What is your story?

Your “story” is the culmination of your past experiences explained through your own unparalleled perspective. As you change, your story and your interpretation of it change as well. No one else shares your exact history; appreciate your successes, reflect on your failures, and consider how these aspects have prepared you for your future. Your story is uniquely you. 

I had the chance to talk with Emi Kolawole, Lecturer and Editor-in-residence at the Hasso Platner Institute of Design at Stanford. She previously worked for the Washington Post, receiving the Post’s Publisher’s Award, and has been named a Global Shaper by the World Economic Forum. She shared many valuable insights on communication, reflection, and the essence of a story.

Arguably the hardest part of telling your story is extracting key details that will captivate your intended audience. Included details should take into account the context. For example, in job interviews, the interviewer might say, “tell me about yourself.” It is a notoriously hard inquiry to address if you have never thought about the process of telling someone “about yourself.” A more accurate phrasing would be, “tell me your story.” In this scenario, the interviewer is trying to compile a multi-modal assessment of your attributes, your ability to think on your feet, and your personality and character. In this situation, Emi emphasizes that you should do your homework on the company and possibly the person interviewing you. Learn about the company’s mission, culture, and how you can add to the dynamic. When it comes time for the interview, she advises that one should be vulnerable. Be open and honest; “speak in complete sentences and be very clear of your purpose for sharing a story.” 

Emi also says that one way to strengthen this skill is to share your progress with others often. Practicing this recommendation provides more opportunities for connection and “opportunities for further discovery.” In sharing your successes and setbacks, you can uncover new perspectives to help you move forward. If you’re leading a new initiative at work, starting a side project at home, or building something unique, sharing your progress with others can bolster communication through the process of iteration. However, Emi notes that this process may not be for everyone. Some people are naturally more inclined to share and be vulnerable throughout the process of their work. People have the right to use their discretion when sharing a story with someone else. 

Sometimes stories or experiences can be difficult to share openly: stories without a happy ending. When they are shared, audiences have an even greater responsibility to listen carefully and respectfully. Emi makes a very poignant realization: we talk a lot about failure stories, and stories about overcoming those failures. “They’re really painful,” she says, “and usually when people share them the person has already reached a point of greater success.” However, “it is very rare that you will hear a failure story in the midst of failure.” 

As humans, we prefer to share and listen to success stories. Stories where the protagonist ends at a point better than where they started. Stories with a satisfying resolution after trials and tribulations. These attributes do not characterize all stories; sometimes things just fail without a way to save them. 

“I’ve had moments of great successes and moments where I’ve just looked back and said ‘whoa. that happened.’ We all have those moments. And from them, I learned from them, and moved on” says Emi. For her, moving forward is natural and looking back on events can sometimes interrupt advancement. “I am not by nature a person of reflection, and I tend to want to constantly move forward because I can’t change the past,” but she makes it clear that “no one should be denied their reactions to their own experiences. Reflection is different for everyone. For me, it is not something that comes easily, but something from which I have found value.” Sharing a story is again at the discretion of the individual; because every person is unique, reflecting on stories or experiences can be different as well.

Emi notes that reflection can sometimes harbor regret, a very serious aspect of our human nature that can have powerful impacts on our lives. Experiences in your life can carry this characteristic. Sometimes, you can move forward despite their presence. However, she says, “if you find yourself in a position where there is an extraordinary amount of pain, I am a huge proponent of professional health. There should be and there is no shame in getting help.” As a culture, we should recognize that everyone struggles with their own set of obstacles that lie along a broad spectrum of experience. As respectful listeners, we need to be mindful of silence and realize that we can help someone in need, directly or indirectly.

At the end of our discussion, Emi told me about a time she returned to her high school to give a presentation to students. “Everyone is fighting a battle that you know nothing about,” she said in her presentation. 

 

“Until you genuinely ask.” 

 

“It is important to remember that every day. The pace of our culture makes remembering and acting on remembrance really difficult.” 

She masterfully recognizes a way to turn this realization into compassionate action. 

@@If we ask to hear a story, we must be prepared to listen wholeheartedly.@@

We can help others navigate their own stories by the process of reflection, but we should be aware that reflection is different for everybody. 

 

We should all remind ourselves that everyone has stories—and untold stories—that shape who they are. 

Comment