In the midst of such uncertainty, such turmoil, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. There are so many questions: When will this all be over? Will it ever be over? When will life get back to normal? What is normal now? When will I get paid again? The thing is, there are no answers to these questions! We can think and analyze all day long, and we’ll be no closer to the answers. That’s partly because what we’re really trying to do is predict the future, which is impossible. Or, we’re longing for the “good old days” of the past that aren’t coming back. What we have is this present moment. All that matters right now is right now. So, take a breath, feel your breath, and let that bring you back to this present moment.
As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shawn Ellis.
Shawn Ellis is a resilience coach and top-rated motivational keynote speaker who has been hired by organizations such as Bridgestone, CMT, Michigan Medicine, Dippin’ Dots, and many more to help their leaders and teams navigate change and cultivate resilience. His “Mastering the Moments to Rise and Thrive” program incorporates lessons from mindfulness, neuroscience, and psychology combined with strategic coaching methodologies to facilitate immediate and lasting shifts in mindset and behavior. He is also the creator of the “Working with What Is” online course that helps participants find peace, purpose, and passion in the midst of uncertainty and change.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Shawn! 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’m glad to be here! I was exposed to motivational speakers at a young age, as my dad regularly listened to tape sets from some of the greats like Zig Ziglar, Tony Robbins, and Brian Tracy. I didn’t take great interest, though, as my sights were on pursuing a career in the music business. But, as fate would have it, while I was in college in Nashville, I had to take a course in human resources management and I chose to write a paper about “Motivating Your Workforce to Perform.” That’s when I fell in love with helping people at the intersection of life and work. I didn’t immediately know what that career path would look like — I considered options ranging from ministry to management consulting — but I knew that somehow, that’s what I wanted to do.
After college, I was hired by a speakers bureau — essentially, a booking agency for speakers — to build out their corporate division and interestingly, that led me to work with some of those same speakers my dad had listened to, and some of the same thought leaders I had cited in that paper in college.
I’m so grateful for that experience, and at the same time, I always knew there was something more — there was just this fire inside me to move from backstage to on-stage… even though that was a really scary thought for a shy introvert. Finally, after more than a decade of working behind the scenes with all these great speakers, a phrase came to me, “This Moment Matters,” and it wouldn’t let go. When life is really difficult — like it is right now for many of us — the only way to endure it is one moment at a time. And that’s also the only way to rise above the challenge — one moment at a time. So, I say that’s when I became a “momentologist,” learning as much as I could about how to be more present and more engaged for more of the moments. That took me into mindfulness, neuroscience, psychology, and even ancient spiritual practices, and seeing how it transformed my own life, I knew that’s the message I had to share with others.
So, that’s where my own speaking and coaching practice began. My move to Nashville didn’t turn out exactly the way I thought it would, but if you ask me, life is always leading you to exactly where you’re supposed to be.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Wow, there have been so many interesting experiences — talking business backstage with Magic Johnson, teaching Art Linkletter how to get on the Internet — but the ones that always stick with me are those that involve “random” moments that seem to be divinely orchestrated. I’m sure you’ve had some of those? One that comes to mind — which still provides me comfort in times of crisis — happened a few years ago when I was recently divorced, facing a financial crisis that started as a result of the Great Recession. I specifically remember standing in the kitchen of the two-bedroom apartment where I was living with my son, saying to myself, “I shouldn’t be here.” As in, “I played by the rules. I did what they tell you to do to succeed in life… this isn’t the way it’s supposed to go!”
Now, of course, that’s just a thought. We all know that no one is immune to difficulty or crisis. And the truth is, I made all the choices that led me to that particular spot, but still… it was just that feeling that “I shouldn’t be here.”
I picked myself up and carried on, but not long after having that thought, I was invited to speak at a Nashville area Chamber of Commerce. It was a small breakfast meeting, so no big deal in the grand scheme of things, but my speaking business hadn’t really taken off yet, so I was especially excited and grateful for the opportunity. Where the story gets interesting is when I learned where the meeting was being held.
Before I get to that, you need to know that my journey to Nashville traces back to a country band called Sawyer Brown. I first saw this band when I was nine years old, sitting in front of the TV with my younger brother watching PBS. I don’t remember if we were watching Sesame Street or Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood or my personal favorite, 3–2–1 Contact, but what I do remember is that a promo for the next episode of Austin City Limits came on — and Sawyer Brown was one of the featured acts. My parents heard one of the songs from across the room and said, “Oh, that’s that song we’ve been hearing on the radio! We need to watch!”
So, we watched Sawyer Brown on Austin City Limits and, if you’ve never seen them, they’re just a lot of fun on stage. We enjoyed the performance so much that my parents took us to see Sawyer Brown in concert a few months later. It was at that concert that I was captivated by the keyboard player, Hobie, and decided I wanted to learn to play piano. So, that’s where my love for music began, and as we kept going to Sawyer Brown concerts — it was one of our favorite family activities — I decided that’s the career I wanted to pursue. I had picked out my band name and everything.
Years later, when I was considering where to go to college, we were at a Sawyer Brown concert where the lead singer came out for the encore wearing a Belmont University t-shirt. I didn’t know what Belmont was, but I was so into this band that, if he was wearing the shirt, I needed to know about it! I found out Belmont — a school in Nashville — had one of the top music business programs in the country, so that’s where I decided to go to college. It was at Belmont where I took that human resources class that changed my career trajectory, and it was on Belmont’s career services website that the owner of the speakers’ bureau found my resume.
So, you asked about the backstory of my career path earlier, and really, I can trace it all back to that moment sitting in front of the TV watching PBS at nine years old. Sawyer Brown started it all. Sawyer Brown led me to Belmont. And then, when I felt like everything was of course, nothing was going according to plan, I got this invite to speak at a little Chamber of Commerce breakfast… on Sawyer Brown Road — which is the road the band took their name from.
That was a major turning point in my life because when I heard the event venue’s address, it made me think, “I have planned and schemed and pushed and strived to make so much happen in my life, and none of it has gone according to plan. Yet, here I am at yet another ‘Sawyer Brown moment’ — 30-some years after the first one.”
A few weeks before, I was thinking, “I shouldn’t be here,” but now, it was almost like a sign to assure me that “you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.” While it seemed as if nothing has gone according to plan, I thought to myself, what if it’s all according to plan? And if that were the case, maybe I should just relax a little bit, let go of trying to control everything, and trust that there’s something good unfolding… always.
So, I’d count that as the most interesting story — to me personally — because that’s the story that really taught me the importance of surrender. A few months later, surrender is exactly what I had to do when I filed for bankruptcy. I came to the edge of that financial cliff and I had to admit, “I can’t get out of this on my own.” What’s amazing is that the same year I filed for bankruptcy, I had the best year in my 15 years (at the time) in business — by far. I attribute it all to surrender. Now, when times get tough like they’ve been recent when it seems that everything is out of control, I remember this story and remind myself to relax, let go, and trust.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Of course, there are several factors that go into creating a fantastic work culture, but one of the biggest keys is creating an environment where everyone feels that they are contributing, that they are living and working with a sense of purpose. I first learned this some 25 years ago, when I wrote that paper about “Motivating Your Workforce to Perform.” The emphasis of the paper was tapping into intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic motivation.
Extrinsic motivation would be things like rewards, money, praise — all good, but all limited. Intrinsic motivation comes from within. It’s who you are. It’s what you’re about. As humans, we are all wired to be driven by growth and service. It’s what lights us up. Create a culture where your people feel that they are growing and serving something greater than themselves and you’ll have a culture that can withstand any challenge and achieve the highest levels of success.
The other great thing about creating a culture where people know they are connected to purpose every day is that it gives them something solid to anchor to in times like this, when everything is so fragile and uncertain. I have no idea what’s going to happen from one day to the next right now — and ever, really — but I know my purpose, and that guides me. That’s where I find certainty in the midst of the uncertainty.
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?
If I had to pick one, I’d say Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. I reference that book almost every time I speak. A friend sent it to me during one of the most difficult seasons in my life, and there’s so much wisdom in there.
For those who don’t know, Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist who also became a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps. Man’s Search for Meaning captures some of the lessons he learned coming out of that experience — based on his own experience, combined with observing other prisoners, and noticing differences between those who were crushed by the experience and those who found a way to rise up in the face of it.
I’ve always been attracted to stories of people who overcame great things more than those who achieved great things, and I can’t imagine worse conditions than in those concentration camps. As challenging as our current environment is, it still doesn’t compare to that.
One passage in particular in the book that speaks to me is where Viktor shares three levels of meaning in life. The first is what he calls the active life, where you find meaning in creative expression. The second is what he calls the passive life, where you may not be able to express yourself creatively, but you may still be able to enjoy creativity expressed through art or nature or elsewhere. Finally, there is a level of meaning where you are stripped of the ability to express yourself creatively, and where you don’t see any beauty around you — like in the concentration camps — and still, you are able to choose your attitude toward your existence.
In other words, it’s possible to find joy, peace, and meaning, even when everything has been stripped away from you. That reminds me that no matter the circumstances I face, there is a path to peace, joy, and meaning. It may be difficult to find, but if someone was able to find it in those horrific conditions, then I should be able to find it in any conditions I face. And that’s really the foundation of that phrase, or mantra, “This Moment Matters.” This moment matters because life is happening here, and if you miss this moment — if you try to resist it, or run from it, or just zoom right through it — you’re missing part of life. No matter what is taken away from you, if you’re breathing, you’ve still got this moment. This moment is a gift.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?
Mindfulness, to me, is being present with and open to this present moment, just as it is. In other words, it’s releasing the tension between expectation and reality, between thoughts of the past and thoughts of the future, so all of your focus, energy, and resources are available in this moment — for the person, task, or situation that’s right in front of you. It’s this kind of presence that allows us to give our best to this moment, and to experience the best this moment has to offer us.
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?
Some of the greatest benefits of mindfulness, to me, come when you release that tension between expectation and reality. It helps me to imagine that there is a stake in the ground, and you are chained to this stake. If you try to pull away from the stake, the chain will be pulled taught and you’ll feel the tension. You’ll be stuck. And if you keep trying to pull — assuming the stake and the chain are solid — you’re going to exhaust yourself. This is our experience when we are chasing or striving toward an expectation of what our life should be, when the reality is we are attached to this current circumstance. There’s no escape from it, try as we might. That’s frustrating and exhausting. But, if we can relax and allow this moment to be what it is, we release the tension.
To sample what it feels like, take a deep breath in, and as you exhale, imagine the tension dissolving from your body simultaneously. That is releasing the tension. When we do that, we have more energy. We feel a sense of calm. Your body and mind truly function better in this state. We shift out of survival mode, where we can get stuck in this analytical loop, trying to figure everything out, and we can look at the present situation with curiosity. To “be here” doesn’t mean we have to “stay here.” But we need to be here to find creative solutions to move forward.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness and serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
It’s so true. I’ve said from the beginning of this current crisis that as dangerous as the virus itself is, there is something even more dangerous, and that’s the toll on our mental and emotional health. While the virus will directly impact a certain percentage of us, all of us are feeling the mental and emotional toll. What you asked is exactly what I teach in my course, Working with What Is — how to develop mindfulness and find serenity, how to shift from just surviving to truly thrive, at this moment, just exactly as it is — and these are the five steps we go through:
The first step is to stay present. In the midst of such uncertainty, such turmoil, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. There are so many questions: When will this all be over? Will it ever be over? When will life get back to normal? What is normal now? When will I get paid again? The thing is, there are no answers to these questions! We can think and analyze all day long, and we’ll be no closer to the answers. That’s partly because what we’re really trying to do is predict the future, which is impossible. Or, we’re longing for the “good old days” of the past that aren’t coming back. What we have is this present moment. All that matters right now is right now. So, take a breath, feel your breath, and let that bring you back to this present moment.
The second step, then, is to claim your power in this present moment. What I mean by that is, remember that when everything feels like it’s out of control, what you still control is how you show up and how you respond. Those are the only two things you ever had control over, anyway. Our power is in our ability to choose our attention (what we focus on), our attitude (what we think and feel), and our action in any given moment.
The third step is to align with your purpose and your values. Or, another way to say it: align with what matters most to you. In the midst of uncertainty, we need something steady we can hang on to, and that’s our purpose and values. The challenge comes when we confuse our purpose or our values with the vehicles that we’ve grown accustomed to using to fulfill them.
For example, something that has been a fixture of my life for years — being with live audiences as I stand on stage and speak — is now missing. That makes me sad, but I can adjust to it as long as I remember that speaking is just a vehicle. The purpose underneath it is teaching and inspiring others. I can still do that through videos, podcasts, online courses — interviews like this — and many other channels beyond just speaking on stages. So, that’s what I have to remember.
Another example — one we can all relate to — is how we’ve lost our ability to connect with one another physically as we normally do. We need connection to others, by the way; it’s more than just a value. So, we now have to rely on connecting through text messages, social media, video calls, etc. And in those connections, what is your purpose, or what are your values that you need to fulfill? In other words, when you connect with others, what do you want to give or experience through that connection? Focus on that — rather than on the fact that you can’t be in the physical presence of others as you would like — and then ask, what are some other ways — vehicles — that I can fulfill that purpose in these new mediums? When you can align with your purpose and values, you can feel a sense of meaning even when your normal vehicles of delivery have been taken away.
The fourth step is to adopt empowering beliefs. We all have that voice inside our head that’s speaking to us throughout the day. These days, when we’re so isolated, we’re spending a lot more time with that voice! And, the thing is, that voice isn’t always a great friend. You have to know, you shouldn’t believe everything it says! So, what is it telling you? Take a step back and observe the thoughts that are going through your head — rather than just getting carried away by them, unaware.
It’s easy in times like this to have thoughts like, “My life is ruined. I’m going to go bankrupt. I’ll be single forever.” Those are just thoughts. But then, if you’re not careful, you’ll start putting legs under those thoughts and you’ll believe they’re true. Like, “I’m going to be bankrupt… I don’t have any income right now. I have bills to pay. It’s going to be a long time before I can get a job again. Yes, I’m going to be bankrupt.” Now, you’ve gone from a thought to a belief. But, is that true, or is that just the story you’re creating? The reality may be that you are in a critical financial situation. But, are those thoughts — or beliefs — going to do anything to help you resolve it? No, they’re going to pull you further and further down. You’ll find yourself frustrated, depressed, hopeless… and your story may very well unfold just as you thought.
What would be a more empowering way to think about this? What about shifting to: “I’ve been in difficult situations before, and I’ve always found a way through. The fact I’m standing here today tells me I’ve been able to rise up and overcome every challenge that’s come my way. So, I know I will overcome this, too.” Do you see how those thoughts are carrying you in a different direction? Now you have a belief that you will overcome, and you can think creatively about next steps in this current situation. It’s your beliefs that will either keep you locked into your current situation, or bridge the gap to the life you want to live.
Finally, the fifth step is to relax, let go, and trust, as I mentioned before — or, surrender. We want to control things, but we were never in control in the first place. Our attention — and so, our energy — can be scattered across so many things, no wonder we’re exhausted! Every time we let go of trying to control something, we free up more of our mental bandwidth — our focus and our energy — for this present moment and the person or task that’s right in front of us. When you stay present, claim your power to choose how you show up and respond in this moment, align with your values and purpose, and adopt empowering beliefs, you’ve done all you can. From there, relax, let go, and trust. Give yourself a break from all the worry and anxiety. Try as you might, you’re not going to figure it all out! Give yourself the freedom to enjoy this moment, to be grateful in this moment. What would you do if you were to truly relax and let go? For me, I’ve found a love for painting, and when I’m painting, I can’t worry about anything else. As Bob Ross would say, “every day is a good day when you paint.”
Of course, it’s very easy to share these five steps. The truth is, it’s a moment-by-moment process, learning and growing each step of the way. And remember, no matter what happened in the last moment, this moment is always an opportunity to begin again.
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?
That’s a great question, because the reality of this current situation is that we’re all in it together. I mean, we’re not physically together — ha! — but you know what I mean. We are all sharing this same experience around the world. And the beautiful thing is, when you shift your focus from yourself to how you can help someone else, you’re helping them and you’re helping yourself, because you’ve broken that endless loop of thinking about your own difficulties.
Here are five things that I think are important:
First, take care of yourself by remembering the five steps we just talked about. The best thing you can do to support those around you is to show up in a state of calm, a state of certainty, a state of peace — and that’s what those five steps will help you do. When anxiety meets anxiety, everything just escalates.
That said, the second thing is to meet them with a spirit of compassion. There’s something comforting, no matter how great your struggle is, when you meet someone who says, “I understand.” As much as we know that we’re all being challenged right now, it’s still easy to feel like alone. Hearing or sensing from someone that they’re in this, too, and that we’re all having this human experience — feeling worry, anxiety, sadness, anger, whatever it is — is comforting.
The third thing I would say is to just listen. Just knowing that you understand — to a degree, at least — and that you are honoring their feelings will allow the other person to exhale a bit, to relax, and give them the sense that it’s safe to share what they’re going through. So, listen. No advice. No motivational platitudes. No Bible verses. Just listen.
Now after they’ve spoken and you’ve listened, the fourth step would be to ask, “What do you need right now? Is there anything I can do to help you?” Don’t be surprised if they say, “Thank you so much for listening, that’s all I needed.” For a lot of us, that is all that we need right now. There’s nothing that will “fix” this situation any more than just having an opportunity to talk it out and release that pressure. But, it’s good to ask if they do need something from you. If you see a clear need that you can meet, then you might make a specific offer. For example, if it’s a single parent and they say, “I don’t have time to plan out meals,” for example, and you have the ability to cook for them, you might say, “Would it help you if I brought dinner over on Thursday?” If you do that, then of course follow all the guidelines for washing your hands, social distancing, and so on — I’m just giving that as an example.
And finally, celebrate them. Tell them something that you admire about them. Tell them you’re proud of them. Honor their strength in facing this struggle. It might sound like, “I can only imagine how hard it is… The way you keep showing up, day after day, I just want you to know you’re an inspiration to me, and I’m so proud of you.” Now, of course it needs to be sincere. But, something I heard years ago that has always stuck with me is, “We all need applause.” It’s true. We all have this need to be seen, to be acknowledged, and we don’t get much of that when we’re living in isolation. Instead, what we get is a lot of that voice in our head that tells us how many times we’ve screwed up, how poorly we’re parenting, and so on. So, remind those around you how amazing they are!
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
Well, for one, I would go back to Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning — his story is so inspiring, and the lessons within are powerful. And then, I have to mention my course, Working with What Is, because it provides a step-by-step plan with comprehensive guidance and practical exercises to find peace and purpose in these uncertain times — and you can currently sign up to go through the entire course for free on my website.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I love the opening words from Mary Oliver’s poem, The Journey: “One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began…” Those words have given me courage to make some of the biggest shifts in my life. We talked earlier about not listening to all the thoughts inside your head, but there is another voice within us — deep within — that I think we need to listen to more often. It’s a voice of knowing. And that voice, we often do everything we can to not listen to it. In times of crisis like this, though, these times often become the “one day” when you finally knew what you had to do. It’s like everything else is stripped away, and you realize, “Oh… now I see what I need to do.” If that’s where you are right now, listen to that voice, and begin. Take the next right step.
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. 🙂
I think the movement is already happening, as more and more of us are waking up to the reality that this moment matters — realizing that all that matters right now is right now… because there’s only right now! So, as I write and speak, I just want to do my part to inspire and lead others to become “momentologists” and join me on this journey of Mastering the Moments in life and work. Life is moving so fast, it’s so complex, there’s so much uncertainty… What is the antidote other than taking it one moment at a time? Not only does being more present for more of the moments improve your own life — more peace, more joy, more passion — but doesn’t it feel good to be across from someone who is fully present with you? And don’t our kids need more presence from us? I’ve still got so much to learn myself, but I’m happy to be another voice in this movement of waking up to the beauty and power of this moment.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
You can find me @thismomentmatters on Instagram, and you can also get my weekly newsletter at https://www.shawnellis.com/subscribe.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!