Transformative Storytelling: The Non-Narcissist’s Plan for Repurposing Your Past

What you’ll discover:  How to revisit the stories from your past and repackage them to create a thriving second phase career that instantly differentiates you from your competitors and offers true value to your clientele.

Tony Robbins has famously said, “Success leaves clues.”  Over the 30 years that I have made a career interviewing some of the most compelling business leaders in the United States about their personal journeys on the success path, I have clung to the core belief that if you have accomplished something spectacular in your lifetime, your story is a gift to inspire the world. But now I’m thinking I might not have been entirely correct about that. Let’s just say.

It’s taken me years to finally wrap my mind around the inescapable truth: Some leaders got to where they are by ego, flair, narcissism, bad behavior, and just plain dumb luck. And I find out pretty quickly who those people are once my digital recorder starts rolling.

These days, when I’m invited to lunch by a prospective client or subject, I often hear, “I’m actually a great writer. I’ve always wanted to write a book, I just don’t have the time. Heck, I’m too busy to even read, can’t remember the last time I read a book.” I smile blandly and speculate aloud about the freshness of the endive.

I learn from this single bit of intelligence that this particular engagement is a non-starter. Book writing, even book reading, requires a lot of alone time, when nothing especially big, noteworthy, or celebratory is happening. Nobody is praising you while you’re beavering away at the solitary life inside your mind. They’re all too busy landing the next round of funding at Buck’s at brunch, over shrimp-stuffed artichokes. Or paddle-boarding off Maui. Or gazing over the Machu Picchu landscape. All the while your lonely coffee is getting cold, there’s a cat barf stain on your rug, and your Costco-sized supply of M&Ms is dwindling.

This is not the preferred lifestyle of the bright and shiny seekers of the spotlight. But these are the people, it seems, who have all the great stories to tell. As a result, they’re the ones who get all the attention. And the business.

Here’s the happy flip side:

You don’t have to be a massive narcissist to build an amazing second phase career on the foundation of inspiring, instructive, paradigm-busting stories from your past.

They are your clues to the skills, unique value, and consulting services you can bring to your new market. You just have to identify them, reclaim them, reorganize them, and present them as tools your next phase career can leverage.

The first person you have to tell those stories to is yourself. But that’s not an easy thing to do when you’re not used to thinking – or talking – about yourself.  In my work over the years I’ve run across three different types of storytelling egos:

  1. Leaders who started believing their own press releases from the time their mothers were writing them;
  2. Leaders who are so busy doing the work and focused outward that they simply haven’t been collecting the narratives that illustrate their well-deserved track records;
  3. And leaders who just can’t believe that their stories are interesting to anyone, not even their own mothers.

Since the leaders of the first category are the ones who seem to get all the attention and spotlight, leaders of the other two groups naturally wonder if what they have to say has any interest, sparkle, or value at all. When, in fact, they are likely to hold great stores of story wealth. The only difference between them and the first group (other than the ego thing) is that members of the first group likely have fabulous ghostwriters.


“Now let’s talk about you.”*

It’s Never About You

No one cares that you were an adorable, mischievous scamp who had an imaginary firebug friend with a penchant for playing with matches in the wooden shed where the family kept the paint and rags. No one cares that you were the darling daughter of a devoted, doting dad who raised you to believe that you were a princess who deserved the world, without having to actually earn it. No one cares that you were the beneficiary of a massive heap of just plain dum luck that came down into your world like the cartoon boot in Monty Python’s Flying Circus.**

Which is good news for you because you are likely to be none of those things. You are a decent, thoughtful, observant leader moving toward the conclusion of your first career. And you want to figure out how to leverage all the things you’ve learned, done, discovered, experienced to benefit clients or employers in your next phase career.

If It’s Duplicable, It’s Valuable

What your audience (and clients) care about is how your experience, stories, advice and insights can help them transform their world. If that’s the outcome you can promise them, they’ll sit through your stories. Since you’re not a narcissist, that’s a perfect arrangement.

You really do have some good stories. Maybe you need just some help getting into the practice of spotting them. Here are some examples:

That time when you invited your customers to talk about your product in their own way. My favorite example of this is when WD-40 Company CEO Garry Ridge changed the mission of the WD-40 product from eliminating “squeaks and smells” to providing “positive, lasting memories.”  And then he invited customers from around the world to contribute stories of their own and usage suggestions. One story: an Indian bus driver used WD-40 to remove a python from the undercarriage of his vehicle.

That time when you decided to build an entire corporate culture around seven simple principles.

That time when you decided to skip creating an employee handbook altogether.

That time when you finally clearly saw that you deserved better treatment than what you were getting from your CEO, spouse, children, customers, service providers.

That time you discovered that redefining your value opened up new opportunities, better money, less effort.

That time you realized that authentic, rewarding business relationships require empathy for the other person’s point of view.

That time when other peoples’ kindness, patience and generosity saved the day for you, and you learned how to ask for help.

That time when you discovered that you don’t have to be the hero of your own story. 

That time when you discovered that storytelling is the most powerful way to differentiate, motivate, influence, and transform.

Now Let’s Talk About You

Do you feel that you will always find yourself in the shadow of a Big, Fat Head? Sad to say, the narcissists will always be with us.

I was catching up with a beloved friend and colleague on the phone the other day. She is recognized pioneer in her field. In many chapters of her personal and professional life, she has repeatedly had the opportunity to speak up and out about things that others were complicitly mum about, or the subject was so brand new she was the only one doing the talking.  As original and courageous as she is, she is also non-competitive and supremely generous with time, resources, and spotlight.

During our lengthy, wide-ranging phone call, she told me of a conference she was just invited to as a speaker. The way the presentations were set up, speakers were paired Noah’s Ark fashion, two by two. (But there didn’t seem to be any effort in making sure that the pair mates actually had anything in common with each other. In that particular detail, it would seem that Noah had the leg up.)

After she and her pair mate gave their respective presentations, the Q&A session began. The first question went to her. She answered it in her sweet, complete, yet succinct style. Her pair mate then politely eased the microphone out of her hand, stood up, positioned himself in front of her, and held the stage for the duration of the session’s allotted time, holding forth on the topic of his choice — having nothing to do with the question that had been posed.

I hope that most of us have watched enough filibustering on cable news shows to now be able to spot the jerk in the room.  (However, the thought just occurred to me that if we asked this speaker what he thinks of narcissists, he’d respond, “I hate those guys, don’t you?” Which then makes me wonder about myself. As they say, if you’re in a room full of people and you can’t spot the narcissist in the crowd, guess what….)

My expectation is that the audience was wise enough to know that the one with the most value to offer the conversation was the one who was not given the chance to speak.

All of which is to say that you will never be able to permanently get out and away from the spreading tail feathers of the peacocks. They just fill up the room, no matter what. Competing with them will get you nowhere. That kind of competition is not your story. You’ll just end up with peacock poop on your suit.

Lead with your own branded stories of wisdom, patience, generosity, innovation, problem-solving. And you’ll own the room.

Why? Because you will be about the people you serve.

How can you help them? That’s the story that everyone wants to hear.


* Source: Hamburger Madness

** Pulled from Martha’s personal files of very short client engagements

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