Image Culled from: cODING hORROR -programming and human factorsby Jeff Atwood

Choose your own adventure 

Why you need to tell yourself, your own life’s story. And how individuals and brands can empower themselves for change.

My friend Rachel is probably a better person than you. First off, she’s dedicated her life to working with small children. This means that her day can consist of being pooped on.

Literally, she has been pooped on.

More than once.

Not only that, but because the fecal assailant is probably an embarrassed two-year old, Rachel is also responsible for soothing that same pooper. Can you imagine the empathy that sort of resilience takes?

But Rachel is more than what her job is. And she would never tell her story this way.

In fact, storytelling is one of her favorite activities.

Every year, for the past several years, Rachel has chosen to tell her life story as it would be in third person — to herself. She doesn’t write it down; she says it out loud. She becomes the narrator of her own life.

What this means is that she gets to call all the shots. She can start the story where she wants, and conclude where she chooses. She can choose to leave in parts she wants, and take out parts she doesn’t want. She can make it as long or as short as she wants.

And she is free to embellish. Knowing Rachel, this is a freedom she likely takes full advantage of (and Rachel, if you are reading that, I’m not a little bit sorry in saying it — it’s one of my favorite things about you).

She then examines the way she told the story.

Why did she start where she started?
What kind of character is Rachel in this story? A hero? A victim?
Is this story actually entertaining?
How does the narrator seem to feel about this character?

And the most important question:

What about the story would she want to see changed or told differently?

It is often said that we are our own worst critics, but Rachel tells the story of her life every year as a way of empowering herself. For Rachel, because it is just a story, it can be changed. Because she told it, she can always choose to retell it a different way.

The story of her life isn’t a precious object. It is an enduringly changeable practice.

Companies spend exorbitant amounts on telling the story of their brand to customers, in an constant, outward projection. But what value can be gained if those same marketers were to focus that effort inwards and used storytelling as an internal measuring gauge? Would a company be able to use it the same way as Rachel?

Recently I had the pleasure of listening to a podcast by The Unconventionals called Intel and the Creator’s Project. Intel’s Creative Director, David Haroldsen, explained how Intel used The Creator’s Project as an opportunity to ask participants what their perception of a personified Intel would look like. It was not, as it turned out, a very flattering figure (think old guy in a lab suit).

Much like retelling a life story every year, Intel saw The Creator’s Project as an opportunity for reinvention. Instead of thinking, “how can we change our character?” Intel focused on, “what’s a different way to present this story?”

Funny enough — when telling your own story — those two questions are in fact, linked.

Storytelling is, traditionally, a two-party exchange. It involves the storyteller, telling the story and the listener, listening. But using Rachel’s method, another means of telling the story is actually making yourself the vehicle for change. When Rachel presents the story of her life she is simultaneously, the omnipresent narrator and the lead character in the story. Not only that, but she is a lead character who is empowered to steer the story in a new direction, through taking action.

Intel, too, decided to take action. They started to rewrite their story by first convincing their internal marketing team to write themselves in, in the midst of the artists and out-there thinkers of The Creator’s Project.

Another important insight into Rachel’s method, is that it allows for storytelling to be an internal tidal exchange.

There is an intimate ebb and flow between the narrator; the character; and the character as the listener. As the main character, if she doesn’t like how she’s telling her own story — doesn’t like how the narrator is perceiving her — she can propose a rewrite.

This practice may be one of the most ingenious and scalable practices marketers can take away from Rachel’s tradition. Her practice of reciting her own story is an act of aspiration actualization.

Sounds fancy, right? In reality it’s much less complicated. It’s basically playing a game of dress-up by simply using words. New wording can completely change your character and how you operate. It’s the difference between placing your character in say, full body armor, or in a scuba diving suit. For the sake of maintaining the story, the character will have to react accordingly. The story just doesn’t work if the character is in fully body armor, exploring the ocean.

Here’s a better example: Let’s say in the the last telling, Rachel’s character seemed to be faced with constant hurdles. What if, instead, Rachel retold the story and decided to focus on always seeing the positive?

What if she, for instance, decided her character didn’t have any hurdles?

Instead of having to move in with a roommate; Rachel had a home she got to share with a friend.

Instead of focusing on overcoming hurdles, the narrator started the story off by claiming, “Rachel lived a happy, blessed life — covered in baby poop and surrounded by friends.”

By allowing herself space for a rewrite she is allowing herself to identify and set goals for the following year. Rather than think of the narrator as a separate entity from the main character, a dialogue is opened. The last step in Rachel’s yearly tradition is to retell her life’s story for how she wants it to be the next year.

Storytelling As Goal-Setting

On a personal level, boiling down your life into a mercurial story makes the complexities involved with making BIG changes feel more manageable. It’s more than just positive thinking. It becomes an authoritative practice.

Cast as the narrator, you’re in absolute control. Knowing the story is a recurring tradition makes it less precious as a singular experience.

Marketers can employ this same method to empower company goal-setting. Tell the story of your company the way you aspire it to be perceived and it will respond in kind. Dress it in the wording of success and you will start to follow it’s cue. This is how running an agile business really starts — through telling the story as the aspiration. For Intel it meant perceiving themselves as more than what they were told. The following year when asked what a personified Intel would like? According to the podcast, people began to see them as a cool, older guy in jeans and sneakers.

My friend Rachel chooses to build herself every year by telling her story. It’s dedication to give yourself that time to stop and think.

But she realizes what most of us don’t — that you actually CAN choose your own adventure. By crafting stories to motivate ourselves we can enact personal change. Sure, it takes a bit of moxie to choose to revist that narrative every year and continue to build. But the great thing about crafting your own narrative? You can leave out the part about being pooped on. Although, it’s always better if you add a little embellishment.