Working out which way we go next on a Personal Strategy Retreat in France

Caroline Sylger Jones reviews a personal strategy retreat with Julie Hosler of The Strategic Space and enjoys an elegant chateau in Burgundy whilst getting crystal clear direction for her year ahead

It’s a fine Autumnal morning and I’m sitting in an elegant sitting room in a 17th century chateau in Burgundy sipping good French coffee and watching a TED talk on a giant screen. There are tears of awe running down my face because the talk is by Amy Purdy, an astonishing young woman who lost her kidney, spleen and lower legs to Bacterial Meningitis but still went on to be a snowboarding champion.‘There are events in life’, says Amy, ‘that either stop us in our tracks or force us to get creative’. Amy clearly got creative, and that’s what Strategist Julie Hosler wants us to do on her new 4 night Personal Strategy Retreat in the sleepy village of Chateau de Mailly.

‘Personal Strategy’ looks at how you get from where you are in life to where you want to be. It’s a bit like life coaching, only your coach is allowed to get into the ring with you rather than just direct from the sidelines. A clearly intelligent and well read American now living in Paris who also trained with the International Coaching Academy, Hosler worked on client campaigns like Apple and Cartier before moving on to strategising the lives of CEOs and entrepreneurs, and I’m more than happy to have her in my ring.

Using a tool kit that includes (as well as TED talks) Neuro-Linguistic Programming, psychology, narrative strategy and stories about famous figures she admires (Sophie Calle, Diana Vreeland, Paulo Coelho, Bruce Lee) Hosler gets us to view our life as a story and ourselves as the author of it (as opposed to our parents, friends, spouses, colleagues or societal pressures). The retreat’s key focus is – If you are the author of your story, how do you want the next chapter of it to go?

To help us find out we’re asked to write three ‘Morning Pages’ on waking each morning – an effective ‘brain dump’ technique devised by Julia Cameron in her book The Artists Way that clears the mind of clutter so it can be used more creatively (it works – I do it daily). After a tasty breakfast of eggs and croissants, we all burn our pages in a giant fire pit (go with it – it’s very satisfying) before a three-hour group workshop at the civilised hour of 10 am. Afternoons are free for private consultations and time out for individual tasks related to the morning, all in the supremely civilised surrounds of the chateau, where swing chairs hang from giant trees, Japanese white anemones grow unexpectedly out of solid stone walls and elegant herb-filled pots grace every corner.

‘A clearly intelligent and well read American now living in Paris who also trained with the International Coaching Academy, Hosler worked on client campaigns like Apple and Cartier before moving on to strategising the lives of CEOs and entrepreneurs, and I’m more than happy to have her in my ring’

Engaging and entertaining, the workshops pivot on themes from The Hero’s Journey, the narrative pattern identified in stories, films and psychological development by scholar Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The idea is the hero/heroine (Amy Purdy; Luke Skywalker; Mr/Mrs Smith who want to follow their dream) hears a call to adventure (losing your spleen/following your destiny to become a Jedi Knight/boredom), refuses the call (in bed for months/the dark side of The Force/not being able to get off the sofa), goes through various trials and tribulations (trying to walk with artificial legs/Darth Vadar/debt, disease, dog dying) and eventually returns with an elixir (world snowboarding medal/blowing up the Death Star/new job). All of us are always at some point on the cycle, says Hosler, for life is a constant transformation.

On day one we work on our vision for our next five years – I write mine on a wooden slatted lounger, sipping a glass of ice cold rosé in the sunshine and occasionally glancing over the parapet to the rolling hills beyond. On day two we look at who our mentors might be – the inner and outer resources that can help us achieve that vision – I sit on my wide double bed infront of a cosy fire and stuff a folder intriguingly entitled ‘Compendium of Inspirational Forces’ with phone numbers, quotes, pictures and ‘other supportive stuff to marinade in’ (in Hosler’s words) when I might need some motivation. Day three is for sorting out how to deal with our ‘antagonists’, from a bullying boss to our inner fears – I work through mine whilst pounding lengths in the long and heated swimming pool and (at Hosler’s suggestion) then write a purging letter to one of them. The final day is for making practical plans to ensure we stay loyal to what we said we were going to do long after the mood we said it in has left us – which it undoubtedly will. I digest it all over a walk by the peaceful Canal du Nivernais, a gleaming white swan my only distraction.

Each evening we meet for supper in a grand medieval dining room and share our experiences. Sharing is optional, but by the end of the retreat we’ve all taken the plunge and united. It helps that our meals are lavish affairs devised by talented chef Ollie Timberlake and accompanied by wine. Dishes include an incredible Beef Bourguignon, inventive salads and the lightest, most moorish almond tart I’ve ever had the pleasure to taste. Hosler proves to be a witty, warm guide throughout, whose little touches include the smart black Muji notebooks she gives us to write in and the fragrant Diptyque candles she burns in every room.

You don’t have to have your world rocked by a disaster like Amy Purdy to gain from Hosler’s methods. As she says, ‘whether you’re drowning in a few feet of water or a giant ocean of it – you’re still drowning’. Among my seven fellow and highly engaging guests (we’re all in our 40s, 50s and 60s) there’s an American dad who wants to turn his ‘groundhog day’ life into something more adventurous, a busy mother of four looking for some emotional space to call her own, and a woman from Paris who wants her retirement to be just as exciting as her 25 year career has been. In my 40s, I start the retreat thinking I need to get clarity on the next stage of my writing career but rather reassuringly discover that all I really want is a life well lived. We’re all different, but we all want the next chapter of our lives to read supremely well. On this delightful retreat of the mind, you start to believe that it just might.

This feature first appeared in The Daily Telegraph.