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.


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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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Not So Fast

A couple of million years ago our predecessors, Homo erectus, survived through hunting and gathering.

About 350,000 years ago, give or take, Homo sapiens split off from Homo erectus and continued the hunter/gatherer model of subsistence, while slowly but surely evolving from a migratory to a stationary model. This marked, between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago, the beginning of the agricultural age, when we learned how to plant, cultivate and harvest our own crops instead of surviving on what was freely available.

About 500 years ago, in the age of discovery, Homo sapiens began a surge of technological acceleration that led to globalization, the industrial revolution and the current information age.

Think about that for another moment:

  • 2 million years of community building through the shared responsibility of walking around to find food.
  • 10,000 years of community building based on growing our own food.
  • 500 years of global “community building” through technological advance.

Out of the last 2 million years we’ve been “technologists” for a mere 500, with the most significant advances happening in only the last 100 years.

For 2 million years everything about our existence was oriented to a means of survival that was based on community and connection. In other words, a shared purpose.

It is a hard truth to accept that we are physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally better equipped for hunting, gathering and farming than we are for automation and information.

Put another way, we are equipped for connection in service of meaning. That “meaning” was once the not-so-simple act of providing food and shelter. Today, it has more to do with solving the complex problems that plague our schools and workplaces as well as the institutions of government, religion, healthcare (to name but a few), the effective stewardship of which has become more crucial than ever.

To think that technology, still in its infancy, can supersede our genetic inheritance of connection as a means to even begin to address these issues is comically delusional.

But here we are, favoring disembodied and disconnected “solutions” for problems that only our best spiritual, emotional, mental and physical selves can possibly address.

However you define “this,” it can only be done together.


 

 

Tell Me Your Story

I was here, and you were here,
and together we made a world.
{David Whyte}


If you tell me your story, I will tell you mine.

From that small, open place we will take steps that help us to know one another. Through our disclosure we will build trust, and from that trust we will experience the reinforcement of connection.

I will only learn about myself, which means that I will only learn how to walk in this world, through my relationship with you.

When I resist I do so because I don’t want to be reminded of what I don’t yet know. When I resist I am bound by the seduction of the status quo, refusing to yield to the certainty of change.

When I engage I do so because you help me to remember that my initial discomfort holds the seeds of my future wisdom.

Tell me your story, and I will tell you mine.


 

 

The Relief and Joy of Imperfection

I pray there is at least one person before whom you can be imperfect. I have several in my life, and they are such a relief and joy to be around.

{Richard Rohr}


Here in my 50th year, when the phrase “mid-life” can no longer be used with anything close to mathematical accuracy, I am singularly proud of one accomplishment. And it is the fruits of this accomplishment, I am convinced, that will see me through the next 50 years, or however many more are mine to claim.

That accomplishment is the cultivation of a small and extraordinary group of people with whom I can be imperfect.

I consider this an accomplishment of such importance, in part, because it took so long to achieve.

For too long it was just too expensive to allow anyone to see the version of myself that was not in control, that was scared, doubtful, and overwhelmed. Others could see those things, of course, but I made sure to keep enough space between us so that any kind of reckoning could not take place. As a result, none of the vulnerability that keeps us in the mutually reinforcing orbit of healthy relationship could materialize.

Eventually, my facade of competence was destroyed, as all have to be for anything new to emerge and slowly, in that emergence, it became possible to cultivate “the gifts of imperfection.”

What that means in practice is that when I find myself, especially under stress,  defaulting to competence as a bulwark against insecurity, I am more likely to be “invited” back to the more fully human version of myself by those faithful few I am fortunate to call partner, colleagues and friends.

That invitation, issued and answered, always results in feelings of relief and joy, the kind that only exist in the realm of what is authentic and true.


 

Both Shattered and Made Whole

There is something extraordinary about witnessing someone’s vulnerability. To see, hear and feel another person summon the courage and the clarity to reveal themselves without artifice or ego, is raw in its truth and pure in its beauty.

A friend revealed herself in this way not long ago and I remember feeling equal parts shattered, experiencing the heartbreak of her brokenness, and then made whole again, by the way in which she owned her experience and allowed it to make her stronger.

To be trusted with this kind of expression may be the high water mark of our shared human adventure.

To be shattered and made whole, again and again. This, I think, is what it means to live.


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