26
August / 2021

#023: Soulbbatical – Shelley Paxton

Most of us wake up every day and should all over ourselves. In fact we should all over ourselves all day every day. We rarely ever take a step to do the things we actually want to do. Instead, we do all the things we think we should do. What if we decided one day to stop the madness. To stop shoulding all over ourselves, and on everyone else, and pursue our own dreams along our own path. 

Shelley Paxton spent 26 years as one of the world’s top marketing and advertising executives. She led iconic brands like Harley-Davidson, Visa, McDonald’s, and AOL. But in 2016 she walked into her boss’s office and declared she was mentally, emotionally, and physically sick from pursuing the goals and agendas of everyone else. She was “soul-sick.”  She left the corporate world to become the Chief Soul Officer of her own life and launched Soulbbatical, her movement to liberate the souls of one billion people by showing us that we have a choice in how we live our lives and nurture our souls. 

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About Shelley Paxton

TJP 23 | SoulbbaticalShelley Paxton spent 26 years as a highly regarded marketing and advertising executive stewarding some of the world’s most iconic brands like Harley-Davidson, Visa, McDonald’s, and AOL. In 2016 she walked away from the corporate world to nurture her soul and discover her purpose. She christened herself Chief Soul Officer and called the journey her Soulbbatical. It did more than change her life, it became her calling.
 
In 2018, Shelley opened the doors of her own company with the mission to liberate the souls of leaders and organizations, by inspiring them to realize their greatest purpose and potential. Shelley’s intention is to help her clients discover, as she did, a way of being that is aligned with their authentic self (soul) and deeply rooted in a commitment to living and leading courageously. As a certified professional coach, she works with individuals, entrepreneurs, and executives at Fortune 100 companies like Lowe’s, Inc. and Mars, Inc.
 
Prior to becoming a proud corporate refugee, Shelley was Vice President, Global Marketing + Brand, at Harley-Davidson. She was essentially the Chief Marketing Officer, responsible for leading all brand and marketing activity around the world. In her 6+ year tenure, she led significant growth and transformation with her signature authenticity and courage. And she did it rocking leather, jeans, and boots in the Boardroom.
 
Shelley has always been a rebel soul with a nomadic spirit. She’s a self-proclaimed Global Citizen having lived in places as diverse as Istanbul, Shanghai, and New York City, and she has traveled to 66 countries and counting, quite a few of them on a motorcycle. (Oh, and she pierced her nose at age 42.)
 
Shelley holds a marketing degree from Boston College. More recently, true to her soul’s purpose, she graduated from iPEC, one of the premier, ICF-accredited coaching certification programs in the country. She’s a member of 4PC, Rich Litvin’s exclusive community for extraordinary leaders and coaches, and has also been selected to train with Brené Brown on her Dare to Lead work in September 2019.
 
Some additional fun facts: Shelley is a Second City Improv graduate, total book geek, amateur photographer, and avid supporter of the arts. She most recently sat on the Board of Trustees of the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design as well as the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

Many of us, if not most of us, dream of a day when we can walk into our boss and tell them we need a sabbatical, time away for ourselves to find ourselves, reset, come back, refreshed, ready to push to the next level, or maybe not even come back at all. For anyone, though, this would be a moment in time, a few weeks, a month, a year at most, if we could find a way to swing it and our boss would even let us do it. Shelley Paxton left her role as the Chief Marketing Officer of Harley-Davidson, one of the world’s most iconic brands, to become the Chief Soul Officer of her own life.

She has changed the thought process behind what a sabbatical is and she has created Soulbbatical, a way of living and leading from a place of authenticity and courage, living for what you want, not what you think you should. That decision was not easy. That status took 26 years for her to reach. That’s the pinnacle of the marketing industry job. She was 1 of only 6 women in the executive ranks of a Fortune 500 company, but she was unhappy and unhealthy mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Shelley, welcome to the show.

Thank you, Fran. I love that summary. Who is that badass chick?

That’s you.

I love hearing that reflection. Thank you for that.

Shelley, your journey inspires me and it comprises all of the characteristics of elite performance as we’ve defined them on The Jedburgh Podcast and in Special Operations. Drive, to have a vision and take the steps to make that change. Resiliency, to stick it out and not quit. The adaptability to change your perspective and method in the face of adversity that you certainly face. The humility to honestly assess yourself and your well-being, are you true to yourself? Do you know where you are and not lie to yourself about how you felt? The integrity to do what’s right for you and those around you.

Effective intelligence to understand the importance of your past experiences, their effect on you, and your vision for the future. Team ability, you needed a strong network of supporting friends and family, a tribe as you call it and as we call it in Special Operations. Curiosity, you had to explore new beginnings for yourself, your family, personally, and professionally. Finally, emotional strength, to stand up for what makes you feel genuine and authentic when so many of us will talk about it but will never do it.

I wanted to start our conversation by defining Soulbbatical. I’ll start with a quote from you as I often do. “When I look around, I see a lot of overstressed, overscheduled, overweight, and overmedicated people in the United States. More than 1 in 3 people struggle with unhappiness. Major depression rates are rising and suicide rates have increased 33% in the past twenty years alone. We’re overachieving in all the wrong measures. Winning accolades and bragging rights for tolerating, numbing, suffering, and checking out completely, for living in conflict with our souls and at war with our bodies. It’s time to stop the madness.” What is Soulbbatical? Why is it a way of life versus a moment in time?

I will admit, I thought it was a moment in time when I left. When I walked away from that sexy, iconic global job that you described, I thought it was a moment in time of reconnecting with my soul, understanding my truth, and probably course-correcting, but I didn’t know what that meant. Now I’m so clear that Soulbbatical is rewriting your script of success. Soulbbatical is a forever journey of living our truth. I like to say this because I talk in rebel terms, rebelling for who we are, which is our authenticity, what we want, which is the courage to create the life we want, and the impact you want to have in the world, which is our mission or our purpose. That’s what Soulbbatical is.

Let’s talk about rebel and rebellion. You talk about it a lot. This is an important term and we need to define it. The verb rebel, to oppose or disobey one in authority or control. The noun rebel, one who rebels or participates in a rebellion. Rebellion, which is probably the most important one of these definitions, which is open-armed and usually unsuccessful, defiance of or resistance to an established government.

You’ve transitioned to these terms, rebel, rebellion, and rebel from an act against something to an act for something. You’ve put it on the offensive, not the defensive. You’ve said, “I was no longer rebelling against tradition or corporate norms or the status quo as I had been for my entire existence. I wasn’t seeking to define myself against other journeys or traditional status. I was learning to rebel for my own life, own fulfillment, and own path forward. I was discovering the rebel truth that authenticity is the truest form of rebellion.” Can you talk about this rebellion? How do you transition that in our lives from coming in and saying, “I’m fighting this. I’m fighting for it?”

This was a massive epiphany for me as I was both on my journey, but it became clear when I was writing the book. I suddenly understood that all of this exhaustion and depletion that I was feeling, because I was constantly pushing against, so it doesn’t surprise me. I love that you read that, particularly the definition of rebellion, often unsuccessful. That doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s often unsuccessful because it’s on someone else’s terms. Everything that I stand for, the epiphany that I had, and what’s now the foundation of both how I live and my work in the world is rebelling for because then it’s on your terms. It’s uniquely empowering and energizing. It provides momentum for looking forward. That’s what the for is all about, and not looking backward, which is what the against is all about. The against is pointing at someone else and the for is grounding in your truth and in what lights you up.

Part of this whole thing is I decided that I wanted to rebound rebel to rewrite my script of success. To do that, I have to understand, “What is my definition of success?” Many of us were conditioned. Over the years, we’re often living someone else’s dream and we’re taking these traditional boxes of success that, more often than not, look like big sexy titles, big paycheck, material things, working for iconic brands. The list can go on and on, whatever you were taught and how it showed up in your life, culture, and society. I’m embodying and teaching that it’s not about those things. It’s about what lights you up from the inside out. That’s what success-full looks like because many of us were living success empty. That’s where rebel against leaves you. Rebel for leaves you in this beautiful place of success and fulfillment living in harmony.

You’ve referred to these cultural norms or what you’ve described here as what people are supposed to be or supposed to have or supposed to define success. You’ve called it this concept of should-ing. You’ve said, “You’re should-ing all over yourself.” These are things like, “You should get married and have kids. You should make personal sacrifices for work. You should have a corporate job.”

You said, “If you’re like I was, you’re heading or maybe even sprinting in the wrong direction because you’re should-ing all over yourself. You’re convincing yourself that you should do this, you should do that, you should say yes, you should make personal sacrifices, and you should achieve what’s expected of you. Meanwhile, you’re losing touch with your soul, your values, and perhaps your purpose.” Why, though, are we stuck in should-ing? Why can’t we liberate the shackles of should and tell should to go to hell?

You said that we’ve got to be honest with each other. That’s the basis of this show. I love it. That’s the basis of everything that I talked about, too. Honestly, if we aren’t being honest with ourselves and checking in, like, “Am I doing this because I should be doing this?” One of the other tenets you mentioned that is closely related is curiosity.

Looking forward is to ground yourself in your own truth. Click To Tweet

What I invite everybody to do and what I did in my journey and, let’s be honest, continue to do every single day because the journey is always ongoing is to get curious around my language and ask, “What’s going on there? Is that someone else’s goal? Is that someone else’s expectation? Is that in alignment with my values and my truth?” Should becomes a throwaway word for so many of us, including myself. It’s only when we call ourselves out on our own BS and get curious. It’s like, “I said should. What is that shackle of should?” Get curious. “Where does it come from? Is that someone else’s belief and expectation? Is that truly mine? Is it in alignment?”

Shift your language to, “I want to, I get to, I love to.” Oftentimes, that fundamentally changes what we do, how we be, and how we show up in the world because now it’s grounded in our truth and we are courageously stepping into our own story and what we want to rebel for. Not what someone else is saying we should be doing. It’s all grounded in our truth.

If I were to think about how you’ve termed Soulbbatical as a way of life, after reading your book and talking about this, every time I say to myself I should do something, it’s almost that I have to take a pause for a second and I have to think, “Why should I do that?” If I asked myself the question, why, I can then take myself through that checklist of questions that you’ve then gone down.

Honestly, I’m a believer in tiny steps. Every badass accomplishment is a series of tiny steps. Too often, we try to eat the elephant of like, “I’m going to do the big thing. I’m going to run the marathon tomorrow.” What I say is, “No, let’s take one tiny step.” If the one tiny step is simply having awareness around every time you use the word should and say, “Let me take a beat,” that’s amazing progress. Often, we don’t even catch ourselves saying that. We don’t even realize that the thing we’re doing isn’t the thing we want to be doing. We feel like shit and we feel super drained, but we can’t explain it. Often, it’s because we’re should-ing all over ourselves. Honestly, for anybody who wants to take this a step further, your first tiny step is curiosity, awareness, and asking yourself that question. I have an exercise in the book. I don’t know, Fran, if you did this or not.

I did them all.

The exercise is the Soul Sucks and the Soul Fuels, which tends to get you to that place of understanding what the shoulds in your life are. What are the things that you tend to be doing out of obligation, fear, self-doubt, conditioning, all of those things? For anybody reading, if you want to dig deeper into this, grab a piece of paper, draw a single line down the middle of it, and title the left-hand column, Soul Fuels. Those are the people, places, and activities that bring you energy and light up your soul.

On the right side of the piece of paper, it’s Soul Sucks. That’s the column of the people, places and activities in your life that drain you of energy and feel like that heavy wet blanket. Give yourself 5 to 10 minutes on each column, no editing, no judgment. Just write and see what comes out of you, and then step back and look at those lists. Get curious about what surprises, scares, and inspires you? What do you want more of and less of? Where are the shoulds on that list? Most often, we can start to think about how we want to get rid of more of the shoulds in our lives.

Those Soul Sucks is probably going to be a more extensive and longer list than the Soul Fuels.

That is what I have found in my experience doing this in many group settings and doing this with my clients. The what scares you question, the most common answer I get is, “How much longer the Soul Sucks list is than the Soul Fuels list?” A lot of stuff comes up unconsciously. It’s like, “Where did that come from? I didn’t even realize that was draining me of so much energy.”

I believe in being honest, creating awareness, and getting curious around what is. This is a beautiful way to check in with ourselves and keep ourselves honest. I do this on a quarterly basis. I was going to say monthly, but that’s not true. I try to do this on a quarterly basis to check-in and make sure that I’m doing more things that fuel my soul than suck my soul. I’m more successful some days than others.

Let’s talk about how you felt prior to that moment when you said, “I’m walking in here and I’m walking away.” I want to talk a little bit about how you felt emotionally and physically. Emotionally, you said that your life had become a brilliantly shackled one-legged stool. There was only one piece. This is interesting to me from an emotional standpoint because we spoke with a psychotherapist, Drew Newkirk, and he spoke about this, too. He spoke about his life and his purpose being a table, and then the legs of the table were his why. The four whys that comprise his life have to be perfectly balanced in order for him to find meaningful purpose in his life and have balance, so you bring that up here.

Physically, you were ill. You had stomach and intestinal issues, lack of energy, overweight, alcohol abundance, and sleep disorders that you’re open about in the book. That is a nice part about the book because you feel the raw emotion that you went through as you’re taking the reader through this journey. That’s an insightful way to approach telling that story and there’s a deep connection there.

We’ve had this conversation as well with Dr. Chris Frueh, a psychologist at the University of Hawaii, where he researches what’s called Operator Syndrome, which is the result of years or decades of what he calls a high allostatic load on the body and the mind. Meaning, you’re constantly going all the time. You’re never stopping to be introspective. You’re never stopping to say, “Am I pushing too far and too hard over too long a period of time, at which point mentally, emotionally, and physically, I can’t do anything else?” You’re suffering from depression, suicidal tendencies, substance abuse, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, the list goes on. Can you talk about how you felt in those months and probably what was equated to years leading up to that moment where you were waking up, you’re looking in the mirror, and you’re like, “I don’t feel it.”

Let’s be honest, I was not “waking up,” but I was getting ripped out of my sleep by a nightmare. As you know, that’s where the book starts. I make that point because it wasn’t like I was waking up going, “I’m a little tired. I didn’t sleep well.” It was 2:00 AM, five nights a week that the universe and my body were like, “Shelley, we’ve tried to chat with you. We whispered and then we shouted, and now we’re going to whack you with a 2×4 because you are not paying attention to any of the signs and signals that we’re sending you.”

My relationship with alcohol was unhealthy. I was abusing it as a way to numb and not feel all the things that I was feeling because I was so scared. I didn’t know what to do. I’m like, “I’ve worked 25 years to get to this point and I feel empty inside. I feel like I’m dying a little bit. I don’t feel lit up and yet, I feel like I have an abundance of privilege and good fortune.” That was like looking a gift horse in the mouth and yet, it was undeniable that I was not healthy.

This nightmare was truly my wake-up call. I called the chapter, Getting Woke. It happens for us all in different ways. Inevitably, if we don’t listen, there is a crisis and illness. There is some version of that 2×4 that we can no longer run from when we’re ignoring all of the signs. Physically, I was a mess. What’s interesting to go back to the quote you read from my book is, I was a highly polished, highly shellacked three-legged stool. I still showed up to work with all of my armor spit polished to a shine because I didn’t want anyone to know what I was going through. I didn’t feel like I could be vulnerable in the space that I was working in. That was not a welcome characteristic of leadership in the place where I was operating.

Being successful is about what lights you up from the inside out. Click To Tweet

I would invite every leader who’s reading this show to rethink that. It’s what Brené Brown calls daring leadership versus armored leadership. I lived in a place of armored leadership. That’s what I was taught and that’s what was rewarded. What was going on beneath that armor was a woman who was crying for help and trying to outrun her feelings and her truth. I won’t spoil the nightmare by going deeply into it. The nightmare I was having woke me up to slowing down, finally going to a doctor, and getting some medical help. It’s a combination of Western and Eastern perspectives. A big part of the prescription I got, if you will, was to start meditating, slow down, and start dealing with my monkey brain.

Through all of that, I came to terms with what this nightmare was telling me and it was my soul crying out for help, feeling neglected, malnourished, unloved, and saying, “Please. You got this one life. Listen.” That was the beginning. I invite everyone to think about, what are those signs that you’re getting right now? My favorite question that I ask myself and my clients is, “What are you pretending not to know?”

That comes back to introspection. The humility to stop and say, “Am I okay?” There are a few things that come to my mind here. Number one is, it’s okay to not be okay. When you talk about a leadership perspective, leaders have to accept that. Leaders have to say that to their organization and to their people. If they don’t tell them that, then they’re failing their organizations and they’re failing themselves because the goal, we talked about it in every episode and it’s why we’re here, is how do you reach elite performance? You cannot reach elite performance if you are not physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually in tune.

The most concrete tactical example, you see in athletics all the time. If you’re sick and it’s a common cold and you never stop training to beat the cold, you can have remnants of that cold for 2, 3, 4, or 5 months and never reach peak performance. What we do as elite performers is we sit there and we say, “I’m fine. I’ll be alright. I’m going to power through this. I’m going to do this workout. I’m going to go to this meeting. I’m going to stay up all night and put this deck together. I’m going to do this pitch.”

You talk a lot about international travel. You traveled all over the world. That’s one of the things that we share. I have that same seeker spirit who’s always looking for that new opportunity like, “You want me to go here? No problem.” You flew around the world for a 36-hour meeting, and then you flew back and went right to the office. You do that time and time again, but that takes a toll on you. Eventually, you have to wake up and say, “I’m not there.”

A few things come to mind that I would love to share. One to the point that you made about it’s okay to not be okay. I would add two more things to that list. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know,” and it’s okay to ask for help. This is my biggest lesson. In fact, it’s more than okay. It’s a sign of strength. I’m sure that showed up in all of your incredible experiences. Please ask for help.

That’s the hardest thing.

At least when I was coming up the chain, growing up, and the way that I was raised in my family and in the corporate world, asking for help was a sign of weakness. One of my biggest missions is to say, “It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s an incredible sign of strength.” I wrote it in the book because I didn’t ask for help. I ended up trying to take my own life. I never want to see anybody else get to that place in their lives where they feel so alone, lost, confused, disconnected, and can’t make that phone call and can’t reach out. The strongest leaders in the world know how to ask for help.

Can we talk about whydentity? You said that your whydentity had been at the helm for so long that you couldn’t even figure out what you call break the rule or ask for what you wanted. What’s whydentity and why are we so captured by it?

Whydentity for me is my clever way because I love to create language and I think in these terms.

The book is a whole new language crafted by you. It’s amazing.

I call it a soul lexicon. One day, I want to publish a little rebel dictionary of all of this, so stay tuned for that. That’s on my list of things I would love to share with my community and anybody who’s interested. The whydentity to me is the voice of your ego and our ego is there to keep us safe, playing small, and keep us in that sandbox where it’s easy to succeed because we’re not taking any risks. We are people-pleasing and we are doing what’s expected of us. Therefore, we’ll get all the praise, accolades, and things, and “succeeding” will become easy because we’re not playing in the arena. We’re not putting ourselves out there. We’re not boldly living our truth.

My whydentity, as I describe it, is that voice. It was like the voice of my father, whose dream I ended up living unbeknownst to me until I was about 45 years old. That was constantly saying, “Why not do that? Make your dad happy. Why not just take that job? It’ll put some money in the bank account.” You could make up your version of this. When you start dreaming big and thinking about, “This is what I’ve always wanted to do. This is who I am.” Those big dreams that feel freaking scary. The whydentity is usually the voice that pops up and it’s like, “You have it good right now.”

Honestly, my whydentity could have won the battle when I was at Harley and I was standing at this crossroads realizing, “I could get to 50 and still be doing the same thing I’m doing, have a lot of money in the bank, and still have this sexy job on my resume or I could get to 50 and be doing what lights me up, be doing my work in the world.” That’s the scary stuff and I didn’t let my whydentity win. It’s always going to be a battle.

I encourage everyone to give it a name. You could call it your whydentity or you could call it mod. Give it a crazy name, but then have a dialogue with it and remind that voice that you’re in the driver’s seat, you’re at the wheel. They can sit next to you and they can fiddle with the radio, whatever they want to do, but you’re at the driver’s seat of your life and you’re making the decisions to rebel for your authenticity, courage, and purpose.

We’ve spoken a lot about the driving factors that led you to embark on this Soulbbatical journey. You stood at that crossroads and you had to figure out, “How am I going to beat this whydentity? Do I stay here, go down this path, which is defined for me or do I take the road less traveled?” Friday morning, you walk into work and you go into your boss’s office. I’ll make it apocryphal, but you have to read the book to get more of the details. You declare, “My soul feels like it’s dying. It’s time for me to go be Shelley Paxton in the world.” What happened in the office? How did it feel? You have called this experience painful, emotional, and liberating as fuck. Why?

Every accomplishment is a series of tiny steps. Click To Tweet

It was my second divorce. By that time, I was divorced from my husband and I was realizing that sometimes you can still have love. To this day, I have a great love for the Harley-Davidson brand. I want it to be around forever. It was an experience I’ll never regret as long as I live, but sometimes we have to break our own hearts. That’s what I was doing at that moment because until I decided that I was going to shed that skin and break my own heart so I could let that version of me die its own death and have the rebirth happen as a result of that, whatever that was going to look like. That was that moment.

To answer your question on how I was feeling, I was terrified. To say it out loud, I had conversations with myself. Maybe only a day or two prior to that, I had called my parents to let them know I was doing this. Let me be clear. I did not get any support from them. They thought I was crazy. They thought they might have to commit me to an insane asylum. I was going into those. All of my friends thought I’d lost my marbles. The few people in my business network who knew I was going to do this at the time were like, “Are you sure you thought this through?” It was the thing that no one does.

As my dad said in true Baby Boomer style, “Shelley, nobody quits a job before they have another job.” I was like, “Yeah, except for somebody who’s rebelling for their truth.” I didn’t even know that language at the time. I only knew that there was a question that kept haunting me. I was 46 on the day that I walked into my boss’s office at Harley-Davidson and I kept asking myself, “When I’m 50, if I keep living the way I’m living right now, am I moving closer to who I meant to become or further away?” It was so clear that if I stayed there, it was a safe choice. I would be moving further away from who I was meant to become.

I decided to do this scary thing and I wanted my boss to understand that I was scared. I cried in that conversation. I wanted him to know that this wasn’t about Harley. Of course, there were some things that didn’t feel good anymore there, but this was a bigger choice. This was a choice to believe that Shelley Paxton could be the most iconic brand that I ever served in my lifetime. I never believed that before. It was liberating, as you said.

What about the first day, the first week, the first month of having nothing to do?

Anytime you experience me, I show up as the same person in every room and on every page. You get me raw, unfiltered, and uber vulnerable. The book is written that way. You said that. I am also honest that it would be great if I could come out and say, “Best decision ever. Never regret. Never look back.” The truth is on a macro level, no regrets whatsoever. It is hands down the most courageous and rewarding decision I’ve ever made. If you break that down into the micro-steps along the way, I was terrified. I alternated between days where I woke up and I was like, “Best decision ever. I’m on top of the world. I’m a badass. Why doesn’t everybody do this?” The next day, I would wake up in the fetal position sucking my thumb saying, “What have I done? Would they take me back if I called them back now?” Harley-Davidson, VP of HR on speed dial going, “I made a horrible mistake.”

It is that roller coaster ride. What I love is that, that prepared me well for the roller coaster ride of entrepreneurship, where I am right now. Being chief soul officer of my own life and my own business, we’re always going to have that. What that reminds us of is that we’re alive. Of course, I definitely had those days. My biggest lesson from probably the first two months of my journey post-Harley-Davidson is that I didn’t know how to sit still. I didn’t know how to slow down. I didn’t know how to embrace the beauty and the power of this space that I’d created in my life, so I started to fill my calendar.

TJP 23 | Soulbbatical

Soulbbatical: A Corporate Rebel’s Guide to Finding Your Best Life

I validated myself on busyness. Busyness was a badge of honor for me. I’m sure many people reading this can relate to that because that’s part of how success is defined today. I started putting lunches and drinks. I sat on two boards at the time, so lots of not-for-profit work. I threw myself into that. You can imagine all the things. I was trying to outrun sitting down with myself, getting quiet, and tuning in to the thing that my title, chief soul officer, was inviting me to tune into and reminding me of the responsibility I had. There was a lot of tension in the early days. Let’s be honest. We’re human. There’s still tension.

When you look at your schedule, you’re like, “I’m the busiest unemployed person on the face of the earth.”

I realized that I had an addiction to this phrase, crazy busy. Until I started slowing down, sinking in, and understanding the principles of Soulbbatical, this word I had made up on the fly, I started to realize that’s where the magic happens. That’s how we tune in to the signal, start to tune out the noise, and how we get connected with who we are, what we want, and the impact we want to have in the world. I had to learn that lesson. It took me a while to sink in, to slowing down, but that’s where the magic is.

I’ve begun to have a visceral reaction to the phrase, “I’m so busy.” It becomes ingrained in you. People will say to me, “What are you doing?” I’ll find myself saying, “I’m so busy,” and then I stop myself. I don’t like that term. I’ve then said to them, “I’m working on a bunch of projects, but I’m trying to also find a way to have some balance,” which is a term I also don’t like. It’s interesting because people fall back on those terms and they fall back on some badge of honor. “I’m so busy. I’m amazing. I’m doing all these things.” I start thinking, “Maybe you’re not. You are, but is it in the way that you want to be?”

One of my old coaches would always say to me, “You don’t even have to tell me what your goals are or your priorities are. I’ll tell you by taking one look at your calendar.” I think about that often because there are some days where I allow my calendar to be more full than I would like. To encroach on the space that I’ve created for myself, I have to take a big step back and say, “If I were a third party taking a look at Shelley Paxton’s calendar, what would I think is most important to her right now?” That’s a wake-up call. It happened to me and I was like, “I knew my number one thing right now is paid speaking. Getting out and talking about this message of rewriting your script of success and rebelling.” It is more important now and more relevant now post-pandemic or as we’re emerging from the pandemic than it’s ever been before. I want to be out talking about inspiring people because I’m on a mission to liberate a billion souls.

I looked at my calendar and went, “Where is that space that I’m creating to be reaching out, having conversations about speaking engagements and keynote opportunities to be refining my keynote talks?” It’s nowhere on my calendar, so that was a nice little reminder to me. By the way, I agree with you on busy and balance. I won’t let myself say, “I’m busy tomorrow. Can we try the next day?” Full is the word I use most often to say, “My calendar is full based on the priorities that I have at the moment.” Full for me means it is full of what I see as the most important things to get done on that day, which includes what I call meetings, which are ME time. I make sure there is ME time baked into my full day because if I’m not working, nothing works. Meaning, if I’m broken, exhausted, or depleted, how can I show up in service of my mission? That is part of a full day for me.

During your journey, you traveled in France, New Zealand, Canada, and various other places for this total disconnection, the self-absorption. You had some relapse there. You took on marketing consulting projects and job offers. People are seeking you out to convince you to come out of your Soulbbatical and come to them in a similar capacity as Harley-Davidson, which rightfully so, you have to entertain some of those conversations. You suffered a little bit of an identity crisis where you had to embrace the mess. In Special Operations, we call it embrace the suck. “This is going to suck and there’s nothing I can do about it. I have to own it and I have to face it.”

You said, “My courage was wobbly at best in those days, so I was determined to look the part of the badass even if I didn’t feel like it.” We also say in Special Forces, “Always look cool and never get lost. If you get lost, look cool.” I thought about that when I was reading this about you and I wanted to tie that in because that’s something that we always talk about that. Even if you don’t know what’s going on, you can present yourself in a manner that people think what’s going on. At least, you might get through this. You talked a little bit about these struggles, but primarily, how did you then refocus? How did you take it back? It would have still been easy to quit.

There’s a lot in there. Let me start with the identity crisis piece. That was the crux of what happened when I was in New Zealand. There was a lot of travel in my initial Soulbbatical because I didn’t know what this journey was about. It was a total journey of reconnecting with my soul, discovering myself, and understanding my truth. I am a seeker and I love to travel, so that was an easy place for me to plugin. The reality is, the power of place can feed our soul, but it can’t fix it. What I realized is I was moving myself around the world. The varying places where I was showing up or teaching me powerful lessons were all about slowing down.

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I got to New Zealand and I thought I was going for three weeks. I ended up staying for over two months. Finally, I found the perfect little seaside cottage for one. It’s where I was going to start writing and this massive monsoon comes in. Now I am by myself trapped in this cottage 100 feet from the South Pacific, which could come rolling into my living room at any point. I’m sitting there and it was absolutely one of those moments where the universe is inviting you, whether you like it or not, to deal with your shit.

There I was by myself going, “Who am I?” I’ll be honest, at that point in time, my phone had stopped ringing. I was like, “If I’m not the CMO who everybody wants to call and who recruiters are still trying to grab and all of that, then who am I?” I was in the metaphor of, I’ve let go of one trapeze swing and the other one has not yet arrived. I find myself in New Zealand in the middle of a monsoon, trapped in a cottage with no understanding. I am just free-floating in space and losing my mind.

I had to get clear on who am I. Life isn’t about what we do. Often, we are like, “What do you do?” As the way to identify and put somebody in a box. That’s bullshit. It’s as crazy as balance is. The idea to me is, “Who are you?” I sat down and did an exercise that was hugely painful and also incredibly insightful to say, “When I take away the accolades, titles, roles, sexy global travel, riding motorcycles around the world, and all of the things, who am I at my core?”

I did the statement that I now call my I-am-a-festo and I encourage everyone to do this. I do this in a lot of my teachings and my coaching. I talk about getting clear on who I am. I had to start believing in who I am from the inside out, me at my core. I’m like, “I’m great. I’m a badass. Who leaves the job at Harley-Davidson, especially as the CMO? I’m sexy. I’m this and that. I am an author.” It’s owning all of these things that I am at my core and that was the beginning of me turning around and owning that Shelley Paxton is the most iconic brand I could ever represent and that the truth isn’t out there. The truth is in here, in my soul. That’s when I started to get connected with who I am.

Days after that, when this monsoon finally dissipates, drifts out to sea, the sun emerges, or whatever it did, I walk out the front door. I went to this northernmost point on the northern Island of New Zealand. It’s called Cape Reinga. It’s where the Māori believe that their spirits jump off into the underworld. I was like, “This is a magical place.” I went out there and bid adieu to corporate Shelley and welcomed soulful Shelley into the world. Soulful Shelley is connected deeply with her truth and she’s courageous enough to keep living it. That was a huge turning point for me.

That courage piece is important and I want to go a little further on it here because it’s something you’ve highlighted. It’s what gets you through fear and there’s a lot of ways to deal with fear. There’s confidence, overconfidence, and training. You can train constantly and repetitively to know and to build that confidence that you can overcome a fear of failure, fear of people not supporting you, whatever that fear may be. You said, “Fear never completely releases you from its clutches no matter how seasoned you get. The goal is to learn to dance with it. Transforming it from nervous resistance into energetic momentum.”

In reference to the sabbatical mission, you said, “Courage required. Confidence optional. Confidence is the result of taking action and moving in a direction that feels right to you. The truth is, while my parents did their best to inspire me, I wasn’t naturally born with any more confidence than you were. Instead, my secret weapon became courage. I got good at pushing through fear once I realized that it was going to be the nasty troll standing between me and what I wanted.”

I like this because so many times, people look at elite performers, people like yourself who held these senior executive positions that others dream of, and they think there’s something different about them. They were born differently, something was given to them differently, but here you’re saying, “There is no difference between me or anyone else. I approach it with a different mindset.” I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that.

I love that you highlighted this and I know you feel this in your cells at a cellular level, which is what I love to say because how could you not if you come out of Special Forces? Everything that you’ve done in your life, courage is a piece of it. To this day, even having made many courageous decisions, to me, every day is a courageous decision to show up in my truth, to show up vulnerably and authentically in service of my mission. I’ve learned to convert fear into fuel. That’s how I think about it. We never lose it.

Bruce Springsteen has a cool way. I won’t remember the exact quote, but the paraphrased version of the quote is that he thanks his body for being alive and recognizes that fear he feels is excitement. It’s the same sensation in our bodies. It reminds us that we’re alive, we’re here, and we are making choices that make us feel even more alive. That’s one thing that I’ve gotten comfortable with, but it’s not comfortable. It’s that discomfort that pushes you into the growth zone that gets you to the next level. We’re not going to get there if we’re not playing outside of that little sandbox that our whyidentity wants us to play in. We’re not going to be playing big in the arena if we let fear sit at the driver’s seat. Get fear out of the driver’s seat, acknowledge that fear is a reality.

Let’s add Fran to our list of words we don’t like. I’m curious. When somebody says, “He’s fearless.” I’m like, “That’s bullshit.” You can’t be human and be fearless, but what you can learn to do is fear less and you can shift your relationship with fear, which is what I’m inviting everybody to do. I love this idea. It works for me to think about fear as fuel because that aliveness is what’s fueling me to get uncomfortable, go to the next level, push through to do that thing. It ties to something that I believe to be true, which is fear also.

I’m not talking about the run from a bear and a mountain lion fear. We know the difference in our bodies, but this fear of how I’m showing up in the world, the fear of putting this silly video on your socials for fear of what people are going to think of you, or the fear of writing a book. I wrote the good, the bad, and the ugly. It was scary as hell to release that final manuscript to say, “It is what it is and it’s going to take on a life of its own in the world.” That was scary as hell.

I thought, “Shelley, if you’re serious about this mission you have in the world and if you’re serious about liberating 1 billion souls or at least getting the ripples moving in the world, how can you do that if you don’t put your story out in the world? Also, if you don’t tell it in a way that’s consistent with the Soulbbatical radical values?” I decided to do it in a way that says, “I’m going to tell you the good, the bad, the ugly of this story like I’m sitting next to you on a couch with my arm around you saying, ‘I got you.’” I went before I was ready. I invite everybody to do that. That’s part of what I talked about, the soul process. Live it before you’re ready because fear is the only thing standing in our way of showing up.

Let’s talk about this whole process, show up, own it, unleash it, and live it. What are the steps?

Some people have called it corny. I don’t care what you want to call it. What I was looking for is a framework to say, “Out of reading this book.” This was specifically designed for the book and it has an application in everyday life. Let me give the context of how I got here. As I was thinking about this book and working with my editor at Simon & Schuster, one of the things that became clear to me is I never wanted to do a simple memoir. It’s like, “Does anybody care about who I am? I’m not famous, well known, or all those things, but I know that my story serves a purpose and it can inspire a lot of other people.”

Early on, we decided that this was going to be part memoir, part manifesto, part interactive guide. The interactive guide part is, frankly, my favorite part because it says, “As you’re going on this journey with me, I want you to also hold up the mirror. What reflections do you have as you’re relating to the roller coaster ride of my life?” You may not relate to every piece of it, but usually, there are pieces that resonate deeply and will make you reflect. At the end of each section, I asked a whole bunch of questions. I thought, “How can I help readers take the answers to these questions from insight into action into reality into manifesting whatever they want into moving forward?” That’s where this soul process came from.

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I came up with an acronym. I wanted it to be short and sweet. SOUL feels right because it’s the heart of the story in my brand and all the things. Show up is like, “Okay, great.” For the insights that you have, for every insight, apply this process. The first thing to show up is committing to having integrity with yourself. Stop hiding in plain safe. Take that insight and make a new commitment around it in service of your authentic self. “I am, I will, I can,” and things like that.

O is own it. Repeat that truth again and again until you believe it. The hardest part is us saying, “It would be nice if one day this happened or if one day that happened.” I’m a believer in waking up and saying, “When this happens.” I believe in me, my mission, and the universe has my back and is conspiring to help me succeed with my mission. That’s a way to own it and believe it. Get rid of any competing stories or disempowering language like should that’s in your head that can stand in the way of owning it.

The U is unleashing it. This is my way of saying, “Put your clear intentions out into the universe.” Now that you believe it, put it out there and share it with the people who can support you, inspire you, and help you along the way. This is the tiny steps piece that we talked about earlier. The last one is live it. It’s exactly what I said earlier, live it before you’re ready. Be ready to go and make conscious choices in service of your new truth and make conscious choices. I love this idea of showing up as who you want to be every day. I show up every day as a New York Times bestselling author. I’m not a New York Times bestselling author. I show up that way because that’s an intention I have and I want to put that out in the world. I’m about to start writing my second book. I’m going to show up as a New York Times bestselling author because it’ll happen one day.

I’ll be reading it. We’ll talk about that one, too. What do you tell those who hear your story and they say, “She was wealthy? She could afford a year off to find herself. I live paycheck to paycheck. She was popular. She was semi-famous,” even though you believe you’re not, “She was well known in the industry and can easily get clients in a new endeavor, but no one knows who I am. I have a family, spouse, kids, and debt that I can’t risk.” What gets that person off the starting block?

One thing I do want to say is I am privileged and I had a lot of good fortune. I don’t deny that I started the book from that place. On many levels, I’m no different than you. The context that you and I haven’t talked about, but I at least referred to him, I had come out of a devastating divorce when I went to Harley. I am not saying that I lived paycheck to paycheck because I didn’t. I was not financially whole, however. Harley helped me to not amass this great fortune. Harley helped me to get back to a place of financial health.

One of the things I did in getting to that place of financial health is to create with my financial advisor what I called my Fuck You Fund. I intentionally was putting a little bit of money aside and it was a fuck you to my ex-husband for financially devastating me, which is not a healthy place to be. I don’t recommend to anybody to have that perspective, but it was a, “Fuck you for a living a future that was anything less than what I deserved and anything less than bringing me alive and making me alive.” I didn’t know what that meant. That’s number one.

Number two, there are three stories in this book. After I talk about my own Soulbbatical journey, I highlight three stories of other people who are living Soulbbatical in ways that are radically different from the way I chose to live it, two of whom have families. What I wanted to do is say that this is on your terms. We can make tiny steps toward the life we want to live. Yes, does it require some risks? Does it require us to show up in a bigger way? Does it require courage? Absolutely. Get clear on your values, first and foremost. Ask yourself, “Are you living true to your values in every facet of your life?”

This was a big wake-up call for me. When I sat down and it was in the New Zealand cottage when I was having an identity crisis and went through my values, I realized that my number one value is freedom. I sat back and had to laugh and I thought, “God, the cruel irony.” I get that it’s amazing as it relates to Harley Davidson. Harley Davidson is all about freedom, but when you think about a 26-year corporate career, which is anything but freedom, you have to chuckle. After that was authenticity and courage, I’m like, “If these are truly my values, then I am not living a life that serves them.” That’s what I’ve created.

Here’s what I want to re-emphasize. Soulbbatical does not mean leaving your job. It means finding yourself and getting clear on who you are, what you want, the impact you want to have in the world, and rebelling for that, whatever that looks for you. It starts with values and I would ask myself the question, like, “What does success mean to me?” “What does that look like?” If I’m truly success-full and not success-empty, how would I feel at the end of every day and what can help get me there? It is going to look different for all of us. I don’t deny any privilege or good fortune. I also think that sometimes it’s easy to say, “She had X, Y, and Z and I don’t have X, Y, and Z,” as a way to not take the medicine or look in the mirror.

It’s about the small steps. We can all take small steps to change. As we close out, Shelley, I always reference the Jedburghs. In World War II, the Jedburgh Organization came to life. The operators who made up that unit had to do three things as the foundational basis for their occupation, their life. They had to be able to shoot, move, and communicate. If they did these three things with a high level of proficiency every day, it allowed them to focus on complex tasks of the unknown that came their way. What are the three things that you do every day to be successful?

Mine won’t be quite as pithy and profound. They might be as profound or probably not as pithy. The first thing that my friend, Judy Haller, taught me is the power of writing these I am statements every morning. She calls them power statements. I call them soul statements. It’s like what I said earlier, “I am a New York Times bestselling author. I am a multimillion-dollar entrepreneur. I am a top 50 podcaster.” None of those things are true now. I believe them. I start my day with those power statements or those soul statements that create my reality and how I show up on that day. That’s number one.

Number two for me is I get grounded in my truth, which means I remind myself of my values and what I stand for, freedom, authenticity, and courage. Authenticity is the truest form of rebellion. I rebel for those things and grounding myself in those things means I’m reminding myself that those are the lens for every decision I make that day. The third one for me is I check in with myself because we’re constantly moving through all the fields and all the things. We’re on this roller coaster ride and we have ups and downs.

What I do to check-in is get quiet. Give yourself ten minutes every morning, which is what I do. Get quiet, tune in, and breathe deeply. I ask myself one simple question, I say, “What do I need to give myself permission to do, not to do, or to feel to show up as my most badass powerful self today?” I write it on an orange post-it note because orange is my thing. I tend to put it in my workspace because I’m in my workspace for the majority of the day and that helps remind me to go easy on myself, give myself some grace and space, or whatever it is that I need at that moment. Sometimes I need to go easy. I need to cancel a few things because I’m feeling depleted or tired. Having a full day isn’t serving my mission or whatever it is, but that’s powerful. I would also offer that one up as a fun little check-in for everyone.

Shelly, we only scratched the surface here. The hardest part of preparing for this conversation was honestly having to cut out sections of this that are critical to the Soulbbatical process, your journey. It could have been a five-hour podcast. The book is your story. It’s your journey. It’s also as you reference the how-to for the reader. It’s one thing to talk about making changes in ourselves and our lives, but the value of the book is in answering the questions that you present. It forces introspection and awareness of ourselves. It forces us to start the difficult conversations that we need to have to become better versions of ourselves. Readers have to read the book, Soulbbatical. They have to tune into your podcast, the Rebel Souls Podcast, which is good. I listened to some of the episodes. They have to call you to come and make their organizations and themselves better.

Call me to speak. That’s what right now. Bring me in. I’ll do the keynote for your company.

Call Shelley, for sure. There is one other thing I do at the end of each of these and we talked about the nine characteristics of elite performance as defined by the show and Special Operations. I assign one, even though you and our guests exhibit all nine of these, as we talked about. There’s one that comes to mind for you that you display and that’s emotional strength. That is to have emotional control in stressful situations, bringing calm to chaos, finding order in disorder. You have a quote, “When the universe sends you a tidal wave, you learn how to surf.” That exhibits this emotional strength.

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There’s one other thing that I do want to acknowledge in this conversation and that’s the service of your grandfather and we spoke about the Jedburghs. Your grandfather was part of the Allied Invasion of Italy in World War II. He was wounded by taking shrapnel near the heart and he lived with that for the remainder of his life. This is important to me because my family is 100% Italian. My grandmother is from Anzio, which is the town where your grandfather was part of the liberation.

My grandmother and her family survived the war in a bunker dug into the basement of their house on a hilltop. Her father was a contractor and it inspired my father to become a contractor. Your family liberated my family and allowed them to send their daughter to America to start her own family. You and I are both here to have this conversation because of the service and the sacrifice of your grandfather. I thank him for that.

Thank you for sharing that story. I thank him for that as well. Anzio is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to. It’s stunning. Thank you and everyone in the services who reads this. I’m honored to be in your company and thank you for sharing that story.

Thank you, Shelley. This has been an amazing discussion. Your story is amazing. It’s been an honor to get to know you and speak with you. I look forward to our next conversation.

Amen. To be continued. Rebel leadership, I’m writing a book on it. We’ll come back and talk about that.

I can’t wait.

Thank you, Fran.

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About the author

Fran Racioppi
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Francis Racioppi, CPP, CBCP, most recently led Genius Fund as the Chief Executive and Chief Operating Officer, a vertically integrated cannabis company in Los Angeles, CA. Prior to Genius, Fran served as the Director of Global Security for Snapchat where he was recruited to professionalize and scale the security organization across the globe and among all business units. Fran holds an MBA from New York University and graduated with honors from Boston University with a BA in Journalism and a minor in Political Science. Fran served 13 years in the United States Army as a Green Beret, deploying three times to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn. A lifelong sailor, Fran volunteers teaching Veterans to sail as the Race Director for Sailahead a Veterans service organization dedicated to reducing the Veteran suicide rate. Fran has also served as the Treasurer of the United War Veterans Council, an NYC-based non-profit focused on the wellness and healing of transitioning veterans, as well as the host of the annual NYC Veterans Day Parade.

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