On Having the Courage to Tell Your Own Story
The stories we tell ourselves “define the potentiality of our existence”. The stories we tell ourselves create our lives because they have the power to destroy us, or they can be the source of our power. How would your life be different if your stories were the source of your power?
The “unexamined life is not worth living” as Socrates put it, and similarly knowing how our stories limit or liberate us is worthy of examination. Being a better communicator and a better leader requires an ability to connect and that is best done through stories that inspire and move – connecting us and our audience, to the source of our power, our potential and what’s possible.
Storytelling is a universal feature of every country of every culture in the world, and has been around since we could draw on cave walls. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that we started to understand its importance in business.
In this article for HBR, Harrison Monarth describes the power of storytelling as a strategic business tool. In business, we might have all the facts, all the data, all the rational, but a story can go where quantitative analysis is denied admission: our hearts – stories move
Data can persuade people, but it doesn’t inspire them to act, or to change. Storytelling is therefore a central tenet of leadership – the effectiveness of our leadership is closely correlated to our ability to tell our own leadership stories – we inspire and move others through the stories we tell about our own leadership journey. As leaders we must inspire and move others to join us in manifesting the purpose of our organisation. As employees, we are motivated by our organisation’s purpose, how it improves lives, not by the transactions it undertakes. Purpose can only be communicated through stories.
Film director Shekhar Kapur (his award winning movies include cult Bollywood film Masoom, Bandit Queen and Elizabeth. View his excellent TED talk here) believes the stories that we tell ourselves are the stories that “define the potentiality of our existence. Without our stories we cease to exist”.
In Your Storytelling Brain Michael Gazzaniga concurs, stating that we create ourselves through narrative. Gazzaniga, a major founder in the field of cognitive neuro-science began his career with Nobel prize-winning scientist Roger Sperry. Sperry’s work with “split brain” patients underpins our understanding of brain lateralisation – that is, each hemisphere in the brain has specialist functions.
The left side of the brain has the function of logical, analytical, sequential, rational thinking.
The specialised characteristics of the right hemisphere make it the seat of curiosity, synergy, experimentation, metaphoric thinking, storytelling, artistry and in general, risk taking.
Storytelling is therefore a whole-brained activity – it puts your whole brain to work. Storytelling appeals to the left hemisphere’s affinity for words and the right’s for meaning.
However, in seeking to understand the mind as something embodied within the brain, Gazzaniga identified the left hemisphere’s “interpreter module”. It is the interpreter that creates the unified feeling of an autobiographical, personal, unique self. The interpreter is the glue that keeps our story unified, it maintains a sense of coherence about who we are. Lose this coherent narrative land we go mad; in this sense we literally create ourselves through narrative.
If we create ourselves through narrative, what do we do if we are seeking to escape the cubicle to create a new narrative? What if our stories have some shitty bits, that don’t fit with the new story we want to share with the world?
The story my friend told had many shitty bits:
The four-hour journey with her companions pushed her closer to the edge. They just wouldn’t shut up. You’re useless, you can’t do this. Why are you such a failure? Do it, just do it. Turn the wheel into the central reservation. It’s what everybody wants you to do. You’re an embarrassment and a failure.
A talented sales director, leading a large team in a global company, a hugely capable working mother, no one would guess that 19 years previously, one year into the job, she had tried to take her own life.
As she told this story, out loud, for the first time, in front of an audience of peers and colleagues was she trembling with nerves? Were beads of sweat running down the inside of her upper arms? Was her voice shaking, did her throat feel constricted? Did she almost, but not quite, start to cry? Of course. Telling the story that matters, our story, the one with shitty bits, takes courage.
But now that she is finally talking openly about it, presenting across Europe as she leads her organisation’s Vital Life initiative, the more she talks, the more of it she sees. And the more she tells her story, the more she touches those colleagues whose stories about career success have become the stuff of nightmares. Her life is making a difference.
In her must-read guide to the writer’s world, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott states that the shitty bits of life are necessary:
Clutter and mess show us that life is being lived…Tidiness makes me think of held breath, or suspended animation…Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why.
My courageous friend’s story, messes and all, is about a journey, an “inner journey toward being a fully integrated, balanced, and whole human being”, and is one that all heroines must take (for more on the archetypal heroine’s journey read this). Our stories have the power to destroy us, or they can be the source of our power. Our stories have the potential to give birth to the heroine within.
There are so many things that are inspiring about the story of this heroine’s journey – a vital element is her transformation – she is no longer defined or limited by the old story with its “clutter and mess”. Through sharing her vulnerability and immense strength of character, it is a story that moves people and creates a compelling sense of purpose and what matters in life.
We can all fall into the trap of letting our past stories define who we are now, but in doing so we limit our future – we limit the potentiality of our existence. Stories are about change, about who we are now, having navigated all the clutter and the mess.
Also published on Medium.