"What you give to others, you cannot give to yourself."
Those were the words spoken by Pamela Slim and Charlie Gilkey at the Lift Off retreat, a workshop for entrepreneurs that I recently attended. It puzzled me. Over the course of four days with a remarkable group of bright, creative minds, I understood what they meant.
My story is about story. In my coaching practice, I help individuals uncover and express their story, so that they can write the next chapter. In my work with social entrepreneurs, I help those who want to complete their story, by leaving a legacy. And when working with alumni for my newest business, My Alumni Link, I use stories to illustrate a point and encourage others to try something new. I also help alumni to connect through story. Some of the most gratifying work for me over the course of the last ten years has been interviewing others, to make visible their story. Photo by stevendepolo
None of this was in my awareness before the retreat. It took a community of people to mirror back to me what I naturally give to others (e.g., helping them understand and articulate their story) before I could see myself clearly. It started out with the opening evening exercise, when Charlie said, "This is a place to contribute your gifts." Photo by Marcin Moga/Lolek
A day later, I had a brainstorm--to interview and videotape my fellow attendees, as a way for them to practice telling their story and maybe, if they liked it, to use as marketing collateral on their business site. I enrolled a cohort, Andre Blackman, who is a digital storyteller, to work with me on this mini-project during the retreat.
The gift I gave to others was a gift to myself, because it re-connected me to the power of story. With each interview, I became more excited by the wonderful things I heard from the person being interviewed. (It's hard not to love a former CPA who became a master yogi or an illustrator who couldn't stop himself from drawing in textbooks as a child or a sculptor turned web designer who now does "web sculpting".) I also saw the impact on the person, seeing oneself more clearly--a proud smile, a more confident presence, or a peaceful knowing. Which brings me to my first point, on why I love story so much:
Many years ago, I started a monthly get together at my place of employment. Marketed as career talks during the lunch hour, it was a way for a VP, a first line manager, and a technical guru to tell their stories, to whoever wanted to listen. We typically had 20-30 attendees, listening to each speaker's story in fifteen minutes. We sat in a circle with a bowl of floating candles in the middle. I called it our corporate campfire. Photo by mariachily.
Employees came up to me after hearing that people they admired struggled with similar things. One VP talked about the time he got a bad performance review and what he did about it. A technical guru revealed her challenge in asking for what she wanted on the job and finding out that it wasn't so difficult after all. Another speaker admitted the challenge of being a divorced parent and having to juggle travel schedules in order to take custody of his child when it was his turn. Others talked about their passions outside of work, including the game of bridge and beekeeping. Employees came in discouraged and left with hope.
Just as striking were the comments from invited speakers, who were veterans of dry Power Point presentations but newbies in communicating to groups in a human way. One speaker emailed me later to say, "Thanks for allowing me to speak from the hip, or should that be, heart."
Story becomes a neon green marker in our memories. It cuts through a clutter of trivia and irrelevant information that we are immersed in every day. People remember stories, sometimes vividly. Photo by Aaron Wagner.
Throughout the retreat, I heard stories--poignant ones that made me stop and think more deeply about the gift of life, hilarious ones that made me laugh joyously, and deep inside my belly, and startling ones that reminded me of how human behavior can be quite odd at times.
Story is empowering. When you know your story, it gives you permission to be more of your true self. Since the retreat ended a week ago, I've been on fire with story-- telling my story online (with an updated Twitter bio and LinkedIn summary), coaching others on their story, and applying story in a new information product. I've also had clients who, after writing down their story (a project not to be attempted in one sitting), they are able to make meaning of the bad times to go forward into the future with more confidence or peace. Photo by Search Engine People Blog.
Your story evolves, as you evolve. Many years ago, a mentor told the story of being raped. Initially, she told the story as a victim and eventually, after many years, she told the story as a conqueror. A well-known coach has the tag line, "It's all made up." Our stories don't end with one telling but change over many tellings, not because a new detail appears (although that can happen) but because our perspective changes of who we are. The same set of circumstances takes on different meaning, based on where we stand today, rather than five or ten or twenty years ago.
My thanks to my Lift Off buddies, who generously shared their stories and helped me see how much I love story.
What's your story? If you don't know, it pays to find out.