Melissa Rapoport‘s journey to becoming a health coach was one that was paved with a number of struggles and life changes. Yet, when you meet her and have the chance to talk to her for just ten minutes, you know that she has found her true vocation. She is a natural and has the instant ability of making you feel heard. This is a gift, and she has worked hard to make her gift into her profession. It is hard to imagine her doing anything else!
Since meeting Melissa she has grown her business into having clients not just in New York, but also in Chicago, Minneapolis, Germany and India. She’s gone global! She has found strategic ways to set up referrals with power partners and has established a system with an accountability partner who she talks to 3 times a week for 10-20 minutes. On top of that she joined Business Networking International (BNI), which has allowed her to develop a community as well as fine-tune her message. She will be hosting an 8-week program starting in 2015 that will include five expert speakers and a variety of life-plan activities.
For me, it is just good to know that there are people like Melissa out there, helping others reach their potential to be the best person they can be. I think so often in society we are confronted with people who push us down or judge us – Melissa works to do the exact opposite. She went through a hell of a lot, but she got to at place where she is using all of those experiences to help other people. Read on to learn more about how she did this…
You are a health counselor now, but how did you get to this point – tell me more about your story and what you were doing before you made the transition.
I came to the city in the mid 80’s with the intention of being a writer. I went to all of these papers and interviewed I kept getting offered positions, but entry level writer’s positions in New York were paying like $10,000 at that time. I thought, how am I going to do this? Most of the people who were taking those positions were living with parents in Long Island or New Jersey and commuting. They had the ability to take that kind of position, and I didn’t.
I was interviewing at Omni Magazine. It is no longer around, but it was a science magazine. They were offering me this position but then this person in HR said there was someone they wanted me to talk to. They brought in the Director of Advertising. They had me talk to her and she asked why I was going to struggle with editorial when they would pay me quadruple to start, plus I would get commission. She said I had an authentic, outgoing personality, and I would do really well in advertising sales.
I took the job and kept getting promoted in advertising. It was taking more and more time, so I was writing less and less. I just kept climbing the ladder to the point where I felt I was involved in an industry that was creating messages to get people to buy things they don’t really need. I just wasn’t feeling great about that. I thought, this is what I am putting my 50-60 hour week into, what am I doing?
I had been married for a few years by then and my now ex-husband was working in the moving industry. He wasn’t happy with what he was doing either, and we decided that we would do something together. We walked into this coffee house in Cambridge, Massachusetts and we thought, what about coffee? We built a coffee house in Brooklyn called Ozzie’s Coffee & Tea. At that time, it was very much cutting edge. There were no Starbuck’s on the east coast yet. The only place where you could just go in and buy coffee-coffee was a bodega, and you would come out with one of the iconic blue and white cups!
How long did it take you between deciding to open the coffee shop and opening it?
Two years. It took two years because we didn’t have anybody to ask for money. My parents weren’t in a position to lend us that kind of money and neither were his. We decided we would live off of one of our salaries and save the other salary. It took us two years to save enough money and do the research and figure out the where, what, why, how. In the meantime, we took a short trip to Italy and took the opportunity to learn a little bit about coffee while we were there.
It was really successful for a lot of years. I was pregnant when we opened. It was very much a leader in the coffee movement in New York City, but I really wasn’t happy – partly because I didn’t recognize at that moment that I wasn’t happy in my marriage. My second daughter was born two years later, and I was already back in school at NYU in the continuing education program. I wanted to dabble and see what I liked as a passion.
I took an anthropology class and thought it was so cool. I took another anthropology class and thought it was so cool. I went to talk to the professor I had and she was like, “Don’t do it!” I said, “Why not?” She said, “There’s no work. The only work is academia. Right now I’m an adjunct professor at all of these different universities. Five thousand people will apply for one tenured position. The jobs just don’t exist. They don’t open up.” I thought, all right, what is kind of related to anthropology? I thought, sociology. Okay, this is pretty cool. I like this. But it wasn’t there yet. I took a psychology class and I was like, “Oh, this is it!”
For a while, I would get up and go and open the coffee shop, run home, put on my corporate clothes (because I was Vice President of Sales and Marketing for a small firm), run to my job, and then come home and close the coffee shop. Then I got chicken pox – I was in bed for weeks.
That was probably the best thing that could have happened because your body needed the rest. All of the energy it takes to keep all of those balls in the air can be exhausting! Our body has a way of telling us when we need to slow down.
Yes! I continued with school and never stopped – even when my kids were born. I may have reduced to just one class, but I never stopped. I would take classes at night and on the weekends. Eventually, I earned an undergraduate degree at NYU and graduated Magna Cum Laude. I was the oldest person there but who cares? I loved it! While studying I did a research project in gender development, so I then decided I wanted to enroll in a psychology program and get my masters.
How much time was there between getting your undergraduate and going back for your masters? Did you take any time off?
No. I spoke to admissions about enrolling and applying for the doctorate program. They said I would have to be enrolled full time. I knew there was no way I could be a mom, work at my store, and be a full-time doctoral student. They told me to enroll in the master’s program, take as much time as I needed, and then when I finished that part of the program I could enroll in the doctorate program. I started to do that. I was almost at the end of my master’s program when 9-11 happened.
My older daughter went to school in the Village and our school was very much impacted by the events of that day. When the school reopened we had 2-3 other elementary schools in our school. They were all under one roof for months because their schools were one block away from the World Trade Towers. There were so many families in crisis. I had all of this knowledge and no practical experience. I felt so useless. I needed to change course. I really like where psychology and educational development meet. I finished all of the course work at Teachers College and then my marriage imploded. I thought, okay, I’m just going to put the doctorate on hold and wait until the dust settles and figure it out. It was just one thing after another that kept popping up, and I never did it.
Then, in 2011 I lost the lease at Ozzie’s. The landlord wanted to raise the rent to an amount that was just not going to be sustainable. It gave my husband and me the opportunity to go, because we were still in business together and it was horrible. It had to change. It gave us the opportunity to really separate, really get divorced. At the time it seemed so traumatic.
I am sure that you had to mourn so many things – your marriage as well as this business that you created together. What did you do to move on from that point?
I opened up another coffee shop by myself about a block away after he left – Noella Brew Bar. It was struggling. It was the other side of the block. Most of my regular customers came back but what I came to realize is that the other side of the block is where all of the people would walk to the subway. I really didn’t think it would be such a big deal for people to cross the street to get a cup of coffee, but it really was. I’m a super-loyal type of customer, and it didn’t even cross my mind. I go to the same places all of the time.
It’s sad, but true! You will see two Starbuck’s in the city within a block of each other – at first I couldn’t figure out why they had two in such a short stretch, but then I came to realize it’s because people won’t cross the street!
Yeah, that is the perfect example! I was also having struggles with my landlord in that he had made all of these promises and didn’t keep up the promises. I thought, “How many whacks in the back of the head do I need to ask what I am doing?” It was time to evaluate. In the midst of all of this my health became horrible. I was getting anxiety attacks. I thought at one point I was having a heart attack. I went to my internist and my blood pressure was like 180/90 and he said, “You are steps from a stroke.”
He told me if I didn’t get my blood pressure down in two weeks (he practices eastern and western medicine so he doesn’t jump immediately) then he was going to put me on medication. We completely revamped my diet. I went to no caffeine, no salt, and no sugar. Within two weeks my blood pressure was back to normal, but the stress did not get better. I couldn’t pay the mortgage on the apartment. I was getting threatening foreclosure letters. My doctor told me he wanted me to go away for a week. So, I went to see a girlfriend, Gina, who lived in Madrid. I hadn’t seen her in about 15 years, and she asked me to bring her a book by Martha Beck called Finding Your Own North Star.
Sometimes taking a break is exactly what is needed – especially going somewhere so different from what you know, because it sets you in a position where you are almost forced to look inward and be a bit introspective. What was that trip like for you?
Fortunately, right before I left I got international service on my phone in case my girls needed me. When I arrived my friend sent me a message through Facebook saying that she was sorry that she wasn’t at the airport, she was really not feeling well. She gave me directions to her neighborhood and told me she’d call me when she was on her way back from the doctor’s office. So, I get to her neighborhood in Madrid, and I set up shop at an outdoor cafe. I had my luggage with me and was drinking coffee and eating tapas and there is no Gina. A couple of hours go by and still, no Gina.
I’m thinking, what am I going to do? I can’t just sit at this table all night. I started walking to another place that was not quite so busy and ordered a drink. I asked the guy who owned it if there was a hotel nearby. He got online and showed me. I asked if he would call them and ask them. He said, “Sure.” He called them and then he walked me there. I ended up not seeing my friend until the second to last night there!
My very dearest friend is a psychologist, and I called her when I realized I was out here on my own. I told her that I wanted to come home. She said, “Don’t you dare!” I had also recently broken up with a boyfriend. It was like everything was just lying there. She said, “You go find a group of people and do something with people. Go do a tourist thing.” So, I signed up for a walking tour and started meeting people on this walking tour. Then I went back to the hostel and sat in the lobby. I started talking to a guy who spoke English and seemed like he knew everybody.
I told him I was supposed to be with a friend, but I had no idea what happened to her. So, I said, “I’m all by myself and would appreciate it if he would have dinner with me.” He said, “Absolutely.” He took me to an out of the way restaurant and introduced me to all of these people, and I just started enjoying my trip. I had a camera, a writing journal, and that book. Everywhere I went I carried those things with me. Every time I sat down at a cafe or for a meal by myself I would read that book.
Then I started noticing myself saying, “Yes, that is me.” I went back and started rereading it from the beginning because it was resonating so loudly. I realized that I was really miserable with what I was doing career-wise and that I really needed to do something to change. Had Gina been available that week I probably never would have asked that. I may eventually have come to that conclusion because it was thrust on me, but I came back from my trip knowing I needed to make a plan.
Wow – that was a pretty big week! It sounds like a happy accident that altered things for you in a major way.
Yeah, although, the following eight months were probably the hardest of my life. I’ve done some research since then, but it was kind of a fight or flight situation. I kind of liken it to what happens with fight or flight for your life, really. It’s a bigger picture. I found that what happened was that I isolated myself from almost everything except for the things that I was really dealing with in the fight part with the exception of just a couple of close friends. It is interesting how instinct takes over because the people that I allow are the very people who would climb down inside the hole with me. Now that I am out of that hole it is interesting because I find myself evaluating every single relationship that I have.
Crawling down the hole in a positive or negative way? Like are they people who enjoy misery? Or are they people who just wanted to be with you and help you?
Oh, no. I had a few people who I would have thought would be with me through thick and thin. Not only did they disappear, but also when I reached out to them later they said I was a bad friend because I didn’t trust them enough to think that I could reach out to them for help. At first I thought, am I?
Oh yeah. I would have done the same thing. I would have internalized it. Good friends shouldn’t put you in that position.
I apologized. I said that I never meant to isolate you in any way. I was isolating me. If I made you feel abandoned in some way, I’m really sorry. It had nothing to do with you. I was literally fighting for my life. My feeling now is that had those people turned around and said that they really had no idea what I was dealing with, and I’m sorry that you went through that – then I think we would be able to pick up right where we left off. Many of those people got really defensive and never even acknowledged what I had gone through. It was all about them.
Even my friend in Madrid. When I finally saw her she was like, “I’m so embarrassed, I’m so sorry.” I said, “Gina, I have known you for almost 20 years. Who am I to sit in judgment? Whatever happened is what happened. Even if you were depressed and couldn’t get out of bed it had nothing to do with me.”
So, what happened in those 8 months after your trip?
I decided I was closing my business, and I had to map all of that out. I had all of the issues with my landlord that I had to get ironed out, legal issues. I decided that I couldn’t find a solution to my apartment so I would sell it. Everyone says that the things you really need are food, shelter, and clothing. I had $0 income and $0 savings. So, I made a plan: I’m closing my business, I’m selling my apartment, I’m going to work at Whole Foods until I get through this transition. Then I started figuring out what I wanted to do.
In Finding Your Own North Star, Beck goes through these series of things that says that you don’t know what you want to do and you are not going to know. I started thinking that if I had absolutely no responsibility what would I do? I had a dream of being a psychiatrist. At this point in time there was no way I was going to go back and write a dissertation. There was no way in hell I was going to be doing that. So, I started looking into short programs.
I learned so much just thinking things through and coming up with a plan. I took that and combined it with all of the stuff I had lived through with my doctor and all of these changes that he had put into place for me. I was online doing research, and I kept finding this thing called The Institute for Integrative Nutrition. It just kept coming up. I kept finding all of these links to the program. The more research I did made me think that maybe this was something for me. I started talking to people who actually did the program. It appealed to me because of the emphasis on health and nutrition. I thought, I could make a difference here and be happy here. I could maybe even take my education in developmental psychology and make that a more prominent piece of the puzzle.
So, I did this certification course. It was interesting how it started to morph for me because I initially was working mostly with women who were 30-50 and in life transition helping them put together why they thought they were coming to me. They thought they were coming to me to lose weight or because their hair was falling out or whatever, but I was helping them put together a life plan.
My view is that we all have our own personal spider webs and that each of us is a spider in the middle of our own web. You know when you see a spider web that is in a tree and you pull a part of the spider web and the whole thing falls down? This is the same thing for all of us. We have a career, we have weight, we have fitness, we have spirituality, we have finances, we have relationships, we have all of these systems and when one of those things breaks it effects all of the systems. That is not something we talk about much in the American culture. We compartmentalize everything. If we are 20 pounds overweight it is just because we are eating too many goodies. It has nothing to do with the fact that we don’t have an earning potential or you are starving in your relationships. We put all of those in separate little things. I started working with women who are trying to affect their health by working on all of these other areas.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you go about this and some of the work that you are currently doing?
I started working with a woman who wanted to lose 30 pounds. It eventually came out that she had ADD. She had been working to try to get a promotion at work for some time, too. I asked how she could get it done – not in the way she had been approaching it but in a different way. We brainstormed and she came up with a way. I told her then you need to write a proposal for how you will take steps toward this: your goal, what you want to be promoted to, and how we are going to do it. Then you are proactive and you present it to your boss. She said, “Okay.”
I saw her the next week and I said, “So, let’s see your proposal.” She said, “I didn’t do it.” I said, “Okay, what kept you from being able to do it?” We broke it down into actionable steps and the next week she had a proposal. She said that the biggest difference for her was in the past it would be expected that she would understand how to do that and then when she didn’t do it then she would get pissed. All of that affects your self-esteem. She eventually got a promotion at work, came up with $20,000 to send her son to college and completely redid her apartment (uncluttered and got rid of stuff). She started exercising again and she lost 10 of the 30 pounds she gained.
She referred a mom to me who had a son that had to withdraw from school his freshman year. He had enrolled at a university but had to withdraw his freshman year. I thought, “I am not an ADD expert!” She said, “Just do it. Your methods will work with him.” I have a whole pod of ADD young men right now and they are all in the same position. They are all 19 to early 20s. They have all attempted to go to college. They have all returned home. They all feel like they can’t get a job. I met with one of the dads, and he said I was transforming his son’s life. I’m still growing my business, but I can see that all of the seeds I have been planting are starting to grow. The big thing is that I am so much happier in what I am doing.
I know that for me I’m more likely to seek someone’s advice who doesn’t just talk the talk but walks the walk. You can say that you were very unhappy with your life and you took steps to change it. I think that makes you so much more real to people. We never really recognize how everything connects until we look back. All of the things you have gone through allow you to be amazing at what you do and part of what you do. Many times it is the struggles that ultimately help you figure everything out.
My daughter is a sophomore at an art college. Last year she came home from school and was really upset about something. It is more social. I’m a single parent and she has two close friends where one of them has a daily budget that is $400 a day. My child gets $250 per month from me, and that is her budget. The reality is that my daughter can’t keep up with that.
She had been asked to go to this really expensive place and it’s not in her budget. She said, “I know but I really want to go.” I said, “How about saying to them, I would really love to but that restaurant isn’t in my budget right now. How about we try this other place instead?” She said, “I guess I could do that.” I asked her to repeat back to me what she was going to say and she said, “I would really love to see you but I can’t afford it.” I said, “No. Listen to what I’m saying, do you hear the difference?” A light went off.
One of my mantras, particularly with my kids, is it has nothing to do with you. So, she had the conversation and her girlfriend said to her, “Oh, I would love to go to another restaurant but I’m in a lot of trouble for all of the money I have been spending and my dad has an account at this restaurant and he told me it was the only restaurant I’m allowed to go to.” I said, “Do you see how it has nothing to do with you?”
The next day I said to her that I wanted to talk to her some more about this. I asked her what her goals were for college. She said that she wanted to go to graduate school. She said that she wanted to do really well in her classes. I said, “Okay, anything else?” She said, “I like my photography class and I’d like to take that very seriously, too.” So, every single time you come up with a dilemma that makes you decide if you are going to go off campus and go to this restaurant, or go to this apartment, or spend gas money to do this, ask yourself if it honors your goals. Ask yourself, “Does it take me one step closer to my goals?” If the answer is, “No.” then you have your answer.
That is just good life advice and definitely applies to those who are on exploring a Chapter Be.
Exactly. You set your goals and then ask yourself if what you are doing feeds your goal. We tend to make decisions based in fear. If you have a goal of opening a store and then you are starting to feel financially constricted and decide to take some other job that now eats up your time, does that guide you to your goal? Or, if you had another option that might solve the financial issue, like living with a family member for a while. It is trying to find alternative ways so that you are not making decisions that are based in fear. It is about letting go of what people think. As women, we really care too much about how things look. It’s all in the semantics of how you present something.
That is so true. So much of how you deal with a situation is how you perceive it. If you want it to be a negative it will be. So, if someone is sitting at a desk job right now and they are miserable and hating it and they want out, what would your advice be for them as a first step to doing something different?
I talk about this all of the time when working with people because very often there is an emotional connection to what they are doing. I always have them step back and first of all decide if it is really the job that they are doing? Is it the work they are doing or the job that they have? So, if what is making someone miserable is the manager they have (not necessarily the work that they have) what could they do, what would be their options to influence and make it a great place? Would it be talking to the manager? Would that be a first step? Would it be changing departments? Would it be changing companies? Is it the work that they are doing?
If it is the work that they are doing then I would have them try to identify three things that they love to do. So, if they had no responsibilities, zero, you don’t have kids, or a mortgage, you don’t have to pay rent, you don’t have anything, name one thing that you would love to do. What is the first thing that comes to your mind? Sometimes because they have been so entwined for so long that they just don’t know. That is when I would say to just let it come. As you are going along your day, doing your tasks, you are reading or watching a movie, what comes up for you?
When I was miserable at my job, I’d have other people ask me what I love and I’d said, “I don’t even know. I can’t even tell you that.” So, the person I was working with said to me, “As you’re walking down the street, what do your eyes gravitate towards?” I was really taking very small steps. I knew that I loved going into a store on my lunch break and just walking around. It felt like an escape. She was like, “Okay, play with that.” Sometimes you have to start very, very simply.
Yes, that is exactly right. That would be another way. What makes you happy? Does going to the mountains make you happy? Does going to the beach make you happy? Does your family make you happy? Do you have friends who make you happy? What gives you pleasure? Start tapping into the pleasure areas.
I think we are so accustomed to recognizing what is wrong. When I start working with someone, usually after the second or third week I will give him or her a little Moleskin journal. I call it their accomplishment journal. Too many people have a hard time sleeping. I’ll have them keep it by their bedside and say I am looking for you to write down three things that you accomplished today and how you made them happen. Usually at the end of the day you are thinking about all of the things that you didn’t get done. I didn’t do this, I didn’t get this done, instead of looking at your list of, “Whoa, look what I did!” I had someone start keeping an accomplishment journal and recently he got it. He came and was showing me a gift, because he was showing me his writing, names of people he had met, phone numbers of managers that he went and spoke to about jobs. I just looked at that and said, “Look at what you have done!” It’s so much more than we realize.
Notes of Reflection:
- If you are feeling stuck and like you cannot move forward – take a break. Go on vacation or put yourself in an environment that is completely new and different. Melissa was at a point where she was financially strapped and at a crossroads. Many might have told her that taking a vacation at that point in her life was crazy. But she didn’t listen to that and it is a good thing, because it was that vacation that allowed her to see things a little more clearly and come home with a plan to make a change. We can all fall into ruts, and sometimes what we need to climb out of them is a change in scenery – allow yourself that.
- Take the time to really explore what you enjoy, and don’t make excuses that you don’t have time to do that. Melissa went back to school and got both an undergraduate and graduate degree while raising two children and running a business. It was during this time that she really tried to play with different courses and try to discover what her passions were. The truth is – sometimes it takes awhile and a lot of work to discover how you can connect your curiosities, passions and interests to a profession – so, be patient.
- I love Melissa’s mantra, “It has nothing to do with you.” Many times when something goes wrong or a situation occurs we instantly go to how we played a part in it or can be overly sensitive. It is important to remember that everyone in this world carries their own set of burdens and issues. Try not to make it about you.
- Take the time to realize what you have done versus focusing on all of the things you haven’t done or need to do. By changing your focus and spending more time focusing on your accomplishments you will change your whole outlook. Take Melissa’s advice and keep an Accomplishment Journal!
*Images via Melissa Rapoport & Chapter Be