“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within…”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
I love my job. I can’t put into words how blessed I feel to have it. This particular work as a mental performance consultant to athletes in Flagstaff, Arizona, is my greatest gift. I am privileged to hear the stories of gorgeous young souls every day. I’m honored by the permission to explore their perspectives, and humbled by their willingness to hear mine. I’m granted more connection everyday in my office than any person could hope for. I love my job.
Once and awhile I’m asked, “how should I begin a career in sport psychology?” In some ways I’m probably the worst person to ask because my path to my current career was an unorthodox one. I did not follow a common academic route. I followed my gut, which, one unlikely turn after another led to here—a situation better than I ever imagined. But you know, I think that following our intuition one step at a time is the best way to find our purpose. So, with that in mind I might be a great person to ask about choosing a career path. The purpose of this piece is to encourage you to tap into your heart and follow it wherever it leads. Here’s a brief telling of my story to help you understand where I’m coming from:
The first of the unusual details on my path toward my current career is the fact that I did not begin college until I was twenty-nine. I rode horses professionally for over ten years, following a dream to become an Olympian. I did not fulfill my goal. However, I’m sure the journey I followed pursuing them led me through critical lessons that enabled me to do what I do today.
In 2012 I read a book called, Flourish, written by Martin Seligman. This was my introduction to Positive Psychology. I was captured by the core tenets of this field—to focus on what is best about us, to invest in relationships, and in projects rich with meaning and engagement. I learned about a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) offered at the University of Pennsylvania that taught these principles. MAPP is a very competitive and expensive program. Also, it doesn’t certify a graduate to do anything that would lead to a clear position of employment the way that, for instance, a masters in counseling would. I was thirty-two, Canadian, fairly broke, and one and a half courses into an online undergraduate degree. The wisdom of pursuing this academic path was questionable. But, I couldn’t shake my infatuation with the MAPP program.
I managed to complete my undergrad quickly, applied to MAPP, and was accepted. I moved in with my mother in order to be able to afford the flights to and from Philadelphia. I took on a student line of credit. Someone close to me told me that I was “F$#%ing stupid” to be taking this educational route. Sometimes I was afraid he was right, but I began the program anyway.
The same year that I applied to MAPP I traveled to Colorado to run in a six-day stage race called the Trans Rockies Run. A very serendipitous series of events led to me attending this race (too many to list). While I was there I met a group of runners from Flagstaff, Arizona. A warm and eclectic bunch, they embraced me. We spent a great deal of time together before parting ways. Almost immediately after meeting the Flagstaff group I had a strange intuition that these people were going to be a part of my life. I remember sitting on the plane leaving Colorado knowing that something had changed in my future. I returned to Vancouver, Canada (my hometown which I love), and knew that for the first time I had one foot out the door.
I need to remember that this is a blog, not a book. There are several more miracles that punctuated this incredible time of change. But, lets move on to the point of today: My MAPP degree was precisely the right choice. First on the list of beneficial qualities is the fact that MAPP is a one-year program (instead of the normal two to three years needed to complete a masters degree). This put me in the right place at the right time to be given the rare opportunity to work out of Hypo2 Sport in Flagstaff Arizona—a high altitude training center for elite athletes, and a major provider of services to Northern Arizona University. MAPP provided me with empirically supported strategies to use in my field, but also, and of equal importance, MAPP introduced me to friendship and business connections that enrich my life to this day.
Finally, and certainly my greatest gift from MAPP was the belief that my ideas have value, and that there’s a need for them to be developed and pursued. I have never been in an environment that cultivated appropriate self-belief so strongly, and it was this belief that served me the most as I set forth in my professional life. It is extremely unusual for someone of my eclectic background to have the opportunity to work with over three hundred athletes full time the way that I do. The belief and curiosity inspired in me by the MAPP program has empowered everything I’ve done since graduating. Step by step, following my intuition led me there, and now here.
So, whenever a young person looks me in the eye and asks about the wisest route, I look back with all the conviction I can muster, and I tell them to follow their heart. Yes, pursue the field of sport psychology if it calls you, for this is a wonderful profession. If you feel truly compelled, follow it no matter what others tell you. Follow it regardless of how impossible the circumstances stacked against you. Follow it in circles, and over mountains and across the world. That is the best advice I have to give.
I’m not the only one who advocates for following your heart…
It’s possible that you have read some of Brendon Burchard’s writing about “necessity.” He defines necessity as a drive that makes something a must as opposed to a preference. “Unlike weaker desires that make you want to do something,” he says, “necessity demands that you take action.” Burchard highlights necessity as a critical ingredient in becoming a high performer in any field. I agree, both because necessity creates a drive to work hard, but because it dictates that work be conducted in a specific direction, thus increasing the likelihood that one’s energy will be focused. My own intuition—my internal necessity—pulled me along an unorthodox course to precisely where I should be. The desire was so strong, I could almost say I had no choice in the matter. Something inside me insisted that the path I followed was necessary.
Eminent scholar and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, writes passionately in support of following your intuition (or “instinct” as he refers to it). Emerson asserts that this instinct is the first directive regarding the actions a person should take, and acknowledges that each person’s instinct calls him or her in a unique direction:
“In every [person’s] mind, some images, words, and facts remain, without effort on his part to imprint them, which others forget, and afterwards these illustrate to him important laws. All our progress is an unfolding, like the vegetable bud. You have first an instinct, then an opinion, then a knowledge, as the plant has root, bud, and fruit. Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no reason. It is vain to hurry it. By trusting it to the end, it shall ripen into truth, and you shall know why you believe.”
So, as we all step out into the fall sunlight, mysterious desires vibrating within, give them an ear, and consider following where they’re asking you to go.
About the Author
Shannon Thompson is a mental performance consultant who specializes in high performance sport. Shannon holds a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
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