Photo by Ales Krivek
For some of us, we move through our work and careers like “leaves blowing on the wind.”
Rather than make deliberate choices about what's next, we wait for opportunities to appear. We tell ourselves “something will come along,” then hope for the best.
Others make more deliberate career choices, recognizing that who they are has changed. And, what they’re doing no longer fits.
Making Deliberate Career Decisions
Shannon Huffman Polson, author of North of Hope, has guided her career deliberately, though she would not claim to have anticipated its many twists and turns.
She does this by knowing her strengths, values and priorities and holding the “practical” question of how to support her family.
As she continues on her career path, her work is not only the example she wants to set for her two young boys; it is also deeply aligned with the legacy she’d like to leave of “having lived an authentic life.”
Early Years in Alaska
Growing up in Alaska, Shannon knew from an early age that she wanted to create and leaned into her desire. In a junior high project, she declared that she would be a writer and an artist. In high school, she was editor of the school’s magazine. At Duke University, she chose to major in English Literature with a minor Art History.
Yet, as she embraced her interests in the humanities, her father weighed in with sage advice. He supported her decision to major in English but also urged her to pursue studies in business.
“This impact of his influence was so strong that it pushed me away from humanities and got me more focused on things that might be good careers.”
She shifted her focus. She had taken an ROTC scholarship to help pay for college, and took an active duty Army commission, becoming one of the first women to fly Apache helicopters. After eight years in the Army, she transitioned into an MBA program and landed in what she describes the “corporate jungle.”
The Corporate Jungle
Absent the intensity of the military, Shannon found that corporate work suited her. From a medical devices company to a global software company, she found success again as a leader.
But even though she made friends and was mentored well, she realized that her life didn't feel authentic. She managed groups and teams well but wasn’t creating. In that sense, she felt like she had sold out.
“As my husband and I thought about having a family, I wanted to be living an authentic life for the kids I wanted to raise. I wanted them to see me doing what I love doing.”
Thinking of the family to come—now her two boys—and the loss of her father and stepmother in a tragic accident, Shannon decided to make a change.
“Tragedies will knock you in those directions,” she reflects.
Becoming A Writer
“Life is short,” she said. “Do the work to figure out what’s important to you and your life and be willing to stand up for it.
Do the work to figure out what’s important to you and your life and be willing to stand up for it. (tweet that!)
“It’s funny because there are a number of ways in which having kids has forced me into that in a really good way. I want my kids to grow up and live an authentic life. Not that I want to keep falling back on tragedies and kids, but those are major life inflection points that help to refine things. The chaff falls away.”
Living an authentic life meant leaving the corporate world to raise her boys and write full time. She also began to do more public speaking. “It’s the practical side of making a living,” she muses, remembering her father's wise words, “as well as a way to combine my experiences with leadership and words.”
“I love to write, and I aspire to being a good literary writer. And, I’m starting something else which is another passion of mine: I love good leadership. I love good management. I’m lucky to have an incredible background and experience in both. (In addition to her working manuscript, a memoir of her military service), I’m going to write a couple of shorter books that are business and leadership related. This feels authentic to me: Finding a way to do what’s aligned with your values, interests and passions is really important.
Find a way to do what’s aligned with your values, interests and passions is really important. (tweet that!)
“I do feel like creation is something that I’m meant to do. I’ve always known it. It’s deeply satisfying.
What is her advice to those making a career transition?
“A relevant set of questions to ask yourself is what is it that you like about the work you’ve done, and what is it that you don’t like. Think about where the answers to those questions might lead you.
“Spending the time to discern what you’re good at and what you enjoy will help lead you to the place where it’s either a calling or a gift or something that you’re meant to do. It’s the place Frederick Buechner says “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Then think about how to make it practical, how to pay the bills.
“Digging into those parts of life that are hardest and deepest is important for me and that’s part of living that authentic life. Exploring what is important. How it is that I might make a meaningful contribution to others and to the world.”
Now that Shannon writes full time and speaks in front of corporate audiences, she grapples with a voice in her head that sparks fear.
“I have a continual fear of failure. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it. Writing and traditional publishing is really hard. Before you get there you think that’s success. And then you get it done and you don’t feel like you’re there. Will the next one be good? Am I getting any better? Does this work matter?
“Doing something authentic is more fulfilling but also scarier.”
How does she manage the inner voice that vocalizes her fears?
“You have to push through it and ignore it. That’s the first thing. Put one foot in front of the other. My grandmother said – after my dad and stepmother died – 'You have to just keep on keeping on.' I was like, what does that mean? But it’s true. Keep breathing. In the moment it can be a very hard thing to do but with authentic work you just have to keep on doing it.”
Looking back on her life, what will Shannon be most proud of?
“Having lived an authentic life and contributed in ways that are meaningful. Doing the work to determine what that is and then following through. Family is first and foremost. Faith. Then, creative work.
“For me, finding those things that are key and the strongest values and living those values. When I think about what I want my kids to have, my non-negotiables are faith, wilderness, and music.
"Find a way to prioritize the things you value. Not everyone has that opportunity. I’m grateful I can do that, but it’s always a struggle.”
Readers, what does it mean to you to live "an authentic life"? I would love to share the conversation with you and others. Thanks!
To learn more about Shannon, visit her website: http://aborderlife.com/
Sign up for her newsletter: http://aborderlife.com/grit/
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About a week after this interview posted, Shannon was featured on one of my favorite podcasts called Challenge Your Thinking with Dr. Linda Tucker. Shannon shares more of her amazing story which you can listen to here.