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Maria Leonard Olsen: “Determine what you can and cannot change”

Let go. Determine what you can and cannot change. If you cannot change something, why waste your limited time worrying about it? The more I recognize that my time on earth is of uncertain duration, the easier it is for me to let go of things that are out of my control. I used to […]

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Let go. Determine what you can and cannot change. If you cannot change something, why waste your limited time worrying about it? The more I recognize that my time on earth is of uncertain duration, the easier it is for me to let go of things that are out of my control. I used to endlessly fret about my adult children, for example. But when I finally let go and let them make their own mistakes without my interference, our relationships improved.


As a part of my series about the things we can do to develop serenity and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Maria Leonard Olsen.

Maria Leonard Olsen is an attorney and author who practices law in the Washington, D.C. area. She graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law and worked at one of the D.C.’s largest law firms prior to her appointment as Special Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General at the U.S. Justice Department. Maria’s latest book, which has helped hundreds of people to reinvigorate their lives, is 50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life. See www.MariaLeonardOlsen.com for more information.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I have two careers at the moment. I make my living as an attorney, but my passion is helping people via my writing and public speaking. I became a published writer when I was home raising my children. I wrote about things I was trying to process, like why people frequently mistook me as the nanny of my lighter-skinned children. I find writing to be therapeutic. It leads me to deeper thinking and allows me to share solutions with others who may be experiencing similar challenges in life.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I wrote a book about finding happiness in midlife, 50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life. In the book, I describe what I learned during my 50th year, in which I tried 50 new things to reinvigorate my life, after having lost my marriage of 25 years, getting sober and living alone for the first time. What blew me away is how much of a nerve I touched in readers. At almost every book event, people would approach me in tears, telling me how I had helped them in some way with writings and speaking. My book revealed trauma I had overcome, including sexual assault and abuse, which people do not often talk about in public. Much of my work now is dedicated to developing serenity and helping others find peace in themselves.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

Lawyer burnout is common, so self-care is especially important in my field. I would start with boundary-setting and giving one’s self-time to disconnect daily from the stress of working life. Exercise and meditation have been supremely helpful to me in avoiding burnout. Meditation need not be lengthy. It can be as simple as a walk-in nature or taking deep breaths while stuck in traffic.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

When people feel cared about, they perform better. Make an effort to get to know your employees and colleagues. Ask them about their lives. Ask for their opinions. Make them feel valued.

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?

Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl, had a major impact on my life. A concentration camp survivor, Dr. Frankl emphasized that everything can be taken from you except your attitude in any situation. I use that message to keep my focus on the good in my life. I can choose to look at things through a dark lens or a light lens. That which we focus on grows bigger in our lives. We can change the neurons in our brain by constantly feeding it positive messages. I have done that.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Many people have become anxious just from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.

  1. Let go. Determine what you can and cannot change. If you cannot change something, why waste your limited time worrying about it? The more I recognize that my time on earth is of uncertain duration, the easier it is for me to let go of things that are out of my control. I used to endlessly fret about my adult children, for example. But when I finally let go and let them make their own mistakes without my interference, our relationships improved.
  2. Develop an attitude of gratitude. We all have something for which to be thankful. Most of us can see, hear, taste, touch, read and experience. We have access to clean water and medical care. We have the capacity to care and love. We tend to take much for granted until it is gone. I volunteered in a school in a remote village that lacked electricity and running water. I no longer take such things for granted in my life!
  3. Help another person. It is easy to get caught up in our own heads. If we get outside of ourselves, especially to help someone who is suffering, we usually better about ourselves. Call someone who may be lonely. Just calling a neighbor who lives alone to see if she needed anything made her feel cared for and not so alone in this pandemic. And I felt good about doing a kind deed.
  4. Try journaling. Sometimes, getting things out of our heads and onto paper can help us process our thoughts. Re-reading what we have written, especially after time has passed, can help develop a healthier perspective. We can see better the effect of our thoughts and actions. When I look back at old journals, I appreciate how far I have come in my personal development.
  5. Repeat positive affirmations. There are free YouTube videos of affirmations if you need ideas. Even repeating “I am ok” in your mind can reinforce that message and strengthen your neural pathways toward a feeling of wellness. I thought affirmations were silly when I first learned about them. But after repeating affirmations for 30 days, I started to believe them. You can act your way into a new way of thinking.

From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

  1. Just listen. Many people take great comfort in simply being heard and cared for by another person. Being fully present for another person can be a great gift. And when fears are verbalized, it can reduce the power of the fear.
  2. Share anxiety-reducing steps that have worked for you. Feeling the ground beneath your feet can sometimes help someone feel more grounded and present. Use your senses to center yourself and help another get centered. Ask the other person what they see, feel, hear, taste and smell. The distraction also can help reduce anxiety.
  3. Help the other person find a cause or volunteer opportunity so they can feel useful and good about themselves. Ask questions to help them investigate their interests and provide volunteer resources or suggestions.
  4. Ask them to attend a group meditation with you, like those offered online by the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, D.C. Meditation has been proven to lower anxiety and blood pressure.
  5. Invite them to take a walk with you. Being in nature can be soothing. And exercise can lower anxiety. Being present in nature allows me to increase my gratitude for the riches of creation around me and encourages me to take deeper cleansing breaths, which makes me more present. I savor my time outdoors.

What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?

Go online and listen to guided meditations. Put soothing, meditative music on in the background when you work. Use the free, online exercise offerings on YouTube. Practice deep breathing to re-center yourself. Seek professional therapy and medication, if advised. Consider support groups. Share your worries with a friend or family member. Put your troubling thoughts in a “Worry Box,” so that you can let go of them. Look at what you wrote down after a few weeks and notice how much of what you worried about did not come to fruition.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” said Eleanor Roosevelt. It took me a long time to learn that lesson. I was giving too much of my power away and was a chronic “people pleaser.” When I recognized that I could not make everyone like me, it took so much pressure off. I learned to allow others to just be and leaned into relaxation, which likely made me more likable!

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Strive to make the world better because you were here. Whatever your gifts are, share them with the world. If you have resources to spare, give them to someone else who is suffering. We all can spread love and kindness.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online? My website is www.MariaLeonardOlsen.com. I also am active on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at @FiftyAfter50. Thanks!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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