Mary Potter Kenyon: “There is no “rest” in reinvention”

There is no “rest” reinvention. We can’t just sit back and wait for good things to happen. We have to work hard toward life goals. As an author, I discovered the work just begins when a book is published. Books don’t just magically sell themselves. I’m not a salesperson, but if I want my books […]

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There is no “rest” reinvention. We can’t just sit back and wait for good things to happen. We have to work hard toward life goals. As an author, I discovered the work just begins when a book is published. Books don’t just magically sell themselves. I’m not a salesperson, but if I want my books to be in the hands of readers, I have to keep them in front of an audience; through articles I write, podcast and radio interviews, or workshops and programs. As a public speaker, I need to remain relevant, tweaking my speeches and programs to fit a variety of audiences. I have two jobs, and both feed my family and my soul.

Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50’s.

How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?

In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Potter Kenyon.

Mary Potter Kenyon graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a BA in Psychology. She is a certified grief counselor, Therapeutic Art Coach, and Program Coordinator at the Shalom Spirituality Center in Dubuque, Iowa. Mary is the author of seven books, including the recently released “Called to Be Creative: A Guide to Reigniting Your Creativity.”

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?

I was the seventh of ten children. My parents kept a small homestead, striving to live off the land as much as possible, with chickens for eggs and meat, small livestock, large gardens, and a lot of hard work. Despite their inability to escape poverty, my parents valued education, reading, and creativity. Library cards were a rite of passage in our family. Weekly visits to the library meant books spilled from end tables and were stacked high next to our beds. I was among the first group of children to attend the 1965 federally funded Head Start, a free comprehensive preschool program designed to break the cycle of poverty. It could be suggested I represent a Head Start success story since I graduated from college and eventually obtained gainful employment, but I suspect it had more to do with the following year I spent at home, skipping Kindergarten altogether. I learned to read and write before I attended first grade.

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

“Every day God invites us on the same kind of adventure. It’s not a trip where He sends us a rigid itinerary, He simply invites us. God asks what it is He’s made us to love, what it is that captures our attention, what feeds that deep indescribably need of our souls to experience the richness of the world He made. And then, leaning over us, He whispers, ‘Let’s go do that together.’” -Bob Goff

I truly believe we are each designed for a purpose, that when we discover what it is we were designed to do, we’ll find fulfillment. I know I am happiest when I’m writing. I managed to work writing into my daily life even during the years I parented young children. I waited forty years to return to the roots of elocution I enjoyed as a drama student in high school. I never feel more alive than when I am speaking before a crowd.

You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

  1. Determination. I am determined to succeed at those things I feel most passionate about. In 2011, attempting to sell a book I believed in, I stubbornly sent out over 100 queries to agents and publishers. Although I set the manuscript aside for a time, I didn’t give up completely. Despite all odds, I was persistent in my pursuit of publication. I sold it a few years later.
  2. Drive. I am driven. Much of that drive derived from financial need during the years we were raising a large family on mostly one salary, as my freelance writing brought in a modest income. There also remains a part of me, the “poor girl” who was bullied in grade school, that strives to prove I have value.
  3. Faith. I attribute much of my success to God and my faith. Jeremiah 29:11 became my life verse after the death of my husband. God’s plans “to give hope and a future” took on new meaning in the face of loss. When David died, I’d been his wife so long, I wasn’t sure who I was outside of that role. To imagine that there might be some cosmic plan and purpose in the pain was comforting. God led me to certain people and encounters no longer seemed random, but part of a plan. I began to recognize God working in my life.
    Just ten years ago, I didn’t have the friends and mentors I have now, couldn’t imagine signing six book contracts in seven years or working at a dream job as a program coordinator for a spirituality center. My life has been transformed in ways I could not have orchestrated myself. I don’t know where I would be without that faith and the discernment process of letting the Spirit lead in my life.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?

I graduated with a BA in Psychology in 1985. I abandoned the pursuit of a master’s degree in Family Services after giving birth to my fourth child in 1988. I went on to have four more children and began homeschooling in 1992. For twenty-five years I was a stay-at-home mom who wrote essays and articles and picked up occasional part-time work opposite my husband’s hours, writing for newspapers or working at a library or consignment store.

And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?

Intent on getting a book published, I got serious about the writing I’d been doing for more than twenty-five years. I went from being a stay-at-home mom to working outside the home. I also stepped far outside my comfort zone when I began teaching classes, doing workshops, and public speaking, only to discover I loved doing those things.

Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?

My big plunge wasn’t by choice, but necessity. When my husband died following heart stent surgery in March 2012, his modest life insurance policy covered his funeral expenses and a newer vehicle, with enough left over to keep us afloat another year, along with Social Security benefits for the youngest children still at home. I’d never worked full-time outside of the home, and suddenly, I had to. That extra year was a huge gift, allowing me time to figure out who I was outside of wife and mother.

What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?

My transformation began shortly before David died. I’d started doing some freelance work for the local newspaper. Naturally shy, I was nervous about interviewing strangers. I got around that by pretending I was my mother, a woman who’d never met a stranger. Mom would come home from bus or airplane trips with names and addresses of people she’d met. My husband was like that too, but it didn’t come naturally to me. I basically had to fake an outgoing, extrovert persona when I was actually an introvert. I soon discovered I had a knack for uncovering the stories behind the assignment. It wasn’t long before I realized everyone had a story and I began looking forward to interviews.

I’d also begun doing workshops on topics I was interested in, writing and couponing. I hadn’t done any public speaking since high school drama and speech. In fact, as an isolated mom at home, until 2011, I barely spoke to anyone outside of the butcher at the grocery store and the mailman. I discovered it was painless to talk about my passions of writing and couponing. Knowing how much David had enjoyed seeing me do those activities, it was a given I’d continue honing those skills after he died. During the first fifteen months after my husband’s death, I conducted coupon workshops all over Iowa, traveling to libraries and community colleges with my youngest daughter in tow. One month, I did as many as fifteen workshops.

How are things going with this new initiative? We would love to hear some specific examples or stories.

I’ve continued doing workshops, both as part of my job as a program coordinator and as a writer and public speaker. I’ve developed workshops around the topics of each of my books: couponing, caregiving, expressive writing, letter-writing, grief, and creativity. In fact, I’ve done a workshop that teaches other writers how to develop programming around the topics they write about. My favorite workshop to do is the “Legacy of the Magic Pencil,” designed to encourage and inspire others to develop and reignite their own inherent creativity. I even pass out “magic” pencils to attendees.

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?

We all need someone who believes in us, an encourager of sorts. I had that with my husband, and when I lost him, I floundered a bit. There have been other people in my life who encouraged me; my parents, my longtime friend Mary, siblings, my adult children, and the unexpected friendships I’ve formed with other writers, including my mentor Cecil Murphey, a prolific author who has been on the New York Times bestseller list.

But when I think about one person who helped me get to where I am today, I must mention Christopher Robbins, founder and CEO of Familius, a global publishing company. Christopher founded the company in February 2012, a month before my husband died. Eight months later, he took a chance on me and the book I’d completed, one that had been my husband’s idea to write, an ethnographic history on the cultural phenomenon of extreme couponing. I have watched Christopher’s company grow exponentially in the ensuing years and signed five more contracts with them. Because I have been with Familius since that first year, I was able to develop a personal relationship with the founder I wouldn’t have as a new author joining the Familius family now, with their much bigger, and busier, company. In fact, it is one of my life’s goals to meet the man responsible for the books that jumpstarted my public speaking and workshops related to the passions I write about.

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

Early on in what would become my transformation from stay-at-home mom to public speaker and presenter, I experienced a surreal moment that sticks out in my mind. It was the evening of March 26, 2012. I’d just begun doing writing and couponing presentations for community colleges. My weekly couponing column in the larger tri-state area newspaper had appeared several times. David was recuperating from heart stent surgery, so I went alone to speak at a large library. David had come with me to every previous program.

When I got to the podium, the group of people in the audience stood up and clapped. For me, as if I were a celebrity! I couldn’t believe it. I still saw myself as little Mary Potter, the poor girl from small-town Iowa who’d been bullied mercilessly in elementary school. While I’d escaped the bullying in junior high and high school, had graduated from college and had some success in writing, I still saw myself as someone who needed to prove they had value in the world. And while other people; particularly my mother and husband, may have seen something in me, I hadn’t yet seen it in myself. That night, with an audience clapping for me, I had the first inkling that I might have some value as a writer and speaker, never mind as a human being.

I got home late, exhausted. As I walked through the door, David looked up from the recliner he was sleeping in since he’d been released from the hospital. His eyes brightened when he saw the expression on my face. “It went well?” he asked, and I nodded. He beamed with happiness. I’ll never forget that smile. He’d told me the first time I did a workshop that he had never seen me so animated, so happy, and that he loved seeing me that way. That night, I believed him.

I sat on the couch next to David’s chair for a while that evening, holding his hand, but not talking much. The next morning, I realized I hadn’t told him about the clapping. I knew he’d laugh about the incongruity of it all, but also be delighted for me. I couldn’t wait to tell him. It was when I went to wake him up that I realized he was gone. David had died sometime during the night.

Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?

It speaks highly of my parents that until I went to school, I had no clue I was poor. I never doubted I was loved. My home was a haven from the cruel world I experienced as a student in our small-town parochial elementary school. The bullying was brutal. I was shoved, called names, ostracized, and even spit on in the hallways. I don’t think you can be informed daily by your peers that you are worthless as a human being and not be affected, no matter what the adults in your life say to the contrary. I escaped the bullying in junior high. Some of my siblings did not, and I can only imagine the scars they carry.

While there is no question that school experience made me more sensitive to the plights of others and gifted me with an empathy I might not have otherwise, I have no doubt it also contributed to a low self-esteem that carried into adulthood. I excelled scholastically in junior high and high school, maybe in part to prove I was not the worthless wretch I’d been told I was. I joined clubs, participated in drama and speech, and formed many treasured friendships. In comparison to my family of origin I felt rich, though I didn’t exactly escape the cycle of poverty as an adult. My husband and I struggled to raise a large family on a modest income. Still, rarely did my financial status cause me to feel ‘less than,’ largely because my husband and I agreed that there were much more important things than owning material items and because I had someone who thought the world of me.

I suspect my life experiences taught me to skills I wouldn’t have otherwise. I got quite adept at unearthing bargains and reigned as a local Coupon Queen for years. Just as I’d pretend I was my mother when I began doing newspaper interviews, my high school drama training kicked in when I began conducting classes and workshops. Up on stage or standing in front of a crowd, I could pretend I was someone else. Thanks to strategic thrift store shopping, I could also dress the part of a public speaker. These experiences did wonders for my self-esteem.

Still, occasionally I’ve felt like a fraud. I’ve encountered a former grade school classmate in public only to consciously stop myself from hunching my shoulders and looking down at the floor (which was how I navigated the hallways for six years). Compliments on my clothing have caused me to blurt out that most of my wardrobe consists of thrift store finds. A person will approach me hesitantly after one of my speeches, as if I’m more important than them because I’ve had a book published. I nearly laugh. I want to say, “Hey, I’m just little Mary Potter, the poor girl.” Because inside, I am.

I think most of us suffer from imposter syndrome at some point in our lives, not just those who experienced bullying or trauma. It’s human nature. I’ve observed it especially in other authors. That’s another reason my faith is so important to me. I truly believe we were each created for a purpose, and it’s just a matter of discovering what that is. Once we do, that’s where true happiness lies. It’s never too late. I’m proof of that.

In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?

I did turn to my adult children for advice and support after their dad died, but they had their own grief to deal with. My oldest daughter was also caring for her son, my grandson, who was going through cancer treatment. My sisters were there for me initially, but they had busy lives to get back to. I formed a widow/widower support group but everyone in it was much older than me. I started a Bible study at my church that morphed into a core group of good friends who met at my home a couple of times a month. That group felt like family. I also formed a Lifelong Learners creativity group.

In 2018 I moved for a new job, leaving all of those support systems behind. That has not been comfortable. The isolation of the pandemic heightened my loneliness. I do find some support from attendees at programs I conduct in relation to my book promotions as well as groups and programs through my workplace and in the grief retreat and writer’s conference I’ve founded, as well as in mentor and friendship relationships I’ve established.

Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?

I’ve gone so far out of my comfort zone in the last ten years, I barely recognize my former self. I hadn’t seen myself as an organizer or leader and yet I’ve established several groups and events. I certainly never imagined becoming a public speaker. While doing research on creativity for my most recent book, I decided to apply some of the research findings to my own life. I was surprised to discover how much fun it was to try new things once I allowed failure as an option. When I interviewed a mixed media artist, I was intrigued by the idea of creating my own piece that would incorporate memorabilia I’d collected. I liked the idea of including some of my mother’s belongings into a mixed media piece, things that were hidden from sight in a box or drawer. I was initially fearful. What if I ruined the treasured items? What if the final project was not pleasing to the eye and looked awful?

Then it dawned on me that is exactly what I ask of my book’s readers; to face their fears, try new things, allow failure, and have fun. It turned out to be a meditative, contemplative practice, a form of prayer as I moved pieces around on a painted canvas, thinking about my mother. I loved the final piece so much I created another one in honor of my husband. They hang on my wall and I smile every time I look at them.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. 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. Change isn’t comfortable. There’s a reason we call it the “comfort zone.” It’s comfortable. It’s a risk to try new things, but a risk worth taking. We need to think outside of the box. I love the kind of creative energy that happens in brainstorming or mind-mapping sessions, when even the most far-out idea has merit. When the pandemic hit last year and I had to figure out how to pivot programming online, I’d never done a Zoom program before. Now, I serve as Zoom Master at my workplace, but there was certainly a learning curve getting there.
  2. Learning doesn’t stop when you graduate from school. I used to think that there was some magical point when a writer became a ‘real writer,’ when they had ‘arrived.’ I didn’t realize that I would continue learning all of my life, that there is always more to learn. I’ve subscribed to writer’s magazines since the late 80’s. I’m a voracious reader and avid researcher. I’ve discovered what a joy it is for me to be in a room full of people interested in the same thing. I’ve begun several groups, forming tribes around my interests; a monthly creativity group, a writer’s group, and a Bible study. I get creative energy from hanging around other creatives and we all learn from each other.
  3. There is no “rest” reinvention. We can’t just sit back and wait for good things to happen. We have to work hard toward life goals. As an author, I discovered the work just begins when a book is published. Books don’t just magically sell themselves. I’m not a salesperson, but if I want my books to be in the hands of readers, I have to keep them in front of an audience; through articles I write, podcast and radio interviews, or workshops and programs. As a public speaker, I need to remain relevant, tweaking my speeches and programs to fit a variety of audiences. I have two jobs, and both feed my family and my soul.
  4. But there is “rest” in restoration. Being the sole wage earner and working two jobs can be stressful and exhausting. When I find myself hurrying through life, envying someone’s leisure time, that’s a clue I need more rest in my life. Leisure time has gotten a bad rap in our fast-paced society. Most of us don’t think we have time for leisure. Leisure is for later, for the rich, or the lazy. Yet, etymologically, the word leisure comes from the Latin word licere, meaning to “be permitted” or to “be free.” We need to give ourselves permission to relax and enjoy life, to “just be.”
    -I don’t have a lot of regrets in my life, but one I do have is that I missed out on precious moments with my husband because of my misguided attempt to utilize every minute getting things done. He’d pat the couch next to him and ask if I wanted to watch television, or he’d ask me to lay down next to him for a nap. I nearly always said the same thing: “I can’t. I’m too busy.” He once lamented “Why do you always have to be doing something?”
    -Why, indeed? I can’t get those missed moments back. I continue to struggle with this. I recently read these words: Chronos is time governed by the clock. Kairos is measured by events or special moments. I want more Kairos time.
  5. See the value in others. Because my husband saw something in me long before I saw it in myself, I look for potential in everyone I meet. I strive to be an encourager when I see a spark in someone. During a Wednesday evening weekly meeting, a woman in her eighties mentioned how she’d begun doing paint-by-number kits during the pandemic. She’d never painted in her life, but someone had given her a kit to keep her occupied during isolation. She enjoyed it so much, she wanted to do more. Each week before our meeting, she’d hold up her latest painting with pride and excitement. Once, she missed our meeting entirely because she’d been so caught up in painting. One night, it seemed the light had gone out of her eyes. “It’s just paint-by-number,” she replied when someone asked what she was working on. I knew then — someone had made her feel “less than” with a thoughtless comment. I turned my camera off so no one would see me cry and immediately went on Amazon to order a kit to be delivered directly to her. I sent her a card of encouragement, telling her how beautiful her paintings were and reminding her of the joy they brought her and others. At the next meeting the light was back in her eyes. She thanked me and asked if I could stop at her building’s front desk the next day. I thought maybe there would be a thank-you note at the desk. Instead, the completed sunflower painting was waiting for me, her tiny initials in the lower corner of the canvas. I was thrilled. So was she when she saw the painting prominently displayed behind my camera the next week. To think that one person’s words can stop us from doing things we enjoy. Let us never forget our words matter.

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?

We’ve collectively endured a year of isolation and lack of human connections. I miss hugs. Pre-pandemic, I watched a video of someone on a corner in a busy city giving out free hugs. It brought tears to my eyes then. If I watched it now, after months of isolation, I’m sure I’d be sobbing.

When we can safely hug strangers again, I’d love to jumpstart the hug movement again. When we were forced into lockdown last March, I happened to live with the only one of my eight children who refused hugs. When our programs at my workplace were in person, I’d get an occasional hug. You can bet the lack of human touch was hard on me. At least I could still meet my adult children outside and get a quick Covid-version hug. I can’t imagine what it was like for the elderly in nursing homes.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂

Singer Danny Gokey, whose American Idol audition occurred only four weeks after his wife’s death in July 2008. I already loved his heart and music, but when I heard his “Masterpiece,” I was blown away. If books had a theme song, that would be the theme song for my Called to Be Creative book. We all have it in us to be creative, but the real masterpiece is the life we live, not a piece of art hanging on a wall.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Mary Potter Kenyon | Facebook

Mary Potter Kenyon Instagram

Mary Potter Kenyon | LinkedIn

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

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