Episode 90: How You Tell a Story May Limit Your Potential for Learning From It

Sharing Your Story with the Right Person Makes a Difference

My book, based on this podcast, is designed to help walk you through a similar process as my podcast guests experience, to help you identify specific points in your life that can become some of your best stories to share.

The stories you share matter. They color your memories and self-confidence, they help create your internal messages, and they impact the perception people have of you. This book will help you uncover those stories that continue to shape your internal perceptions and relationships.

The preorder campaign, similar to a Kickstarter campaign, but for books, was extended by a few days because I am so close to reaching my goal of 250 books sold! To order your copy and take advantage of the early investor bonuses included, click here:

Near the summit of Mt. Helena, Powerline Trail, Helena, Montana

Panting, stopping to breathe and get my heartrate back to a reasonable pace, I looked up ahead to more steep climbing up the mountain. Then I looked down at the path I had just hiked up and smiled. It was a rigorous hike and I hadn’t really planned to take such a hard trail to the summit this time.

The dog needed water, so I stopped in a shady spot just off the trail to fill his bowl and let him rehydrate. It’s nice to have the dog around as an excuse to stop and catch my breath again. With his heavy fur coat, he’s even less comfortable than I am on this nearly 80 degree day before noon. But he’s just as happy as I am to be outside on our mountain.

Taking one last look back, I started up another steep climb, knowing I wasn’t far from the summit.

As I listened to the randomly shuffled song that came through my headphones, I had to stop again to look up and down from the middle of the steep climb:

Glory glory, halleluiah,

The sun is shining, shining down

Glory glory, halleluiah,

I’m alive, and I’m feeling, feeling fine.

Hearing those words sung by JJ Grey, I started thinking about what compelled me to take this hard route to the top of the mountain. My top strengths, according to the Gallup assessment, didn’t include Achiever or Competition, two of the themes I could imagine would drive someone to do what I was doing. So what was it?

It was in that moment I realized character has little to do with any assessment results.

I use my strengths to develop my character, not the other way around.

It had been a tough morning, which is why I knew I needed to hike. Getting outside always helps me clear my head and make sense of things. The email I received was cruel and unprofessional, a response to what I considered very reasonable requests for information. Words clouded my vision as I walked up the mountain, feeling attacked, defensive, angry, and self-conscious.

Had I failed in this assignment? Was it my work that triggered this unprofessional, rude response? I felt my confidence start to slip back down the mountain behind me.

Pushing myself harder, pressing my feet solidly into the slippery, rocky trail, I ascended another steep 15 feet of the mountain.

Near the summit, Mt. Helena, Powerline Trail, Helena, Montana

I felt nothing but exhilaration and pride as I took a step onto the rocks at the summit. Looking down, I could imagine myself when I was partway up the mountain, panting, pushing, and clearing the frustration and anxiety out of my way.

Now that I was at the top and looking back down, the path still looked crazy hard, but the feelings of inadequacy at the mid-point were no longer with me.

It was the next day, as I was telling a friend about my inspiration on the mountain that I realized I had missed a big part of the lesson.

I told her the story with my optimistic nature showing in full force, using those words that popped into my head as I sweated and panted up the steepest part of the mountain: Persistence, resilience, grit.

“… shame, feelings of inadequacy, self-punishment…”

Damn. As she added those words, I realized she was right. I didn’t take that hard route simply because I was demonstrating resilience and grit. I was punishing myself for what I thought I had done wrong. I was pushing away the shame I felt as I remembered the words in the email. I was proving to myself that I WAS resilient, strong, and even if I failed at one thing, I would be DAMN SURE NOT TO FAIL at this.

Our conversation shifted from why we punish ourselves to why it mattered. After all, punishing myself by climbing up a mountain had to be one of the healthiest and constructive ways to do that, right?

Well, yes. Knowing WHY I was pushing myself so hard matters. If I’m working away these feelings, these frustrations, giving those feelings a name will help me address them, specifically, rather than blowing off arbitrary steam.

When we know the why behind our actions, we can be more intentional about not only processing our feelings behind those actions, we open our minds to learn the necessary lessons the experience can teach us.

I shared the story of my hike with my friend so I could talk through thoughts I knew could contribute to life lessons, to apply my thoughts to actual improvement in future similar situations. When we tell a story like this to a friend, we create arbitrary constraints around the experience, we create a box for the story to fit into based on prior experience. That means we look for what we want to see, set limits for understanding the context of our stories, and miss all kinds of potential for lessons and growth. But when we share the story with the right friend, they might just ask the questions we need to ask ourselves – the harder questions – and that conversation is likely to remove some of those constraints.

Summit, Mt. Helena, Helena, Montana

In the book The Art of Possibility, a gift I received from my friend Jeff Ikler, the very first chapter is about exactly that: Based on past experience, we make assumptions that create a box, or constraints, for ourselves. I made assumptions based on my optimistic nature, assumptions about the reason behind the negative email I had received, assumptions about the lessons I was meant to learn from the experience. Not all of those assumptions are bad things, necessarily, but without some opportunity to question them and work through the stories I was telling myself, I may have limited my potential for personal growth.

Who do you have in your life that helps you work through this kind of internal message? Which of your friends or acquaintances can you count on to help you ask yourself the tough questions, and get the most out of an experience? If you can’t think of anyone right away, be intentional about building relationships with the people who can help you process your thoughts and experiences. People you can trust, be vulnerable with, and who will add positive support and encouragement. Self-reflection is a great start, but if you’re not expanding that reflection by sharing it with people you trust, you’re limiting your opportunities to apply that self-reflection, deepen it, and improve your communication and relationships as a result.

Episode 87: Share Stories and OWN Your Talents

Al Swanson has always been an outdoorsy guy, so much that his first plan out of high school was to study turf management. Yes, turf management. His interest began with a manager who was on the cutting edge of sustainable, ecologically healthy golf course management. That manager was way ahead of his time, and Al knew it.

Share Your Story on Your Terms

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

Share Your Story on Your Own Terms.png

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!

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Here are a few ideas!
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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.

Taking Yourself Too Seriously?Remember Your Mistakes Fondly.png

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.