Sue Shanahan | Learning to Dream What I Want

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Artist Sue Shanahan reached out to me after reading about Dare, Dream, Do on Brene Brown‘s site (thank you Brene!).  As Sue and I e-mailed back-and-forth, she shared that a high school counselor told her she couldn't be an artist. The counselor's words nagged at Sue for years, and until recently subtly held her back.  In the interim, Sue has tried to open up the world for her daughter's dreams; she is now beginning to do the same for her own.  Enjoy!

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“There is something in every one of you that waits and listen for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all your life spend your days on the end of strings that somebody else pulls. — Howard Thurman

The first memory I have of myself painting was when I was in kindergarten. I was working on a profile of a woman with blond hair, wearing a red dress. My teacher was so astonished at the level of my skill she brought the rest of the faculty in to watch me. When I ran home and showed my creation to my mother, she barely gave it a glance before she discarded it. Today, I believe she had a personality disorder and didn't have the capacity to be supportive. I really struggled searching for the courage to live my dream of being an artist. Part of me believed I was gifted, and the other half thought I was delusional.

Preparing for college, I informed my high school counselor that my sights were set on a career as an artist. She assured me that wasn’t realistic. No, my future had teacher or nurse, stamped across it. I was heartsick. Even though I didn't argue her prediction, my mind still whispered, “Someone is going to do it. Why not you?” That thought is was what lead me, at 17, to begin reading books by Norman Vincent Peale, the father of positive thinking. His message fueled my longings and gave me the determination not to abandon them. Holding on to my gift is one of the triumphs of my life. I could have so easily accepted what the adults in my world told me. As time unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear — authority figures don’t know everything.

When I became a parent, my joy couldn’t be contained. The love I felt for my children made my mother's lack of interest in me even more obvious. One thing was certain, I would make sure my kids knew they mattered.

The girl in the illustration is my daughter, Bridget, when she was 21. She sits on a moon composed of her dad’s chagrin. Yes, that is his face embedded in it, and those are her words waltzing across the sky. Bridget was born with a sense of determination. At 3 years old, when I told her I was the boss, she exclaimed, “I’m the boss too!” At that moment, I made a pact with myself to protect that fire in her. I wanted her to believe she could do anything. I wanted her to know that her hopes and aspirations were important, and nothing could stand in her way of achieving them.

"I Do What I Want" by Sue Shanahan

I Do What I Want” by Sue Shanahan

When she was in junior high, I took her and her cousin to the Oprah Winfrey Show. We were in the audience for an episode on girl’s self-esteem. I hoped they’d make the connection that Oprah and her staff weren’t so different from them. Knowing that regular people do amazing things makes what we long to achieve more attainable. This first occurred to me when my children’s friends looked at my illustrations and couldn’t believe I had painted them. I again understood that the extraordinary always comes from the ordinary. Knowing that is what gives credence to the words, “Someone is going to do it. Why not me?”

Diane Sawyer and Sue's daughter Bridget Shanahan

Diane Sawyer and Sue's daughter Bridget Shanahan on ABC World News Tonight

Today Bridget is is still doing what she wants as a local television news anchor and reporter. Once she got the bug to be on TV, she never even considered it wasn't possible. She is a born communicator and loved being on air from day one. Bridget’s role model is Diane Sawyer. So in 2010, when the Oprah Winfrey Show requested recommendations for a “Harpo Hook-Up” show, I sent an email (okay, 33 emails) to her website telling her staff about Diane's influence on my daughter and how inspiring it would be for Bridget to meet her.

Sure enough, the Oprah Show hooked her up. Bridget got to sit in on ABC's World News as Diane's guest. It was one more opportunity for her to see that big things are accomplished by ordinary people. Most of all, what I yearned for Bridget to take away from that experience was that dreams do come true.

Because they do.

What were you told, either explicitly or implicitly, that you couldn't do?
How has that shaped you?
Are you facilitating your children's dreams?
Are you dreaming so your children will know how to dream?

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Sue Shanahan has spent her career as an artist bringing children to life in her portraits and picture books. Her portrait paintings hang in the private collections of Oprah Winfrey and Hillary Rodham Clinton.  Sue’s blog, Commonplace Grace, is regularly featured in the Huffington Post.

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