As a financial coach, I strive to create real, lasting impact in my clients’ lives. While you might expect that the mentors who have most profoundly influenced my coaching philosophy and methods would be other financial professionals, that’s not the case. The person who has impacted my journey more than anyone is Bryan Stevenson, the renowned lawyer, social justice activist, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, and author of Just Mercy.

Stevenson’s work, fighting for fair treatment and defending the rights of the incarcerated and wrongly convicted, may seem worlds away from financial coaching. Yet his approach of leading with empathy, nuanced understanding of human struggles, and the “power of proximity” has become the core philosophy driving how I work with clients.

The Power of Proximity

“The way you begin to understand the problems of the world is by getting proximate. It allows you to see and hear things that you cannot see and hear from a distance.” This powerful idea from Stevenson is one of his most transformative insights for me.

In financial coaching, the power of proximity is the key distinction between education and true coaching impact. Education can be delivered from a distance, but coaching requires being intimately close to clients – in the trenches combing through the details of their unique financial situations, struggles, hopes and fears. It’s not just giving advice, but being an empathetic guide and pillar of support through each hard step of lasting change.

When I first launched my coaching program with its heavy emphasis on weekly 1-on-1 sessions, I questioned whether I was overdelivering. But Stevenson’s wisdom helped me realize that this closeness, this proximity, is exactly what allows me to provide the transformative support my clients need. It’s what separates good results from great results, and good coaches from truly great ones.

More Than the Worst Things

Another powerful lesson from Stevenson: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” My clients often come to me full of regret, shame and disappointment over past financial mistakes and “worst things.” Stevenson reminds me to see the whole person beyond those actions – to understand the nuances and complexities that shape each human’s experience.

He stresses the importance of empathy, of seeking “to understand the nuanced experiences of those who suffer.” For my clients, that suffering may be the struggle of poverty, overwhelming stress, lack of financial education, or simply a life that feels incredibly hard. Recognizing this, and viewing them as full human beings, not just “people who are bad with money,” allows me to coach from a place of deep compassion and acceptance.

Stevenson says “the opposite of poverty is not wealth, the opposite of poverty is justice.” This reframed my perspective on how I can help clients. Rather than just focusing on increasing net worth, I aim to help restore a sense of dignity, hope and freedom – justice in their financial lives.

The Power of Empathy and Hope

In addition to proximity, I’ve learned much from Stevenson about empathy and maintaining hope in the face of suffering and injustice. He reminds us that “your hope is your superpower… hope has to be your orientation.” No matter how dire a client’s financial situation may feel, if I can help them find hope for a better future, that unlocks their power to change.

Stevenson explores the complexity of human experiences with incredible nuance and empathy, believing each person is “more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.” This empathetic lens is crucial for me in understanding my clients’ full contexts – the societal, emotional and circumstantial factors that have shaped their financial realities.

Rather than judgment, I aim to bring perspective-taking, empathy and hope to each relationship. This creates the trust and safety for clients to openly explore their toughest financial traumas, beliefs and mistakes, knowing they’ll be met with compassion, not criticism.

Bringing it All Together

In his work confronting injustice and fighting for human dignity, Bryan Stevenson has explored justice, hope, empathy and proximity at the deepest levels. His philosophies provide a blueprint for me to create meaningful, transformative impact as a financial coach.

It’s not about delivering information, but being an empathetic, hopeful guide who intimately understands the nuanced struggles each client faces. It’s leading with belief in their full humanity and potential, instilling the hope that positive change is possible. And it’s doing the hard work of getting proximate – near enough to truly see and hear their experience in order to provide the personalized support they need.

While Stevenson’s work focuses on reforming the criminal justice system, his insights have become the philosophical backbone for my work in the personal finance realm. His principles are what allow me to go beyond just improving numbers, and instead become an agent for holistically upgraded lives, restored dignity, and newfound hope and freedom for my clients.