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Susan Marshall on Growing a Backbone

Susan Marshall is an accomplished leadership and development expert with nearly 30 years of experience working with business executives, community leaders and young people across the United States.

Recognizing the “lack of confidence” epidemic that has spread across the globe, she founded the Backbone Institute which offers products and services to instill new competence through mastery of five fundamental skills; elevate confidence through action-based learning and evidence gathering; and enable intelligent, purposeful risk to foster sustained growth.

Our Executive Editor caught up with Susan earlier this month to learn about what inspired her latest book and how you can elevate your life and career by growing a backbone.

Conscious Connection: What motivated you to become a writer and author?

Susan Marshall: I have been writing since I was a little girl, first to save my sanity in the midst of a six-kid household, then to capture my thoughts as I studied the world around me. Throughout grade school, I studied the English language and grew to appreciate the power of using just the right word at just the right time to touch people’s hearts and minds. In high school, the maxim: “The pen is mightier than the sword” captured my attention and got me thinking about how I might become a positive influence in an increasingly challenged world. I have been writing ever since.

Conscious Connection: An ever increasing number of people are becoming interested in Self Improvement books and media.  To what do you attribute the growing popularity in Self Improvement literature?

Susan Marshall: From my perspective, Self Improvement literature has been a perennial favorite for generations! Every age brings its human challenges. As we continue to evolve as a society, we are confronted with new demands to learn and grow. Technology has improved our lives in countless ways since the beginning of time. From building fires in caves to activating instant on/off fireplaces from our sofas; from snail mail delivered on horseback to global instant messaging; from neighborhood friendships to global communities, the world has expanded in heretofore-unimaginable ways.

With this constant and accelerating growth comes a perpetual challenge to adapt. I believe an important part of this adaptation is making a personal decision about who you are and how you want your life to be. Emerson’s famous quote: “The hardest thing to do is to be yourself in a world trying to make you into someone else,” motivates my work. You have one life; how do you want to invest it? There are many suggestions in Self Improvement literature, along with support for choosing your personal path.

Conscious Connection: How is Life. Be In It. unique from the other books you have published?

Susan Marshall: Life. Be In It. is a compilation of nearly thirty years of writing. From a weekly hometown newspaper column in the mid-80s to a monthly column in Wisconsin Woman magazine today, and a variety of business and education journals in the mix, this is a collection of short encouraging missives that a reader can pick up for a few moments or invest larger segments of time in reading and reflecting. Its eclectic nature is reminiscent of a journey along a winding road. At every turn, there is something new to see and consider. Feedback on this book has been very positive for this reason. Readers find new ways of thinking about their lives that energize and inspire them. It has been very gratifying to talk with people about the book.

Conscious Connection: Our society goes to great extent to espouse the importance of individuality, yet it often favors conformity.  What would be your advice to someone struggling with this duality?

Susan Marshall: Consider Emerson’s quote! Also, recognize the truth of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I think he got a lot of things right with his work. We need to feel as though we belong to something bigger than ourselves before we can find the security to develop our uniqueness. Developing personal individuality is a growing and learning process that cannot be effectively hurried or done entirely on your own. No one is completely self-made. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we benefit from the support, encouragement and yes, sometimes correction, of people around us.

Additionally, we need rules to maintain a sense of orderliness and predictability in our communities. If a stop sign lost its power to regulate traffic, anxiety would replace the sense of security we feel when people know and follow the rules. Some level of conformity is good for all of us. Where those lines are drawn—and by whom—is a subject of growing debate.

Conscious Connection: What have been some of the responses you have received from readers of your books?

Susan Marshall: People call me from out of the blue and introduce themselves at events to tell me how they appreciate a particular article I wrote or to let me know they are enjoying my book(s). They often comment on my sense of humor or insight that they find uplifting and reassuring. Here’s a recent reader quote:

“I just read your book, How to Grow a Backbone, and it’s clearly one of the best business books I’ve ever read — and I’ve read volumes!  I wish I had read this book ten years ago! I’m VP of Corporate Communications for a growing Internet-based company and have been grappling with some tough, difficult issues and trying to figure out several things that, up until I read your book, just didn’t make sense. Your book shed light on several key issues and provided the aha! insight that has given me a clear bead on the bold steps I need to now take. After having these insights, and seeing what I need to do, I’ve had a sense of calm and peace that I hadn’t experienced in months.”

Conscious Connection: How important is Religion when it comes to improving one’s self?  Is it just as good to be simply ‘spiritual’?  Does someone have to have the promise of heaven and the threat of hell to make them good people, or is it possible to be a good person without such things? 

Susan Marshall: This question reflects the high level of uncertainty in our world today. It also highlights the practice of looking to some external source to define ‘goodness.’

As a Christian, I believe that God creates each and every one of us to do important work during our time on earth. I believe He equips us with unique skills that enable us to do His work. I believe He guides our lives according to His Will. Just as no two humans will ever have the same fingerprints, no two lives are ever the same in detail, circumstance or outcome. Defining one’s purpose is a huge issue for most of us. Without having a deep belief that you are here at this moment in time for an important purpose that only you can achieve, it seems nearly impossible to appreciate or fully live your extraordinary life.

This is a highly personal issue that people address from a variety of perspectives. As a young writer, I was told to write about what I know or have experienced; I have followed this advice closely. I can only say that my belief in God and His Will for my life allows me to live with gratitude, joy, and determination to become the best ‘me’ He created me to be.

Conscious Connection: What is typically the largest impediment to an individual’s realization of their full potential?

Susan Marshall: Gosh, I wish there was one thing we could point to! If we could identify a universal impediment, we could resolve it for all people for all time.  Unfortunately, that’s not the way life works.

Truth is, each of us wrestles with a constellation of challenges that ebb and flow over the course of our lifetime. Questions regarding purpose, love, commitment, and legacy loom large. We struggle with social messages that tell us to be this way or that if we want to be successful. We ask:  Am I good enough, strong enough, smart enough, sexy enough, connected enough?

The stories we tell ourselves have a powerful impact on the quality of our lives. How do these stories take shape? In what context? Are they true? Are they changeable? The answers to these and many similar questions can help or hinder an individual’s realization of their full potential.

Conscious Connection: Having already published the inspiring Life. Be In It. and the entire outstanding Backbone Series what are some of your future writing plans?

Susan Marshall: Oh, that the entire Backbone Guide Series was done! Alas, that journey is just beginning. Of Beauty and Substance: A Backbone Guide for Women is the first of the series. It will be released this Spring. The rest of the guides, aimed at young professionals, geeks, non-profit leaders, parents and educators, will be published annually in whatever order the market tells us it wants to see them.  As we release the books, we will also offer Confidence Clinics for these specific audiences.

In addition to this work, I will continue to write a monthly column for Wisconsin Woman magazine and re-activate my blog. What’s coming next?  I can’t wait to see!

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