In my last posting, I shared the evolution of my personal narrative to illustrate how personal narratives can both confine and expand our horizons.
A number of you reached out to me and questioned whether I was really talking about a narrative or simply a belief about how others could support me in achieving impact. Once again, as in my early discussion of corporate narratives, I’m guilty of abbreviation in a way that can mislead.
Let me unpack my early personal narrative statement into something that maps more clearly to a narrative structure while still leaving it open-ended and ultimately calling the listener to action (for the distinction between a story and narrative, see my early post here).
As you may recall, I framed my early personal narrative as follows: “I’m here to help you with my mind.” Now, as presented, it doesn’t sound much like a narrative. But let’s dive into this in more detail and flesh out the narrative lurking underneath that statement.
The deeper narrative
It all began in my early childhood when my first memories were of my mother’s tirades of anger. She said many things in anger, but the ones that stood out most in my memory were: “You’re such a burden - I wish you had never been born” and “You have no consideration of me – all you care about is yourself.”
As you might imagine, those words were deeply painful. My only escape was to retreat into my room and try to block out her yelling by immersing myself in a book that would take me to a distant place, leaving my emotions behind and seeking refuge in the world of the mind and imagination.
My father was often away. Even when he was there, he was a mild-mannered man and would go into his study, avoiding my mother’s wrath. The message to me was clear: I was abandoned by both of my parents.
After each tirade, I would resolve to be better. I tried as hard as I could to be a good boy and to be more attentive to my mother’s needs. But nothing seemed to work. Her rage would be triggered by small, unexpected things, things that I couldn't anticipate or control. When I first heard the term “walking on eggshells”, I knew immediately what it meant.
The only thing that seemed to win praise from my mother was my academic accomplishment. Both my mother and father were the first in their family to go to college (not to mention graduate school) and they both respected academic achievement.
So, as I grew older, I channeled a lot of effort into accumulating good grades and degrees. I began to write, both because that also won praise from my parents and because it was a way for me to express myself without having to engage in face to face interactions with people (because, God knows, I would possibly trigger rage from others).
When I was in fourth grade, I took an aptitude test and the results came back saying that I should either be a priest or a social worker. At the time, I dismissed these results, since I had no particular religious inclination or desire to work with the emotionally troubled or the poor. But, as I look back, I now realize that the aptitude test might have been far more insightful than I thought at the time.
I ended up spending most of my career as a management consultant. While one might not immediately associate management consultants with priests or social workers, they do share one thing in common. They’re all driven by a desire to help people. They’re all focused on the needs of others, rather than one’s own needs. As a management consultant, you’re taught from the first day that the client’s needs come first, that everything else is secondary. Your goal is to understand their needs and then do whatever you can to address their needs.
The key lesson that I took from my childhood was that my needs did not matter. It was all about seeing and serving the needs of others. If I could only do that, I might win the respect and love of those around me.
So, what’s your role in my life? How can you help me to achieve more of my potential? Tell me what you need and I’ll do anything I can to satisfy those needs, especially if they involve intelligence and analytic skills, because that’s something that I can provide. Will you do that? My ability to grow and to develop as a person hinges on that.
Now, that’s a narrative. It has a dramatic arc involving encounters with challenges and obstacles and finding a way forward, but the outcome is open-ended. It’s not resolved and the resolution hinges on the choices and actions that you as the listener can take. What will you do? Will you help to shape the outcome?
The potential of personal narratives
As I indicated in my last posting, personal narratives can be very limiting and confining. They can shape powerful prisons offering little opportunity for escape. In a world of mounting performance pressure, I fear that most of us are falling into personal narratives that are dysfunctional and don’t serve us well.
But, by making these personal narratives explicit, reflecting on them and then making choices to craft a new narrative, we can evolve personal narratives that amplify our potential for impact. In my previous post, I shared some of my own experience in evolving my personal narrative, but the key first step was to identify my existing narrative.
If we get them right, what can personal narratives do? Effective personal narratives can help us to focus, increase leverage and accelerate learning.
Focus. In a world of mounting performance pressure, we all have a natural tendency to shrink our time horizons and fall into a reactive mode – scrambling to respond to the latest development and spreading ourselves way too thinly across too many things. Personal narratives are forward looking – they draw us out of the past and the present and focus us on the opportunities ahead. They typically define a domain where we aspire to have greater impact over time and give us an ability to prioritize all those short-term calls for our attention. By asking “what am I here to do?” personal narratives also foster a sense of agency. They focus us not just on beliefs, but actions that we must take.
Leverage. In a world of mounting performance pressure, if all we do is rely on ourselves, we are likely to feel increasing stress and diminishing impact. One of the keys to success is finding ways to engage and motivate others to help us achieve even more impact. Personal narratives help us to connect more effectively with others by being clear both about what we are trying to accomplish and where and how others can help us.
Accelerate. In a world of mounting performance pressure, fear tends to prevail. We jealously protect what we already know and we’re often unwilling to take the risks required to learn faster. By bringing us together with others around inspiring opportunities for impact, we create fertile conditions for much more rapid learning and performance improvement. We are more likely to take on challenging quests together.
Personal narratives can also play a significant role in building trust with others, because they prompt us to articulate what we are still trying to accomplish and where we need help – in other words, they express our vulnerability. Trust based relationships are central to accelerating learning. All of this is key to accelerating progress. As we move from a linear world to an exponential world, acceleration is ultimately a key requirement for success. We certainly can’t afford to stand still and even linear progress is insufficient.
Personal narratives and passion
Now, for those of you who have been following my other writing, you might have noticed an interesting parallel. The three elements of focus, leverage and accelerate map very conveniently to the three attributes of passion of the explorer – long-term commitment to a domain, connecting disposition and questing disposition. Personal narratives can become a powerful catalyst to tapping into and amplifying the passion that resides within all of us. If you’re interested in the connection between narrative and passion, I’ve written more here.
Personal narratives and personal brands
I can’t resist. Let me also take a minute to differentiate personal narrative from one of the business buzzwords of the day – personal brand (which I’ve written about here). Personal brand is all about communicating your accomplishments and strengths, packaging them in a powerful way so that we can influence others. Personal narrative, in sharp contrast, shifts the focus from what you have done to what you want to do, but have not yet done. It also highlights your need for help from others. In many respects, it’s the opposite of the notion of a personal brand, but ultimately far more powerful and satisfying.
Personal narratives shape our lives in powerful, yet often unseen, ways. We rarely take the effort to make these narratives explicit, much less reflect on them. We owe it to ourselves (and to others) to do this. Try answering the four questions that I offered at the end of my last post. You might be surprised by what you discover.