The Story Continues

A week ago I had the privilege of introducing “Storytelling for Career Success” to a group of young professionals who were generous enough to say “yes” to an invitation to test drive my new workshop. By their energetic participation they taught me what worked, what needed help and, most importantly, that what I shared with them is both practical and valuable.

This past Saturday was Round 2 and again I was inspired by a group of open and dynamic participants, each one willing to step into the unknown and share their story. It was an outstanding day, one I am smarter and better equipped for having led.

What I know beyond a doubt is that when we connect through story we break into a new world of possibility. It’s a world where we become known for more than the 12 point font of a resume, where we live into David Whyte’s affirmation that, “we shape ourselves to fit this world and by the world are shaped again.” (Working Together)

One participant put it this way: “The highlight for me was figuring out how to tell an emotional, vibrant story with structure and organization. I was amazed to find that past experiences I never thought applicable in an interview can be used in an amazing, powerful way.” 

Another said this: “Before this experience, I was pretty confident in my story. What I realized throughout the experience is that I haven’t been telling it in the most effective, powerful way. This experience took my story from a little, shaky tale, to an intense, powerful testimony. Not only do I feel more confident about going into an interview, I feel more confident in myself.”

With humility and gratitude – and a powerful sense of purpose – I am committed to author, and be authored by, the unfolding of this new story.


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The Boss

Lyft driver: You are a business person?

Me: Yes.

Driver: You are the boss?

Me: No.

Driver: When you came out I thought, “He is the boss.”

Me: (knowing laugh) Is that because I look so serious?

Driver: (kindly) No, no.

Me: That’s ok. (In my head: It’s just the facade of competence and control I display when I am tired and no longer interested in any form of connection or engagement. My default is to look so serious and so important that people will just leave me alone.)

Driver: Hand sanitizer?

Me: Of course. Thank you.

Ah, the gift of feedback, like a faithful friend, right there when we need it most.


Any Given Day

On any given day…

You can pay attention. You can notice what happens as you engage and are engaged by the people around you. You can shrink from them, rise to meet them, learn from them, absorb their discomfiting needs, discard their demands, invite them in.

On any given day, you can also ignore. Whoever appears around you can remain a blurry sideshow to the central drama that is your life.

The first path is costly. You will have to feel, and in feeling you will be whipsawed from the highest highs to the lowest lows.

The second path is easy. Free from feeling, you will be safe, untouchable.

On any given day that you are alive, you may choose to attend or to ignore. Only one of these can be called living.


For my sister, on her birthday

Simplify the Story

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
― Albert Einstein


I’m always tempted to make it more complicated than it is.

There is only one reason that I am teaching storytelling to young professionals. I want them to understand – to physically experience and then embody – the truth that stories create “limbic resonance.”

More simply, that stories create connection.

How? The limbic system processes sensory information and compares it to past experience. Since all human beings share a common emotional database, stories that express emotion resonate with our past experience as “true” and therefore trustworthy.

And if the story is trustworthy, the person telling it must be trustworthy, also.

We can explain our qualifications – our competence – ad nauseam and get nothing more than a knowing nod of the head in response. But tell a story about that competence in action, how it made you or others feel, what was hard or joyful about learning it, how you failed and succeeded in applying it, and that will get someone to sit at the edge of their emotional seat.

Limbic resonance = connection.

Connection = trust.

Trust = opportunity.


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Why Stories Matter

“In the particular is contained the universal.”
{James Joyce}


We tell stories to create connection. We create connection because it builds trust. We build trust so that we can rely on one another. We rely on one another because we don’t – even on our most selfish, ego-bound days – want to go it alone.

Most of all, we tell stories because they remind us that our humanity is not only shared, but bound up together, inextricably linked for all time.


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Boring, Predictable Humans

One of the most glaring mistakes of modern corporate leadership is the use of metrics to motivate performance.

“Our vision for the coming year? To make a gajillion dollars!!”

No.

Do everyone a favor. Tell a story instead.

Of course, we all want the gajillion dollars (and for it to be equitably and appropriately shared) and all of the opportunity it creates, but that will never replace the boring, predictable and completely fundamental human need to be a part of something larger than ourselves; to be part of a story that is worth the telling.

Leaders, be boring. Learn to tell a story.


photo of a boy reading book

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Quiet Power

When the power went off unexpectedly today, the washer and dryer stopped, the dishwasher cut short its cycle and the lights clicked off. The TV and its attachments were disabled, and there would be no charging of phones or computers for over four hours. Dinner plans were made, “Plan A” if the oven was functional, “Plan B” if not. And under no circumstances was the refrigerator or freezer to be opened.

It was a brief, not unpleasant, but wholly conspicuous reminder of our dependency on effective sources of power. When power is present and available to us, it is an invisible force that allows us to go about the day secure in our focus on matters of creativity and connection rather than on contingency plans for keeping food cold.

Human power, when capably and humbly applied is a source of reassurance and possibility. As you have no doubt experienced, when it is applied with arrogant insecurity, everything that worked seamlessly before comes to an abrupt and disruptive halt.


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As You Like It

I attended college just about 100 miles north of my hometown, at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Arriving on campus in 1988, I met my wife Theresa during those undergraduate years and we return to the area with our family a couple of times a year to visit our friends, also met and married through LMU, who live just down the street from campus.

This weekend, we are here to celebrate his birthday, in part by visiting campus last night to picnic and enjoy an outdoor presentation of Shakespeare’s, As You Like It. The production was musical, light and refreshing, as summer should be. And yet, within it, Shakespeare pointedly inserts the character of Jacques, known through history as one of the Bard’s most famous melancholy characters.

The play rollicks along as we good friends, having first met at 19, celebrated weddings in our 20s, children and budding careers in our 30s, veterans now of the maturing realities of our 40s, sip wine into the long June evening. Into that scene of our own authorship, supported as it is by the very place that first brought us together, strides Jacques to remind us of where we’ve been and where we’re going:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

{William Shakespeare – As You Like It}

Without putting too fine a point on it, I suggest this: whatever and whomever “Los Angeles” or “Loyola Marymount” or “our dear friends” is for you, go back there as you are now to celebrate who and what you were, who and what you are and who and what you are becoming.

Jacque’s “melancholy” is not sad, it is instructive. The time to play this part is now. So play it.


LMU SHC

Soft Focus

When you hold a “soft focus” you trust what is in front of you to be as it is while leaving plenty of space for it to be otherwise.

My work affords me the opportunity to be a mentor and coach to business professionals across the wonderfully wide spectrum of “just starting out” to “seasoned executive.”

One of the privileges of this work is that I am invited “behind the curtain” of my client’s experience into their spaces of vulnerability and unknowing. This is holy ground. And to inhabit this holy ground in a way that honors both where they are and what they aspire to become, requires a soft focus.

As strong as the impulse can be to make assumptions about them based on their years of experience, role, education, family status and the like, I must hold what is presented to me as “true” while leaving room for anything else to emerge as also true.

In my practice of “knowing and not knowing” I recognize that I have also made it a priority to encourage my clients to develop their own capacity in this regard. As a practical matter, this often includes the “homework” assignment to seek out other professional mentors – perhaps a more senior leader within their company whom they admire – as a means to stretch the limits of their perspective.

Again and again, what happens in these encounters is that my clients go in with a hard focus, holding an assumption that because of this person’s status they have it “all figured out.”

Again and again, they return from these conversations with evidence that the person they see as “so accomplished” and “so impressive” is exactly that while also being someone who makes mistakes, has doubts and endures the struggle of insufficiency. This realization is a powerful one as it normalizes the other person as a human being, first of all. It can also be unsettling because it “proves” something to my client’s that they may not want to have proven to them at all: that you can achieve or become what you want to achieve or become even with or perhaps because of your vulnerability.

It’s easy to say, “be gentle with everyone you meet because they are fighting a great battle,” but to live that awareness every day requires rigorous practice, just like anything else we aspire to do well.

The implications for us go well beyond the confines of our professional lives, of course. Imagine holding a soft focus for your best friend, your partner, your children, and your neighbor. Imagine holding a soft focus for the person in front of you at the grocery store, the ticket window, and the on ramp. How might that shift your perspective? How might that open you up?

There is a space between what is and what else there is. To remain curious and aware about what is happening in that space is to offer a gift to everyone you meet.


{Thank you, Alia}

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