Share Your Story on Your Terms

How Do You Tell Your Story Without Being Defined By It?

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It’s not uncommon for people who have disabilities, or dealt with tragedies and other life-altering experiences to want to move forward and just “be normal.” Children who have experienced the death of a parent or sibling are often heard expressing this feeling of not wanting to be known as “the kid who lost his mom.” Many times in life, we see our weirdness through the eyes of the people around us, not really knowing that most everyone feels weird or different, or somehow not “normal” at some point in their lives.

Brian Schulman was sure he was weird, sure he didn’t fit in as he was growing up, partly because he had been born premature and had related health issues, and partly because he was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome in his pre-teen years. He definitely stood out with his tics and quirky physical movements, and being bullied didn’t help at all with his internal messages of being different.

The beauty, though, of each of us having those negative experiences is that they help us make a choice between adding to the sadness and aggressiveness in the world around you, or making a positive difference so those around you never feel like you did. That’s how Brian chose to live his life. He intentionally became a person others wanted to be around, he made sure the people around him felt good about themselves, felt like they could BE themselves.

Learn more about Brian, and connect with him on LinkedIn and Facebook!

Are you enjoying listening to episodes of this podcast? Are you wondering how you can help me sustain this project, to support and encourage the sharing of important stories?

Here are a few ideas!
1) Leave a rating and comment on your favorite podcast service like iTunes or Stitcher
2) Share a link to the show and tell people why you like it
3) Become a sponsor (for as little as $2/month) by going to Patreon

Taking Yourself Too Seriously? Remember Your Mistakes Fondly.

Choose a Cue to Keep it Real

It was my first day of my first real job out of college. My paid internship in Washington DC had ended and I spent the summer playing with my sister and roommate, waiting tables and hosting at a couple of restaurants.

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When my sister moved back home to Colorado, my roommate convinced me to join a temp agency. Shortly after my first placement, the company offered me a job. My appointment with Lori in the HR department was scheduled at 8am on a Monday morning.

It was December, and it was still dark when I woke up, eager to go to my meeting, fill out paperwork, and start my job with the Meetings Department at the American Chemical Society. I dressed in the dark and popped my head into my roommate's bathroom to say goodbye, she said "good luck, Sarah!"

It was still dim outside as I made my way from the apartment to Union Station to catch the train. I sat for the few stops to the Farragut North station and held my little briefcase, a graduation gift from my dad, on the tops of my feet. In my eagerness and anxiety, the long escalator ride to the surface seemed even longer than usual. As I stepped off the escalator, out from under the awning and onto the sidewalk, I glanced down at my feet.

Oh dear.

I looked back up and took a few more steps. I thought, "Oh no, I wouldn't have done that."

Looking back down at my feet confirmed my initial observation: I was wearing two different colored shoes. One was black, the other was navy. They were identical pumps -- except for the color, which, now in full sunlight, was obvious.

Walking into the first office building on my left, I marched with confidence toward the tall counter as the man at the desk behind the counter looked up.

May I please use your phone?

No ma'am. This is not a public phone.

Please? It's kind of an emergency. I'm going to be late for my first day of a new job and I need to call and let them know! Please? (Insert brightest, sweetest, Colorado-hick-in-the-big-city smile I can muster.)

Oh, ok, I guess.

Good morning, Lori. I'm on my way over now, only a few blocks away, but I have to run home so I'm going to be late. Why? Well... I just noticed... I'm wearing two different colored shoes. ... No, I know I can't come to work like that. ... Yes, just about 30 minutes. ... Yes, I'll be there. Thank you.

I hung up the phone and the man at the counter stood to pull the phone back down to the desk so he could peer down at my feet and grin.

Smiling back and thanking him, I ran back to the Metro station. I found myself grinning, feeling very silly, and trying to cover my shoes with my briefcase when I sat down on the train. I managed to get home, change a shoe, drive back to the office, pay an outrageous price to park the car near the building, and get to the HR office in 30 minutes.

When I told my roommate the story over dinner, we couldn't stop laughing. Our stomachs were sore from the deep belly laughs that night. She reminded me of a few other little details I managed to mess up over the previous few months and came up with a term for those, "Sarah-isms."

Those small details add up in similar ways to what I described in an earlier post about finding multiple Band-Aids on my hands. The difference here is that these little details are silly, not dangerous. Stories like these are great reminders that we are human, we are fallible, and that while it's important to take our jobs and responsibilities seriously, we should never -- ever -- take ourselves too seriously. After all, we are all human, no matter how high the pedestal on which we may stand or be placed.

Just a few years after the two-different-shoes incident, I was in Vancouver, Canada, for work. My colleagues and I took an afternoon to rent a car and drive up to Whistler to explore. It's a beautiful ski resort not far from the city; it reminded me a lot of Vail, Colorado. We were there in the spring and the hills were covered in beautiful green grass and wild flowers. A small boutique store back then, Joe Boxer happened to be open that day. Joe Boxer was the brand that got big and famous, thanks to Forrest Gump and his yellow smiley face. At the time, it was a higher-end brand (now you can find it at KMart) and all the rage. I picked out a watch with a brown leather band and smiley faces in place of the numbers on the face. For my husband, I picked a fancy silver one with the smiley face imprinted in the face of the watch. You could only tell when you looked closely at it.

Wearing that watch as a DC professional, as a consultant implementing a major software program in agencies like the Federal Reserve, World Bank, and NSA, kept me grounded. When I found I was taking myself too seriously, all I had to do was look down at my watch. A smile would begin from my wrist and work its way up to my face, guaranteed. DC has far too many people who take themselves far too seriously. They didn't need one more.

What is Your Top Strength?

Hint: It’s a Thing You Do Naturally, And Don’t Even Know It’s Unique

In March I was gifted a book and code to take the StrengthsFinders assessment. Because I trust and admire the person who gifted it to me, I took the assessment and read through what it meant. I’m not a big fan of personality tests and other assessments for a few reasons:

  1. They can be used in a negative, labeling way, giving people an excuse to not pay attention to the needs of the people around them.

  2. They often aren’t paired with coaching or clear strategies for applying what you learn about yourself.

  3. If they are done out of context, without a specific purpose or mission, they miss an incredible opportunity for self reflection.

I took the assessment and read the results - no surprises there.

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Again, because it was a gift from someone I trust, I decided to dig a little deeper and actually started to read the introduction for the book. It turns out that I was taking the assessment out of context, exactly what bothers me about most assessments! As I read the book, I started to realize the incredible value in the concept of focusing on our strengths to build and improve on them, as opposed to finding our weaknesses and trying to improve those.

The lightbulb went on in my head.

Regardless of the tool we use in terms of these assessments, we need to focus our attention on what we do really well, and build and develop those skills. When we work on those things we don’t have a natural ability to do, we not only miss opportunities to spend that time and energy nurturing our unique strengths, we miss opportunities to collaborate with people with complementary strengths, making it feel like we have to do things all on our own, when we absolutely know that strong teams are more effective than someone working alone.

There are some things we simply have to do in our lives, like basic math, reading, and laundry. But when it comes to other parts of our lives, especially professionally, knowing what we are really good at, what makes us feel confident, competent, and satisfied, focusing on our strengths simply makes us happier, more successful, and more productive.

When I finished the book, I checked out the website and clicked the button “become a Strengths coach”, and a few months later I completed the requirements and was certified through Gallup.

Thanks to the training, I am now exploring my own strengths more deeply as I coach others using this tool. And it was as I was hiking on the mountain behind my house that I finally understood how one of them really shows up in my life. I had some ideas about it, but most of what I was considering were things I believe other people (without Strategic in their top 5-10), could also do well.

You know those things you do every day, those things you do without thinking about them at all, but that make your life make sense? Think about what annoys you about someone you love and spend a lot of time with, and consider this:

  • It annoys you because you do it too, and you don’t like that aspect of yourself or;

  • it annoys you because you do it differently - better and more efficiently - and you can’t figure out why THEY don’t do it that way.

If the answer is the second one here, this may give you a clue about how a certain strength shows up in your life.

As I was walking up the mountain, I was thinking about exactly the path I would take, how I would get home, and exactly why one path might be a better option than another.

BAM. Strategic just showed up.

When I get into the car to go somewhere, before I even leave the driveway I’ve planned my route to be the most efficient way to get to point B from point A. And if it’s a variety of stops, I’ve figured out how to avoid turning left onto a busy street, whether I’ll have frozen or cold groceries in the car and what that might mean for which stops are first vs. last, and how much time each stop should take.

Do you do this before you leave your home? Strategic might be one of your top strengths.

I was riding with our older son yesterday; he pulled out of the parking spot in front of our house and immediately turned left onto the cross street. It was everything in me not to make a suggestion about how to get to where we needed to be.

That’s when I realized that he simply doesn’t think like I do. Strategic is not the first place he goes when interacting or solving a problem. This kid is really smart (of course I think so), and though he hasn’t taken the assessment yet, I know FOCUS will be one of his top strengths. EMPATHY will be another. Neither of those are anywhere near my top 10. As a matter of fact, focus is nearly at the bottom of my list.

In a perfect world, my family and friends would simply ask me: “What order should we run these errands, and what is the route to get to each?” That would mean they understood and valued how STRATEGIC shows up in my life. And when I need someone to help me with empathy, I would go straight to my son to ask for guidance.

But it’s not a perfect world, and I often choose not to say anything when my husband is behind the wheel… unless he asks. In the rest of my life, though, that strategic way of thinking has been a tool that my best employers have found incredibly valuable. It’s also a strength that was not so appreciated or valued by employers who didn’t understand it, especially when I didn’t know how to present the best, most efficient solution to a problem to them in language that matched their strengths.

Prior to reading the Clifton StrengthsFinders book and taking the assessment, I was sitting in a session about scaling our business at the No Longer Virtual event in Denver in February, 2018. I listened closely to Benjamin Walker, CEO of Transcription Outsourcing, Inc. as he spoke about when to hire staff or a contractor to delegate certain tasks.

“You started your business because you feel passionate about ___ and you’re especially talented at ___, so when you’re spending time on other aspects of the business, you’re practically leaving money on the table. Focus on what you do really well, and outsource the rest.”

Damn that’s smart.

Now it’s your turn.

Here’s your challenge, should you choose to accept it: Find your top strengths. Use an assessment if you’re having trouble identifying those activities that you thrive in, those things that come naturally to you. Try StrengthsFinders, DiSC (ask Heather Younger about this one), or Stand Out if you’re struggling, or if you just love this type of thing.

After you have a good idea about your top strengths, take a few weeks to absorb them, to find the ways they show up in your life so you can really own them.

Next? Find ways to use those strengths in your everyday activities, and take a moment to email me to share your observations. I’d love to hear from you.

Want to learn more about StrengthsFinders, and Elkins Consulting can help you and your team apply the results of your assessment to improve outcomes and communication? Email Sarah at

Between Your "Why" and Your "How" are Your Stories

Uncovering Stories to Complete a Picture

It turns out that philosophy is not only NOT boring, when appropriately applied, philosophy can help you understand yourself and the world around you. Philosophy isn’t about memorizing what Socrates or Plato said; philosophy is about curiosity and questions.

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That’s how Marisa Diaz-Waian sees it, and she’s on a mission to help bring philosophical thinking and questions to current issues humanity is facing, as well as the timeless issues of our lived experience in general: Who are we, how can we live the good life, and what does this even mean?

From Philosophy Symposiums discussing the impact of AI on humanity, Bioethics, and The Environment, Ethics & Stewardship, to Philosophy Walks to ask questions and observe the world around us, to Philosophy Think & Drinks (my favorite), Marisa sees philosophy as a way to build collaboration, consultation, and community. That’s what it says on her website, but I like to add curiosity, because that’s where I see a huge need she can fill in our global community through these activities.

Father & daughter, Ennis, Montana

Father & daughter, Ennis, Montana

It was her father’s way of asking questions and making her think about what she was seeing in the world around her that brought her to her interest and passion for philosophy, but she didn’t see it as a way of life right away. Her first philosophy class in college was her eye-opener, but the dream of bringing these ideas to the world didn’t come until much later. Throughout her bachelor’s degree, she combined philosophy with other areas of interest, not knowing that doing exactly that would set her up to see how philosophy could be applied to so many other subjects and fields.

From Marisa:

After high school I went to Saddleback Community College, then transferred to Humboldt State University. I was halfway through my BA degree when I returned home to be with my father, in light of an unexpected series of events – the separation between he & my mother and a life-altering health condition.

My father had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, something we did not find out until later that summer. I transferred to California State University, San Marcos to finish out my degree and stay with him.

After graduation from CSUSM, my dad’s Parkinson’s had leveled out some with the new regimen of medications and he was able to return to most of his normal activities (with caution). He was able to travel back and forth to Montana on his own, fly fish, and continue his post retirement research.

I traveled with him frequently…and we still resided together (in California and Montana)…but I was on the road a lot with my job, doing concert touring and other oddball stuff. A couple of years passed like this and then he was in a horrible car accident en route to Montana. A triple roll-over, demolished airstream, and my father army-crawling out of the driver’s-side window in search of our cat, who had been ejected during the tumble and somehow managed (like my father) to escape with minimal injuries. A few broken ribs and bruising for him and a slight concussion for the cat. I have no idea how they survived.

After the accident, my dad’s health quickly declined, and solo travel was no longer an option. Over the next couple of years, we moved to New Hampshire, he underwent brain surgery in Boston, heart surgery in Boston (unexpectedly), and then we returned to Oceanside, California. About 1 year after moving back to Oceanside and settling in, I applied to graduate school at San Diego State University. My father’s influence continued, and my enthusiasm for philosophy grew.

Our plan was for me to finish grad school, and then for us to relocate to Montana and live on the nature preserve. Every summer we went back to Montana to work on the cabin in preparation for our move.

Unfortunately, our relocation never happened; my dad passed away on May 16th, 2010, about 2 semesters before I was due to finish grad school. I returned to Montana for the summer, a devastating one without my poppa, one of the hardest of my life.

After the summers’ end, I drove back to Oceanside, CA to finish graduate school…the final semester of which was spent in Los Angeles caring for my grandmother during the last months of her life.  Shortly after my grandmother passed, my thesis had been accepted, and I graduated…I moved back to Montana to stay for good.

In thinking about this chain of events, I recall a precious memory shared with my father about 2 weeks before he died. I was inducted into a scholastic community, based on my performance in grad school. My father was in a wheelchair at that time (mostly due to lack of strength and balance).

We were driving from Oceanside to the campus in San Diego and I remember seeing a car on the side of the road and an older gentleman pulling a gas can out of his trunk in route to the offramp. I began to pull over to help the man and I recall my father being very adamant that we would not be stopping — we had places to go. I was furious with him at the time, thinking that it was so selfish. Why shouldn’t we help the man?

In retrospect, I wish I had not been so furious. My father had a deeper mission — me. And I also think he knew something that I didn’t; he was not going to make it to Montana. He knew he wouldn’tmake it to my graduation; for him, this award ceremony was my graduation, and he was going to be there to celebrate.

And celebrate we did! At the ceremony, we were given medallions on long necklaces. During the opening portion of the event, we were asked to stand and put our hands over our chests, where the medallions were supposed to be, but my medallion was hanging so low that I had to put my hand over my stomach.

I leaned over to my dad and whispered….”Geezuz, if this is where my chest is now….perhaps I should have sped this grad school thing up a bit?!”

We burst out laughing so hard that the spanakopita he had been munching on ended up all over me - and the back of the head of the man in front of us, who graciously understood, and had been chuckling with us about my comment.

Later, when we were buckling up in the car and getting ready to pull out of the parking lot, my dad reached out for my hand and held it in his: “Thank you for today. This meant more to me than you will ever know. I am so proud of you.” I teared up, as I always do: “Awww, Poppa, of course, poppa. You’re my best friend. I couldn’t have done it without you. Now let’s go get some food, you must be starving! You know… hehehe.. since you lost half your spanakopita earlier.”

Moving in to care for him was an easy decision for her to make, and spending those 12 years with him as an adult, with his same extraordinary way of asking questions and making her think differently about the world around her lit exactly the fire she needed.


Our conversation took us full circle, starting with describing Merlin and its mission, discussion about why she took that path, and the stories that drove her, and ending with how her development of this non-profit has contributed to our community.

It was a couple of days after recording this podcast that she came to me with the realization that she knew her “why”, she was figuring out her “how”, and that the stories we uncovered during our conversation are the link between those. When we dig back into our memories for specific incidents and conversations that shaped us, we develop that link between our actions and thoughts, and can more intentionally align our dreams with our internal messages of strength, perseverance, and love.

During our conversation, Marisa shared that her favorite, dog-eared, well-worn book is Plato’s Dialogues, specifically The Complete Works of Plato, edited by John M. Cooper. After our recording, I asked her for some suggestions for people who might be interested in getting started with philosophy and applications to current reflections and discussions. She suggested starting on the Merlin webpage, Resources, and the book Learning to Be a Sage by Hsi Chu.

And a few more books to recommend:


Marisa, is the Founder and Executive Director of Merlin CCC.  Born in Santa Monica, CA, she spent the majority of her formative years along the coastlines of Southern & Northern California.  As she grew older, Ennis, Bozeman & Helena, MT became regular stomping grounds.  Her summers were frequently spent fly fishing, bird watching & “wandering into the great wide open” with her late father (and buddy), Lee. B. Waian.  An active member of the Helena community, Marisa happily “hangs her hat” at Merlin Nature Preserve (located just outside of Helena) & serves as its trustee and steward.

Will You Disrupt Yourself? Or Will You Be Disrupted?

Disruption: Our Subconscious Mind Knows When We Need One

Photo credit: Pete Longworth

Photo credit: Pete Longworth

Whitney Johnson knew she found something really useful in the book she was reading, The Innovator’s Dilemma, but she had no idea that it would change her perspective about her career and life trajectory.

She was in the middle of a major project, doing research on disruption in the telecom industry when she realized that the description of disruption as a business concept could easily be applied to personal growth and career.

That seed turned into a full sized tree over the next few years as she started to consider all the other traditionally labeled business concepts that could be applied to career and personal growth. The beauty of those concepts is that they could help not only explain where we are in terms of learning and development in a job, they could help people create a visual representation to help people apply those concepts to ultimately improve their productivity and engagement at work.

In our conversation, I discovered two things about Whitney that surprised me: She didn’t cook until recently, choosing to avoid the connection between “women’s work” and her professional image, and she is a musician. She is a classically trained pianist, but had given up piano after completing her music degree. Even more interesting to me than learning those things was learning that she had taken both up in the recent past, learning to cook (and enjoy it), and coming back to the piano through the discovery of a love and connection to Gospel music.

I had to mention my love for Gospel and Spiritual music, of course. I’m not a Christian, but I get chills up my spine when I hear people perform this music with passion and a depth of spirituality.

Our conversation took some wonderful twists and turns, from our relationships with our mothers and children, to career challenges related to boredom and a lack of dopamine boosts from learning something new.

One of my favorite parts of this conversation was an “ah ha” moment related to the challenges of parenting adult children, and trying to avoid letting our “advice monster” out in conversations with them.

To me, the most important concept in our conversation was that our brains crave learning new things. When we aren’t exploring something new, whatever that may mean, we are likely to find unproductive activities to satisfy that craving. Have you found yourself in a job that isn’t satisfying, and suddenly either you’ve been let go, or you notice more drama going on in your personal life? Whitney and I shared a theory that when we aren’t actively learning and satisfying our brain’s craving, we often sabotage ourselves in different areas of our lives.

In her book, Disrupt Yourself, Whitney spends time exploring the S-curve (typically used to describe a business’s growth) as a visual representation of skill-building or the learning curve of a new job or career. When we reach the top of the S, we hit a plateau and either stay there for a while, or we jump onto a different S, usually having to start at the bottom again.

Because of our human need to learn new things, when we sit on top of that S-curve too long, we tend to get bored. In my case, that’s when I sabotage relationships and jobs. In Whitney’s case, that’s when she takes on new or renewed interest in creative outlets.

It was a pleasure to spend time with Whitney after more than five years of conversing through email and on LinkedIn. She was a major source of inspiration for me when I started blogging, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunities she offered when she published one of my first posts on her website, and a follow up post a few years later.

Recognized as one of the 50 leading business thinkers in the world (Thinkers50), Whitney Johnson is an expert on disruptive innovation and personal disruption; specifically, a framework which she codifies in the critically acclaimed book Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work and in her latest book Build an “A” Team: Play To Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve(Harvard Business Press, 2018). She is also the author of Dare, Dream, Do: Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare to Dream

She developed her proprietary framework and diagnostics after having cofounded the Disruptive Innovation Fund with Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen. This framework is complemented by a deep understanding of how executives create and destroy value, having spent nearly a decade as an Institutional Investor ranked equity analyst on Wall Street.

In addition to her work as a speaker and advisor, Whitney is one of Marshall Goldsmith's original cohort of 25 for the #100 Coaches Project, is a coach for Harvard Business School's Executive Education program, frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, is a Linkedin influencer, and hosts the weekly Disrupt Yourself Podcast. You can follow her on Twitter at @johnsonwhitney.