Daniela Bryan became an empty nester in 2014. While we often think of those at this stage of life coveting the extra space in the house or marveling at how quiet things seem, Bryan -- divorced and with her son and daughter off to college -- went into action.
As an executive coach who specializes in coaching leaders, she sold her sprawling Northern California home near Santa Cruz and built a new one in scenic Arnold (nestled 4,000 feet high in the Stanislaus National Forest). Then this dual citizen of the United States and Germany, so used to global travel, decided to give that travel an altruistic bent.
“It has been way fun,” Bryan tells me in our recent interview.
She lives riveted to giving, and stays open to opportunities for that in everything she does. She explains it in part of the manifesto she wrote at the beginning of 2015:
Time is of the essence. Time is limited and plentiful all the same. What am I waiting for? For someone else to act? It’s time for me to connect the dots for maximum impact. Sustainably. Responsibly. Boldly.
By the time she wrote this, Bryan had already returned from a fall service trip to an orphanage in India and a family trip to Patagonia over the 2014 holidays. While the former was centered around volunteerism and the latter was for pleasure, this is where Bryan connects those ‘maximum impact’ dots. The service aspect of working at the Sri Ram Ashram orphanage was obvious; it was eye opening and humbling. But what she brought back from Patagonia besides great memories of adventure with her family was a fresh awareness around environmental issues.
“[Our driver] Lucas surprised me one day when we were waiting for one of our catamaran rides,” Bryan wrote in her blog. “He had noticed a red plastic cup on the bottom of one of the ice cold lakes. He did not hesitate to take off his boots and socks, pulled up his pants and sleeves and waded into the freezing lake. He retrieved the cup with a huge smile on his face. It prompted me to ask him about what organizations he would recommend for me to support their efforts.”
He answered. She gave.
Bryan is making a habit of finding places to spread a little magic or write a check. This transcends borders, politics, or allegiances of any kind. This is about humanity. Our common humanity. And she’s not in it for publicity. I sought her out for this piece because I think what she’s doing is important and inspiring.
“It was originally going to be a sabbatical,” Bryan says. “But I’m still working. I just scaled it back. Since October (2014) I have done some form of giving every month, but it wasn’t like I said I was going to do that. Now, everywhere I go, I ask, how can I give or volunteer?”
A trip to Seattle prompted a visit to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Attendance at the World Domination Summit – a conference about adventure, service and community – in Portland, Ore., had her participating in World Wide Waffles, a venture to set a world record for people eating breakfast in bed; the beds were then donated to local organizations that help families get back on their feet. At the recent Inbound 2015 conference in Boston, there was an opportunity to learn about The Malala Fund.
In September, before heading to her native Germany, Bryan reached out to a bunch of contacts to find out how she might help with the Syrian refugees streaming into the country. She also opened it up to anyone who might want to join her. When she didn’t get much response, she was surprised, but soon realized they didn’t know how to help either due to how new and disorganized relief efforts were.
“Two days after I got [to Unterwossen], I saw a posting for a town about 20 minutes away,” she says. “It said, ‘We need help for the night shift tonight.’”
Bingo. When Bryan posted she was coming to help, someone she didn’t know asked if she could pick her up on the way. She went to the grocery store, stopped for her fellow volunteer, and they got to work at the food tables.
“People were coming across with nothing,” she says. “No shoes, jackets, food. They came in single file. They were so humble and appreciative.”
Yes, appreciative. That’s something that reaches Bryan’s soul.
Given that, is it any wonder that she’s decided to take on a 365-day challenge that involves appreciation? Starting Sept. 18, her birthday, Bryan has committed to write a thank you note to someone every day.
“I was worried it would be fun for the first week and then I’d be thinking, oh no, another one?” she says. “I thought it was going to be hard, but it’s so not.”
A big part of that is setting herself up for success in the venture. She pre-purchases stamps and has cards on hand, even when she travels. When she writes her daily Morning Pages – stream of consciousness journaling created by author Julia Cameron – she thinks about who she wants to thank that day.
“This morning I wrote to the person who was clearing the dirty dishes at the conference I went to,” Bryan says. “I was grateful there was somebody there to do that.”
What a way of being in the world.
“It’s been very experiential,” Bryan says. “It brings me alive.”
Out of the nest, at one with the world.
By Nancy Colasurdo