Thursday, January 27, 2011

The storyteller

I was back this week doing some training for my good friends at Colgate University, one of the most mission-driven organizations I have worked with. They see their role as not just being an elite liberal-arts school (and having a great football team), but creating experiences in and out of the classroom that help students develop as leaders.

It was in this context that I was fascinated by this mural, which graced the wall above me as I led a workshop at their campus multicultural center. It appears to be a storyteller ("naw, it's a shaman" remarked my sweetie ...), bathed in light, with people gathered around him. In the far background, people are dancing.

What are the things you do best? What are you proudest of? What is the North Star that you move toward in life? I will bet these all revolve around things you were *taught*. Things you never knew before that captured your imagination, gave you new skills and powers, and perhaps even changed the direction of your life. Things that helped you learn to dance your own unique dance.

Storytellers have had a huge influence in my life. For example, I struggled in school when I was a child, actually getting put in a special private school by the time I was seven years old. (I'll bet I am the only Ivy League graduate you know who flunked third grade.) So what was different there? For one thing, they assigned me a "math nun" who taught me college-level matrix algebra in fourth grade – and then had me teach it to the fifth grade students.

The simple act of teaching me a skill that few people knew – and then giving me a chance to show people I was great, not just bad – was life-changing for me. I later earned an engineering degree from Cornell and actually made a career of using matrix algebra for many years. In fact, those who know me as a communications skills author often have no idea that my first book was actually a book on 3D computer graphics that is knee-deep in matrix equations.

I have seen the same thing happen many times in other people's lives. The young person in trouble who discovers great skills in culinary school, and jumps from the fire into the frying pan. The person struggling with their job or their attitude, until someone takes them aside and says, "I see potential in you – try this." Or in a more famous example, Susan Boyle living a very ordinary life until someone asked her to open her mouth and sing.

Much of my current career as an author and public speaker revolves around telling stories that teach people new things, and hopefully giving them powers they never had before. People often tell me that they don't communicate well, react badly to others, or get flustered in difficult situations. Then I teach them different words to use, and pow! Problem solved. They didn't have to work harder, try more often, or change their personalities – in fact, those approaches have almost always failed them in the past. They just needed to listen to someone who knew something they didn't, take it in, and hopefully pass it on.

I would not be so arrogant as to compare myself with the person bathed in light in the picture above. Sometimes my stories lift people, and very often other people's stories lift me. In both cases the brightest moments of my life, now and I believe yet to come, spring from gatherings where stories are being told and new ideas are being shared.

So what stories do you have to share with people? What could you teach people that might lift them, give them new skills, or help them believe in themselves? And more important, what stories might be out there that might change your life?

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