The art of courageous pursuits

News | June 27, 2024

Trying new things and ‘putting yourself out there’ is difficult. It requires taking risks, but those risks can pay off. Learning new skills, especially at an older age, helps people live longer and produces a sense of accomplishment. These St. Paul people took big risks learning new skills and demonstrating that you can try something new at any age.

The Black Belt,
Sean Harless

Sean Harless started attending Taekwondo lessons with his kids Annie and Gary in September 2019. The gym offered a special deal: parents attend classes for free when a child is enrolled. Motivation for the kids was the initial impetus for enrolling. Sean knew the training would be difficult and require discipline. About a year later, his wife Sara joined in the fun.

“I started Taekwondo with my kids when I was 40. I wanted to find something the three of us could do together. I was aware that I was not a young person doing this,” Sean said. “Learning side-by-side with my kids, I got to see the world through their eyes a little bit. They worked hard at it. Ultimately, the kids found their passions elsewhere, but Sara and I kept going.”

Taekwondo, also spelled tae kwon do, is a Korean martial art and combat sport involving punching and kicking techniques. The literal translation for Taekwondo is “kicking”, “punching”, and “the art or way of.” Sean found a deeper source of fulfillment and purpose than he anticipated which has helped him to branch out and continue taking risks.

“I noticed as I started moving toward my 40s that it was tempting not to seek new challenges or try new activities. Moving out of my comfort zone and exploring new groups can be an extremely fruitful source of fulfillment in life,” Sean said. “It’s not enough to just exist. That desire to learn and challenge yourself comes alive again when you push yourself but it’s easy to avoid doing it. Everyone can grow and change at any time.”
While Sean began the lessons as a motivation for his kids, it became a bonding experience with his wife Sara and they’ve both learned a lot more than just Taekwondo throughout the experience.

“Making a mistake and falling down is not the end, you get back up and keep trying. That gets harder as you get older. Heading into my black belt testing, the best advice one of my sponsors gave me is ‘you’re going to make a mistake but it’s about how you react to that mistake that matters. Take a deep breath and relax. You can’t do everything perfectly,’” Sean said. “That’s advice I’d give to most people and it’s something that it took me a while to wrap my head around. There are things I won’t be great at but that doesn’t mean I won’t try them.”

There are five tenets of Taekwondo: Courtesy, integrity, self-control, perseverance, and indomitable spirit. Sean said his favorite is indomitable spirit and it’s easy to see why.

“Indomitable spirit means that if you give your best effort in everything you do, you’ll win. You win from the perspective that you gave it your best,” Sean said. “These past four years have been a great journey. I never thought I’d do anything like this, especially not after I reached middle age.”

After about four years of training, focus, and discipline, Sean tested for and received his black belt earlier this year. Sara receives her black belt this month.

The Comedian,
Julianne Scheskie

‘A physician’s assistant and a comedian walk into a bar…’ No, it’s not the setup to a joke. It’s the story of Julianne (Julie) Scheskie and how the skills she learned while working in the medical field help her shine onstage as an improvisational comedian.

Julie has moved around a lot. Chicago, Washington D.C., Florida, New Mexico, North Carolina, Washington state, and now Iowa. She’s no stranger to finding herself in a new city, a new state, a new challenge without knowing anyone. But she’s adaptable.

In 2020, she found her way to Davenport to be closer to her son. With a second grandson on the way Julie’s son, Adam, wanted her nearby. Julie quickly found a job – an easy task in her field. Working as a physician’s assistant, she said she can find work anywhere. But it was ‘putting herself out there’ in other ways that helped her grow her social circles and feel more settled in her new home than she has felt anywhere else.

One of the ways Julie expanded her world was by auditioning for and joining the improvisational comedy troupe: The Nightcaps. Her work as a physician’s assistant and her improv time onstage have proved to share more similarities than differences.

“I’m often working with people in stressful situations. The people I see are going into the emergency room or preparing for a big surgery. I’ve always needed to be calm and help calm the patients and their families as well. I quickly noticed that everyone is different in stressful situations,” Julie said. “I couldn’t play the same role to the same person. Sometimes a funny voice or a joke calms them. I would make up funny stories to make the patient feel better about whatever was going on or take their mind off the situation. It was a joy to see people come in scared or nervous and the next thing you know, we’re laughing together. That’s how I realized I could make jokes. At some point, I thought, I should try comedy. Laughter and brevity have helped a lot of people.”

Julie has learned a lot during her time onstage. She credits part of that to being open to the process and taking risks.

“I’ve learned that you’re never wrong and there are no mistakes in improv. It’s all fluid and it’s a group effort; you can’t take full control of a scene or a game,” Julie remarked. “When you’re starting a scene, you might think you know what is going to happen, but you have no idea what your partner is thinking. You often have to pivot and go along with their idea in the moment. That’s the ‘yes and…’ of improv. Somebody might have a better idea and you quickly adapt to that idea.”

What brings Julie the most joy?

“Making other people laugh gives you a certain kind of feeling that’s hard to describe. Laughter calms any situation. We can’t take anything too seriously without getting overwhelmed sometimes. If you can laugh while you’re working through a difficult situation, if you can find the humor in it, you can take a breath and reset.”

Improv isn’t the only new activity Julie is trying either. Last year, she ran her first half marathon and she’s currently training for her first full marathon this year.

“I recently read that people live longer nowadays so we have more time to try new things and trying something new keeps you younger. I’ve found doing something I already know how to do isn’t quite as exciting as trying something new. There’s that little bit of adrenaline that goes with it, a challenge. It’s the question of ‘Can I do it?’ followed by the sense of accomplishment and euphoria that comes with the response: ‘Yes! I did it.’ Once I started taking the risk of putting myself out and trying new things, I’ve been happier than I’ve been in years.”

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