I recently attended a workshop on public narrative. Public narrative is a rubric used to help individuals tell their stories to engage their community and call it to action. For professionals (and not community organizers), it is a way to describe the why of what you do in a way that creates a connection between your community and your mission. In public narrative, you tell three stories: the story of me, the story of us, and the story of now. We worked on the “story of me”—the conflux of personal events that leads an individual to their why.
I know my why: I believe that each of us is filled with limitless possibilities and potential. Each of us is a gift in this world, and bring our own unique light to each other, to our communities and to the world. This is in part why I do this work. When our lawyers—who are, in many cases, our leaders—are unwell, we have lost access to some of our most brilliant and beautiful lights. Those that can create, shape, and sustain change. I hope to be an inspiration, guide, and counselor for those lawyers who are seeking their lights.
But when it was my turn to share the story of me, I stumbled. I began by saying I had no story—just a few bullets on times in my life that felt transformative. But as I said it, I remembered something that I hadn’t thought about in a long time.
I was 13 when I won the school spelling bee. And then the district and then the regional one. I don’t remember much about those spelling bees—neither winning nor feeling accomplishment. What I do remember is the long drive to Lawrence Tech (near Detroit) with my dad, in his 1989 Ford Bronco. The drive seemed to take forever, but my dad and I have always been good at talking. I didn’t study or prepare for the bee, and I was nervous. I remember those nerves as I stood on the stage, with bright, bright lights in my eyes. The stage felt huge—like a place bigger and more formal than I had ever seen coming from Gibraltar, Michigan, population 4,000. My heart was pounding as I heard the first word: “precedent.” I asked them to repeat it. I am sure I didn’t know the word at all. I launched forward anyway: “President. P-R-E-S-I-D-E-N-T.” The bell rang brightly. “Incorrect.”
My heart fell. I blindly stumbled off the stage, facing the forever-long drive back to Gibraltar. Out on the first word.
My dad and I didn’t stay to see who won. Nor did he say anything as we turned back to the car to go home. As we pulled back onto the road, he spoke: “Remember next time you can ask for a definition.” This makes me laugh now, but at the time, I felt a little sadder.
Later that day—or maybe the next (I’m not sure)—my dad reminded me of a letter he had written to me. At some point, he had been asked to contribute a letter of encouragement to me, for a camp, maybe for the spelling bee, something. The letter said: “Well honey, you did it again… You set your mind to something and you stick to it. I sure admire and respect you for that. I remember when you played little league baseball, and you weren’t real comfortable batting, and honestly, I was afraid you might get hit with the ball. I asked you if you wanted to quit. Your response was: ‘No way Dad. I started this and I’m going to finish it.’ Well, honey, that’s what I love about you. You always follow through… Love, Dad.”
But what I took from it, and what formed the basis for my core belief in all of our potential is this: If I know anything about you, it’s that you can do anything you set your mind to. And I mean anything.
I used that belief to attend college at the University of Michigan, to go to law school and graduate magna cum laude, to take a BigLaw job and work in it for nearly 15 years. But somewhere around year 10 of practice, I knew that I could do anything—yet began to question why I wanted to. I was saddened by the lack of heart I felt in my day-to-day class action practice. I loved working with teams because I love people, but I really didn’t enjoy the work in the same way. I felt stuck; lost and powerless with the knowledge that if I could do anything … why wasn’t I? I was unhappy, a little anxious, and a little depressed.
It was at this place that I took a parenting leave to have my third child, Mikayla Rae—the feminine of Michael for my dad, and Rae, meaning light. Mikayla was a difficult birth; she nearly died. There was a long-enough time to be frightened for my baby’s life before we knew she would be ok. And she is okay. Better than okay, actually, she is made of sunshine, glitter, and a fierceness that I could have only imagined. I treasured my time off with her, knowing what I was going back to.
On the day I returned, I was added to a trial team for post-trial briefing. I worked every night and weekend during my first weeks back. I was demoralized, saddened, and now truly depressed. I missed my new baby and my adorable toddlers, Lilah and Nate. I spent every second working on trial papers that I had no investment in, no love for, and no calling to do. I continued this way until one night, when I was reading a story to the toddlers, I caught a glimpse of myself in the bedroom mirror: slumped, depressed, lifeless. I was a shadow of the person I remembered myself to be. She was full of light, energy, enthusiasm, and sparkle. This person was gray. The moment took my breath away.
That was the night I began the search for my own light. How can we shine when we aren’t sure we can do anything anymore? It was not long after that I discovered positive psychology founder and guru Martin Seligman. I learned about explanatory styles, resilience, and crafting your own path to happiness by making choices about what you believe and why. I had a great starting point—I believed I could do anything already but didn’t feel motivated to continue to succeed in the path of BigLaw. I learned about the different forms of happiness, for “happiness is a scientifically unwieldy notion, but there are three forms you can pursue.” According to Seligman, “for the ‘Pleasant Life,’ you aim to have as much positive emotion as possible and learn the skills to amplify positive emotion. For the ‘Engaged Life,’ you identify your highest strengths and talents and recraft your life to use them as much as you can in work, love, friendship, parenting, and leisure. For the ‘Meaningful Life,’ you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.”
The last five years of my life have been an unwitting mirror of this framework. I started with pleasant—to give myself joy in a structure that I no longer loved, mostly finding it with my children, family, and friends. I moved into engaged by finding my highest talents and strengths—for me, that’s working with people—to get my coaching certification and begin consulting while I continued to practice. Now as I look forward, and have added on a masters’ program in counseling, I hope to turn to the meaningful life: the one where I get to use my highest strengths and talents to serve our legal community. The one where I get to bring the light I so desperately sought to others. And the one where I get to remind them that they too can do anything—and that they can do what brings joy. The one where I get to help illuminate a sometimes-hidden path so that our sisters and brothers can shine as brightly as we know they can.
I thank my lucky stars every day that I had parents who believed in my light—and in the idea that I could do anything. They, and you, are a fundamental part of the story of me, the story of us, and the story of now.
About the Author
Shannon Callahan is a certified coach for Nixon Peabody’s lawyers. She is getting her master’s degree in counseling and works with attorneys on finding their paths to well-being in life and law.