Katherine Emmons | The Non-Linear Road to a Dream

Share this post:

Katherine Emmons and I connected over Twitter several months ago.  Intrigued by her background as a consultant to non-profits who helps them clarify their strategy, I asked if she might guest blog about her dream and how she has mapped to it via her proprietary one-pager.  Katherine is a terrific example of how to dream for yourself, even as you help others achieve their dreams.

As we moved from Detroit to New Jersey on our honeymoon, I probably should have realized that the road to my dream was going to be non-linear — linked, for better or for worse, to the career trajectory of my beloved spouse. Every time “we” received a promotion or his company merged or spun-off, I ended up merging or spinning-off in a new direction too. We have moved five times in twenty years, a winding road that represents a whole lot of re-grouping, re-packing, schlepping and flexing, and, if I’m being honest, a lot of head-spinning, teeth-gnashing and tear-shedding as well.

Along with the resistance and heartache of saying good-bye however, each place also presented a palate of new experiences and opportunities.  Turns out, the dominant strands neatly group themselves geographically and occupationally into three general buckets as detailed below and in the accompanying visual “Overview.”

Bucket #1: Design — Detroit, MI (A) and New York City (B) — I worked as an art director, first at an ad agency in Detroit; … then on the East Coast for Conran’s Design Group (Terrance Conran’s housewares empire was the kitschy, British “it” aesthetic in the 80s); … and then, for in-house publications at Tiffany and Co. (truly the stuff of dreams … walking up Fifth Avenue each morning past the intricately decorated windows and into the iconic art deco building was magical). In addition to being immersed in ridiculously incredible work environments, this period afforded me the opportunity to hone my design sensibilities and learn the value of hard work and high standards..

Bucket #2: Psychology — Los Angeles, CA (C) and Phoenix, AZ (D) — Relocating to Los Angeles and then Phoenix addressed aspects of family and quality of life. As we were having the first of our two girls, the reality of the innocence of children and a real need for flexible hours led me to visions of a private counseling practice and pursuit of a Master’s degree in Psychology. This shift made sense, as the process of visually articulating the essence of a brand through design uses the same skill sets as those used to uncover the essence of a person. During this time I got good at asking questions, listening to answers, acquired a new respect for the complexity of the individual, and was unexpectedly inspired to dart down a side road into a social-entrepreneurial venture – the thrust of what would become Bucket #3.

Bucket #3: Nonprofit — Cleveland, OH (E) and Minneapolis, MN (F) As it happens, the skill set for articulating a brand and uncovering the essence of a person is also the skill set used to formulate a compelling case for initiatives in the nonprofit sector. Spurred by a Master’s paper on children and prosocial behavior, I founded nonprofit organization, Artworks Children’s Foundation. Based on the premise “Children helping children through art,” Artworks’ participants gained an understanding of the needs of others, channeled support to causes they cared about (food, clothing, health, education, etc.), experienced themselves as helpful, and received recognition for being a good artist and good person – win-win-win.


The learning here was deep for me as well. In addition to gaining a greater understanding of social issues and grappling with the day-to-day operations of a nonprofit start-up, the Artworks’ experience taught me how to write grants — a skill that fueled the journey to where I am today.

Fast forward – After working with nonprofit organizations to develop grant proposals for ten years, I have come upon a clearing in the road … a place where each of the three “experience buckets” converge to create a new fourth thing – a process and tool that I call the Strategic Overview Platform.

As a visual thinker (Bucket #1), I would often block out grant initiatives in a quick simple diagram to get my head wrapped around all of the moving parts. Pretty soon, the project development teams would be looking for “that boxy diagram” … and pointing to the part of the process they wanted to talk about or develop further. I’d ask them more about that in the context of the team dialogue (Bucket #2), and before we knew it, a clear articulation of the project and its value proposition (Bucket #3) was co-created by the group and captured on one page. The Strategic Overview Platform was born.

The applications for the visual Overview tool have proven to be broad and exciting! I have used the customized process to help clients of all types and sizes nail down the particulars of their concepts, projects or entire organizations in a variety of subject areas including education, communications, wealth management and entrepreneurial ventures. Recently, I have also begun to use the Overview framework as a visual resume or dashboard for personal goal-setting to coach individuals around their competencies, context and potential – basically, helping them create a foundation for their dreams.

So, here in the clearing, all of those life/career fragments that I have been dragging from place to place for so many years have cosmically aligned themselves around what has become my resonant area of professional “practice” – the design (Bucket #1) is there in the visual presentation of information; psychology (Bucket #2), in the fact finding dialogue required to surface and sift for meaningful information, perspective and inspiration; and the nonprofit piece (Bucket #3) in articulating a unique and compelling values-based rationale. The visual Overview framework is a current state snap-shot that gets individuals, teams and organizations ideologically and operationally “on one page.”

The Take-Away:  Seth Godin is mostly right when he notes that the past can be presented in a “neat coherent arc,” while the future is nothing but messy. Looking back, it all makes sense, but as I was living the meandering path from point A to point B (and C, D, E and F), I found myself hacking through field after field of tall, dense unfamiliarity before any semblance of “neat and coherent” kicked in (this before hacking was considered cool). Upon reflection, I am surprised to find that in spite of my erratic process, the current scenario is looking way closer to my ideal “dreamscape” than I ever would have imagined: thriving family; great friends; and unique, exciting work that resonates with my gifts and fits into a design-driven, but also socially relevant niche.

As you head into the “neat coherent arc” of your life/career path, consider that all of those seemingly random twists and turns are points along the way that will add up to your own unique value-add. Every new place is a golden opportunity to uncover the next new dimension of yourself, learn the next new thing, encounter fascinating networks of people, and ultimately, to access the insight and inspiration of synchronicity that will enrich and expand your own evolving dreamscape.

How has your life been non-linear?

Have you ever done some head-spinning and tear-shedding as you helped your loved ones pursue their dreams?


Have you signed up for the monthly update so that you can get an easily digestable version of our thoughts on dreaming and doing?

Share this post:

Contact Us

Fill out this form and we will follow up to create a customized plan to help you build a smart growth organization.

Media & Press Inquiries

including requesting Whitney as a guest on your podcast

Media & Press Inquiries arrow_forward

Gain insight into growth, adaptability and agility

Download our free resources outlining the Accelerants of Growth—including books, podcasts and TEDtalks to help you move up your S Curve of Learning.