I just celebrated a milestone birthday. In preparation for the event, I started reflecting on some of the stories I’ve accumulated over the course of my career and my life. These are stories I tell about my history – the events I’ve experienced in my personal and professional life and how I make sense of it all – the conclusions I’ve reached and the lessons I’ve learned. Some of these stories work really well for me, and I want to make sure I keep on telling them. But then there are those other ones, the accounts that honestly just aren’t all that helpful for me to carry forward into the next phase of my life.
Perhaps, as I experience this milestone birthday, it’s high time for me to revisit some of these stories, rethink them, and retell them in a brand new way.
Here are some stories I want to keep. There’s me at twelve shyly approaching the “adult in charge” of an organization I was a member of, asking his permission to engage in an activity that was only available to boys. My request ultimately led the organization to change its rules, creating a pathway for girls to more fully participate. I think back on that event to remind myself that yes I can take action when something doesn’t make sense to me, that I can be courageous, and that my actions can lead to positive change for others. If I had that capability at age twelve, then surely I can do the same today. That story is a keeper! And there’s me in my thirties, nervously presenting to my company’s board of directors. I locked eyes with a board member who kept nodding in encouragement each time I made a key point. His actions provided the confidence boost I needed, right there in real-time. That day, I promised myself that if ever I was in a similar situation, I’d return the favor, encouraging young talent who needed reassurance, support, or an external dose of courage. Thirty years later, I still hold that story in my heart as a guidepost for how I should behave as a leader. A keeper, indeed.
But what about the stories I tell and retell that I’d be better off revising? Do these stories say more about my own arrogance and hubris than they do about my insight and learning?
Maybe there are accounts I share where I got things just plain wrong, where I’ve misremembered, or where I misinterpreted events. Maybe there are other perspectives that are worth considering. And maybe if I dug deep enough there are better lessons I can learn. Is it time for me to revisit some of these well-worn stories, so I can arrive at new insight? Is it time to create revised editions that guide me to make smarter decisions and take better actions in the future?
I’m reminded of the old acronym THINK that we learning and development professionals refer to in the interpersonal communications classes we lead. To engage in more productive and respectful conversations, we advise our students to pause before speaking, to consider if what they’re about to say is True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind. In other words, to THINK before they speak. If what they are about to say fails the THINK standard, we advise our students to reconsider what they are about to say, and revise and reframe it in a way that reflects better THINKing. Can I apply these same criteria to the stories I tell myself and others, and create updated versions that are more … well … thoughtful?
Are my stories True? When I share a story, I’d like to think that I’m being honest, that the events I’m relating really happened the way I describe them, and that I’m interpreting them correctly, at least from my vantage point. But am I representing the whole truth? Would someone else recall these incidents in a very different way?
What about the story where I’m the little guy, trying unsuccessfully over and over again to alert a senior leader about a critical mistake he’d made that somehow only I had the wisdom to see? The way I tell the story, I’m a defeated hero, a modern-day Joan of Arc, trying in vain to protect an organization I love from certain doom. If only he had listened to me.
Certainly, there are elements of truth here. But am I telling the whole truth? Did I voice my concerns professionally? Did I state my concerns in a compelling way? Is it true that I was a vanquished hero or was I just an unpersuasive, inexpert communicator? Did I pick the wrong time to share my message? The wrong venue? Could I have leveraged the power of others by gathering more input? Should I have presented external research or shared quantitative data to make my argument more persuasive?
Now I’m not at all excusing the leader who didn’t listen to and heed my concerns. Far from it. He bears responsibility for his role in the story. But by thinking more broadly about the truth, by considering that the leader’s perspective on this event might differ from my own, I find myself taking responsibility too. He owns his part and I own mine. That’s a better story.
Are my stories Helpful? How about the stories I tell about living life on the fringe? I don’t really do HR, I explain to my colleagues in the HR department I use to work in. As a Learning and Organizational Development professional, I have a background that’s different, an outlook that’s different, and a focus that’s different. And I’m not really an academic either, although I have a Ph.D. and use to work for a university. See, my work is grounded, practical, and focused on application as opposed to theory. I wear my non-membership as a badge of honor. Don’t blame me. I’m not really a part of “them”.
What purpose do these stories serve? Do they help move us all toward some greater understanding and connection, or do they just provide me with a convenient excuse? What would “all-in” participation look like and would that be more helpful?
Are my stories Inspiring? Do they motivate action, or do they keep me and others stuck in place? Back to my schtick about living life on the fringe. Has my “outsider identity” just become a well-worn groove, allowing me to slip into the role of cynic whenever it suits me? I’m beginning to think that any story I tell that begins with the words “I’m not …” is now ripe for revision. I’m not an athlete. I’m not a joiner. I’m not HR. Do these stories set me on a path to explore and learn more or do they serve as a boundary of sorts? Inspiring stories lead to action – to change – and I’m thinking that I’ve got a few stories that need a healthy dose of editing.
Are my stories Necessary? Does my current version of a story provide any new insight? Will anyone – and will I – learn anything new from what I have to share? Or does telling my story just provide me with an opportunity to air old grievances, to celebrate a Festivus of sorts? For those not familiar with the episode on the Seinfeld show that mentioned Festivus, Festivus is a made-up holiday observed by the Costanza family. As George Costanza explains in the show, the holiday celebration isn’t complete until each family member shares their account of how others have disappointed them during the prior year. So I ask, how many of my stories serve no purpose other than providing me with an opportunity to air some unresolved complaint? Can I edit these stories in some way to get off the old grievance train so they provide new insight and learning?
Are my stories Kind? Does my story acknowledge that each character – including me – was doing the best we could do at the time with what we had to work with? Does the story acknowledge positive intent? Is it respectful?
I struggled with this one for a while. After all, I’ve had some experiences where someone really did wrong me, where I was hurt, possibly even intentionally. How do I recount these incidents, which really did happen, and describe each person who was involved in a kind and respectful way?
That’s when I recall a memoir writing class I once took where the guest lecturer spoke about how she manages to remain kind to the very real people she writes about. In her books, the author freely dishes dirt as she weaves comedic tales about her parents, failed romances, her husband. How does she reconcile all of this with herself … and with them? How is this kind?
Well, the author advised us students to take a closer look at each story she relates in her books. “I make sure that I never present a character in any worse a light than how I present myself,” she explains. “I don’t elevate myself above the other characters. They did stupid things. They made mistakes. And so did I.”
I can do that too, I realize. I can edit my stories to make sure I don’t present myself as the hero, battling against others who would do me wrong. They may have inflicted pain along the way. But quite honestly, I’m sure there were times when I did too. A story, retold that way, is more complete, more truthful, and more kind.
ReTHINKing helps combat negative self-talk too. I’ve often said that no one has ever said anything worse about me than what I’ve said to myself. All that self-criticism can feel very real sometimes, and can be limiting. But when I closely examine these stories I tell myself about myself, I start to question. Are the faults and flaws I attribute to myself really True? Is this story about some screw-up that I go over and over again in my mind Helping me to accomplish anything? Does the story Inspire me to take action or does it send me into hiding? Is it Necessary because it’s providing me with new insight and learning? And is it Kind, or am I holding myself to a standard that I would never apply to anyone else?
There are stories I need to keep, and keep telling, and stories I need to revise and edit. Some of the events in these stories occurred decades ago, but the possibility is there that they can produce new insight and learning. All I need to do is THINK about them in a new way. And that’s my plan for this milestone year.