmas holiday season, I plan a ‘pajama run’ with my daughter, nieces and nephew. We dress up in our pajamas, buy Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and drive around looking at the beautiful holiday lights throughout the city. Two years ago, we got monogrammed t-shirts to go with our matching pajama bottoms. Last year, we added a new element to our tradition. We’ll stop to take pictures in our pajamas at some of the very pretty public spots around the city. It is a simple activity, but the children start asking about the mid-December pajama run in October. It is my hope that they will remember that they were important enough to an adult to spend time with them just having fun. I will try to make this year’s the best in case it’s the last one we do.

Move through the world confidently with the belief that your presence in the world matters. I have completely accepted that I am very intelligent and a great leader, motivator and communicator. I walk into most situations with the belief that someone is interested in what I have to say. I know these things about myself, and I don’t spend much time thinking about whether other people believe it. It is how I navigate the world and it makes me more generous with genuine appreciation for others. I do not expect everyone to be as talented as I am in the areas that I excel. As a matter of fact, I have learned that I need to surround myself with people who have talents I don’t have so that I can learn from them and we can have a balance and diversity of perspectives as we collaborate. There is a subtle difference between being confident and being over-confident and obnoxious. Because I am self-aware and confident, I have no problem acknowledging the things I need to improve.

Do you have any favorite books, podcasts or resources that most inspired you to live with a thirst for life?

I personally miss the “Church of Oprah” by way of her daily talk show. I now look for things that get me excited and can easily be applied to my life. I just purchased former first lady of the United States Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming. I have only read one chapter so far and some excerpts, as well as seen several interviews. I am looking forward to reading the real story of an accomplished African-American woman who I can tell has had to navigate, on a much larger scale, many of the things I must navigate. I expect many of her accounts will reflect the experiences of most professional and educated contemporary African-American women that are rarely spoken aloud or written about.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson” quote that relates to having a Joie De Vivre? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I love the stories of highly successful people. Most of them are filled with accounts of a mind-body connection that allowed them to perform their best. Years ago, I was watching the story of a young Tim Duncan. I believe it was at the beginning of his career as a player in the National Basketball Association. Tim’s mother died when he was young, but she taught him something that inspired him in everything. “Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until your good is better and your better is your best.”

I am not sure if this originated with Tim’s mother, but those words made an indelible mark on my brain. I apply it to my own life, and I have shared it with my daughter since she was young. I don’t believe this quote is about perfection, which involves a lot of social comparison and possibly even competition with others. For me, the quote is about striving for your personal best, comparing your performance as a human today with your performance as a human being the previous day, and striving to make it the best it can be. I work every day to be better, which for me involves finding ways to laugh harder and learn, give and love more.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I work for Walden University where part of its mission is to prepare students as agents of positive social change. For years, I have given much thought to how we can prepare them to be effective change agents. Within my discipline, I have made sure that our curriculum included activities that allow our students to develop ideas for social change projects. But in the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida high school shooting, I realized that we, as an institution, needed to not just teach our students how to engage in social change within their discipline, but to prepare them to engage in interdisciplinary collaboration to understand social problems, respond to them, and create lasting change by preventing or stopping the spread of the world’s social issues.

In 2019, I will be working with colleagues at Walden and particularly in our Center for Social Change to develop a virtual conference where our students, faculty and staff will have the opportunity to share the latest theory, research, and practice around these issues in an effort to understand how to proceed with social change through an interdisciplinary approach.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

If I could inspire a movement, it would be to teach children skills that ensure their survival and the survival of humanity. Young people would be taught to garden and grow their own food, build and fix things, and create and inspire.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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