By Marnie McGann
Milestones in life are often reached by a number, more specifically, one’s age in decades. Turning 20, 30, 40, 50, and 60 and beyond all resonate as if we are passing through an invisible wall and stepping into a new realm of maturity with another decade of life experience under our belt. We join those on “the other side” and hope that the new decade serves us well.
This year, Jeff Zeig passed through another invisible wall when he turned 70 on November 6th. In each decade of his life, he continues to grow and share his wealth of knowledge and experience; his 70s will be no exception. And despite his many accomplishments, he humbly and gracefully continues to offer guidance through therapy and training.
At the Foundation, he is our fearless leader, treating all staff members with kindness and respect. He is the Founder and Director of The Milton H. Erickson Foundation, which will reach its own milestone in 2019 when we will celebrate our 40th anniversary. It has been nearly 40 years since Jeff commenced the organization of the first of many conferences – a Congress held in December 1980. Since then, he has been the architect of the Couples Conference, the Brief Therapy Conference, the Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference, and the Intensives training in Phoenix, held in consecutive weeks three times throughout the year.
There are many more accomplishments, including more than 20 books on psychotherapy that appear in 14 languages. But, this article is more about who Jeff Zeig, the man, is and what makes him tick. So I felt the best way to know him was to listen.
Marnie McGann: First off, happy 70th birthday Jeff, and thank you for agreeing to be the subject of this article. As Founder and Director of the Erickson Foundation, you’ve spent nearly 40 years creating an organization that’s known throughout the world. But, I can’t even say for sure where you were born. So let’s start with that. Could you please share a bit about your childhood?
Jeff Zeig: I was born in the Bronx, New York, and spent my first 10 years of life living in an apartment with one bedroom that my sister and I shared. My parents slept on a roll-out couch in the living room. My father was a postman and took the subway to Manhattan every day for work. Coincidentally, my sister eventually had an office in the building where he used to deliver mail.
After apartment life, my family moved to Long Island into a Levitt home. My father eventually took a job as a salesman for a home improvement company and we entered the middle class. I grew up in a child-centered Jewish family. My parents were adamant that my three sisters and I would have the opportunities that my parents never had. They were the children of Jewish immigrants and their parents mostly spoke Yiddish. My maternal grandmother came alone from Russia at age 18 and worked in sweatshops to earn funds to bring her siblings and her father to the U.S. My paternal grandparents were matched by a matchmaker on their wedding day! Needless to say, it was not a match made in heaven.
MM: I know you enjoy flying sailplanes, are a bronze life master at bridge, and have been writing book after book. What else do you enjoy doing in your limited spare time?
Jeff Zeig: I exercise daily for more than 45 minutes. Usually during that time, I either talk to my love, who does not live nearby, or I educate myself by listening to tapes from Erickson, previous conferences, or online courses. I also listen to audiobooks; currently, it’s Resurrection by Tolstoy and A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens. I also listen to audiobooks when traveling and just finished “The Body Keeps the Score,” by Bessel Van der Kolk. Right now, I am taking a course in linguistics. Another positive addiction is taking Spanish lessons, which I love, but lack competence. I gifted the Erickson Foundation staff with private Spanish lessons. We take classes online with a teacher in Mexico. Then, there’s my 2-year-old granddaughter, Lily Beth…
Relaxation would be a good hobby, but the concept escapes me, as does watching television.
MM: What makes you happy?
JZ: Learning and Loving. The goal of living is to grow.
MM: What three words describe you best?
JZ: Driven, Driven, and Driven.
MM: Would you say that you’ve achieved your dream professionally?
JZ: More than I ever expected.
MM: What is your greatest achievement and how has it shaped you?
JZ: The Evolution Conference is my greatest professional achievement. Promoting integration and discovering the commonalities that make therapy work.
MM: What is your greatest failure, and how did you overcome it?
JZ: When I graduated with my Ph.D. in 1977, I wanted to be an academic and applied for more than 50 positions. I didn’t get any of the jobs I really wanted, but since then, some of those schools have hired me to do workshops. I took a job as a child psychologist at the Arizona State Hospital, but it was my last choice. Erickson advised me by telling me a story about his son, Bert, who came back from the Army only to face unemployment. The refrain of the story was to strictly do a professional job. So I did, and it worked.
MM: Have you ever taken a giant leap of faith?
JZ: Yes, by moving to Phoenix in 1978 to be close to Erickson. And, doing a cloverleaf in a glider.
MM: What has been most satisfying for you in your life?
MM: How do you deal with stress?
JZ: I thrive on it. I live with it. I invite it. And I harness it to pursue what is most meaningful to me.
MM: What book, poem, piece of music, painting, or other work of art has moved you the most?
JZ: I had a hobby of memorizing poetry and can still quote quite a few poems. I have been most inspired by e.e. cummings.
MM: How do you make your therapy an art?
JZ: I improvise. I study the evocative nature of all art and apply it to helping clients and therapists access adaptive states.
MM: Do you have any current goals that you are working toward?
JZ: Loving the important people in my life. Professionally, writing more books. Reading more literature. Staying healthy.
MM: If you could do one thing over, what would it be?
JZ: I would learn how to play music, but I am tonally challenged.
MM: Where do you see yourself in the next five years, 10 years?
JZ: Contributing as much as possible. Loving to the limit.
MM: Milton Erickson was your mentor and left a legacy. What do you hope is your legacy?
JZ: Making the world a little better by virtue of my time on this planet.
MM: What does turning 70 mean to you?
JZ: I have less tread on the tires.
MM: Do you have any advice for young therapists?
JZ: Study and incorporate into your life, Erickson’s utilization orientation.
Jeff has recently begun working on Season 2 of his 5 Minute Therapy Tips video series on YouTube. These 5-minute videos deal within the general areas of client problems, professional issues, clinical concerns, and methodology with a specific focus on anxiety, grief, depression, pain, smoking cessation, and much more. View the video below, or click here to view the entire series.