Get a good night’s sleep and use a sleep app to help me know the best time to wake up. I’ve been using a sleep app for years. It helps me to figure out how long my average sleep cycle(s) will be so that I can wake up outside of my REM sleep and not feel exhausted and groggy when the alarm goes off. Before anything high-pressure or stressful, I’ll also try to go to bed earlier so that I don’t feel like a coffee-craving zombie when I get up.
Asa part of our series about “Optimal Performance Before High Pressure Moments”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marisa Donnelly.
Marisa Donnelly is a writer, editor, teacher/tutor, and CEO of Be A Light Collective, a virtual and San Diego based writing/editing services company with a mission of re-shaping what traditional education looks like through a relationship-based learning lens. Marisa is the author of Somewhere On A Highway, a collection of poems, founder of Momish Moments, a vertical dedicated to empowering journeys of motherhood, and co-founder of Step By Step Parents, a resource platform for blended families. She currently resides in Ocean Beach, San Diego with her boyfriend, his son, and their dog, Styles.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I’m originally from suburban Chicago and attended college in Iowa, so even though I live in California now, I’m a Midwest girl at heart. The fast pace, the work ethic — these are the traits I’m the most proud of in my Illinois roots, even in moving cross-country to the West Coast six years ago.
My “backstory,” if you will, has always been connected to writing. Ever since I was young, I’ve been passionate about words. For as far back as I can remember, I was setting up “play school” in the basement with my sister, harassing my friends to take turns being my students, and penning lines of poetry in my notebooks. My drive to express emotion through words and help others learn to love language has led me to where I am today.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as an entrepreneur or business leader? We’d love to hear the story.
There are so many people that have influenced my journey — books I’ve read, teachers who have pushed me, parents who have seen the best in me, even strangers who have listened to read poetry at Open Mic nights and said, “You have a lot going for you.” (Shout out to the strangers who aren’t afraid to spread kindness!)
I can’t pinpoint a single moment that called me to launch my company. The best way I can explain it is that I felt called to change, called to leave the past behind, and called to jump forward into a new business venture. It truly was a “faith over fear” moment.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
There are so many influential people that I’ve had the privilege of interacting with over the years. When I think about my youth, my fourth grade teacher comes to mind simply because she gave me the tools and the confidence to write without thinking. Later in life, a college professor invested time in my craft and showed me that my words were powerful. To this day, I vividly remember sitting in that professor’s office as he spoke words of affirmation over me and held space for me. That moment shifted something within my soul that has since helped me stand in (and write into) my own power.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
When I was freelancing for a large publication during my time of transition from full-time staff writer/editor role to full-time business ownership, I couldn’t, for the life of me, stop messing up comma rules! Haha. Even as an editor, I kept making easy mistakes that my upper editor would catch. It was, at the time, a devastating experience, but now I look back and realize part of my problem was putting way too much pressure on myself. I was expecting perfection, and really, all I needed to do was write from the heart!
It’s taken me a long time to let that painful memory go, but it’s also taught me a lesson in humility, as well as self-love. None of us are perfect (even professional editors!) and sometimes we have to give ourselves grace above grief.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
If you’re serious about your dreams, you have to recognize that believing in them (and even believing in yourself!) is not enough. You have to take action, too. And although this may seem silly or obvious, you won’t believe how many people want something but don’t actually take the steps to get it.
Be prepared to work and fight harder than you ever have for yourself. That means figuring out your own sense of schedule, balance, “on” and “off” times, and boundaries. This also means letting go of the idea that you have to have everything figured out and instead start walking in your intended direction and troubleshoot along the way.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
One of my favorite books is a book I read back in elementary school, A Face First. This book is about a young girl who survives a horrific car accident but has to live with a scarred, burned face. The book covers her journey to self-love and acceptance, letting go of bitterness, and surrounding herself with people who loved her for her. It’s a simple but powerful book that has resonated and stayed with me for years. I think the message has taught me to focus less on what others think and more on what I think about myself. It’s also challenged me to recognize and be grateful for all that I have.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
My favorite life lesson quote is one from Morrie (from Tuesdays with Morrie): “The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let love come in.” This quote means so much, especially has I have embarked on my own motherhood journey as a “bonus parent” to my boyfriend’s son.
Life, in my opinion, can be so painful and complicated at times. However, the core of everything is love — how we show up for one another, how we choose one another, how we forgive, how we move forward, and how we lead with our hearts and heads. For me, this quote means that putting love first (even when it’s hard) is the most powerful thing we can do.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I recently launched a YouTube series called “The Pit Stop.” It’s meant to be a pause where viewers can be reminded of all that they have, re-center on what’s really important, let go of their societal or outside pressures, and recognize their inherent worthiness.
I’ve also created two Facebook group through my business. One group is dedicated to encouragement and empowerment, and serves as a creative marketplace for services and ideas. The other group is for teaching resources and connections, as many educators (and parents!) are struggling with distance learning right now. My goal is to continually offer products, services, ideas, and inspiration, especially as we navigate the new and post-pandemic world.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As a business leader, you likely often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to cope with the burden of stress?
- Create your own (and new) routines. This is going to look different for every single person, but you must create pockets of time that are yours. If you don’t, you will fall victim to stress and attempt to control situations that you simply can’t. I have routines for self-care, routines for the morning work flow, routines for mid-afternoon, and even weekend routines! This helps to create stability and motivation (even when I’m exhausted.)
- Tap into the ‘after hours.’ Okay, hear me out on this one. Although the world frowns upon working after hours or mixing week days and weekends, there is so much value to tapping into super late or super early hours. These hours offer uninterrupted time from technology, loved ones, or even noise! Giving yourself the space to work will help you to have time for yourself, focus prior to starting the day, and even help you check a few items off of your list.
- Emotion Dumps. When I’m feeling overwhelmed or stressed, something I’ve found that works for me is giving myself the space to vent and pour my heart out in a journal. This is an “emotion dump” that allows me to express whatever is happening in the moment, process it, and then separate from it.
Aside from being able to deal with the burden of stress, can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?
- Get a good night’s sleep and use a sleep app to help me know the best time to wake up. I’ve been using a sleep app for years. It helps me to figure out how long my average sleep cycle(s) will be so that I can wake up outside of my REM sleep and not feel exhausted and groggy when the alarm goes off. Before anything high-pressure or stressful, I’ll also try to go to bed earlier so that I don’t feel like a coffee-craving zombie when I get up.
- Prepare myself with food and water. This may sound basic, but you won’t believe how many times I’ve been too stressed to eat… and hours later I’ll feel awful because my stomach is empty and churning with nerves. Something that has helped me with this is being really intentional about my food throughout the day. Three simple tips? Protein smoothies are simple, healthy, and not too much of a hassle. Little snacks can be tossed anywhere. And water is a must.
- Breathe deeply and focus on what I can control. When I start to feel myself spiral out of control, I pay attention to my body and what I’m physically feeling: Am I breathing heavily? Are my palms sweating? Has my heart rate increased? I’ll talk myself through these things while focusing on what I can control.
Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques, meditations or visualizations to help optimize yourself? If you do, we’d love to hear about it.
I’m not necessarily a yogi or breathing master, but what I’ve found that helps me is to pair slow, intentional breathing with visualization. I will try to breathe until my heartbeat resets, all the while picturing things that make me feel grounded, empowered, happy, and confident. This really helps not only my mental state, but it combats the physical symptoms of anxiety, too.
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?
When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I’ll get up and walk. I’ll take the dog. I’ll take headphones. And sometimes I’ll take nothing but my shoes. The physical change of both the movement and scenery can help to reset me. I will also speak affirmations and manifestations in my head as I walk, “I’m okay.” “I’ve got this.” “I am strong.” etc.
We all know the importance of good habits. How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
One of my biggest (albeit strangest, I’ll admit) habits is waking up super early each morning. During the week I’ll typically get up somewhere between 2–3AM. Yes, I sound crazy, but I do this intentionally because it’s time that I can have for myself, my writing, and my sanity.
As a bonus mom, I’m currently the primary caregiver of my boyfriend’s son during the day. I’m also homeschooling. This doesn’t always give me time to really spend on my business or personal goals. Having the early morning to myself helps me to feel confident heading into the day, rather than stressed.
What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?
Honestly, I think to develop a good habit you have to really push yourself. We like to think that things in life come easy or that our prayers are simply answered when we “deserve” them, but life doesn’t work that way. Anything you want, you’ll have to work hard for. And the sooner you recognize that, the easier life will be.
If you want to start a good habit, hold yourself accountable somehow. Write it down on your calendar. Schedule it into your daily routine. Carve space in your planner. Create a “rewards” system so that you can feel good about your progress. Do the same with the bad habits by bringing attention and awareness when you fall victim to them.
But most importantly, give yourself grace.
As a business leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?
Lean into what you love. Stop worrying about what others think, about what you might be missing, about ways you may potentially fail — and instead, lean in. We spend so much of our lives trying to chase things others have that sometimes we don’t realize we’re chasing everything but our own true desires!
As you navigate what you care about and what makes you feel alive, don’t be afraid to actively move in that direction. When you’re in alignment, everything feels natural. And that alignment is what you should pursue — not money, not security, not longevity, not even stability — but instead, what sets your soul on fire.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
This may sound ambitious, but in my opinion, part of manifesting change is by believing in the power of your voice. I have always believed that each and every one of us has something powerful and unique to offer the world. That’s why I founded my business, Be A Light Collective, in the first place. Not only did I want to empower people to use their voices (creatively, professionally, academically, and even personally) but I also wanted to create a space where ALL people could be seen, heard, and valued for who they are… while, of course, getting high-quality, relationship-focused educational services. ☺
My vision with Be A Light Collective is to spread light; to encourage, equip and empower creatives; and to hold space for people to learn, collaborate, and grow — together.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
So many people have inspired me, but if I could meet someone in person, I would say definitely Jodi Picoult for her incredible writing, Jordan Lee Dooley for her heart and inspiration, and Rachel Cargle for her fiercely unapologetic voice.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can find me in so many places! Here’s my website and my business website. I’m also active on my verticals that support motherhood/parenting journeys: Momish Moments and Step By Step Parents. Professionally, you can connect with me on LinkedIn, and socially you can find me: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | TikTok
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.
Thank you for the opportunity! This is such a powerful series to really support people in a time where we need it the most.