Friday, March 2, 2012

Wood's Unsought Advice 5 of 5: Write Your Own Story

Terry Pratchett once wrote, "Wisdom comes from experience. Experience is often a result of lack of wisdom." Inspired by that aphorism (and hoping one day to be wise) I'm sharing some draft comments for a project I might develop in a few years: tips for my students who face a complex and changing workplace. 

Who's writing your life story? 

You are the author of your personal story. You wake up, put on your clothes, and plan your workday, writing your story with each word and action. That's the idea, right? But unless you're careful, your story may end up competing with other tales about you, stories you can hardly hope to edit. 

Thus while you imagine yourself as a tireless advocate for important causes, you may be dogged by another script, something like, "There goes Gripey McFighterson, always complaining about something!" Before long, you may be unable to write your story at all. What's worse, you might start living up (or down) to the persona other folks have built for you.

If you don't like that idea, you need to think carefully about how you can exercise more influence over your life story. The first step: consider how that story fits into a larger narrative. 

Think about the typical workplace. Just about any organization hopes to tell a story, branding itself according to some vision ("We produce increasingly efficient widgets at ever more competitive prices for an ever more satisfied clientele"). How does your story contribute to that broader vision? It should, you know. You may not personally care about widgets, but someone at your workplace does. And if that person has the power to produce widgets, she or he can help you tell your own story too. 

A story is a narrative composed of deeds. Sure, the narrative may contain words. But deeds accomplished over time make a story real. In your story you are the main character; you are the do-er of deeds that matter. Those deeds evoke a past (training, exploits, accomplishments, and lessons). Those deeds produce a present (your skills, your interests, your roles, and your personality). And those deeds presume a future (your innermost goals, your organizational trajectory, your potential to grow in fascinating and useful ways). Put past, present, and future together and you've got a narrative.

An internally consistent, externally true, and practically meaningful narrative makes organizational sense -- it's not just a dramatic concept --  especially when your narrative helps other people tell stories of their own. The problem is, not everyone knows your narrative. Actually many of your colleagues couldn't care less about your narrative; that's a fact of life. Still, it's important to find ways to integrate your narrative into the lives of others, and into the larger organizational culture. Not obnoxiously, not at every meeting, not by disregarding the narratives of others, but by contributing to a shared vision in which you play an essential role. 

How do you create that narrative? Well, first you begin by uncreating any troubling narratives that others may have of you. Here's an example, one of many: Are you fresh out of school, starting your first "real" job? That's good. And yet many folks interpret that narrative in a pre-scripted way, perhaps labeling you as a "newbie" who lacks useful understanding of the "real world" they've taken years to grasp. That's a hard narrative to revise.

How can you edit that powerful but damning narrative? By taking an inventory of how you perform your personal narrative: your attire, your language, even how you talk. Assess whether that performance advances a narrative that helps or hinders you [Remember: Look more, judge less]. In this case, you may prefer to unmake a troubling narrative by demonstrating (again, through deeds, not just words) your maturity, your wisdom, and your awareness of the big picture. 

One especially successful narrative stems from becoming a "go-to" person, the one without whom the organization cannot function. Adopting the narrative of the "indispensable insider" demands more than the facade of impenetrable confidence, though. You must cultivate an ability to listen, to observe, and to ask questions. Mostly you must demonstrate your personal dedication to the larger workplace vision. 

For others to catch your vision, you must first catch the vision of others. 

Thereafter, you should implement your ideal narrative through a mixture of consistency and innovation. Search for opportunities to "do" who you are. A little artful self-promotion can be helpful, but the best positive stories are the ones told about you. And when you are called to speak about your positive actions, convey your story as part of the broader shared vision. Find ways to bolster and celebrate the success of others when telling your own story. Think of success as a multiplier rather than a divider. When you do, others will see your successful story as part of their own personal narrative. They'll want to tell that story, and to help it grow, because it's their story too. 

Still, even the best stories grow stale after a while. Look back on times when you've suffered from a coworker who consistently floats the same platitudes or celebrates the same accomplishments. Isn't it mind-numbing? Even when the news is good, you tire of hearing that story repeatedly. Avoid being known for the same story, even if it's a good one. 

Replenish your personal story with new deeds, new challenges. Forge new ways to contribute to the larger workplace vision. Do what you'll say you do, and then ask yourself, "What's next?" Other people will soon wonder the same thing about you, and they'll want to find out. As your narrative evolves, others will want to contribute to the adventure, to see where it goes. That shared vision will then become a launching pad for your own never-ending story.

There are two ways to summarize this principle. Both are true, but only you can determine which one is right:

Deeds through narrative define you.

Or…

You define narrative through deeds. 

3 comments:

Andrea said...

Andy, have really enjoyed reading these this week...and they contain some incredible advice for those entering the world of work. You make me want to write something of the same sort of thing for my middle school students---we have been having a problem with the generations coming up, since they do not realize that their actions define the person they are becoming. I became a middle school teacher because I wanted to see the beginning of that transition from child to adult and aid it as it went along. Between these pieces from you and a quote from another friend this week: "Children need more rules in place because their moral compass has not yet been centered"----I appreciate you putting into writing the thoughts that I have not been able to express coherently. Thank you for sharing!

Andrea said...

Andy, have really enjoyed reading these this week...and they contain some incredible advice for those entering the world of work. You make me want to write something of the same sort of thing for my middle school students---we have been having a problem with the generations coming up, since they do not realize that their actions define the person they are becoming. I became a middle school teacher because I wanted to see the beginning of that transition from child to adult and aid it as it went along. Between these pieces from you and a quote from another friend this week: "Children need more rules in place because their moral compass has not yet been centered"----I appreciate you putting into writing the thoughts that I have not been able to express coherently. Thank you for sharing!

Andrew Wood said...

You're so kind, Andrea! It means a lot to me to hear that these notes struck a chord.