I met Kelly about a year ago as a fellow speaker at National Speaker Association events. On the first meeting with her I was intrigued. Okay, my curiosity was at first piqued because she has survived a number of terrible near death experiences and I was curious and wanted to know more. However, she also has an incredible sense of humor which she readily displays. In addition, her sense of self and purpose are so strong I had to learn more. It is my extreme pleasure to introduce you to her here.
Holly: What would you call yourself and what you do?
Kelly: Inspires People to See EVERYthing in a New Light.
As a speaker, author and coach, I work with organizations that want their people to rally around change and adversity, so they can blow the doors off every goal they set. On the speaking side of our company, STANDING Media, we work primarily in the financial services and healthcare industries. On the publishing side, we focus on a broader, mass-market audience. Through books, blogs, CDs and DVDs, we share what we call a “recipe for resilience” anyone can follow.
A LOT of proverbial poop has hit my fan over the years – I was hit by a car and hanged from a tree at age 6, raped at 15, barely missed a mass murder at my high-school workplace, was struck by lightning at 28, endured catastrophic illness and the “Bright Light” at 29. Still, I’m one of the happiest people you’ll ever meet. As my name implies, I’m still STANDING … still smiling. I see the good in every bad thing that has ever happened to me because, early on, I learned my family’s “recipe.” I work with others to help them see the possibilities in their pain, too – to make that recipe their own.
I speak about resilience, legacy, self-mastery and, as a former speechwriter to some of America’s top executives, I talk about how to speak more comfortably and profitably, too. I guess you could say I help people overcome their fear of life … and death.
I have an uber-close family, although they all live 300 miles away in St. Louis, including a grown daughter who teaches performing arts, my parents and one sister and brother-in-law.
I’m an active member of the University Club of Chicago, a friendly, wildly wonderful oasis in the city — Chicago’s first club to welcome women as members, and the first to have a woman president — www.ucco.com WAM, indeed! I’m in the process of launching a Speaking Society at the Club for those of us who speak for a living and those who aspire to.
I practice yoga, play squash, love cycling, and I walk along the Lakefront six days a week. I attend weekly Weight Watchers meetings to keep off 110 lbs. I lost six years ago. [See Chapters 48-54 of my book for the “hows” and “whys” of my weight loss.]
I support the USO, Salvation Army, the Chicago Humanities Festival and a number of civic and philanthropic causes. I volunteer and take lots of classes at my church, the DuPage Center for Spiritual Living. I drive 33 miles each way to spend my Sundays there, partly because my significant other lives nearby and partly because the people and principles they teach draw me there like happy, powerful little magnets.
Holly: In what area do you reside and/or work?
Kelly: I live and work downtown, on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, a childhood dream come true. I declared in third grade that, someday, I would live on Michigan Avenue. It only took me 40 years to make the dream come true. I joked when I bought, gutted and re-designed my condo that, if I had any other dreams, I better hurry because, at that rate, I would be 88 before they came true. See what I learned about goal-setting from that wish-come-true by clicking here.
Holly: How long has it taken you to get to the level you’re at now? What has been involved?
Kelly: I have covered a lot of territory in the 30 years [GULP!] since college. From the outside, it may appear that I’ve made what I call, “pinball progress” in my career, zigging and zagging my way through my professional landscape like one of those silver balls in a vintage arcade game, frequently setting off the “TILT!” indicator.
It doesn’t look or feel that way from my side. From my side, the trajectory of my career feels more linear and makes slightly imperfect sense, if not perfect sense. I went from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1982 to small-agency PR, then to corporate PR, then back to bigger-and-better agency PR, to freelancing during early motherhood, to launching a PR agency with my sister, Cathy, in 1990, The STANDING Partnership, still standing 20 years later, by the way. Yay, sibling!
We did good work together, had a fair amount of fun but hit a few snags, too. It might have helped to remember that we didn’t share Barbie dolls and clothes all that well back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Sharing a company 50:50 in 1990 resurrected some mild sibling squabbles. In the interest of motherhood and sisterhood, Cathy bought out my half of the partnership when my daughter was in kindergarten. I used the proceeds to launch my own speaking, speechwriting and presentation training company, STANDING Ovations.
I ran that firm out of my home in St. Louis for 13 years. I loved getting paid to put words into the mouths of some of America’s top executives, not to mention the mouths of a few professional athletes and TV personalities.
At some point, I realized I could make better fees and have more control if I put words in my own mouth, so I started writing less and less for other speakers and more for myself. I had a great time and found it very satisfying for several years. You could say I became TOO successful as a speaker. In 2001, I commanded impressive fees and competed my way past 25,000 competitors to make it into that year’s World Championship of Public Speaking. I didn’t win, but I had a blast. For me, it wasn’t about the win [Don’t all losers say that?]. I ranked among the top nine speakers in the world [!!] out of 180,000 Toastmasters – pretty heady stuff.
It sounds great, and it was in many ways, but I didn’t find it as satisfying as I thought I would. People laughed and applauded in all the right places, but I never knew if anything I said or wrote had any lasting impact. Had I really helped my audience members, or was I more like the Chinese food of the speaking industry – giving people something that left them hungry an hour later?
From then on, my pinball progress really appears to “Ding! Ding! Ding!” in crazy directions. I started looking for speaking opportunities that would give me a lasting relationship with my clients and audiences. About that time, several people urged me to consider going into ministry, saying I inspired them more than their pastor did. Really?! I found that flattering, but I responded, “I swear waaaaay too much to be a pastor, and, anyway, I think I can have a greater impact outside the church.”
On the advice of Jack Canfield, the Chicken Soup for the Soul publishing phenomenon, I recorded a CD, thinking that might extend the life of my message … make it stick beyond the microphone. The next time I spoke, people lined up to ask me to autograph the CD. Frankly, it freaked me out! I feared I would lose my soul in the ego-driven, money-driven speaking industry if I didn’t get better theological grounding.
So, I took down my speechwriter’s shingle and headed to seminary, not sure whether I was called to hospice chaplaincy because I had nearly died so many times … or … called to pastor a church … or … called to return to motivational speaking, but with the self-awareness I feared I lacked.
I spent nearly five years in seminary. (I’m not slow; it just takes that long.) As part of my coursework, I spent a year as a chaplain to criminal youth working with juveniles accused of murder, rape, car theft, gang-banging and drug dealing. I spent a year serving a 600-member suburban church preaching, teaching and pastoring, and I spent a year as a hospital chaplain at a level-one trauma center – all sacred duties and some of the most profoundly satisfying hours of my life. In 2008, I felt as strenuously called OUT of seminary as I had felt called in. I knew I needed to return to my speaking career … and … finish a memoir I had been meaning to write for YEARS.
I joke that it took me 51 YEARS to write my book,
I’m Still Standing: How One Woman’s Brushes with Death Taught Her How To Live. Actually, it took me about 45 years to live it, three years to write it and a year to get it published.
I probably could have produced it faster, but I heeded the wisdom dispensed by the National Speakers Association. At an industry conference I heard an NSA keynoter say, “Never use your audience for therapy,” meaning a speaker shouldn’t get up on the platform and share wrenching personal details – about divorce, disease or the death of a loved one or some other disaster — if he or she hasn’t adequately processed those traumas. HINT: If you can’t talk about it without crying OFF the platform, don’t try to tell if FROM the platform.
I wanted to make sure I had a “healthy relationship” with my traumas, so I pursued all kinds of conventional and even a few slightly wonky therapeutic techniques to process my pain and to ensure that my story would benefit, not burden, my readers and audience members.
Holly: Who in particular or in general has helped you grow in your avocation to become who you are today compared to when you began?
Kelly: I have amazing mentors and role models. In fact, I have three single-spaced pages of Acknowledgments in my book. My parents, my daughter, my sister, Roger Thomas, the man who was my bum-kicking boss and later became one of my very best hand-holding friends … girlfriends, teachers, fellow speakers and authors, clients, even the women who powder my nose and minimize the my pores from behind the Estee Lauder counter. I got where I am with a lot of help. It takes a village. When I encounter a coaching client who seems to think he or she has to know or do everything, I say, “If you were supposed to have all the answers, you’d be the only one here.”
I count award-winning Speaker, Author, Educator and Innovator Nido Qubein among my mentors. Also, the personal and professional legacy of the late business management guru Peter Drucker impressed and still inspires me. Years ago, I interviewed Drucker one-on-one in his home for an entire day – a thrill! Author and Speaker Linda Henman, PhD, stands out as a true friend and gifted bum-kicking colleague. In terms of style, I’ve been told I’m a cross between Jamie Lee Curtis and a female Roberto Benigni. They both inspire me.
Holly: What critical decisions did you have to make along the way to becoming who you are today? along that idea, What are some of the major challenges you face or have faced?
Kelly: I encountered bullies early and often. The neighborhood bully used my own jump rope to hang me from a tree by my neck at age six. Miraculously, my dad saved me and helped me see that horrifying ordeal in a positive light … maybe TOO positive. … Another bully spread vicious, embarrassing gossip about me for two excruciating years during junior high. I took it and took it and took it, perhaps too willingly turning the other cheek.
I believe that gossip put me on the radar screen of another classmate – a predator – who cornered me at 14 (I didn’t even detect his bad intentions), then raped me at 15. Too ashamed, I didn’t tell my parents or the authorities. I blamed myself and knew I had put myself in harm’s way. It seems unthinkable now, but I had to go to school every day with my rapist. His friends taunted me. I found it almost unendurable. Gradually, I came to think of myself as “damaged goods” and made some somber, life-altering choices — got pregnant at 16 and had an abortion, without telling my parents.
Still, through it all, on some level, I had unfailing optimism. A still, small voice told me, “This is not all the world has in store for you. … This isn’t the real you. … You are a good person. … Persevere!”
I went on to have a surprisingly happy, productive life filled with amazing friends and colleagues, but I also managed to attract more than a few people who didn’t have my best interests at heart. I saw the best in everyone, but rarely in myself. For too long, I didn’t speak up about my own needs. It took me a long time to find my voice, so to speak. That sounds silly, considering I became a speechwriter, but I’ve heard it said that most of us teach what we most need to learn. I had to learn to speak up, to love myself, not in an ego-driven way, but in an “I-can’t-help-anyone-else-if-I-don’t-take-care-of-myself” way.
Critical Decision: Little by little, I shed the “damaged goods” label. I found my voice. I stopped letting people use me as a doormat. I think it was Eleanor Roosevelt who said, “No one can take advantage of you without your consent.” It took a long time for that memo to sink in.
Another Critical Decision: I decided to live as authentically as possible … to try to “own” or admit everything I do, everything I say, even everything I think every single day. When I hear myself think a negative thought, I squash it, correct it, redirect it into something hopeful and happy. I find that dedication to optimism and authenticity SO liberating! I don’t pull it off 100% of the time; no one does, but I consider authenticity one of the key ingredients in our recipe for resilience. Without it, we rob ourselves and others of an opportunity to grow.
Critical Decision: I decided to expect and accept wide-ranging emotions and to welcome even my bad feelings as useful … to see them as cautionary sirens, not as death sentences.
I heard someone compare the relationship we should have with our emotions to a book club discussion. Everyone is welcome … “Hello, anger. C’mon in.” … “Hello, frustration. Have a seat.” … “Oh, good! Peace, you made it, too … and, Joy, you seem quiet over there in the corner. Let’s hear from you.” A good facilitator makes sure everyone in the “book club” gets a chance to speak, but no one … no single emotion or opinion … gets to dominate.
Critical Decision: I chose to believe that EVERYthing is wired for good. We can find good even in something very, very bad. I say, “Dig for the pony in every pile of manure. The fact that you can’t see the good, or smell the good doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Keep digging!” …
Critical Decision: I pursued therapy and spiritual direction and found both enormously helpful. I declared nothing from my past off limits. So often, a healthy, happy life lies just on the other side of what people refuse to discuss. I say, “Go there! Then get on with your life.”
Critical Decision: Have a sense of humor about EVERYthing. Those master comedians at Second City will tell you, “Pain + Time = Comedy.” … I say, if you’re going to laugh eventually anyway, start laughing NOW. Find what I call the “glimmers of grace” built into even the darkest day. They’re there. If I can spot them after all I have endured, anyone can.
Critical Decision: After my closest brush with death, in 1990, I decided I would leave nothing, absolutely nothing, on my bucket list. That doesn’t mean I do even foolish or risky things outside of my character. I don’t; but I DO make an effort to do and to say and to be everything that matters to me … now, in the present moment. No regrets.
Holly: What mistakes have you made or lessons have you learned?
Kelly: Mistake: So many times I didn’t speak up when I should have.
Mistake: I ignored and/or overruled my intuition when It tried to warm me about people who didn’t have my best interests at heart … and people who wanted to hurt me. That played out in big and small ways, everything from putting myself in harm’s way and, as a result, enduring a rape as a 15-year-old … to attracting the wrong men … to hiring the wrong contractor … to trusting the wrong doctor. Now, I have learned to listen and trust my intuition. Now, I know when I’m safe and when I’m at risk. I know who has a toxic effect on me and who has a tonic effect. I forgive and avoid the former and surround myself with the latter. Now, I attract trustworthy, talented, caring people into my life.
Mistake: I tried to please everyone but myself.
Mistake: Sometimes I didn’t set my goals high enough. Take the World Championship of Public Speaking in 2001, for example. Over and over, I told myself I wanted to “get” there. Well, I got there, but I should have said, “I want to WIN the World Championship,” not just make it into the top nine. Don’t get me wrong; top nine felt great, but, mentally, my short-sighted goal took me out of the running before I even set foot on that international stage. With THAT kind of goal, aim high! Aim to win!
Mistake: I thought I had to be perfect. As the daughter of an editor and an Eagle Scout, both with genius IQs (geez, Louise, no pressure there!), I thought I wasn’t allowed to make any mistakes or to have any flaws. My parents didn’t say that or expect it, but that’s what I felt. When the poop hit my teenage fan, I blamed myself, felt ashamed and didn’t tell anyone, not even my parents … about bullies and bad situations I was too young to handle on my own.
Holly: How do you balance your professional and personal life?
Kelly: I struggle with this a bit, so I pick the brains of a lot of people smarter than I am about time management, business development, spirituality, health, wealth and relationships. I’m a big believer in the power of master mind groups, professional associations, working with spiritual directors and/or coaches and mentors. I scoop it up and dish it out.
I love what I do for a living, so I don’t feel I have to draw too fine a line between business and pleasure. My daughter is grown, so I can focus more on my career now.
Holly: What people have you looked up to, respected, and/or admired?
Kelly: On a spiritual level:
Jesus; Paul; Gandhi; Thomas Merton; Thich Nhat Hahn; William James; Ernest Holmes; Ralph Waldo Emerson; Mark Twain; Kevin Doyle, MSW, LCSW (my phenomenal therapist/spiritual director); Don Catherall, PhD (the trauma specialist who helped me arrive at healthy relationships with the traumas I discuss in my book); Jody Noble(my friend and colleague from seminary who was an economics professor and chairman of a charity board before she entered seminary, so she brings a rare ability to speak fluently from both corporate and clergy perspectives).
On a human level:
My parents, my sister, my mentor, Roger Thomas, Albert Einstein, Peter Drucker, Roberto Benigni, Nido Qubein, Mary Edele and Patti Allen (great friends of 20+ years) and countless others.
Holly: How do you refresh, recharge and stay motivated?
Kelly: I’m what you might call an “active meditator.” I believe in the power of affirmative prayer, so I pray while I exercise, imagining how I want my life to look, feel, sound and even taste and smell. I walk at least an hour/day, six days/week. That includes a few intervals of running stairs to get my heart rate up and 70 walking lunges per day – a necessary evil. I set big goals as well as incremental goals that give me a sense of success in between.
I read a lot of encouraging nonfiction, everything from authors like Anne Lamott, Barbara Brown Taylor and Louise Hay to Tina Fey. I love, love, love Carolyn Hax’ column in The Washington Post and never miss it.
I love meeting new people and hearing their stories. I travel a lot. At home or away, I try to make conversation with nearly everyone I meet everywhere I go. That recharges my batteries. I’m pretty good at reading others’ emotions, so I’ll see someone and say just a few words, attempting to mirror their posture or facial expression: “Long day?” … “Heading somewhere fun?” … “THAT was a heavy sigh …” … “Need directions?” … Impromptu conversations with strangers keep me motivated.
Holly: What inspires you?
Kelly: Everything. I’m NOT kidding. I look for and can find the good in absolutely EVERYthing. I tend to bloom where I’m planted, and I don’t wait for good weather, good headlines or a good hair day to see the best in a situation.
Holly: What advice might you have to someone starting out in your profession/avocation?
Kelly: Go into every business situation with three questions — two questions you need to get answered to take your career, company, organization or family where you want it to go (those questions will change frequently. For example, you might go prepared to ask, “How would you go about launching a web site if you were me? …“How did you handle the … stage with your children?” … “What contact management software do you use?”) … and … ask one question that never changes, “How can I help you?” Whenever possible, ask all three questions of everyone you meet. You don’t have to take others’ advice about the first two, but I highly recommend acting on the third one. Ask how you can help the other person, even if it’s just pointing that person to a restaurant, a restroom or a ride. Relationships begin in the little things. Then build from there.
Holly: In what ways do you develop awareness of your business?
Kelly: We use national and local-market publicity; book signings; warm and cold calls directly to organizations who need what we do in the industries we serve; professional memberships and networking; blog postings; LinkedIn; my Facebook Author page; Goodreads; Twitter [NOTE: I think they call it “Twitter” because I feel like a twit trying to master it]. I’m just tip-toeing into Triberr and, frankly, don’t love it … yet! As an author, I rely on and especially like old-fashioned word of mouth. Heck, I would strap on a sandwich board to promote what we do if I thought it would help people. That’s what drives us … we want to help people … help them find resilience, self-mastery, authenticity and help them leave positive personal and professional legacies.
Holly: Have you ever had a particularly funny or embarrassing moment, and if so, please share it!
Kelly: Where to begin?! Many people have described my book as laugh-out-loud funny, and, in some ways, I think my story qualifies as one, long, embarrassing (but entertaining and instructive) roller coaster.
I guess my most embarrassing moment involved my daughter, Libby, when she was a toddler. I was 29 at the time, suffering the horrific gastro-intestinal aftermath of a trip to Mexico. I had to take Libby to Sears with me to get new tires for our car. They told me it would take TWO HOURS, an eternity with a toddler! Oh, well. At least they had a TV tuned to “Sesame Street” and a restroom nearby.
Montezuma’s Revenge struck hard and fast. I HAD TO get to that bathroom – PRONTO! I couldn’t leave Libby, so I urgently invited her to come with me, first whispering, then insisting through gritted teeth. Under the spell of Big Bird by then, she resisted and threw the biggest tantrum of her life for everyone in the waiting room to see (and hear). When I finally, literally dragged her away from Big Bird’s latest antics, with my bum cheeks clenched SO tightly I could only scoot in tiny baby steps across the floor, Libby dropped like dead weight to the floor and wailed, “Noooooo! I don’t WANNA go. You’ll have DI-UH-REE-UH!”
Several Sears patrons nearly spilled their coffee. At least two laughed out loud. An older woman wrinkled up her nose. Several pretended not to hear and kept on reading their newspapers and magazines. Was it my imagination, or did one of the clerks at the counter call out, “Number 2!” as the door swung shut behind us? … Ugh! Mortifying, but that was just the beginning of my trip into the Bright Light…
See Kelly On Wednesday, August 15, as she appears with Jen Weigel in Wednesdays With Weigel: Kelly Standing at the Wilmette Theatre
For info/ tix click here.
(scroll down the site page for her event).
To order her books, click here.
https://www.standingmedia.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Reading_Guide_for_Im_Still_Standing.pdf = Reading Guide for Book Clubs
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