Psychologist and co-founder of Big Self School, dr. Shelley Prevost, shares her learnings from building an online business during a pandemic
Big Self School was started by us, Chad and Shelley Prevost. We are partners in business and life, corralling children and pets and ideas about what it means to live a meaningful life. We are champions of self-knowledge, practitioners of vulnerability, and guardians of the soul.
Chad (PhD, MA, MDiv) has advanced degrees in creative writing, literature, and theology. Being married to a psychotherapist has been another education. A workshop leader and entrepreneur, he has started and participated in writing and literary arts communities in New York, Austin, Atlanta, and Chattanooga. He also has experience writing as a journalist for startups in tech and logistics. He is the author of several books of poetry, as well as interactive-fiction for youth. Over the years, he has innovated writing processes to foster reflection and insight, narrative strength, and authentic voice.
Shelley (EdD, LPC-MHSP) is a licensed therapist, educational psychologist, angel investor, TEDx speaker, and Enneagram coach & trainer. After working as a business psychologist and startup executive for the past 10 years, she has come back to her roots in positive psychology and promoting her belief that psychology is “soul work.” Modern psychology, in its attempt to systematically diagnose disorders and quash symptoms, has divorced the soul almost entirely from understanding psychological health. Through Big Self School, she hopes to change that. She believes that we experience life as whole humans and that arbitrary barriers exist between the roles in work and life and parenting and friendships. The goal of our human experience is an authentic integration of all these parts of ourselves, which begins in a deep and abiding sense of self. Only when we know and appreciate ourselves can we rejoin our soul with our roles.
Chad, a poet and educator, was frustrated living a divided life. First, it was teaching way too much English Composition, then it was covering the freight industry.
Shelley, a technology startup executive, spent a year recovering from burnout and wanted to shepherd others on a different path toward fulfillment and meaning.
Together, we share a belief that developing a healthy self is the birthplace for emotional maturity, enduring relationships, stable parenting, meaningful work and leaving a legacy we’re proud of. We decided to formalize our teaching and experience into an online learning community and Big Self School was born.
— the idea that we have a higher self and a lower self. The Big Self — based on truth -- is our soul, God, the Universe, mystery, and essence. The Little self is “I” — it’s how we identify ourselves — our physical body, our demographics, race, gender, religion, even our personality, beliefs and attitudes.
We believe we all have a Big Self and pursuing it is holy work. We also believe that most of us let fear persuade us not to pay attention to it. So we stay in this vicious cycle between fear and entrapment that keeps us playing small.
But when we combine an insatiable curiosity to know our true self with the courage to pursue our bold ideas, we get closer and closer to our Big Self. This is our higher consciousness, but it’s also embracing the audacity to impact the world with our gifts.
For as long as I can remember, I have felt called to make a positive contribution to humanity. We all have that persistent nudge at the center of our heart that prods us to ask the question,
“Who am I, and why am I here?”
I believed that if I figured out the answer to the question, then life would click into place and I would begin living my purpose.
I studied a lot of psychology - earning three degrees along the way including a doctorate in counseling psychology - with the expectation that my purpose was unfolding in front of me. I would settle into a career that reflected the work I was called to do and all would be well forever after.
Life had other ideas.
Three months after I received my doctorate degree, I left my private therapy practice to begin uncharted work as the Director of Happiness at a venture capital firm. Think of me as a life coach for entrepreneurs.
For four years, I had a front row seat to the mental and physical distress that founders endure while building their companies. The range of emotions and behaviors was wide - everything from sleep deprivation to suicidal thoughts. I saw it all.
In this work with entrepreneurs, and as I spent more time around tech startups, I noticed one glaring theme - they were all men. Where were the women? Why weren’t they pitching their companies or raising money?
As a response to these questions, I co-founded the JumpFund, an angel fund that invests startup capital into women-led companies.
Around this time I was invited to deliver a TEDx talk in Barcelona. I shared one simple message -- "Lead Like a Girl." Don’t subscribe to the idea that leadership in a technology startup (or any business for that matter) has to look one way -- decidedly masculine. Embrace the characteristics that make you a badass female leader. Don’t apologize for leading with compassion, collaboration, equanimity and empathy. These are your gifts. Use them in spades.
Leading like a girl was much harder in practice than the talk I gave in Barcelona.
Climbing the Wrong Ladder
In 2014, I started a hardware technology company to solve a huge problem I faced as a parent - video game obsession in my children. Professionally, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. For almost four years I was first in line to the circus act of hustling, grinding and fighting, believing I would succeed in spite of all the headwinds too numerous to name.
The experience brought me to my knees with the deepest exhaustion I’ve ever experienced.
I never worked so hard in my life - endless 80 hour weeks, four solid months of sleeping 3-4 hours a night, working Thanksgiving and Christmas days, sacrificing precious family time all the time.
I remember Thanksgiving Day 2016, I woke up and couldn't move my body out of the bed. My husband had to physically move my legs from under the covers and help me stand up. Overnight, it was like I'd turned into an old woman. I went to several doctors only to find I had been having recurring flare ups of the Epstein-Barr virus for the previous year and apparently this last one was the most acute.
I'd spent the past couple of years marinating in cortisol. To cope, I was washing down a couple of Benadryls with a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc almost nightly, waking at 3 AM (unable to get back into a deep sleep), and then on to a full day of CEO-ing. Rinse and repeat.
It finally caught up with me, and my body's immune system didn't have a chance.
It Shouldn't Be This Hard
After three years of operating my company, the money dried up, the product still didn't work consistently, the team was falling apart, investors wanted out, and I was a shell of a person. My skin was intact, but not much else.
It would be another six months before I finally dissolved the company.
This experience left me with debilitating burnout, compounded by unbearable humiliation, that would take a full year to recover from. The physical stress of those few years was potent, but it was the emotional stress that caused the most damage. I was left with a large dose of mistrust in myself and other people, some deeply damaged relationships, a profound sense of shame, and a mangled identity.
In that year of recovery, I wrestled hard with my ego. I came to terms with my expert status at rationalization. For many years, to live with an over-active ego, I convinced myself the sacrifices I made to my health and relationships were necessary to the "noble work" I was doing. But with the clarity that comes with solitude and silence, it became clear that the ladder I was climbing was "leaning against the wrong wall."
It shouldn't be this hard.
Becoming My Big Self
At first, I managed to ignore my midlife identity crisis by digging in the dirt, cleaning closets, and eating Zoodles. Exercise and girlfriends and books saved me, as did writing and solitude and my saint of a husband, Chad. My kids were "proud of me anyway," which was sweet but only served as a reminder that I had, indeed, failed.
But it was my constant companion, Jake the dog, who was calm and happy and uncritical, all the things I couldn't be.
Whenever I got into severe self-criticism I remember Jake was there to lick my hand.
I would cry, judge myself some more: Now you're just being weak. Failure and burnout is common in startups. You're being a victim. Dust yourself off and get back out there.
Jake would sigh, close his eyes, and show me how to rest. Jake's non-anxious presence was a gift. It was as if God himself came to sit with me on my back porch, every day in the form of a dog.
I can’t point to an exact moment, but from a perspective that only comes with time’s healing I began to realize that it was time to let my life tell me what it wanted to do with me.
I was exhausted from being dragged around by the ego's claims on my life -- over-identification with my career, status, wealth, prestige. I was done with the white-knuckle approach. My ego had brought me to my knees, now I was able to stand up and start walking.
Burnout is the symptom of a sinister cultural mandate to build a career before you listen for a calling. It tells us once you start building that career, you can never stop. Keep pushing. Work harder. Winners are hustlers, so keep hustling.
This is especially true for high achievers. I now believe that if you really want to live YOUR life purpose, you must be suspicious of this mandate. In fact, you must be audaciously counter-cultural.
Life purpose isn’t about attaining anything. Our purpose is about staying awake long enough to see who we really are, and the gifts we can offer to the world. Our purpose has a way of moving us into places we never considered out of its insistence that we grow as humans. All of it can be used to bring our true gifts into the world.
And the ego is not the enemy. Unconscious identification with the ego is the enemy. It keeps you from your True Self. It keeps your greatest gifts disguised or underground in the pursuit of the next shiny object.
But ego in service to soul, that's the good stuff. That's the gold. That is home and what we're all journeying toward.
This brings me to my work with you.
My ego had to fail me so that I could set out to find a better way. Your ego will fail you, too. Maybe it already has. I can't protect you from failing and falling, nor should I, but I can walk alongside you as you live the questions that take you smack dab to the center of your truth.
The path I'm now on - living and working where ego sits in service to my soul, not the other way around - is so much better. There's an ease to it. I want that ease for you, too.
I’m committed to working with wholehearted high-achievers -- the ones who can’t and won’t trade in their big ambitions for a peaceful and happy life. They must co-exist.
People always ask, “What do I want to be?”
We rarely ask, “Who am I already?”
This is the Big Self Way.
Discover wellness that works. Ground yourself in daily practices -- like mindfulness, self-compassion, gratitude, and play -- that will sustain your work for the long-haul.
See your courage take flight. Discover where fear and resistance hold you back and how small movements add up to bold action.
We're stronger together. Learn the building blocks of trust and empathy to more deeply connect with the people in your life.
Wage truth with yourself. Big Self work starts with radical self-inquiry that leads to next level self-knowledge.
"My experience in the bootcamp with Shelley has helped to propel me forward in a few different aspects of my life! I'm forever grateful for her and her work with discovering my Big Self. I am always a work in progress, and will be for the rest of my life, but one of the biggest discoveries I made was all about SELF-AWARENESS. This is something that I believe most people never gain over their entire lifetimes, the lack of it allows people to just get by, settle for less, live small and/or never ever live up to their own potential.
Emotionally, I can look at myself with fresh eyes, not beat myself up over life choices, past relationships or career choices because I know I'm here due to the choices I've made along the way and with what information I had up to that point. I accept myself more now after "studying" myself."
"Your work in Big Self has been so helpful to me and could not have come at a better time. In just these few short weeks I have felt more grounded, secure, and enlightened and it has enabled me to move beyond obstacles that I have been struggling with for years. I feel as though I am coming around the bend and on the verge of a great many things. The final frontier is really the internal journey and worth the time and investment. My spirit and potential has been re-awakened, the future is bright, and your work has been such a blessing to me. Thank you."
“Shelley’s workshops are a wonderful respite in this current storm. She has a calming, nurturing presence and works hard to include and encourage everyone’s perspectives and experiences in the group. It is a relief to share the anxieties of this crisis with others who are all experiencing it slightly differently, but there are common themes across all of us. Shelley helps weave these together and guides us to explore the fears and emotions behind our anxiety and offers ways to help bring us to a calmer state. She is also very real and present, even online, and shares many of her own concerns, anxiety, and vulnerability which is refreshing. Thank you Shelley for your guidance, love and support!”
Psychologist and co-founder of Big Self School, dr. Shelley Prevost, shares her learnings from building an online business during a pandemic
You don't need to erase your inner critic - only understand it and put it into perspective.