Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Ann Sheybani: A Woman in Motion

     You can’t miss her. And you’ll struggle to keep up.

     The Gortex-clad marathoner charging ahead, the striking blonde in a strapless gown cutting through the crowd at the Barristers’ Ball, Ann Sheybani leads something of a charmed life, and she knows it.  And while she’s grateful for all she has, she’s run a long, challenging path to get there.

     Married for seven years to Walt Hampton, an attorney, executive coach, speaker, writer, and fellow “adventurer,” Ann is the founder of Starting Over, which offers personal coaching and programs for women in transition.  When they met, both were single parents juggling the care and feeding of teenagers, demanding careers, as well as a desire to be and do more.  In each other, you could say, they found on their very best match.

     They honeymooned in Ireland and fell in love with the quiet, the pace of life, and the beauty of the landscape.  They now divide their time between Canton, CT, and a seaside home in Castletownshend in County Cork, where most of their neighbors get around on four hooves.  But Vermont and New Hampshire are frequent, favorite playgrounds for running and climbing getaways; two of their children reside in the Green Mountain state, and another attends Lyndon State College.

     Walt and Ann are powerful examples of building a life you love: the essence of their coaching. Together they’ve climbed Denali, Aconcagua, and Kilimanjaro; they sail and tango and scuba dive as a team. Both have forged successful businesses helping others to reach their personal “summits” and goals.

    Ann, who holds a Masters in Creative Writing and Literature from Harvard, speaks most personally and persuasively to women seeking change. In her writing and presentations, she refers often to staying “one step ahead” on the gravel road of life, of learning from past experiences and from the stories of those who’ve blazed the trail ahead. Given her devotion to daily, life-affirming running, her use of that metaphor is truly well earned.

To an outsider, you look like a woman “on top of the world” in more ways than one. But the route you took held plenty of obstacles.  Tell us about where you were in your life when you decided to start running, and what benefits you discovered right off. 
      Once upon a time I was an aimless girl who twisted herself into a little pretzel to win over a man. He was a decent man, with his own complexes and flaws, who led me down the primrose path into the Islamic Republic of Iran. This did not go well.

     Five years later, and a whole lot smarter, I returned to the United States with two young children to start life over. At the age of 34, I had to figure out who I was, and what I wanted. I had to stop running from my self.
     I was divorced, fat, unemployed and scared because I had no idea which step I needed to take next. I clung to my kids like a hobo to a ham sandwich because being a Mom was the only thing in my life that give me a sense of purpose. I hung around other divorced women who only knew how to complain. They clung to the past and refused to move on.
     Without realizing it at the time, I began the journey back to myself with running.  What started as a weight loss gimmick—I’d packed on 20 lbs.— evolved into a spiritual transformation. Running gave me, for the very first time, confidence, pride, space, and the ability to cope. Running became a me thing; a time to listen to the wind, the slap of my feet, the sound of my breath. I could hear my own voice.
     After a few years I discovered marathon running, and with that, the joy of the job well done. I learned how to handle pain and give an improbable effort, and to do it all alone. For the first time in my life, I began to feel whole. I realized that one step at a time was all that was needed. That I didn’t have to know how I would do it, I just needed to start. And to carry on.  Running was what the author George Sheehan described as my “proving ground.”
       Through running, I finally figured out what I couldn’t when I was young: to be an adult, a whole integral person, we have to make mistakes, get off course, endure discomfort, and doubt ourselves. We have to endure. The knowledge that we can reach a finish line despite the setbacks is what puts the strut in our step.
And now? What’s your running routine? What long-term benefits have you enjoyed?
     Five mornings a week, Walt and I get up at the crack of dawn and head out the door.  On weekdays we run about six miles.  On Saturdays, we run long, which is a habit we formed when training for marathons and ultra-marathons.  Marathons, by the way, are all 26.2 miles long.  Ultra marathons can range from 50 k (32 miles) to over 100 miles, depending on the race. We run early to beat the summer heat, and to benefit from a set routine.  Decide once, and you don’t have to go through the should-I-or-shouldn’t-I game each and every morning. Start down that path, and you’ll never go out. It’s far easier to remain in bed.
     Walt is the perfect running partner. For miles we say nothing. We get lost in our own heads.  Sometimes we talk about the day, or hash out our problems.  Sometimes we deconstruct all of Western literature. Because we share the ritual, our bond is constantly tightened.
     And while that's a lovely byproduct, running, for me, is about so much more:  Running allows me to be selfish.  Other people’s needs--from 6AM to 7, anyway--get tragically ignored. I get to think about what I want to think about, or I get to blank out and just breathe. I am at no one’s beck and call.
     As an anxious sort, running allows me to expend nervous energy, to calm the hell down.  Leave it for a few days and I become a tiger pacing its cage. Without the relief valve, and the endorphins, I’d likely self-medicate with something far less beneficial, like half a box of Dunkin Donuts.  Oh yes, running helps me manage my weight. It’s not carte blanche to eat whatever I want, but it sure helps.
     And probably most importantly, running put that strut in my step all those years ago.  That confidence, something I never had when I was young, never went away after my first marathon.  I earned my red Super Power cape, and I’ve never taken it off. This confidence has changed everything about my life.
You mentioned how your commitment to running provided a “spiritual transformation” as well as physical.
     I used to say I was about as spiritual as an Egg McMuffin. But I have become deeply aware of a bigger force at work in our lives. And I feel a need for a bigger connection; that was something I missed in my early years. I’m not sure what that looks like yet. But I do know that I can’t control it all.
With your husband, you’ve climbed several major peaks and run ultra-marathons. Clearly you push one another to meet greater and greater goals. I’m curious if you are openly competitive with one another. What happens when one of you reaches a goal the other cannot?
     Years ago, when I was looking for a partner on Match, I put up a profile describing who I really was and what I was looking for in a man.  I thought of it as a sort of buyer beware disclaimer. As a high-achiever, an athlete, a writer, and a dyed-in-the-wool nut job, I was overjoyed when I met a man skewed much the same way.
     At a certain point in one’s life, it pays off in dividends to know what you need, and what motivates you to perform. For both Walt and I, friendly competition has been a catalyst for producing results. As juvenile as it may be, we often challenge each other with outrageous trash talk: Which one of us will finish the race first? Who will complete the book and publish before the other? What horrible things would losing to the other prove?   
     Silly or not, you’d be surprised how hot the flame gets under one’s backside, how much the need to put the other in his or her place can inspire action.
     And neither of us likes to lose.  Neither of us likes to feel we haven’t lived up to expectations, or done our best. In other words, friendly competition is a double-edged sword.
     There comes a point, particularly when important projects have not gone as hoped—i.e. Walt has finished the VT 50 while I lay in a heap, weeping, at mile 34—when it pays to drop the taunting and offer the other solace and hope.  These are the times to sit down together and laugh at the egos involved.
     The interesting thing about one of us “winning,” the other “failing” is that you can usually see why events shook out the way they did. One of us—namely Walt— is usually more willing than the other—that would be me— to put in the time and energy to create the result. Sometimes, it’s just so much easier to acknowledge this fact instead of licking your wounds

You switched course in your 40s: you went back to school, founded a writing workshop, and launched a career as a personal coach, having studied with well-know motivational author and speaker Tony Robbins. What exactly does a personal coach do?
     People spend time with me.  We talk, either on the phone or in person. Sometimes we talk for just an hour or two.  Sometimes we talk for an hour every other week for a year or more.
      During this time I listen deeply to what is said, and what is not said. I point out what they’re not seeing (or can’t see). We talk about the things they’re struggling with—relationships, business, parenting, the creative life—and we deep dive into what they really want, what they’re “doing it all” for. 
     I help them decide what they really want by asking powerful questions.  Then I shut up long enough for them to work it out. And I tell my clients what no one else would dare to say. It’s a delicate balance.
     Once we determine where the gap lies between how things are and how they’d like them to be, we work together to come up with an action plan consisting of specific, realistic steps. Because change can be scary, I remind them why they’re doing it and hold them accountable to their word.
       What I actually do is help my clients see their world differently.  Because when you help someone see their world differently, their world changes. And miracles occur.

You’ve participated in many seminars with Robbins, including his Mastery University and Unleash the Power programs. Robbins – who coaches on setting “SMART” goals that are “specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time sensitive” -- has his students walk barefoot across a patch of smoldering coals to bolster self-confidence. Do you urge your clients to get off the couch, set physical goals, as they tackle career or personal challenges?
     Because running switched everything up for me, I used to believe that by accomplishing an audacious physical goal, life would dramatically improve for everyone else on the planet if they did the same. I’ve been a firm believer that, if you want self-esteem, you have to earn it the old fashioned way, by doing something big—like running a marathon—to impress your self.
     And while I’ll always cling to these notions to some extent, I’ve come to realize, having worked with lots of people, that accomplishing something huge isn’t always the fix to what ails an individual. Sometimes the opposite is true.  Sometimes people have to release those god-awful expectations they have of themselves and find some inner peace.
     Because I’ve been very open about the challenges I’ve faced as the adult child of an alcoholic, I attract, among others, a lot of ACOA’s. After all, we learn best from people who understand our demons, who’ve dealt with the very same issues, most of them involving boundaries.
     Some of my clients could fill an entire showroom with their blue ribbons, medals, and trophies.  Thanks to their dysfunctional upbringing, they’ve accomplished more than ten Olympians put together, and to them, it’s still not enough. They’re still not enough.
     I want to tell you about a young woman named Kristina.  A few years back, she approached me for coaching because, unhappy and overwhelmed, she suspected that she was having some of the issues I’ve referenced.
    A top performer at so multiple levels, Kristina was working at a job she despised.  She felt trapped by an unscrupulous boss, and she couldn’t figure out how to set herself free without displeasing this jerk.
     This is what happens when you’re raised without boundaries. You don’t realize that it’s your j-o-b to take care of your self, not sacrifice your well-being because someone else whines. You don’t learn that healthy boundaries are all about knowing what is yours, and what belongs to other people. What is your responsibility, and what is theirs.
     Sometimes all we need to let go of crazy is to hear this truth. Sometimes, all we need is the reality check that we’re not selfish, or mean, or immature.
     Since that time Kristina has released herself, and turned her passion and serious talent into an exciting business. A sponsored athlete, ultra-marathoner, and personal trainer, she now offers group running lessons, customized training plans for intermediate to advanced runners, and women’s trail running camps through her White Mountain Running Company.
You say you are “obsessed with facing down fear.” Can you speak to how fear can keep some of us, especially women used to catering to the needs of others, from discovering what we want out of life and living our dreams?

     I talk to a lot of women’s groups about the importance of reconnecting with our dreams and desires.  Because, as nurturers, we tend to forget what gives us pleasure.  We’re so busy taking care of everyone else—seeing that our kids, partners, bosses, and friends get their needs met—that we forget about ourselves. (Yes, men are often guilty of this, too.) And I find that it’s universally embarrassing to admit that you don’t have the faintest clue what rocks your world. And yet the forgetting thing is so common.

     Society rewards us (women) for being nurturers, which confuses us when we want to do something for ourselves instead of others. When we forget who we are and what we want, we have to find our identities again, or reinvent them, and this can be hard.
     Finding an identity and a focus is tough. I know women who’ve stayed in bad marriages, and this includes me, because the idea of going out on one’s own, of finding the right path (as if there’s only one), of having no one else to blame when you come up short, feels far more uncomfortable. The journey required looks way too daunting. But at some point we have to stop running away from our selves. We have to figure out who we are, and what we want
     I do believe that you can have a lot more.  There are some really valuable tricks of the trade when it comes to having it all—drawing boundaries, saying no, asking for help, delegating, repurposing, drop kicking perfectionism, and so on, and so forth.  (I coach on this topic.) When you don’t do these things, you sabotage yourself.

Tell us about East Hill Writers’ Workshops, which you founded with fellow writers Anne Batterson and Sherry Horton. 

     About four years ago, Anne, Sherry, and I were asked to talk to Tunxis University students about the writing process. We had such a blast that we decided to start a writers’ workshop of our own. We opened shop, put up posters, and soon had ten students for our first workshop. We worked with blossoming writers who wanted to start novels, kids' books, and memoirs. Some of these writers have stayed with us all these years, and many have seen publication of books and stories.
     We've grown so much, we hired another instructor. This spring we’re offering one workshop for beginning writers; another for intermediate: and an intensive, limited-enrollment revision workshop.  And we’re still having a blast!

Who are your favorite authors?

     Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird. Mary Karr, who wrote the memoir, The Liar’s Club. David Sedaris makes me laugh my ass off. And Cormac McCarthy, for the sheer beauty of the writing.

While you’re at work on a memoir -- A Lost Girl’s Guide to Iran, which will appear next year -- you are best known for your blog, Things Mama Never Taught Me.  Much of your writing is deeply personal and provocative; some of it seems almost intended to shock. Is there a cost for being so forthright?
     You’ll discover, if you haven’t already, that a lot of us who choose to write memoir come from dysfunctional families.  We’re taught from childhood not to reveal our family secrets.  We’re told, “Don’t air dirty laundry.”  We’re discouraged from telling the truth even amongst family members. Even to ourselves!
     I believe that we’re as sick as our secrets. I didn’t want to be sick anymore.
     I believe that in order to get what we want most in life—connection with others—we have to have the courage to tell the truth, regardless of who will disapprove. We have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable.  We have to risk opening ourselves up to criticism.
     To own your own opinions, your own story, is to set yourself free.
     Everything changed in my life when I stopped hiding who I really am/was. The world opened up and I grew to approve of myself, even though I sometimes put others off.
     Putting yourself out there is the best exercise there is for standing in your own power. And there are consequences to writing about yourself and others. Don’t kid yourself.
      Your kids, your parents, your cousins, some of your friends, are not going to like what you have to say.  And that’s OK.
     My mom read something I wrote years ago and got her nose out of joint. She made the decision not to read my work; which freed me up. But, machismo aside, it doesn’t make me feel good to know she disapproves.
     More importantly, I believe my honesty hurt my kids. I write about very adult topics, about my relationship with their dead father, and some of the things I've revealed have been far too much for them to take.  I believe the revelation that their Muslim father took a second wife while he was married to me changed the course of my daughter’s life In particular.
     Pleased with my ability to write about the painful subject, I showed my daughter the story, somehow forgetting that she'd be reading something awful she didn't know about her dead father.  For a long time she was hurt and angry with her dad, a man who had always made her feel adored and protected, because he'd hurt me, a woman he'd deeply loved.
     And I believe--and really, what do I know--that in order to forgive him the act, she embraced the one thing that had allowed him to justify his actions, the practice of Islam. Months after reading my story, my daughter began praying five times a day; fasting during the holy months; and eschewing dating, drinking and premarital sex. To feel safe in a world she could no longer trust, she became very rigid. So, as you can see, there are some things I wish I could take back.  Sometimes there is a big cost.
    Over the years, I’ve had a wonderful outpouring of support and love from readers.  I learned that what I had to say—as hard as much of it was for me to do so—made a positive difference in their lives. 
     For this reason alone I will often tell my writing students this: Your REAL audience is desperately waiting for you to put into words what they are feeling, what they are yearning to hear. They are waiting for you.

This column appears in the June 2014 issue of The North Star Monthly.  Visit their site:


  1. Denise and Ann I don't know why I'm sitting here in full face dripping tears. This article didn't make me sad. It's probably that truth is brutal. I could barely put the article down to pour myself a cup of coffee. Now you have me hooked!

    1. Truth is brutal. It's also the only thing that will set you free.

  2. Hi, Sue -- Thanks so much for reading. Tears can come from many sources. And I'm not so sure that truth is necessarily brutal . .. it can be an awakening, a release, and welcome as those things can be, fear comes along for the ride, too. The trick I think is to assess, redirect, and yet be gentle and non-judgmental with yourself -- as you would be with others. You're the only you you have . . .