Great Escape Podcast episode 17 - Maura Sweeney escapes her family's plans

Uncategorized Aug 03, 2019

- [Stuart] This is Episode 17 of the Great Escape Podcast, this week with Maura Sweeney.
- [Male Voiceover] We are go for lift-off in T minus 30. All systems are a-go. Hit it.
- [Stuart] So Maura started her life on a track into law and a professional life down that road, and one of the things that struck me when I first met Maura was the way that she decided that wasn't the life for her. So, Maura, welcome to the podcast.
- [Maura] Stuart, thanks very much for having me on.
- [Stuart] You are so welcome. So, tell us, tell us how you began to realize that this road you were being driven down by society and all of the pressures that were, sort of, external to you as a young person, how you suddenly thought, no, this isn't where I wanna go.
- [Maura] Well, I could tell you it was a slow, laboring drain. It came to a head when I was 23 years old, literally at the mid-point of my legal studies after graduating from university when, and I think that there was something in it in that I had finished three semesters, I had three semesters in front of me, and when I started the fourth semester, I remember one morning sitting in the chair I usually would, you know, studying or whatever, at my home, trying to lift my 23-year-old body which, at the time, five-foot-six,
115 pounds, very light, it was like trying to lift several tons and I couldn't lift my body out of the chair and it was such a frightening thing for me because I had spent my life trying to live up to parental expectations, on the one hand that I was going to be a lawyer, my grandfather had been a prominent lawyer, Georgetown educated, it was New York, New Jersey, he traveled a lot but he passed away when I was five and someone decided as soon as he passed on that I was going to follow in his footsteps and so I was groomed; I wasn't really reared or raised, I was groomed so every external thing I did and didn't do, everything I was pointed toward, everything I was steered away from, was always toward this one path ahead of me and the interesting thing that people don't realize today is that how many people get law degrees? Lots of people, they're just the new... It's like the equivalent of an MBA and yet back in the day when I went to school, there were very few students in law school and if you attended you were expected to practice, and all I could see in front of me was living up in the New York metro area where I never wanted to live, and a 40-year career in something that all I could think about was living in a box, a box identity, a box path that was going to take me until I was in my 60s when I could finally say to my family,
"Okay, I'm retiring and moving to Florida
"to do and have the life that I wanted to live." And it was in that moment, Stuart, I could remember, I was paralyzed in the chair but it literally felt like I had been carrying a load of bricks on my shoulder in a big bag, if you could imagine a Santa Claus bag, and I used to know it every day as I would get out of bed, it was harder and harder, and I felt like the bag that I was carrying was another version of me, it was almost like carrying my own cadaver, and one day that cadaver, with all of that moving forward process, had gotten so heavy I couldn't lift myself up, and then beyond that I could add one more point: I had married when I was young, at 23, my husband came home from work and he said,
"Oh, Maura, you're home early,
"I thought you'd be at school." And I was still in the same chair, I opened my mouth, Stuart, and nothing came out of my lips, and I knew I was in trouble. So that was probably the beginning of my great escape, even though I knew as a young person I was not designed to live inside of a box.
- [Stuart] Oh, I'm just grateful you realized it then and not 20 years down the road into that career, and I think so many of us have not realized it until we've done that, we've got the house, we've got the spouse, we've got the children, we've got the car loans, we've got all of those things and we're trapped in this box so for you to realize it at 23 is a fabulous thing.
- [Maura] Well, I could make you laugh because I always say, you know, if I did continue along that path which, it would've taken everything out of me, I literally felt like the inner light was dying by the day but I joke oftentimes and say, you know, if I ever went through with that path, I would've been divorced three times and I would've probably slayed my fourth husband!
(laughs) You know, because that's what happens; if we are not honest with ourselves and we keep living a false existence, if we don't deal with it with what's right in front of us it will show up elsewhere and I knew that as a young person. I remember being in fourth grade, knowing I was going to be a pioneer and yet here I was, living inside the box. It was, like, the navy blue pinstripe suit, you know, it was everything from that old school idea and it just wasn't part of my personality. I was definitely someone, I knew I needed to travel and be in innovative places and I needed to impact lives and people but everything about the law just seemed to me dusty and very isolating and very unlike me.
- [Stuart] Okay, so at this point, you've understood that change has got to happen but how did you then begin to move to a point where you actually believed that you could change? That this path could be got off and a new path started.
- [Maura] Well, you know, I guess I could give you some, I don't wanna say secrets about where my life was as I was contemplating this interview. My family paid for my university education. I took out loans for law school because in the back of my head I knew I didn't wanna do it and even though my family insisted that I was a political science major through university, I took a second major which was Spanish literature because somewhere in my psyche I imagined myself serving as something of a goodwill ambassador to South America 'cos I love the language, and also I would've been someone that was very interested in being a conveyor of ideas. So, here I was, at some point knowing that I had another calling but I was so carefully constructed from the outside that I remember I finally had to leave law school and I remember I told the registrar,
"I'm taking a leave of absence." What I was afraid to tell them is that this is a leave of absence that's permanent but the other thing I will share with you is that because I was so groomed, not for business but for law, I really wondered, like, what is it that I wanna do? What else can I do? And I remember just this: I thought, well, I have to do something. It was very frightening because it went right down to my identity, I guess the identity was laid atop me but I had sort of conformed outwardly to that and I remember, let me just find anything I could do, and I remember I just enrolled in a course to become a realtor and suddenly I'm in a totally different kind of an environment, I don't even know if the realtor that was training us had any university background but he was a good guy, he was a people guy, I did well, and it was my first small step to say,
"Oh, I'm exposing myself to something new." And I passed the exam, never ended up going into realty work but fortunately a part-time position I was in as an executive recruiter took me on full-time and I loved it. So I guess the takeaway from this is: put yourself out there, don't be afraid, and even if you don't see anything in front of you, and that's where I was, I literally had no vision, I think even what I've become today, there was no vision four years ago, but I had to keep stepping out one step after another and, as I told you, in fourth grade I saw myself as a pioneer, and here's what a pioneer has to do, in a sense: they almost take a machete to cut away whatever's in front of them to brave or create a path where none exists. And the big thing for me was I knew the light within me was going out and the energy and that sense of love of life and purpose so I thought, I'm going to use something inside of me to pioneer my way by finding things that ignite me and inspire me and make me feel, rather than constricted, make me feel expansive, creative and able to impact things around me. And so I'm going to say that it was like a step-by-step process and what was wonderful about it is that you know when you pioneer something, you're not always going to end up on the perfect path, even if you don't know what the path is, but I moved to Florida soon after with my husband and I was only offered one job and it was in sales in the telecom industry; an industry I didn't want, a sales position I didn't want, but it was the only job I was offered and yet, three and a half months later, I was singled out by the manager to take over the office and that was where I began to really connect with what I love, Stuart, because I'm a developer of people, I'm a developer of culture, I'm a natural trainer and a visionary so, suddenly, maybe I was not so enthralled with the telecom industry but I loved where I was and the energy developed and what was amazing is that maybe a year and a half later, we had the top office in the United States out of 34 cities and I got the Chairman's Award, Branch Manager of the Year, and what happened is that I left behind something I would've been fair to middle in but I would've been beyond that as an attorney, just because I'm a hard worker, but I suddenly moved into something I didn't know existed, in a position or a role that I was not even aiming for, but I connected with that internal light and purpose and those, I wanna say the internal smile, and it just sort of worked its way outwardly in everything I did from then.
- [Stuart] So it sounds like you, kind of, you hopped off one corporate career that was being planned for you, you drifted into another one that was unplanned, you just got offered a job and needs must, you took the job but you landed on your feet in an environment that was actually quite pleasant.
- [Maura] It was, I won't say it was without challenges because, I'll tell you, leading people, without being, you know, the kind of boss that knocks people over the head or intimidates, that was never my nature, I literally, and this is one great thing that I have learned in the process of being a pioneer toward my own purpose is that every single place I've been, the pleasant and the unpleasant, the easy and the challenging, is I've taken every single one of those lessons and put them together in my own personal toolbox, and it helped make me and grew me for everything I do today on an international level as a person of influence and helping people lead themselves and find what's important, and also create positive cultures and follow after those things that are important to them.
- [Stuart] And that final transition, and I hesitate to say final because we all make transitions.
- Right.
- You know, all the way through life but so far, the more recent transition out of that corporate environment and into the kind of work you're doing now, so in a way that was a second escape.
- [Maura] Yes! Actually, I will tell you, if you look at my life, funny, I thought, what escape do I wanna choose? You know, I knew as a young person, all I kept thinking is get me out, get me out of the house, get me out of this town, get me on an airplane, get me to other countries, get me to a university somewhere, get me, you know, to my next foray. I was always that type and you know what I've come down to this great escape? Most of what I was escaping was the inner me that was inside a box and I share this with a lot of other people when I speak with them so every experience I put myself through or those that I find myself in, I use as opportunities to step out of mental constructs and limitations that maybe I believed in, or maybe that were just part of my upbringing, whatever, so I've used everything and I feel more like the... even though I'm not a fan of snakes at all but do you know how snakes will slither out of their skin, molting? I feel as if my life is constantly molting out of something that I've outgrown, the old skin, and the inner me is continuously shedding skin of things that are no longer necessary but at the same time, that inner life within me is constantly emerging. So I'll tell you, people who have met me or seen pictures of me from back in the day, I exude more energy today than I did when I was 23 in law school because when we follow those things that are the inner us, that essence of who and what we really are, or what we wanna express here in the world, we may oftentimes feel daunted, but it's going through those processes that make us so much more of an energetic individual, which I think is really what I was looking for, the life inside of us externalized, and by going through all these processes, from one escape to another, introducing myself into another foray for something, I keep growing bigger. I know what it is, if I could say one more thing, it's like going from a child to a bigger body. In this case, it's going from a small spirit embodied in something to a medium and to a larger spirit, and in each case you're more actualized, and I think that's why I use the word molting and evolving.
- [Stuart] Yeah, so a serial escapee.
- [Maura] Yeah, that's a good one!
- [Stuart] Absolutely!
(laughs) I always like to bring it back to the escape and I think what that shows, you alluded to it earlier, before we started recording, sorry, guys, I wasn't recording, we missed that bit, you alluded to oftentimes it's not so much changing the situation we're in but changing what's going on inside our own heads that enables us to find the escape.
- [Maura] Oh, is that not for sure, you know, I think that we are our own worst enemies.
- [Stuart] Oh yeah.
- [Maura] And this is something I realized in my leadership positions in corporate but mostly I learnt it from myself, is that when I felt like I couldn't do something, I wouldn't be able to do it because I didn't believe I could so I had to physically walk myself out through situations. You know, interesting, this is the great escape, but I think a lot of people wanna be there already and what they don't realize, it's the process that we all go through where we almost re-train ourselves through the process or we see the light through the process and we get through a lot of that mental baggage that we carry or the emotional baggage or the beliefs we've, you know, we've carried along with us.
- [Stuart] Yeah, absolutely, and I think that one of the sub-headlines of the podcast is, you know, it's the prisons that we build for ourselves are often the most vicious and the most restricting.
- [Maura] Yes, absolutely.
- [Stuart] And your happiness quotes book, which I had a quick flick through the other day, Abraham Lincoln, that most of us are as happy as we make up our minds to be, is so true, you know, actually a lot of the time our struggles are with things that we've said to ourselves, you know, we've said, "I'm unhappy, I'm grumpy." Actually, if we rocked up to work with a more positive attitude, work might be more fun.
- [Maura] Do you know, very true, and when I speak with people about the course and even when I do this in my public speaking, I said, "Every day, how many times do we feel like
"we're in a fix or we have a problem in front of us?" I said, "The first thing,
"you always have to ask yourself this one question:
"am I envisioning myself as a victim or as a beneficiary?" And if we choose to see ourselves as a victim, we've already lost, but if we choose to see ourselves as a beneficiary, even in the midst of a trial or tribulation, a I don't know the answer, it literally prepares us for getting new ideas, for getting new outcomes. They may not happen immediately but that is a choice and the happiness factor is found right in there: I'm gonna be a beneficiary, I'm not gonna be a victim. And that was something, I have to tell you, I taught myself how to do that as a young child because in many ways, I mean, we didn't get into this but part of my grooming involved a year at a girls' private prep school and I didn't wanna go, it was just the worst place, I became anorexic, so I know what it's like to be a silent voice and it's not easy but it is easy for any of us to feel victimized by our surroundings, and I knew I had to hold on and be here long enough so that I could become that happy, authentic adult I wished to become, so it's a choice and a continuous one.
- [Stuart] Absolutely, and that's not to denigrate people who are suffering.
- No.
- [Stuart] With real mental health issues that need professional help and medication and all sorts of other things, those things are all, you know, that's a whole different.
- [Maura] Correct.
- [Stuart] Area, absolutely, and, you know, I know that as well as any, having been there myself, but it is so often just what's going on in our heads that is holding us back.
- [Maura] You know, yes, and you know what, I'm so glad that you did really bring that home. People feel so heavy, so stressed, and really so constrained and contained and a lot of people are really at the end of their ropes. I just, I feel it everywhere I go and so there is something that I just wanna share for anybody who's listening today: sometimes we may not feel we have anything within us, as if there's an empty well, and we feel so lacking and so vulnerable but there is, when we reach down inside of ourselves to say,
"You know what?
"I'm going to pull something up out of this." What is it? It's your faith, it's the light of life, it is your hope, there's something, and unless we're willing to go down into that supposedly empty well, we may never find even a few droplets that are there but that's why I talk about the process. So, yes, there's definitely a place for, you know, getting help and security from others but there's that other piece in us that we literally find our strength, our purpose and our life by going within and pulling out literally things we didn't think existed, and that process is what helps us along in the path. Sometimes, you know, it takes us longer than others but that's the process.
- [Stuart] Yeah, absolutely, and I was taking a funeral last week and the family had asked me to read the poem, Ithaca, and one of the... I'm gonna summarize it, it's a long poem, one of the points in the whole thing is, actually, Ithaca isn't this wonderful, amazing destination, you're not ready to arrive at Ithaca unless you've learned to enjoy the journey there and learned to learn from the journey and when you get there, you find Ithaca actually relatively plain but you've had an amazing time getting there so it is about, you know, life is the journey, not the destination.
- [Maura] Agreed, agreed, and that is what... And the journey is what transforms us or helps to transform us, the very things we see in our lives that seem to be roadblocks, I learned this as a child, can end up, if we seem them through the right lens, or if we even give ourselves the courage of belief, we'll realize that those roadblocks end up becoming the catalyzers to where we wanna go.
- [Stuart] Oh, yeah, whenever anything difficult arrives, it's the opportunity to change yourself.
- [Maura] Yeah.
- [Stuart] In response to that difficulty and if you don't change anything, you're just gonna get stuck at the roadblock.
- [Maura] True.
- [Stuart] And the other quote that struck me, in fact, in your book, yeah, a truly happy person is one who can enjoy the scenery while on a detour.
- [Maura] (laughs) Right.
- [Stuart] And as I'm about to set off on a several thousand mile road trip across Australia, that is a quote I'm gonna take with me, in fact, I think I may print that one out and we'll put it on the dashboard of the camper van as my wife and I drive and remind ourselves that when things get tricky and the road we planned to drive down is blocked or whatever it is, that we're enjoying the scenery and the detours don't matter.
- [Maura] You know, I would say I could not do what I do today as an international speaker or even as a guest on a show like yours, if I had not had a number of episodes in my life that I had to work through. You know, it's those life experiences that added much to me, my knowledge, my wisdom, my tenacity, how about even this: the empathy for other people that go through difficult times. I think many people may hear my voice and think, oh, she's so confident, and yet if you read some of my books or read some of my blogs, you'd think, wow, this lady's been through a lot, but it's the process, all of those things along the road have enabled me to be where I am today and I'm so grateful for it. Grateful!
- [Stuart] Yeah, and, I mean, there are certainly parts of my life I'd really rather not repeat.
- [Maura] Well. (laughs)
- [Stuart] But--
- [Maura] Same here.
- [Stuart] But, actually, I wouldn't be who I am if I hadn't experienced those things.
- [Maura] Correct, exactly. I wouldn't wanna, let's say, how about this one: right, they're difficult when you go through them, you wouldn't wanna re-live them, but those challenges help prepare you for where you're going to go and what you're going to be, and I know at least in my life that has been the case, whether it's been technical skills or business skills or personal life lessons.
- [Stuart] Yeah, absolutely, it applies to every area of life.
- [Maura] It does, relationships, everything.
- [Stuart] Absolutely. Maura, this has been a fascinating conversation and I'm sure that we will continue in other future episodes, find different ways of having conversations together
'cos it's been really, really interesting, but thank you so much for your time. I'll make sure that your website and the links to your books are in the show notes, as I always do, on and your website is maura, M-A-U-R-A,
4, the number four, U, the letter U, .com.
- [Maura] That's right, thank you again, Stuart, it's been such a pleasure.
- [Stuart] You're very welcome. As always, if this episode has touched you in some way, please do like it, share it with friends, with other people you know who you think will appreciate, and if you'd like to get in touch, please do. Please let me know what you think of the podcast, if you know somebody who you think would be a great interviewee, if you've got a great story, please email me at [email protected] or Twitter, @stuartlmorris Instagram, @stuartlmorris and if you want to listen to older episodes, please do, you'll find them on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify and at the website Looking forward to talking to you next time.
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