Perspective

INNOCENT LITTLE DATA POINT: A new definition of Story in your daily life.

In a class I recently taught on storytelling and personal branding, I asked the group "What is a story?" I only heard crickets at first as everybody totally overthought the question. I did not want to assuage their anxiety so I let the silence continue. Eventually three answers were called out:

"Something that happens to a character."

"Has a beginning, middle, and end."

"A glimpse into somebody's life."

All of those are correct. But the definition could be distilled even further. I intentionally oversimplify the definition of a story to "a data point". That is all it is. Plain and simple. A data point. Sit with that for a second. Does it make sense to you? Does it confuse you? Or does its simplicity anger you?

It should not. Here is why.

The three answers that the students shared were correct because a story is in fact an event that occurs with which someone interacts, it has a sequential structure to it, and the way in which someone reacts to the event says something about who they are. But these events can be huge (like a bomb going off) or teeny tiny, like me turning my head to look out the window a second ago. Interestingly, a lot of people I have taught and spoken to confuse story and narrative. I have found that they often think of story as a large grandiose recount of a period of time but, even though stories do involve an amount of time passing, they are not necessarily large.

What adds magnitude to them, however, is how events affect our lives. Very small things can dramatically affect people. A smile from a stranger on the street, hitting all green lights on the way home from work, catching that perfect sunrise at that perfect moment.

Now think even smaller than that. Me typing this post, me moving my fingers, my thoughts changing from one sentence to the next, what other thoughts come to mind and distract me. Even the act of telling you what a story is is a story. It gets super layered from there but every little thing that occurs, every way we look, every tiny action we make, is a story that contributes to our day and subsequently how we feel about that day and then how that day affects tomorrow, and so on and so on. This is why I call them data points. These miniscule-all-the-way-up-to-enormous events in a given day are bits of information that collect and impact a future.

Think about a classic scatter plot you learned how to make in grade school math class. You plot little dots on the graph and see what sort of trend it makes overall. This is a perfect example:

Each dot = a story

Ultimate trend and overall layout of the data = the narrative

On its own, a data point does not inform anything. It is simply a piece of innocent information. An event that occurs. It contributes to a narrative, though, because we react to it and apply our own meaning to the event based on emotional biases. That is how an event lingers with us longer than the event itself lasts. That is why someone's death affects one person so much more deeply than someone else (sorry for going dark). I alluded to this last week about how meaning that we assign to actions and events make them live on endlessly in the future. Our subjective assignment of meaning is just that, subjective. We have debates and arguments about events and stories that we experience, but our arguments are only ours. We each experience events in our own very unique ways only because we attach our own unique meanings to them. But without the meaning we attach, an event is just an event. 

Just a data point. 

Think about this for yourself. Think about every little teeny tiny thing that has happened for you and to you today and to which you have reacted. Really think about it. If you are doing it correctly, you ought to feel overwhelmed pretty quickly by how many things actually occur in a given day. 

Here is an example. A few minutes ago, I watched a gentleman on the sidewalk get out of a cab with six different pieces of luggage. One normal sized suitcase, a carry on rolling suitcase, a tiny rolling suitcase, and three messenger bag-like briefcases. The briefcases he piled on the large suitcase, looping their handles on the suitcase handle. Then he proceeded to stack the tiny suitcase on the small suitcase and methodically try to match up the handles so that one finger could hold the tiny suitcase in place while the majority of his hand could guide the small suitcase. The whole event lasted thirty seconds and was rather humorous at first (clown-car status) but two things made it less like a circus act and more of a seriously impressive endeavor: the man was impeccably dressed in suit, tie, and trench coat and the man's face conveyed nothing more than straight determination. No distress, no visible embarrassment.

Okay, scene set. Now story time. In that thirty seconds:

  • I stopped typing because I saw that this was no ordinary taxi exit,
  • I observed his dress and mannerisms,
  • I reacted with laughter first and then intrigue,
  • my eyes narrowed watching his hands dance around the suitcase handles,
  • I felt self-conscious that I was staring for too long,
  • I realized he could so easily look up and see me at the window eavesdropping on his adventure,
  • I consciously decided to keep watching,
  • I picked at a fingernail in anxiety for the man's struggle,
  • I felt surprise by his stalwart focus and composure,
  • I felt joy when he figured it out and started moving,
  • and I was left with immense curiosity for where he was heading...and why he owned so many small pieces of luggage...

See? A lot of stuff happened in a tiny amount of time. I have no idea where that man is but I am still curious about his journey and where he was going with so many bags. I want to know his story. And that event was significant enough for me to spontaneously decide to include it in this post, which took more time, which may have eliminated the possibility to do something else with that time, and the ripple effect continues from there for my day and week. 

It was just an innocent event that has now affected my day. And every bit of that story and my interaction with that event is its own story as well. Its own data point. Just like my students said, the Event of the Gentleman and the Suitcases had a beginning, middle, and end, it is something that happened to a character, and, most importantly, it presented the tiniest glimpse into his life. At the same time, my interaction with that event had a beginning, middle, and end, it happened to me - I experienced it - and it gives a little glimpse into my life by how I react to random moments.

MY CELL PHONE DIED FOR TWO HOURS: Here is what happened.

My cell phone died for two hours. A hush falls over the crowd. "What could he do?!" One person whispers. "How did he survive??" Another one cries. 

My cell phone was officially pronounced dead at 11:30am, when I was leaving central Massachusetts after having met a client. I had used my phone's GPS to get there, but now that was not an option. Here's the thing: I knew parts of the town really well, but not where I was that morning, so I figured I would be able find some familiar landmark and orient from there. I drove down Main Street for a bit but nothing looked familiar. Cue the dramatic, low-tone background music.

Self awareness step one: I knew what turn I had made to get to the library, and the name of the street off of which I turned to get on to that street. So I backtracked. Luckily I have a very strong visual memory and was able to get back to Route 2. From there I knew exactly how to get home. Smooth sailing, right?

Not right. I shall thicken the plot by mentioning that my left front tire had been slowly leaking air for the better part of a week but I had not been able to get an appointment at the shop. Usually the pressure lives at 37psi, but that day it was down to 21. I probably could have made it home safely, but I did not want to push it. I knew where there was gas station and so I made my plan. I still had two hours before I had to meet another client, so I casually counted my quarters and slid them into the air machine. I awkwardly squatted there holding the tube handle tightly on the valve and saw the meter reading that the pressure was increasing. Solid.

The one catch was, the tire was flattening before my eyes. My car reading said it was down to 6psi. Confusion and panic ensue. I think "okay something must be wrong with either the machine or my tire. I'll call AAA and my client and let them know what is going on." Oh wait, I do not have a cell phone. Panic fire rises. 

I then resolve to try the air again, thinking if I re-screwed one portion of the handle that that may make some kind of difference.

Nope. 3psi.

$2.50 and a faulty air machine later, I have a flat tire. And no cell phone. It is like that time you go on a field trip in middle school to a place you know will have an epic snack bar and you realize that you left your wallet at school. You try to play it cool and you know you will still be able to participate in the activities, but secretly you are crying your eyes out on the inside and worry that you are going to starve.

Self awareness step 2: Plan B is the thing people are most afraid of. Asking another human being for help - in this case, to use a phone. But that is the thing. It took me a solid minute through the panic and dread to remember that I have the social skill to ask the station attendant if I could use the station phone - or even his cell phone - to call AAA. I am glad that I reminded myself of that skill, but I do not enjoy how long it took for me in the moment to remember that I possessed it. I do not spend anywhere near as much time on my cell phone than peers and friends do, but it is still a necessary appendage to my tripod of keys-phone-wallet that I compulsively "must" have on me every day. 

Let us just say that the station attendant - whose name will remain confidential but rhymes with Jean and starts with a D - was less than empathetic about my situation. And when I say less than empathetic, I mean he said "Yeah I don't know. Others have complained about that too. I can't do anything about it" so bluntly back to my explanation that my dumbfoundedness overcame my ability to plainly suggest that a sign be put on the machine or that a phone call be made for repairs. I made the mistake of asking for his brilliance to advise what I do, and he so eloquently stated "I don't know. It's a separate company and I'm the only one here so I cant't do anything about it" in such a curt, defensive way that it made it sound like I was the one who flattened his tire and now I was convincing him to give me a Slim Jim for free. 

I do not get angry often. Well, okay I get irritated often but I very rarely show it. I am thankful, however, in this instance that my irritation came through in the form of a facial expression that Jean-with-a-D was actually able to perceive, because by the grace of his own kindness he told me that the building next door was an auto shop and maybe they could fill up my tire. 

There was all this panic and anger and shock and confusion swirling in a barrel inside of me, not so much to overflow, but just to keep my brain kind of awestruck at the situation. Imagine how sexy I felt driving one mile an hour fifty yards in a car whose front end I could feel was slanted toward the ground and whose tire gasped as it flopped through one dilapidated rotation at a time.

Thank goodness the auto shop attendants were angels from heaven and the nicest guys in the world. They mentioned I had not been the only one who had come by and they filled my tire in two seconds.

At that point I had forgotten that I had not had a cell phone. I had not needed it. The timing was such that I could still make it back home and even stop for lunch before meeting my next client. My phone sat lifeless and dark in the front seat as I drove. Humorously, now that the panic and confusion had subsided, I thought "hey this would be a good time to give my mom a call. I haven't talked to her in a while." Smack my head. I even thought of a couple people I needed to reply to via text (voice dictation of course). Smack my head. We are so programmed to think that the phone is available and we can do anything we need on it right away at anytime. Even after all the horror-story material of the Reverse Air Machine, my brain still had not learned that my phone was dead and could not be used. It impulsively still thought it could be used right then. 

If you can believe it, I even stopped to pick up lunch without my cell phone - "whaaaaaaaat, another half hour you intentionally cut yourself off from the world?!" Yup, a conscious choice. Because my cell phone is not the world from which I am being cut off. The world can still be accessed without a phone. Short of manually walking into the airport and asking the human behind the desk to give me a ticket to the world, the grocery store in which I bought lunch was filled with a world of people with whom I could connect or from whom I could ask for support if needed. 

Sure, my back pocket felt significantly lighter, but I survived. 

The Simple Way To Turn Your Life Into Grad School

How many of you out there would love to just go to school for the rest of your life? 

I know a lot of people who would immediately raise their hands like Hermione Granger. I know a ton of people who would say absolutely not, and that is fine too. 

I do not know where it came from when I was born and began to evolve my own sliver of primate consciousness, but I have loved learning for as long as I can remember. Not just hearing new information - truly learning it. Letting it seep into my muscles and marrow and the very folds of my brain. 

If you read a few posts back about my one-day stand with calculus, you have an idea of my relationship to math. But even math I find fascinating - not enough to keep learning for the flipping fun of it, but for what it is, why it exists, and the way that problems are identified and solved. The logic and the systems of it. 

I have come to realize that my interest in math, for example, is the same interest I have in the human mind. The logic, the systems, the way that we face changes and challenges and adapt in order to address them. 

Information that we absorb we process and integrate in our minds based on our unique learning styles as well as our biases toward what we have enjoyed learning in the past. I am fascinated by math because of the way human beings invented it, now interact with it, and how math plays a role in explaining so much about the world, not by the act of solving a proof in my high school classroom. Similarly, I am fascinated by physics because of how it explains the universe and how chaotic systems have led to planets and species evolution, not by the idea of solving one of the foreign language formulas that fill up chalkboards in a lab.

I have come to peace with the fact that I may not get the chance to learn most things I would like to in this lifetime (Perhaps I will read about them during retirement in my leather easy chair and velvet robe I will own and with the sun setting perfectly outside the window), and accepting the classic constraints that time places on how much I can learn enables me to happily open myselfto learning everything I can every day.

Access to information is at an unprecedented level and even saying that is becoming redundant with the pace by which apps and websites and companies and programs are evolving while I write this post. 

This is profoundly so in the world of business/narrative/branding/marketing/strategy. I just spoke with a colleague and fellow Narrativeologist who said "You are never ahead or on top of how fast the industry and media is moving." 

(Sooooooo we created a monster...? Table that for now...)

The solution? "Honesty," he says.

"If you accept that you will never be able to get ahead of the world, it will be much easier to tell a client 'Hey, I have not thought of that before. Let's talk about it' when they offer a counter-perspective on your solution. Being honest about not knowing something opens the door to solving problems as a team."

Learning is collaborative. My company's tagline is Confidence through Collaboration and I mean it both ways. There is no such thing as a true expert but I know things that clients find helpful to learn either about themselves or their brands.

Simultaneously, every client knows so many things that I do not know and presents the opportunity in every conversation to teach me something new about myself, my company, and what I think about the human experience. 

A lot of my clients are inundated by the billion things out there now to help them grow their businesses. It is my job to simplify things for them, but I cannot do that unless I learn from them what math problems they are facing or what chaotic systems are affecting their evolution. 

The opportunity for learning is just that: an opportunity. It comes from something. Whether it is something subconscious like a personal motivation or interest that presents itself, as customary as a teacher presenting something new in class, or as tangible as the pressure to figure out what makes you stand out in your industry (Pro tip: that is why you come to me...), inspiration must be there from a separate source. 

So maybe it is not about going back to school for the rest of your life. Maybe life is all the schooling you need.

What is the source of your inspiration? What are you dying to learn about?

Mother knows best! What childhood taught me about narrative coaching

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Several summers ago I visited my alma mater, Middlebury College, to catch up with my former commons dean. When I left the commons office, which is still down the hall from the luxurious laminate floor and plush Twin XL mattress of my freshman year dorm room (GAHHHH all the memories! Make them stop!), I happened to glance across the way at the Studio Arts building. A dreary, dark colored building snuggled into the dreary weather of the day whose rooms sat chock full of charcoal, rulers, reams of paper, and left over stress hormone from the previous semester.

In the upper right corner window was an abundance of Post-It Notes stuck to the glass that formed the huge words "BE NICE". It made me stop walking. Not only because someone had taken a break from their other art to stick probably a hundred Post-It Notes onto a window - backwards, mind you - but because it was such a simple and powerful reminder. Just be nice.

In high school, a young soccer teammate had been bullied and subsequently had trouble fitting in. I told him that "being mean is easy because it is about domination. It's one-sided. Being nice is hard because you must give something of yourself, open yourself up to someone's experience" (I have since trademarked that. No one can steal it).

People aren't automatically comfortable being open. They're afraid that their kindness won't be "taken well" or "accepted". But that doesn't matter. Kindness is kindness, and it doesn't care if it is "taken well" or not, and neither should you. 

Kindness is the other side of asking for help (see the previous post). Asking for help is difficult because it requires vulnerability, which a lot of humans don't grow to very naturally enjoy. It is like asking for help is the super heavy lever that opens the drawbridge into the castle of someone else's kindness.

But you won't know how awesome and supportive the castle is until you start pulling on the lever. On the flip side, the castle needs to be open to receiving that person in order for both parties to thrive, so just be nice. It is as simple as that. 

Take my mother, for instance. She doesn't know you and you did not ask her for any kind of help, but she will talk to you and within thirty seconds flat she will know where you work, where you went to college, how your parents met, and how you happen to know her childhood friend's niece. She just does that. That is her kindness. That is how she was brought up to be. 

In my own childhood, my siblings and I would roll our eyes when we stood in line at Disney World or tried to leave a restaurant, turn around, and see mom deep in conversation with a totally different family.

One time when I was little and whiney (THE ONE SINGLE TIME, I assure you) I complained loudly to my mom to stop talking to someone so we could go home, and HER mother, who was in the car with me, snapped "Hush!" at me so quickly that a) I have never forgotten that moment and b) I realized, instead of a propensity for discipline, where my mom established her beautiful priority for selflessness.

After all, what kind of battle was I really going to pick with my grandmother, the Kindness Queen from whom my mom had received formal training all her life?

What I've come to realize is that the key to kindness is not only being open to someone else's experience. Even though my mom would respond back and forth and always had another question loaded up, the key is her ability to listen. How do you know what questions to ask if you aren't listening?

One evening in college, I picked up a billiards game with a young man who wasn't a student and asked "Do you play a lot of pool?" And that was it. Drawbridge lowered. He told me how it was what he did to relax and about how drugs had recently ruined his life, how rehab had affected him, what his current goals were without a job, and how his loved ones felt about his choices.

That was a big moment for me because I thought he was oversharing but I did not feel the urge to flee. I just stayed and listened and we played pool.

I am not surprised that moments like that led me to the work I have done. As soon as people in crisis have noticed that I was actually listening to what they were saying, they told me everything. They told me all the stories and all the pains and, because I was listening, I knew what questions to ask next.

That's how I developed my counseling approach. The more I listened and asked, the more stories they shared, and the more personal connections I could help them make. Sure, I have lots of activities and advice and anecdotes that I could share with clients, but often they do not need that at all. Instead they need me to simply listen and ask questions. Little did I know that my whole childhood was training me for narrative coaching all along. 

You see, my mother's kind of kindness lowers the drawbridge for people's stories, and watching her talk to other families in a ski lodge instead of her own is where I first learned how to do what I do now.

When I talk to a total stranger in the street or an elevator or a coffee shop now as a "mature" "grown up" and I learn a lot about them in a mere sixty seconds, or start with a new client and know what ten questions to ask next within thirty seconds, I stop and think about how that is what I whined about my mom doing way back when and I say to myself:

"Damnit. She wins."

Then I hear her kind voice in my head saying, "Watch your language, mister", and I think:

"Darn it. She wins again."