Authors note: This article expands on the usual meaning of "Storytelling" and moves that term out into the mainstream of life, as it should be.
As graduates everywhere take their first steps out into their brave new worlds this Spring and Summer, I am reminded of what my Grandma Lillian always said:
"Telling your story in the world is very important, and to tell your story most effectively, you must first ask the right questions , and thats infinitely more important than knowing the “right” answers ."
That’s because the so-called “right” answer can change, especially if you ask the right question.
Example: In the late 1800’s, the right question was “How can I best try to save a person who has appeared to have drowned?” The accepted right answer at the time was “Roll them stomach-down over a barrel.”
More than a century later, that question still works. That’s because it was the right question. But notice how the answer has changed. Modern CPR techniques have made the barrel-rolling a laugh, yet it was regarded as the “right” answer at the time.
That example makes me shudder at all of the so-called “right” answers we think we know today. That’s why graduates might think about some of the following questions as they venture out to begin telling their stories and managing their own lives in lieu of letting mom and dad do it.
• How can I strengthen my spiritual life? The stories you tell about yourself reflect your deepest beliefs, and they come from your spiritual center. Just what do you believe?
• What’s most important to me? should be coupled with: How do I spend my time, money, and effort? The closer the answers to those two questions are to each other, the better.
• What are my goals and strategies for reaching them for the next 10 years? Five years? One year? Next month? Week? By the end of the day?
Goals and strategies for reaching them work best as encouraging companions, not critical bullies. That means they have to reflect what you really want, not necessarily what someone else wants for you.
• What relationships in my life are worth cultivating and which are draining me? How can I show some extra loving attention to the former and how can I compassionately end the latter?
• How can I get by without buying this for one more hour, day, week, month, year (this question alone will save you lots of money)?
• What can I do for someone else today purely for their sake, even if I normally dislike doing this sort of thing ?
• How can I most creatively express a sincere Thank You or Congratulations to someone in my life who deserves it?
• Who can I encourage today with a bit of sincere praise?
• What small gift or gesture would a loved one really enjoy from me?
• What people in my life would enjoy a phone call or visit or letter from me this week?
• What could I eliminate from my daily diet just for this week (this will knock off several pounds if done regularly over a year)?
• What extra bit of exercise could I add to my routine just for today (ditto previous parenthetical thought)?
• What bad habit could I avoid just for today? What new habit might I try out just for today?
• What can I do that would improve communication between me and someone with whom I work or live or worship or share time?
Two of the best questions I know for clearing up communication problems are So what? and Specify?, though you must phrase them courteously to avoid stirring anger.
For instance, whenever someone makes a statement that seems not to matter all that much, ask them a variation of So What? This will test the relevance of whatever was said. If So What can’t be answered clearly, something’s amiss.
Same with "Specify?" Next time someone makes a claim about something, ask for examples. Once again, unless the answer makes sense, watch out.
Advertising claims make great targets. “Buy these shoes, or this car, or that beer because so-and-so famous person endorses it!” So What?, I say. Why should someone else’s choice dictate mine?
Or “It will change your life if you buy such-and-such.” Oh yeah, care to specify how? That answer better make sense, with plenty of believable examples.
My only cautionary note harkens back to my original illustration at the start of this column: Don’t be afraid or too proud to change your story and your answers to the enduring questions of your life as you age.
Your personal "story" is the most important story you will ever tell. Each time you fill out a resume, you tell your story. Each time you sit in an interview, you tell your story. Each time you meet someone - as we all know - you tell your story. And that story will change over time.
Change. Isn’t that what makes life so exciting and challenging and exquisitely delicious? Isn’t asking the right questions worth the struggle if you end up finding the answers that fit your life and create for you the kind of personal "story" of which you can always be proud?###
(c) 2003 by Joe Paris. Used with permission of the author per agreement with the fine folks at Storyteller.net, who help thousands of people tell their stories.