Larissa Malcolm of ‘Flourishing Focus’: “Beware of the shiny object”

Beware of the shiny object. It’s expensive. There are more expenses than I guessed. Starting on a broken shoestring budget, all the little things add up fast. I never heard of shiny object syndrome before and have learned the hard way. I wish I started with a budget and a list of needs, wants, and […]

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Beware of the shiny object. It’s expensive. There are more expenses than I guessed. Starting on a broken shoestring budget, all the little things add up fast. I never heard of shiny object syndrome before and have learned the hard way. I wish I started with a budget and a list of needs, wants, and things you can save for later or never get. I started without a basic knowledge of business finance. And no real plan other than a big idea. Being more thoughtful about expenses and learning basic business finance concepts earlier would have made this easier. Eventually someone told me about “shiny object syndrome”, unfortunately that was after I ordered frivolous products I might never need or use.

The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.

As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Larissa Malcolm.

Larissa Malcolm is a mental health therapist, trainer, and self-proclaimed Covid-19 Warrior. In July 2020, she founded Flourishing Focus a private practice offering telehealth therapy in the State of Ohio and virtual training about Covid-19 and mental health along with shorter training for employers and the public on topics related to mental health, staying safe, and flourishing in life. Larissa’s mission is to advocate for accessible, affordable mental health care and reduce the stigma of seeking help when life is out-of-control.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Thank you so much for including my story in “The Power of Flexibility” series. This year has been a major pivot for me, and I am excited to share the opportunities.

I grew up on the near west side of Cleveland Ohio and if you know much about Cleveland, that tells you I grew up in poverty. My mother worked as a cashier at The Peanut Shoppe in the Terminal Tower, which is now Tower City. Later, she worked as a cashier at McDonalds. We walked everywhere because we didn’t have a car. We didn’t have much money for things I wanted, but I had the blessing of being exposed to diversity. My neighborhood was filled with families from many backgrounds and cultures. I grew up with a variety of food, language, and customs outside my doorstep. Maya Angelou said, “in diversity, there is beauty and there is strength” and I couldn’t agree more. We didn’t have much money but somehow my mother took me to the theater, museums and festivals. Cleveland is home to a vibrant arts community, one of the best theater districts in the United States, and world-class museums. One of my favorite memories is getting dressed up to watch “Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?”. That was in an era when wearing fancy clothes was part of the theater experience. I still love theater, museums and festivals. Along with lots of love, my mom also made sure I had lots of books. I read all the Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, and Little Golden Books. I even read encyclopedias. She instilled a love of reading, I stayed up every night reading under the covers. My mother was creative, and she made awesome experiences for me out of nothing. One year, we had a carnival in our yard to raise money for the Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Association drive. She designed ingenious Halloween costumes — I was a jelly donut in First Grade.

As a youngster, I spent a lot of time “junkin” with my Uncle Leo, who wasn’t really an uncle but a long-time family friend. We drove around and picked treasures from the trash on people’s tree lawns. I loved that. We would sing loudly while searching for useful items. My grandfather was in a wheelchair and my grandmother pushed his chair everywhere, up the stairs and down ramps. They taught me the beauty of perseverance. When I was eight years old, my mother met my stepfather, Filiberto. He was a refugee from Cuba and came to the United States in the Mariel boatlift. He woke up every morning and rode his red bicycle around searching for discarded aluminum cans. He brought the cans home, crushed them, and turned them in at a recycling center for money. By this time, I was embarrassed about “junkin” and when anyone asked me where my stepfather worked, I told them he worked for Alcoa. It wasn’t a complete lie because he was paid for the aluminum cans he turned in. Even though he didn’t have an actual job with a paycheck he had a strong work ethic which showed when he got up rain, sleet, or snow to ride his bicycle around looking for cans. When I was twelve years old my little brother, Davis, was born. He’s an adult now and served in Iraq in the Marines, but I still call him my baby brother. I was an only child before he came along. I took him everywhere with me and people thought I was a teen mom pushing his stroller or with him following behind me.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have two quotes to share. The first is: “I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.” It’s the name of an old Gospel song and the title of a book of essays by Maya Angelou. It resonates for me because I have been through a lot, from growing up poor and going ‘junkin’ to being around people of different backgrounds, to laying on the couch this year believing I was dying from Covid-19. Every bit of my journey has prepared me for this moment. I can relate to people from different backgrounds and understand their struggles and pain points. I can code switch. Even though I have two master’s degrees from Case Western Reserve University, I am still the little girl who had to wear “welfare glasses”. The diversity I was blessed to experience in my youth gave me a perspective on the world that helps me connect with people from all walks of life.

The second is an Old Testament Bible verse: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8 (NIV) I strive to be follow this commandment. Struggle, fall down, get back up, and dust off and try again. It matters to me. If we follow this rule — even if we are not religious, then our lives are honorable. This verse from Micah is my motto, even though I am not very religious.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Give & Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by Adam Grant. I read this book when it came out in 2014 and have thought about it a lot this year. I strive to be a giver and have been hesitant to accept help from others. I wouldn’t have been able to start my business without the help I have received this year. I have helped others, too. And it’s not matching, it is genuine. The help I have received has been beyond my wildest dreams. In the book, Adam Grant demonstrates how helping others boosts our own success.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is another book that has impacted me. The message about pursuing your goals and living your dream speaks to my soul.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?

The summer after graduating from high school, I got a Summer Youth Employment Training Program job. It was a program for students who came from low-income homes to get work experience. I was working at a movie theater at the time, but I dressed up for the interview. Everyone else in the high school basement had on tank tops, shorts, and flip-flops but I wore a business suit. The position the advisor was going to put me was as making copies in one of the public housing authority estates. I wasn’t interested in that job since I was already working at the movie theater, so I decided to leave. Another advisor called me over and explained that she had a position available in the housing authority’s executive office and I looked like I could handle that job. I accepted the job working with the Chief Executive Officer. I didn’t really know what that meant, so I headed over to the office and told the receptionist I was there to meet with the CEO. She asked if I had an appointment and I told her I was there to introduce myself to my boss and showed her the paper from the summer job program. She looked at me like I was nuts but called the secretary. My job was fascinating. I answered the phones which meant from call to call anyone could be on the line. One call could be a resident thinking the CIA was sending messages to their brain and they were covering their windows with foil and the next call could be Congressman Louis Stokes. I learned how to be effective with anything that might come my way. I also read and routed mail to the right department. One key lesson from my time there was to be kind to everyone. Some people treated me like I was unimportant since I was just a summer youth worker, but I had the CEO’s ear.

My first experience that didn’t include diversity was when I went to college. I attended a small, liberal arts school in Columbus, Ohio. That was the first time I felt different and I thought I had to wear a mask and pretend I was middle class like everyone else. It was a real eye opener. I majored in nursing, which wasn’t a great fit for me since I am not fond of blood and other bodily fluids. One thing I learned was that when kids from poverty go to college, they treat it like a job training program and that’s exactly what I did. I thought nurses make a lot of money, so I was going to do that work. Since it wasn’t a good fit, I came back home and one night, while reading the college bulletin, I decided social work would be a better choice. My mother was very upset because she had a negative image of social workers and she thought nursing was a more honorable career.

I worked for Catholic Charities for many years. Starting as a social worker and eventually as a program director for the System of Care program. We helped families who have children with behavior challenges stay together and thrive using a wraparound philosophy. That means we connected the family’s strengths with their needs in order to create plans the family could continue to use after the social worker is gone. I loved that work and had an amazing supervisor, Maureen Dee. In my job, I managed the program deliverables and contractual obligations, completed mental health assessments with youth referred to the program, and basically did everything to keep the program running. When Maureen started planning for retirement, I started looking for another job because I didn’t see any potential for career development beyond the program director position. When she became my supervisor, Maureen encouraged me to go back to school for a master’s degree and I ended up getting two of them. One in Social Science Administration and the other in Positive Organization Development & Change, both from Case Western Reserve University.

After leaving Catholic Charities, I briefly worked in the Cuyhaoga County jail with inmates who were diagnosed with substance use disorders. There was a lot going on in the jail at that time. It was during the time that the podcast, Serial, was being recorded in the jail. I didn’t have my own place to sit and the program I was supposed to be part of never got off the ground. Now, many of the key players from the jail have been indicted for their activities. I enjoyed working with the inmates but the things that were going on were not a good fit for me.

I ended up working for a private agency in a long-term care facility providing therapy to the residents there. I loved the residents and helping them sort through their emotions and experiences of loss of independence and ability to do things for themselves. I learned a lot from them. The pandemic put a damper on that because I caught Covid-19 there.

What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?

In May 2020, I came down with Covid-19 while working as a therapist in the long-term care facility. Many people who catch Covid-19 don’t know how they got infected, but I know exactly how I did. A resident of the facility, who was one of my clients, was hospitalized for it. I started having mild symptoms — a runny nose and general malaise. Then I found out she was hospitalized, and I knew I had it, too. My heart sank down to the bottom of my seat when I heard the news. I lost my sense of smell completely. My fingertips were numb, I was extremely thirsty, my ears were ringing, I had body aches, and a low-grade fever.

I was tested and the day after my positive result, the resident passed away. This created extreme panic. I read articles about healthy people who suddenly died after losing their sense of smell. I laid on the couch and sobbed, my body shook and trembled. One day, I called my brother and asked him to take care of my Beagle, Ace, when I died. He told me I wasn’t going to die, and I said, “but you don’t know that”. It was terrifying. I felt guilty and ashamed, even though I was so careful. I was wearing a mask before masks were suggested. I washed my hands until they were dry and cracking, but I got “it” anyway. I didn’t want anyone to know I had Covid-19 because I was scared people would think I was careless or didn’t practice social distancing and good hygiene. I only let a few close friends in on my “secret.”

In July, I decided I didn’t want to return to the long-term care facility and started looking for a job and nothing appealed to me. I was still feeling extreme, bone-crushing exhaustion, which is one long-haul symptom some Covid-19 survivors experience. The thought of getting a regular job and getting dressed each morning to be on time for work when I was sleeping lots of hours during the day exhausted me even more.

Instead of going back to a regular job, I decided to start Flourishing Focus, an online therapy business and create digital trainings about the mental health impact of Covid-19. I have a mission to help others impacted by this virus. I have been helping other survivors by moderating a Covid-19 Support Group on Facebook and donating plasma to the American Red Cross.

Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?

One morning, I woke up with the idea to start a private therapy practice. Since the pandemic, mental health therapy transitioned swiftly to online platforms. The costs and requirements to open a private practice were greatly reduced. You don’t need a physical space with fire inspections, furniture and all the other things that go along with an office space. That morning, I filed for an LLC, got an EIN number, opened a business bank account and started the process of getting credentialed through insurance companies. I went for it and jumped all in.

About a month later, while still waiting to hear from the insurance companies, I noticed a group had a call for presenters for one-hour Zoom workshops for social workers and counselors to get continuing education units. I hadn’t seen any opportunities for mental health providers to learn about the mental health impact of Covid-19 and it impacted my mental health tremendously. I reached out to the group administrator and she was on board with the idea, so I started looking for opportunities to learn how to create digital trainings.

I developed quite a few training sessions in my previous position as program director for System of Care but never presented anything digitally before. While trying to figure out how to design a digital training, I stumbled on a MasterClass by Amy Porterfield. I almost didn’t attend the class because I have participated in quite a few “MasterClass” sessions and many of them were selling their product but didn’t provide value in the free sessions. This one was different, and I learned a lot. The course was expensive, and I didn’t have the money to afford it. Before contracting Covid-19, I never would have asked for financial assistance, but I figured ‘what do I have to lose’ by asking for help. I want to help others learn about Covid-19 and mental health and I knew the material in the course would help me to achieve my goal of helping others. I sent an email on Friday asking about financial assistance or other payment plan options I might be able to use. The team emailed me back right away and told me that there were a limited number of scholarships and that the scholarships are highly coveted. The application was due on Sunday and it required a two-minute video explaining your need and the course. My brother, Davis, is an actor who self-tapes auditions. He helped me create a video on Saturday and I sent my application on Saturday night. Monday morning, I found out that I was awarded one of the scholarships. Being part of this course has been life-changing. I have met awesome people from around the world and around the corner. I have more confidence to create courses and have been given amazing ideas of ways to expand my efforts and outreach.

How are things going with this new initiative?

Things are just starting to get off the ground. I haven’t started making any money yet, so I am still struggling financially and some days I feel like giving up and “getting a real job”. But I’m only three months into this so I can’t just quit. Things are starting to happen. I’m starting to get noticed and leverage. When I think of giving up, my first thought is all of the people who have helped me and giving up would let them down. I have a lot to learn and luckily, I love learning.

I’m considering a crowdfunding campaign to get some things I need, like a newer computer because the memory on my MacBook exceeds capacity and it crashes when I edit videos. I could use help with paying off some debt I incurred starting up and along with a newer Mac, purchase better video production tools for the trainings. Crowdfunding is something I have considered but haven’t implemented. I feel like I once I get more traction, I won’t need to crowdfund, but I could always pay it forward if I get funded and start generating revenue.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are people all over the world who have helped me in so many ways. I am grateful to all of them. The person that comes to mind first is Christine Mizen. I met her when I started working as a therapist in the long-term care facility. She is the therapist I replaced and she’s one of the few people I trusted to tell when I was diagnosed with Covid-19. She’s been beyond supportive. When I struggled with finding a job vs. venturing into entrepreneurship, she was one of my biggest cheerleaders. When I felt impostor syndrome and anxious, she sent funny pictures and told me she had faith in me. When I am ready to just give up because it all seems too hard, a random text message will come from her reminding me how amazing I am.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

Serendipity is the best word to describe all of this. Being vulnerable and sharing my story has opened up many opportunities. When I need something, it seems to fall in my lap. As part of the Digital Course Academy, I am meeting experts in fields I have no experience in or knowledge of. And I keep entering contests and winning things. Brighter Vision, the website company I use had a month of giveaways and I won tickets to the Therapy Re-imagined conference which was online this year via an app. Winning the tickets was great because it exposed me to others who have created private practices.

Doors are opening and I am so excited to be part of all of this. My mind is blown by the kindness of strangers. One interesting story is when I was recuperating from Covid-19 and getting over the panic attacks, I wrote a vision that I wanted to advocate for affordable, accessible mental health care. I am blessed to have health insurance and was able to access counseling for myself which helped me to put my guilt and shame into perspective. Even though I decided to pursue entrepreneurship as opposed to a job working for someone else, I still receive emails from Indeed. One day, an email came with a contract training position for the Cleveland Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAM). I clicked submit on the application without even sending a cover letter or updating my resume. The program manager contacted me for an interview and as part of the interview, applicants had to present a fifteen-minute training which could be part of a previous training. I created a presentation about Covid-19 and mental health — mostly sharing my own story. When I was finished, the interviewer actually clapped. I got the position which fits perfectly with my mission to educate and advocate for accessible, affordable mental health care. And, as a bonus, there is no non-compete clause, so I can train for NAMI and continue with my efforts in Flourishing Focus.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. Ask for help. People from all over the world are helping me. My cup of gratitude is overflowing. Ankit in India; Eva in Norway; Sarah and Harriet, in England; Marta in Wisconsin; Jessica, who I just met, in Cleveland; and the list goes on and on. So many people are helping me learn new things and put this together. When I feel like giving up, I think of all this help, and keep trudging along. I don’t want to let them down. Their kindness holds me accountable. I never could have imagined all this help — from getting Search Engine Optimization together, to improving my LinkedIn views by 1490%, to videos of tips in Canva created just for me. Before this, I was someone who helped others but rarely asked for help myself. I haven’t even had to ask in most of the cases, I will have a problem and somehow an angel comes from far away to fix it or give me advice.

2. Beware of the shiny object. It’s expensive. There are more expenses than I guessed. Starting on a broken shoestring budget, all the little things add up fast. I never heard of shiny object syndrome before and have learned the hard way. I wish I started with a budget and a list of needs, wants, and things you can save for later or never get. I started without a basic knowledge of business finance. And no real plan other than a big idea. Being more thoughtful about expenses and learning basic business finance concepts earlier would have made this easier. Eventually someone told me about “shiny object syndrome”, unfortunately that was after I ordered frivolous products I might never need or use.

3. Start developing a thick skin. There will be negative comments you couldn’t possibly anticipate. Be ready. I am a highly sensitive person and when people make negative comments, my feelings get hurt. I spent hours creating a guide called “Thanksgiving in Trying Times”. It is full of pictures and quotes about Thanksgiving traditions, gratitude, and ways to be safer this year. I thought it would be a big hit. I put out a few Facebook ads for it and all of the comments were negative. Someone called me a “fearmonger” which was shocking because I thought the guide was great. A friend told me the title wasn’t good, but I didn’t listen because I loved it. Clearly, it didn’t resonate with the public. I am learning to take criticism as a learning experience — what can I learn from these comments? Where is the miss? The old me would curl up in a ball and go to sleep after the negative comments and now I am taking them as opportunities to readjust my message.

4. Patience is a virtue. I tend to be impatient. I want things to happen fast. Maybe some things happen overnight but building a brand, a business, and getting noticed takes time. I had a big idea that my business would take off fast and I would have a lot of clients, be noticed, and generate income quickly. I started in July and I am struggling to get off the ground. That isn’t really a lot of time to see a profit, but I thought it would be faster. I remind myself that nothing good happens overnight. It’s harder than I thought and sometimes I think of just getting a “real job” because it would be easier for me. I also have to be patient with myself when I make mistakes. The best lessons come from mistakes, which can be hard to see in the midst of messing up, wasting money, and taking more time to complete a simple task than anticipated.

5. Be a lifelong learner. Luckily, I love learning. There is so much to learn. I had no idea of the things I didn’t know that I need to know in order to do all the things I want to do. I had to learn a bunch of software programs, business planning, business finance, instructional design, marketing strategies, design concepts, so many things. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. In the same vein, because I am still learning new things, I get frustrated with how long some simple tasks take. For example, formatting a picture might take hours to get right when I thought a task I was working on would be simple and take a few minutes. I didn’t anticipate spending hours trying to figure out some of this stuff out. This goes back to many of the other items in the list. I ask for help, someone creates a quick video and after spending hours, the simple solution took a minute or less.

So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?

I am just as guilty as everyone else being anxious from the news cycle. Especially in May, when I had Covid-19. I convinced myself that my death was imminent because at the time, the news stories focused on health people who died suddenly after contracting Covid-19. I learned a new word the other day, doomscrolling. That is spending time on the internet viewing negative news. It is terrible for our mental health and increases anxiety.

Now that I am working on Flourishing Focus, I spend a lot less time scrolling through tweets, reading negative news articles, and watching the news. I’m too busy to pay as much attention. At first, I was afraid of missing out on important information but now I focus on building my brand, putting the pieces of the business together, creating content, and marketing. When I watch the news, and I have been a ‘news junky’ since childhood, I can feel my pulse quicken.

Playing with my dogs, Ace & Deuce, settles my nerves. They don’t know anything about the news, and they sense when I am stressed. We go for walks down the block to Lake Erie and watch the waves crash or experience the stillness when the lake is calm. It is grounding and reminds me that we are all part of something bigger and the world has been through trying times before.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

The movement I would love to inspire would be to normalize seeking mental health care when you are struggling. My mission is to advocate for affordable, accessible mental health care for everyone who needs it and to encourage people to seek out professional help. There’s stigma attached to needing help for mental wellness. I am willing to share my story of panic, shame and guilt and how counseling, alongside medication and meditation, helped me put things in perspective, feel better about myself, and inspired courage to move forward and build a business. We don’t have to suffer alone. We can create amazing things. Having a mental health diagnosis doesn’t limit what we can achieve. Being vulnerable and admitting when you are suffering is strength, not weakness.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

I would love to have lunch with the Obamas. I listened to Becoming on audiobook and felt like Michelle was a good friend. And now reading Promised Land has reintroduced me to President Obama. In February 2008, my mother and I went to Cleveland Public Hall and listened to a campaign speech together. We were on the fence about his chances but the speech he gave that night sealed the deal for us. He turned around and waved. It seemed like he stopped and waved right at my mother, making eye contact. A picture of him waving at her was in the newspaper the next day and she cherished that photo. I worked hard for Barack Obama to win in 2008, from knocking on doors to becoming a Neighborhood Team Leader in Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood — a very important neighborhood for the election. My team knocked on all the doors and made sure voter turnout was high. Most of the neighborhood’s registered voters participated before November 4th.

On Election Day, businesses and neighborhood residents brought food to our little corner store-front office. It felt like an old-time church celebration — like a potluck after a baptism. I would love to share my experience of knocking on doors. And how the office was huddled around a small black & white television with a rabbit ears antenna covered in aluminum foil from the food donations. The television had such a poor reception that we had to have someone stand in a certain position because when they moved the television reception went completely. We all could have gone home to our color TVs with good reception, but we wanted to be together. How we cheered the results and cried tears of joy with the hope we had for our nation’s future. That memory will last a lifetime. While the Obamas were celebrating in their hotel room, we were cheering and crying and jumping around screaming “WE DID IT!”

How can our readers follow you online?

Facebook: @flourishingfocusllc


Instagram: @flourishingfocus

Twitter: @flourish_focus

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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