Cultivate gratitude, gratitude, and more gratitude. Nothing is more healing than recognizing all that you have been given and all that you must give. Writing in a gratitude journal helps me keep things in perspective. It enables me to see how far I have come on days when I’m out of sync. It also helps me remember that my flow is in serving others more than in being served.
For my series on strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Esther Gonzalez Freeman, a Latina speaker, writer, and Board-Certified life, career, and business coach. The founder of E Powered Media, LLC (home to Empowered Campus and My Balanced Plate), Esther is passionate about motivating, empowering, and guiding others to create fulfilling, purposeful, and balanced lives. As a speaker, writer, and coach, Esther is respected for her unflinching authenticity regarding her own experiences and “tell-it-like-it-is” bluntness — all of which is delivered with warmth, humor, and empathy.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My parents worked long, hard hours in factory settings. Their examples taught me the value of hard work and consistency. Today my dad is in his seventies and he is still working twelve-hour shifts — not because he must, but because he loves his work. That work ethic is in my blood! But no matter how hard of a day either of my parents had, regardless of their exhaustion, they always made time to help others in need and to serve the community: at church, in our neighborhood, and in the community at large. I learned that it isn’t simply important to work hard; it’s important to give back and serve.
I carried these values with me when I went to college. I always knew that no matter what career I pursued, I would work hard and find a way to serve others. Initially, I thought I would become a lawyer or go into politics, which is why I have a BA in Political Science! But God had another plan. As a first-generation college student, I not only struggled to finish college but after graduation, I struggled to try to find my way. I ended up in a temporary position at a nonprofit, teaching middle school kids life skills — mostly sex ed. I realized a few things during those months almost seventeen years ago.
First, I learned that there was power in my story. There I was in a low-performing school across the street from my grandmother’s house, working with kids just like me. They grew up in humble homes, with hard-working parents, in a mostly Latino community. But somehow, I was different. I always saw a light at the end of the tunnel. I knew deep in my soul that I was not only going to make something of myself, but it was going to be BIG! However, the kids in my class didn’t seem to have that spark. That all changed after they heard my story. When they realized that I too was Latina, went to their church and that my Abuela lived in their neighborhood, they started to see the possibilities of other options. This taught me the importance of not only sharing my story but the importance of representation.
So, as a very young professional, I realized that I had an opportunity to make a difference in the world in my own unique way. Not only could I use my story, experiences, and education to make an impact, but that impact could affect an entire family and the community at large. I was planting seeds of possibility. Little did I know then that what I was doing was called mindset coaching. I also realized that if I could teach sex education to middle schoolers, I could do anything!
This experience opened a door into the world of higher education, and after 16+ years, I decided that I wanted to have a broader impact beyond the walls of a specific institution. In fact, I wanted to influence individuals and groups beyond the field of higher education. That’s why I started my company. My mission is to serve on a larger scale, taking what I have learned over the years and helping people and organizations build upon their strengths. I saw that there were gaps I was uniquely capable of filling.
What does it mean for you to live “on purpose”? Can you explain? How can one achieve that?
Living “on purpose” takes work! For me it means living a mission-driven life; one in which you recognize that you have the power to decide how you respond to the circumstances around you. When you live on purpose, you make conscious decisions based on your values and the legacy you want to leave behind. It’s about the impact that you have every day.
I think that a lot of us live on auto-pilot. We wake up and let the day happen to us. We are reactive in the way we respond to the issues that arise, and we often see ourselves as powerless to affect the circumstances around us. I know, because this is how I lived for many years. And thanks to depression and anxiety disorder, it’s something that can become a daily battle for me — if I allow it.
I have spent numerous years of my life blaming my circumstances for my issues and failures. I struggled to get out of bed, and once I did, I struggled to make it through the day. Then I felt guilty for wasting the day and for feeling hopeless. There I was, a high-achieving professional woman struggling to make it through a meeting. Some meetings can be brutal, I know, but this was different.
I saw myself as a fraud! I was spending hours a day coaching people and helping them align their passions, strengths, and skills. I would challenge their mindsets and see them grow leaps and bounds; all the while, I was struggling to keep my own life together. I felt like I was merely existing, not living — and certainly not growing.
During this time, I was working with a therapist, but I didn’t feel like I was getting any better until I had an “aha!” moment: I was expecting the therapist to do all the work, and I was not taking responsibility for my role in my own life. Instead of recognizing the power I had over my own reality, I was busy looking for the answers to my problems outside of myself. Don’t get me wrong; my depression, anxiety, and past experiences were real — but they weren’t my only roadblock.
You know those moments in movies where the protagonist has a moment of clarity? They swipe everything off the desk onto the floor and suddenly become transformed. Think Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. That didn’t happen for me! Living on purpose is a slow and sometimes painful process. Notice that I am using present tense? This is ongoing!
Every day I must make multiple conscious decisions to live on purpose, from the moment I open my eyes to the moment I close them at the end of the day. It isn’t as simple as the movies make it out to be. Yes, I had to make the choice to be mindful and decide that things needed to change, but that was part 1a of the process. The rest is made up of small decisions; the ones I make every day, hour, and minute.
Living purposefully can be overwhelming, and for someone like me with an anxiety disorder, it can feel impossible. The key word is FEEL. Notice I didn’t say it was impossible? You need to find what works for you, but I do have a few suggestions to help you get started.
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?
As I mentioned earlier, my parents taught me the importance of having a strong work ethic, a solid education, and the importance of serving others. They would tell me that although I may never have an inheritance in the traditional sense, I would always have my education. I was a high achiever and even earned a full scholarship to college. But as a first-generation college student, I struggled. Like many first-generation college students, I was focused on finding a career that would allow me to help others while making me wealthy. I never really gave thought to purpose or meaning until my life hit a wall.
It didn’t take long before I went from being a high achiever to struggling with basic tasks like getting out of bed or going to class. I felt like I was fighting myself daily! What I didn’t recognize then was that I wasn’t only overwhelmed by the transition to college; I was also fighting severe depression and anxiety disorder. By the time I came to that important realization, I had already received the dreaded “your scholarship is officially revoked, and you are no longer welcome here” letter. I, the overachiever, had flunked out of college.
Can you imagine the conversation I had to have with my hard-working parents — the parents who had worked insane hours in a factory for years so that I could have a good education? Let’s just say that I got it both in English and Spanish. Beyond my parents, I was so ashamed and embarrassed that I didn’t tell a soul.
Today, I find this amusing because I have shared my story with thousands of teens and college students across the country, professionals, entrepreneurs, and now your audience.
I did go on to finish not only my BA in Political Science but also an MS in Leadership. Thanks to a dear friend of my father’s who was a faculty member at a local college, I was able to push forward and earn my undergraduate diploma. I started doing the work to help me better manage and understand my mental health issues, and I learned the importance of leveraging my resources to overcome setbacks.
I didn’t realize until much later that I was given a gift. Maybe you didn’t flunk out of college or struggle with mental health issues, but I am sure that you have had to deal with some sort of major setback on some level in your life. And when it comes to pushing through and living on purpose, the obstacle you face is bigger than just the setback itself; it’s also the loss, frustration, shame, other negative feelings you’re bombarded with. Because of my experiences in college, I learned to fall with grace and get back up to fight another day.
Since then I have encountered a steady stream of setbacks and failures in several areas, but I have come out on the other side. I now have the ability to help others who are struggling with similar pain learn lessons from it, let go of the shame they attached to it, and move forward as much stronger and resilient people. Failing big-time at such an early age went from being a liability to one of my greatest assets.
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?
It all comes back to what I discussed earlier about living life on purpose. I believe that we are focused on the wrong things and have developed a taste for unrealistic expectations. The wild part is that most of these expectations aren’t even our own; they’re what we’ve been fed by others! We seem to be living by such a narrow definition of success that people are hurting themselves trying to achieve the impossible, especially since the perfection we seek doesn’t exist.
We live in one of the best and wealthiest countries in the world, yet we are a country where most people:
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Then we wonder why we’re depressed and anxious! This may sound overly dramatic, but is it really?
Working with college students over the last almost-two decades, I have had the opportunity to see what we have been teaching our youth to focus on. Our culture’s narrow definition of success, the need for perfection, and the desire to be admired through likes and shares have all led to some troubling results. I have seen an increase in the number of teens and young adults suffering from mental health issues, stress disorders, sleep disorders, eating disorders, cutting, poor self-esteem, and suicidal ideation.
When I was an academic adviser I would have an initial meeting with my advisees during orientation. During each conversation, like clockwork, I would hear stories of what these students’ parents wanted them to study or what their parents wanted them to participate in. They would constantly talk about feeling lost or empty because they couldn’t figure which thoughts were their own and which ones were given to them. The amount of pressure that was being placed on these young people was astronomical. They had no room for error because if they make a mistake, it felt like a catastrophic event. The source of the pressure varied based on the family’s education level or socioeconomic background, but across the board, a crushing pressure remained nonetheless.
This isn’t just a problem facing college students. We all keep living a life made up of “shoulds,” and then we take the same life that’s making us miserable and place it upon our kids. As an educator, I know that parents mean well. They want what they believe is best for their kids. That’s the intention driving their high standards and expectations. However, there is a distinct difference between intention and impact. The impact well-meaning parents have on their children is often the opposite of their initial intention! Instead of pushing our kids higher and farther, we are simply feeding into a vicious cycle — a cycle that can lead towards self-medication and self-destruction.
This knowledge has greatly influenced not only how I choose to live my life and run my business, but also how I parent. It’s becoming increasingly more important that we do live life on purpose and use our voices to show others that they can choose differently. They don’t have to live life on anyone’s terms but their own. It’s freeing, and that freedom allows us to live in a more joyful state.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
This question excites me because I have never really thought about my life in these terms! I try to use my success to bring goodness into the world daily. I believe that we are called to pour into others and be a light in the world. For a long time, I thought that I needed something outside of myself to leave an impact on the world. I thought that I needed to start the next big thing. But the reality is that we can all bring goodness into our world every day at no cost, save the cost of time and energy that we pour into others.
I have had some amazing opportunities to use my story to bring light to youth. I was honored to work with the “It Takes A Village” Project in Alamance County, North Carolina. The program is housed at Elon University and uses a collaborative approach to help children in the community who are struggling to read. It was initially focused on younger children up through middle school. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to use my expertise in leadership development to create a similar program for high school students who had aged out of the initial program.
Many of these students were struggling in school academically and behaviorally. They also faced issues stemming from systemic poverty. We would meet for six weeks a semester, two hours a week. Each week I would teach a different lesson focused on Sean Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens. We had Odyssey Scholars from the university serve as near-peer mentors, and they would share their own stories of overcoming challenges with their mentees.
Over time we noticed a distinct shift. Students were reporting fewer school issues and suspensions. Many of the students stopped experiencing behavioral issues altogether! Most of them are now thinking about or have already started to attend college; something that seemed like a foreign and impossible concept at the beginning of our work. My class was made up of predominantly Latino kids. I was the first Latina teacher they’d had, not to mention the first one they’d met who was a college-educated professional. Talk about visibility mattering.
I will never forget asking a student who had struggled in all areas for a long time, “What do you think contributed to your turn-around?” He said, “You were the first person to tell me I was worth something, and I believed you. You showed me that it was okay to ask for help. If you can do it, so can I!” My mind was blown! This young man waited 16 years to hear that he was worth something.
We are all fully equipped as we are in this moment to make a lasting impact on at least one person. This young man will forever be a reminder to me of that important truth.
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?
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that most inspired you to live with a thirst for life?
Maybe it’s because we’re getting close to the end of the year, but I have been on a decluttering kick. I loved The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. It’s hard to live an inspired life if you’re bogged down with clutter or if you are wasting time hunting for things!
I am obsessed with Audible! Some of the books I have recently listened to or have in my queue are:
I also subscribe to several podcasts and catch up on them when I’m not listening to a book. Some of my favorites are:
The Secret to Success with CJ and Eric Thomas
Tiny Leaps, Big Changes with Gregg Clunis
Gratitude: UnFiltered with Joshua T. Berglan
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?
Progress over perfection. For so long I was pursuing an impossible quest for perfection, and as a result, I accomplished NOTHING. I was frozen. I took ZERO action because whatever I was working on wasn’t perfect just yet. I needed another certification. I needed another class. I needed another degree. I needed more money. I needed. I needed. I needed. I was consuming information on overload and I wasn’t executing a single thing!
I was miserable because I was stuck. I failed to launch because I was afraid of not being perfect. I wasn’t living because I couldn’t bring myself to leave the safety of my comfort zone, which was basically a bubble of inaction.
The moment I shifted my mindset to embrace progress over perfection, my procrastinating tendencies started to dissipate. I began taking small steps and what I called “mini risks” towards my goals. The more I took, the more confident I felt — and still feel. Crucially, it isn’t an extrinsic confidence.
I don’t mean that I am taking risks left and right. I still have my perfectionist tendencies, but every day I remind myself that what truly matters is that I am making progress. I remind myself that there is someone out there who needs me to show up, even though I don’t have it all together all the time.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes! I am in the process of scheduling a speaking tour of colleges for the upcoming spring. I have worked on college campuses for years and have spoken at events held at many educational institutions, but I have never done an actual tour! I hope that I can be for someone the voice I needed to hear when I was struggling in school. I look forward to sharing my message of resilience and inspiring students to look for opportunities to fail. Yes, you read that right. If students aren’t failing, it means they aren’t trying new things. I want students to embrace the lessons they learn from their experiences — good and bad — because that’s how they will begin to identify the unrealistic expectations that have been placed on them by other people, pinpoint what they actually want for themselves, and live on purpose.
I am also in the process of outlining my first book. To be honest, this project terrifies me! Never in my wildest dreams did I believe that writing a book could be a possibility. When English isn’t your first language and you grow up feeling extra self-conscious over your writing, a book doesn’t feel realistic. But I found a purpose much bigger and much more powerful than fear! I hope that it inspires people to step outside of their comfort zones and live authentic lives.
And through all of this, my coaching business is continuing to grow. I am looking forward to working with more budding entrepreneurs and facilitating corporate professional development workshops.
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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I look at my perfectly imperfect little girls and think about how deeply I want them to succeed in life. I want them to dream big and go bigger. I want them to look at themselves in the mirror and know that not only are they AMAZING, but they have what it takes to overcome whatever they encounter. I also want to protect them. And because I want to protect them, I do the exact opposite of what every bone in my body wants to do. I let them fail. I let them fall. I let them figure out problems on their own. They know that my husband and I are here to support them and guide them, but they also know that we want them to exercise what our family calls their “resilience muscle.”
In my work with teens, college students, and young professionals, I have seen the negative impact of preventing our youth from exercising their “resilience muscle.” They struggle to manage adversity. They freeze amid struggle and are so afraid of failure that they’d rather quit than make a mistake. That being the case, I would like to inspire a movement of people who embrace failure and recognize that failure brings opportunities for success. Resilience is about adapting to setbacks and bouncing back instead of falling apart. It isn’t a destination, but like a muscle, it needs to be constantly exercised.
Resilient people take chances and have an insatiable thirst for life because they know they can get back up again no matter what. The Mayo Clinic says that “resilience can not only help protect us from mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, but it can also improve our ability to cope with existing mental health conditions.”
As I look back at my own life, I realize that my biggest successes came out of my most devastating failures. But if I wasn’t resilient, I would have been unable to recognize and embrace the lessons in the failures. Without resilience, I would have berated myself mercilessly, told myself how much I sucked and stopped moving toward my goals! Can you imagine a friend coming to you because they experienced a setback and you telling them that it’s all because they suck? Of course not! You’d tell them how capable they are and encourage them to keep pushing forward. We all need to be as kind to ourselves as we are to other people. If I had viciously and unfairly criticized myself in those moments instead of choosing kind self-talk, seeking support, and finding meaning in the experience, I would not be living my life with such a sense of purpose and joy.
Can you imagine a world in which we can bounce back from setbacks, suffer less stress, better cope with mental health issues, take ownership of our experiences, and live life with more grace? A world where we don’t have to use unhealthy coping mechanisms and are able to live more meaningful and happy lives? I’m not talking about a perfect world; simply a way of living in which we extend grace, compassion, and support to ourselves as well as others. Sure, it’s a big goal, but I wholeheartedly believe it’s an attainable one. And the key to reaching any goal, big or small, is to take it one step at a time.
So, here’s my challenge to you: purposefully begin to exercise your resilience muscle. The next time you experience a setback, pay attention to your reaction. Do you feel like hiding, quitting, or staying in your comfort zone? Is your first inclination to place blame — either on yourself or an external source? What does your self-talk sound like? Examine your reaction without judgment, then exercise your resilience muscle. Find the lesson in your failure, extend the same kindness to yourself that you would to a friend, and plan for moving forward. (I know that’s easier said than done — but many of the tactics I’ve shared throughout this interview should help!)
If we can spark a resilience movement — in other words, increase each person’s joy, strengthen their purpose, and sharpen their clarity — just think about the avalanche of positivity our world would experience!
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