Narrative Coaching: Origin Stories

Your Origin Story Matters

As a leader, your origin story matters, it is not only for comic book superheroes or Steve Jobs.

A little child with his/her back turned, wearing a batman cape, holding it as if getting ready to fly. Image by, Sajjad Ahmadi on Unsplash

A little boy is out with his parents, and his parents are murdered in front of him. The little boy, Bruce Wayne becomes Batman and vows to fight crime for the rest of his life.

An idea for a boy magician is sparked on a train ride. Seven years later, in between losing her mother, an abusive marriage, and becoming a single mother struggling financially, Harry Potter and J. K. Rowling are introduced to the world.

How many are out there tinkering, writing books and code, and selling things out of their garages and dorm rooms as we speak. Who might be out there creating the next Apple, Amazon, or Google?

Origin stories are inspiring and spellbinding, whether it is a fictional superhero or an author who changed the face of children’s literature in modern times or a geeky college dropout with an idea to revolutionise personal computing.

Origin stories hold us enthralled because as human beings we are storied beings. We are curious and drawn to mysteries and meaning-making. We are drawn to underdogs who rose above their circumstances and challenges and changes the world. We want to be inspired, to imagine that we can also make a difference.

But origin stories are not just for comic book superheroes, celebrities and entrepreneurs.

We all have origin stories, and they matter.

Origin stories are the places we were forged. We can have origin stories for any one aspect of our lives. We tell stories of how we met our partners. We tell stories of how we got into our careers or were inspired to follow a passion and a dream. We tell stories of how we failed and rose from our defeats.

These stories matter, because it helps us and others to understand how we came to be who we are now. It gives a glimpse into the future of where we might be headed or choose to. It reveals and gives insight into our motivations for what we do and how we do it.

As a coach, I listen a lot. But I also ask a lot of questions.

One of the questions is an invitation to share an origin story.

  • How did you come to choose your career?
  • What made you change your track from being an architect to becoming a lawyer?
  • Share a significant story from your life, that you think has shaped who you are today?
  • What has shaped your outlook and values as a leader?
  • How did your upbringing influence your work ethic?
  • How did losing your job mid-career change the trajectory of your career?

Depending on my client, and the stories they present me with, I have a keen interest in asking questions that help them uncover the influence of these events, and how they might learn from them and rise with and from them.

Not everyone I work with is building the next Facebook or fighting crime or writing a book that is going to be globally known. But everyone I work with is interesting. And important.

My clients are all living extraordinary lives, in their sphere of influence, in their world. But some of them don’t know it. They might be unaware of how these stories have influenced the shape of their life. Or if they are aware of it, they might not be aware of how they are storying and shaping these stories.

Are they victims in these stories or the protagonists in these stories?

Here is an example of an ordinary origin story

I began my career as a software programmer when I was 19. Then I moved from programming to be a customer support executive of an accounting software.

And those are the facts. And yes, that’s my ordinary origin story.

Let me retell this story, in the way I first shaped it (made meaning) when it happened.

I began my career as a software programmer when I was 19. Then I moved from programming to be a customer support executive of an accounting software because I was a lousy coder. I failed as a programmer. The two years spent doing a Computer Studies Diploma and qualifying to be a member of the Australian and British Computer Society was a waste of time.

Let me re-story, with the wisdom of hindsight.

I began my career as a software programmer when I was 19. Then I moved from programming to be a customer support executive of an accounting software because I was a lousy coder. But I quickly realised that I was a good systems and business analyst. With this experience and knowledge, I grabbed an opportunity that came along to be a Business Process Consultant. I learnt how to redefine business problems as IT solutions, developed strategic and operational skills in re-engineering business processes. Most importantly I learnt to work with people, to build relationships that allowed me to inspire and motivate them to create and own their change. And a leadership coach came to be in the making.

Every time I reflect on the story, different versions of meaning-making come to light.

And why is it important to find origin stories?

Our stories are rarely just facts. They are facts interpreted through our lenses of meaning-making. Depending on the lens you were wearing at the time of the event, the way you tell the story might differ from time to time.

To story and re-story is to find the gold nuggets of lessons in these origin stories and the significance of these stories on our lives.

If these stories have empowered us to grow from these significant events, then they become the lessons we share with others. They become the wisdom we impart as parents and as leaders in our organisations and communities.

If we are struggling or living with regret or anger, then revisiting, reflecting on and re-storying these origin stories is an opportunity to dig deeper into the story you have shaped, an opportunity to find another lens with which you might see the world and yourself differently.

‘Don’t worry if you find that you are not very good at the first career or job you chose. What is important is to pay attention to what you have learnt from applying yourself. What you are not good at is as important as what you are good at. You can make choices to either improve what you are not good at. Or you could build on your strengths or follow your passion. And opportunities and pathways will open up based on what you decide to do.’

That’s the wisdom (I hope) that I share from my origin story. Of course, this might seem all well and good in hindsight. Ideally if only we were able to build insight in the moment. But that inquiry is for another day, another article. For the moment, how might you find your origin stories?

How to find your origin stories

Clarify what you want to explore, to understand better or learn from.

Origin stories can come from all different aspects of your life, personal, professional, philosophical. Depending on who you are and what stands out as important, your inquiry questions might be anything like:

  • How I became a CEO of a multinational company?
  • How did my one-woman start-up brand agency become a 100 people strong company?
  • How did I learn what love means?
  • How I finally found balance in my personal and professional life?

Your origin story might fall into one of three categories

  • Trauma — maybe you experienced an unexpected life-interruption or crisis that changed the course of your life or your perspective on life.
  • Destiny — maybe you were just happily going about your life and something completely out of your normal life came along and pulled you into an adventure or exploration (the departure) that led you down a path you would have never taken otherwise (the initiation), and then you come back changed and transformed (the return). This is generally seen as the Hero’s Journey, based on the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell, and popularised by many Hollywood movies.
  • Chance — Perhaps a seemingly innocuous event at the time of its occurrence, was the event that changed your life. Maybe you accidentally bumped into someone at a café and spilt your coffee and 2 years later ended up getting married to that person.

If you have stories that have some of the following hallmarks, it might be a place to dig for your origin story

  • An unexpected twist in your life trajectory
  • A story that you keep telling over and over again
  • A moment when you trusted your intuition and took a leap of faith
  • The moment you knew that all the risks were worth it
  • When you didn’t give up even when others had
  • Major hurdles you had to overcome to get to where you are now

How to share your origin stories

As much as finding and reflecting on your origin story is important to your growth and self-development, it is also relevant and important to those you lead.

Origin stories become a vehicle for sharing leadership insights, wisdom and lessons. They also humanize you, makes you relatable and helps you connect with others. Your stories might also inspire others to think of themselves as heroes in their own life stories and to go after their dreams.

Be compelling

To inspire and captivate your audience, you have to take them along with you.

Describe what was going on before the problem/crisis/change happened. Then describe the call to adventure, what the problem or challenge looked like. Then what happened? That’s what pulls the listener into the story. What did you do, and what were the challenges you faced or overcame? When did the transformation and change occur? At which point did you make the crucial decision or take a different path that resolved the issue and brought you to where you are now?

Make the story relevant, something that has a purpose and is beyond the self. Peter Guber, the producer of Rain Man, Batman and the Colour Purple calls this the ‘Truth to the Mission’ in telling stories. A story must be rooted in why this story is important. If it is to demonstrate how someone can overcome adversity, then the story must be relevant to that cause.

Be congruent

Be honest. Really. Don’t makeup facts.

Share what you thought happened. Don’t embellish just for drama. Show rather than tell. ‘I became a good leader’ is just telling. Share stories that demonstrate your actions and behaviours that reveal how you were a good leader. They will draw their conclusions and you won’t even have to say it.

Reveal the context, place and timeline within which the story takes place. If the story happened when you were a seven-year-old, and you were going in an aeroplane for the first time in the 1970s, knowing that information immediately sets the context to the story. The listener can then listen to the story through the lens of a wide-eyed wonder of a child, on a flight where smoking was not prohibited.

The same goes for assumptions. Reveal the biases you may have had and the assumptions you are making about what happened. The listener will then understand the positioning of the story.

Be connected

Stories connect when the audience can identify with the story. Connecting with the emotional state and needs of your audience with compassion and integrity is key for the story to resonate. It means inviting the listener to identify with the protagonist, to their humanness. The story is an invitation for the audience to also be a hero in their stories, to think yes I understand, or that could be me too, or that is me. Guber describes this as the element of ‘Truth to the Audience’.

Be consciously vulnerable

Eventually, the story is about you. It means revealing yourself. For me, this is one of the most important aspects of leadership storytelling. It is our vulnerability that makes a story compelling and convincing, and also connects with the audience. But the element of ‘Truth to the Teller’ in storytelling is the hardest.

Sharing our origin stories mean revealing our past, our mistakes, our regrets, our shame. If there isn’t enough context to the story or compassion on the part of the audience, it is as easy to be misunderstood as it is to be understood. This risk might deter us from revealing ourselves.

To be consciously vulnerable¹ requires what I call boundaried openness². Being honest doesn’t mean that you have to bare all your secrets or give excruciating or minute detail. It means choosing to be as open as you feel comfortable, right now. It does also mean people might speculate on areas you don’t reveal. Or even ask you direct questions. So be ready for that. Rather than lie or cover-up, it is always best to preface your story with the boundaries you want to maintain.

Being consciously vulnerable is a process, a journey and requires a tentative practice. Start slow, become comfortable with yourself, to be comfortable with others. Reveal only what you are comfortable with. Do so in safe spaces, where you are encouraged and supported. In time, to reveal who you are, deep down, comes more easily. And I will say that with age, at least for me, you stop caring less and less about what other people think of who you were or are. You start honouring the journey, warts and all and only care about who you are becoming.

Here is a compelling, convincing and consciously vulnerable video by Zach Barack, the first trans actor in a Marvel movie about his origin story.

To be consciously vulnerable is an act of courage. To share your origin stories is an act of courage.

Recently I had to revisit my origin stories

In July 2020, my beloved husband, Tony, died of cancer after an eleven-month battle. I write more about this journey here. Several months before he was diagnosed, I had received my doctorate on the research topic of ‘Wounded-Healer Healing: A First-Person Narrative Inquiry into Wounds as Places of Learning. It was my reasoning, that maybe this was some divine intervention, that my PhD research was a preparation for the ultimate wounded-healer role I was to play, to care for my husband through his illness, and to hold space for him as he died.

After his death, for several months, it was too overwhelming to even think of getting back to my work and my coaching practice, after being away for over a year. I had to draw from the practices I had outlined in my thesis, to look after myself. And slowly I moved with my grief. And now I hope I am also slowly growing around my grief.

As I came back to work, I realised that I was not the person I was before my husband’s illness. Heck, I was not the person I was before I met my beloved. I had to reimagine myself, not only in my personal life, living in a world without my beloved, but also in my professional life.

I embarked on a deeply personal rebranding process. I called it re-imagining Mihirini. In order to craft and communicate a compelling brand identity, I had to dig deep. I explored the values that guide me and the value I bring to the table as a coach. It is only through revisiting, reflecting on and re-storying my origin stories, that I was able define a brand proposition.

What started out as a personal branding exercise became much more about finding ways to express and share my stories.

If I were to walk the talk of conscious vulnerability, I had to show, not just tell. As part of it, I deviated from the normal about pages in my website, where you talk about accomplishments and work experiences. Instead I share a more personal story. In my Facebook account I share intimate stories of my grief journey after the loss of my husband. It helps me keep him alive and helps me find my way back to life. And in that process, I have other’s reaching out to me to share how my stories are helping them cope with their loss, and giving them the courage to own their stories.

“Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.”

Secret Life of Bees Sue Monk Kidd

I write and share deeply personal stories, in the hope that it might resonate with my readers and my clients, to be also courageous to own their origin stories.

Sharing stories is not just an act of courage. It is also an act of hope.

Share your stories. You never know who you might be giving hope to.

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Mihirini de Zoysa

Mihirini de Zoysa

Leadership Coach for over 20 years, Scholar-Practitioner of Wounded Healer journeys, sharing life and leadership lessons and stories