Skip to content

Ally Isom: Level Up Your Plan B Skillz

Ally Isom gave the following keynote address at the St. George Chamber of Commerce Element Awards on March 26, 2021.

Isn’t it so wonderful to just be together? In the same room, rather than on a screen. As the vaccines roll out, I’m looking forward to more of this.

When it was announced that everyone 50 and older could be vaccinated, I got on the web to see when Eric and I could get an appointment. So I went to Coronavirus.utah.gov and they very clearly explain how to tell if you’re eligible:

For a moment, I paused. How did I feel about being lumped in with the “older crowd?” Honestly, liberated. In so many ways. But that’s a conversation we’ll have another time.

My 50th birthday party in June of 2020 was going to be an epic gathering of all the amazing women in my life. I started planning my guest list when I turned 49 and it’s in the hundreds—and I’ve easily added another couple hundred tonight! I wanted to be surrounded by those amazing women all at once — to feel that energy. I want them to meet each other.

Tonight’s gathering feels like the universe is offering me a bit of consolation for my party not happening. So I hope you don’t mind indulging me for just a minute… while I blow out my candle…

Perhaps Plan B will mean celebrating my fifty-FIRST birthday with all those friends…And that’s ok, right? COVID-19 has meant Plan B for ALL of us. Plan B for work. Plan B for education. Plan B for business. Plan B for vacations. You might have seen this man who actually prefers plan B. Don asked me to share the highlights of my journey and Plan B is the STORY OF MY LIFE! 

Plan B is the story of my life

As a small child, I knew there was a better way than my mother working three jobs. I set my sights on college and law school. But it felt futile to have dreams when every grade of elementary school we moved. Then junior high. Even high school. Thirteen times in all—Plan B.

When my parents couldn’t write a check, Plan B meant I raised money and sought sponsors for a summer program at Stanford or debate camp in D.C. So yes, Plan B made me resilient and resourceful. It taught me my voice has power.

Plan B meant I attended BYU instead of Northwestern. Plan B meant marrying my Jimmy Stewart-type Idaho farm-boy right after my freshman year of college, rather than after law school as I planned. We’ve been together for nearly 32 years now and I am grateful for my Eric Charles every single day—He’s definitely become PLAN A!

Plan B meant managing political campaigns in between four difficult pregnancies, then jumping into state government as an agency administrator. There I negotiated flexible hours to assure work-life balance and it enabled me to be home when my children were home—and there I learned I LOVE good public policy. I loved the process, the outcomes, the partnerships. I found there is opportunity in conflict and humans can tackle the toughest issues with civility and kindness.

Plan B meant a post as the Governor’s deputy chief of staff, communications director, and spokesperson. It was there I first met the whip-smart and hard-working Don Willie. In the Governor’s Office I felt a duty to speak for those without voice. And I felt a calling to speak truth to power—diplomatically, and directly, but candidly. 

That post was the convergence of all my academic and professional preparation, the nexus of politics, policy, communications. I was wired for that job. It started to feel like Plan A. But then, just as I was running full throttle, with sixteen-hour days, late nights, incessant media, constant motion, my brain always on—in 2012, Plan B again.

It meant the passing of our beautiful, brilliant, athletic 21-year-old daughter through life’s veil. Her health challenges became too much for her broken body. And everything changed when we said goodbye to our precious Alyssa. I spent the next year mostly in a fog, doing my best to help my family navigate grief, desperately trying to hold together the countless pieces of my shattered heart. 

After three years, it was time to leave the Governor’s Office. I felt there was something else for me. Plan B led me to six years at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where I first had responsibility for local community outreach, interfaith relations, women’s outreach, LGBTQ+ people, and racial understanding. Then I took a post as the first-ever head of global branding and oversaw a ground-breaking world-wide research project. As one of the few women in a major leadership role, I did my best to navigate a workplace in which I had never envisioned myself. 

Last spring when COVID hit, Plan B gave me a chance to wear my comfy pants six days a week and return to a role in the private sector as Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer for a local nanotech firm, EVŌQ Nano. Now, this girl who loathed college-prep chemistry and NEVER does math in her head gets to work with a crazy-smart science team, to tackle enormous global challenges, like antibiotic resistant-super bugs and cleaner lead acid batteries. And just this week, another unexpected frontier when I was named acting chief executive.

I’m seriously an expert’s expert on Plan B. I’d say I’m a Plan B VIRTUOSO. And that makes the control freak part of my brain twitch.

ISN’T THAT WONDERFUL? I’m so thankful for Plan B. Life has taught me so much. So let me ask you, knowing what you’ve learned since February 2020, what would you say to your pre-COVID self? Before you knew what severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 or SARS-CoV-2 even was. Before the world shut down. What wisdom would you share?

I have a couple big ones: 

1) Learn all you can about Zoom. 

2) Get comfortable wearing a mask. 

In all seriousness, wasn’t this pandemic—this past year—the BIGGEST PLAN B EVER? And how do we cope with all this Plan B-ishness? I think this mental exercise is truly interesting. It’s interesting because it then leads me to a better question: How will I live differently in a post-COVID world? I want to be very intentional about that. My pre-COVID default would be over-scheduled and sleep-deprived. How do I not go back to that? COVID taught me to take better care of myself, to spend more time in contemplation. OK, it didn’t break me of a serious infatuation with Diet Dr. Pepper with pebble ice, lime and coconut. But as I jump back into the world, how will I be different? How will I harvest the lessons of the past year? What will be different when we return to “normal?”

I wish to be very intentional about retaining all the good things.  Intentional – I find that’s a really important word when I find myself on a frontier. Being intentional is not accidental. It’s not imposed on me. It’s agentive. It’s self-directed. And when so many other things feel so beyond my control, being intentional helps me focus on my own purposes. So tonight, as the self-described Plan B virtuoso, I’m going to share something I started to intentionally do a few years ago. It’s a simple model with three basic principles. You don’t have to do it exactly the way I do it. I only share it because I want to invite you to intentionally plan your post-COVID life.

It’s kind of like a study I read about video gamers. I was interested in how they differentiated between intermediate and elite gamers. If I understand it correctly, elite gamers are adept at the use of “hotkeys.” Hotkeys are keyboard shortcuts that enable commands to be given quickly to groups of elements in the game. Less skilled players used hotkeys less. But all elite players made copious use of hotkeys, issuing up to 200 actions per minute.

So what I’m going to share with you is three hotkeys—Three ways to get the most out of life’s Plan B’s so that you, too, can become a Plan B virtuoso and “LEVEL UP YOUR PLAN B SKILLZ.” Before I share the first hotkey, I have to take you back a few years. When Eric and I got married 31 years ago, we were starving students, scraping by on $800 per month. To save money, we cut each other’s hair. Yes, that’s as bad as it sounds.

Fast forward about 25 years and, even though we made more than $800 per month, I was still cutting Eric’s hair. Now, living with your barber is really convenient, yes. But the barber gets a little grumpy when their client routinely needs said haircut on a Saturday night at 10 or 11pm. So, the girl who doesn’t do math in her head knew we had saved a meaningful amount of money over the years. And I was feeling a need to get more centered and grounded, as the Plan B’s in my life were taking a toll.

I posited, “OK, I’m seriously tired of cutting your hair.  I think you should go to a professional who actually knows what they are doing. We can certainly afford it now. But since you prefer I do it, I’ll cut your hair for the next year on one condition: I want a three-day silent retreat.” 

Eric said, “What? We aren’t going to talk to each other?”

I said, “Oh, no. Not we. Just me. Me alone in the mountains for three days.”

And thus began my annual personal retreat. I rent a little place in the mountains with high ceilings and big windows, luxurious towels and sheets, right by a creek. I sleep until I wake up. I eat when I’m hungry. I read, I write, I walk through the woods. I do yoga. I pray. I meditate. I contemplate. I write some more. The first year I journaled more than 50 pages and read two books. So good for my soul.

Let me explain how I spend my days. These are my hotkeys. These are the guiding principles I mentioned. And I’m pretty confident they work as we think about our life after COVID or after any kind of ginormous Plan B

The first hotkey: Practice gratitude

Practice gratitude is the theme for the first day of my silent retreat. No matter your faith tradition or spiritual practices, you can acknowledge ways in which grace or good fortune is evident in your life. Think about people, circumstances, opportunities and the growth you’ve experienced.

It really does something to your wiring when you pause and practice gratitude. Especially at 5am. Now, people who know me well know I’m not a morning person. On the mornings I go downstairs to face the treadmill before my brain awakens, I put on my shoes while I sit on the stair, Mr. Rogers-style. The walls of our basement stairs are lined with photos of the most important people in our hearts. Family by birth and family by choice.

As I lace up my shoes, I look at those walls, memories laced together, in those faces I adore, and so often I tear up. I am so moved by the lessons those people teach me. I savor little moments we’ve shared. I consider how our relationships have grown and changed. My body may not be thrilled to be vertical at that hour, but my heart is stirred in all the important ways as I consider how blessed I am to have those people in my life and in my heart.

One mental health expert wrote: 

By practicing gratitude we can handle stress better … By merely acknowledging and appreciating the little things in life, we can rewire the brain to deal with the present circumstances with more awareness and broader perception. (Madhuleena Roy Chowdhury, “The Neuroscience of Gratitude and How It Affects Anxiety & Grief, 3.9.21)

I have the same experience when I’m alone on the mountain. In my leather journal with a really good pen, I write the words “I am grateful” and then the thoughts flow.

The second hotkey: Inventory your insights

Simply put, what lessons has Plan B taught you? When COVID-19 first hit, I volunteered on a working group to help shape the state response strategy. As I was briefed on the situation, it was clear there would be no end soon. I asked myself, what do you want to be on the other end of this? What do you want to learn? How can you make the most of this? It was a conscious thought. Because I knew too well how life can change in an instant.

Throughout this past year, I learned to savor the little moments and points of connection. There are people we waited to hug, some of whom are no longer here. COVID introduced a lot of uncertainty in our lives. How we choose to respond and what we learn is key to personal growth.

I think what one relationship expert said is spot on:

Our flexibility as a species and the unpredictability of our world are locked in a timeless evolutionary dance: life changes so that we can grow in response. Uncertainty isn’t just part of life; it is life. (AJ Harbinger, “Five Questions You’d Better Be Asking Yourself,” Art of Charm) 

Uncertainty isn’t just part of life; it is life.

One key COVID insight for me – Take better care of your mind and body.

  • Exercise and sleep – basics we all know are essential for well-being
  • Turn off the noise – so much cacophony in our world, to what end?
  • Watch the self-talk – you’re wiring your brain, be your own best friend

Another key COVID insight – we are inextricably connected as humans. Even though we have to be separated, we are all in this together. My global experiences and study tell me we are so very alike and seeking the very same essentials to create meaning in life.

The third hotkey: Chart your course

This hotkey conjures up images of mighty ships sailing toward fortune and destiny. This is where I ask, Where do I want to be in a year and then how do I get there? In light of all I’ve learned and know, what are my priorities now? How do I listen to my heart? How do I seize the day? How do I practice positive self-talk and intentionality going forward? What changes? What commitments do I make to myself and others? Then how will I make sure I honor those? Sometimes discovering answers to those questions is a process and doesn’t just come in one day. I assure you, the answer is within you. William Shakespeare wrote, “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”

When you commit to the wrestle, to the authentic examination of yourself, the payoff is priceless. The reward goes deep. Studies validate a proactive approach to personal development. It enhances your quality of life, reduces stress, improves relationships, leads to better life balance. Academically, it makes sense. But I just have to tell you this process of self-actualization provides me clarity, centeredness, greater motivation, and greater resilience. So when Plan B inevitably comes back through the door, I feel empowered, as if I’m saying, “Yeah, I know you, Plan B. And I know me. And I got this.”

Seeing the world differently

When I was pregnant with my third child, I was on bedrest for nearly three months. I had two small daughters, so we spent our days on my bed reading, doing puzzles, and watching public television. Halloween costumes were felt ears glued on headbands and whiskers painted on cheeks. Thanksgiving was hospital pumpkin pie for Eric and every color of hospital Jell-O for me.

When I emerged from the hospital, leaving my one pound, five ounce, wire-bound preemie in the NICU, I experienced sensory overload. It was as if I was leaving a dark cave and walking into the bright daylight, squinting, my eyes adjusting, seeing the world so differently – its colors, shapes, and movement, all the little things – how the light danced, the poetry of cars moving on a freeway, my husband’s hand in mine. I moved from weary to awakened, from isolation to connection, from fear to hope. In a way, my entire being was experiencing what scientists call light adaptation.

Light adaptation is the process, chiefly involving constriction of the pupil, by which the eye adapts to an increase in illumination. Dark adaptation can take up to two hours as the eye adjusts to a low luminescence setting. But light adaptation works quickly, within seconds.

Remember how long it took us to adjust to a darker world with COVID-19? It took months. How will we adjust to a brighter post-COVID world? It won’t take long. Are we attentive enough to recognize the little details? Are we intentional about learning from our experiences and charting our way forward?

Your destiny lies within, and it’s everything you hope it to be. I believe every person in this room knows that at a fundamental level. David Whyte is one of my favorite poet philosophers. He writes: “Time and each hour of time is a season, almost a personality, with its own annunciation, its own song, its whispering of what is to be born in us.

This past year certainly has its own personality. May you find it whispering what is to be born in you. May you embrace every Plan B. May you practice gratitude, inventory your insights and chart your course.

Thank you for the honor of being part of tonight’s celebration. Thank you for recognizing the power of female leadership. And to our award recipients, thank you for your courage, your persistence, your excellence and all you do for our community. You are that brighter light that helps us all.