Thursday, March 25, 2010

Stories turn up in the strangest places

I am have been an English teacher, a writer, and a storyteller. There has never been a time when I was not enchanted by stories. When I tell people that they need to tell stories because stories have power, they often think I say that from my own, peculiar, not-particularly-to-be-trusted perspective.

It's true that stories have shaped much of my life and that I am unusually sensitive to the stories around me.

It's also true that stories have power.

Today I opened my April Harvard Business Review. The final page is an interview with Jane Goodall (yes - that Jane Goodall, the chimp lady) and the final lines of the interview are these:

". . . people say you can't change somebody who's older than such and such an age, because they're set in their ways. It's not true. If you can find a story, if you can make them think and not be defensive, sometimes the toughest person can change."

Such clear words. But how do we shape our thoughts and ideas and identities as stories? That part is often not clear and not entirely palatable. For the second time, I find myself part of a linked in group telling 6 word stories. Except that most of them aren't stories - they're just slogans. Apparently very professional, creative people can't always tell the difference between selling themselves and telling their stories.

I think it might be because a story moves the teller's ego over to one side and ask, politely but firmly, that it sit still and listen to the story. The minute the ego jumps up, waving its arms and shouting its enthusiasm, the story falters. This is true whether or not the story is, technically, about the teller. Even if the story comes from the teller's life, the telling of it requires that the teller become all of the story - and so none of it. The character in the story who looks and sounds like the teller is just one of the characters in the story.

In business, we talk as though stories can be owned by their tellers. In storytelling, we talk about stories that are simultaneously created by the listener and the teller. In storytelling, it is sharing the story that gives the story power. There is no room for owners or egos, only for the momentum generated by the story as it moves among the teller and the listeners.

This sounds very esoteric. It's not. It happens around family dinner tables and office coffee pots and over beer at sports bars. One person begins a story and listeners actively (and sometimes loudly) jump in to share and shape the telling. By the time the story is done, relationships and moods have shifted and different actions are possible.

It's amazing how much can change when we distract our egos and focus on shared space. That's the challenge for businesses who want to use story to make a difference. How can we move past ego and ownership to find the stories that will move us forward?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Gathering your thoughts

Language patterns can wake us up to the way we really think. For instance, have you ever said you're "gathering your thoughts?" When I thought about why I haven't posted for two weeks, the answer was not just that I have been very busy. It was also that I am in a period where I am 'gathering my thoughts' for a burst of productivity scheduled to begin in May.

Let's think about it for a moment. What does it mean to gather? The dictionary in my Mac says "it means to bring together and take in from scattered places or sources." That's very precise in one sense. I've been reading and experiencing and observing in different places and all of that information will be integrated in my thinking.


That's a process for gathering what I will think - not for gathering what I have already thought at least once. How can my thoughts need gathering? They're already all stored in the same brain.

We all know the sense that our brains are small, dense places (yes, I meant dense). That makes a kind of logical sense since it more or less describes a physical reality. What is curious is that we also share a sense that our brains are huge, rambling structures where lots of stuff accumulates in dusty corners and unused hallways. We share the ability to get lost in our thoughts, to wander through those hallways in search of something we sometimes find (and sometimes don't), and even to gather pieces we have left in different places.

I am gathering my thoughts. It might take awhile, because I'm not sure precisely which thoughts I am gathering. It's like I'm out picking wildflowers. I know where they are likely to grow, but not exactly what I will find in bloom.

That's only a problem if I have to decide what I will gather before I find it. If I can stay open to opportunity, I'll probably find some rare flowers and some combinations I wouldn't have planned that work beautifully.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Doing better than your best

When we watch the top athletes at the Olympics, we take it for granted that they all have coaches. We see so many pictures of the athlete leaving the field and walking straight into the arms of a coach that we stop seeing them. We don't take the message that people who have reached the very top levels of performance at relatively simple activities still need a coach (when you compare even the most complicated sports to teaching a classroom or running a company, you'll find that the sports involve many fewer variables).

Coaches provide two things that the athlete cannot have in the same way: experience and perspective. If it is not practical for you to have a coach available to you whenever you need to hit your best performance, then you need to think about how to reach the best resources in your own experience and how to stretch your perspective.

Here's the rub: when you have looked with "a colder eye" at your own performance state, you will suspect that it could be fine-tuned, that it would benefit from some ruthless editing, that it could be stronger and more sustainable. And you will pull back, viscerally, from making changes in the state that has driven your best achievements. Your eye and your gut will have strongly different opinions.

The coach has an alternate state of experiences that allow him/her to negotiate (not necessarily resolve) this difference. You only have your own experience. It takes huge will power to decide that you are going to plow through this really basic incongruence to go from good to better. Your instincts won't support you because your instinct is to do what you have done to get what you have gotten.

If you don't have a coach, you need friends and anchors and external support. You need limits on the extent to which you are willing to be self-destructive in order to build a stronger, more resilient, more elegant - SELF. You need to protect the seeds of yourself so that whatever happens, good or bad, you can grow again when necessary.

Change is easy when it means moving from bad to good. When it means moving from something that is working to something that we only hope will work better, change is really, really hard. Being better than your current best is hard.

I congratulate every athlete who experienced a personal best at the Olympics. But if you are reading this and working alone on a difficult change, know that I am also cheering for you. What you are doing is hard and brave and worthwhile and possible. Climb up into the stands and watch with me for awhile. See what I see. Then take that perspective back onto the playing field and do what you need to do to do better than your best.