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  • Origin Stories, Organizations, and What Comes Next.

    Introduction

    I was invited to lead a memoir writing workshop for a group of teenagers on a recent Sunday afternoon, but I'm not so sure anyone was asked to sign-up, or even that it was quite advertised, which is to say that it's possible that no one showed-up. Okay, no one showed-up, but that doesn't mean I hadn't borrowed some cool ideas and exercises for the workshop from the storytellers that come speak to the class I teach - Loop 202: Professional Development in the 21st Century, or that I can't share the outline with you. More importantly, as I prepared the outline I was struck that from a storytelling perspective, this outline could easily be adapted for individuals and organizations looking to explore their stories, and reflect on not just what makes them them, or what inspires them, but what they might focus on as they look to the future and what comes next.

    The Outline

    First, begin by clearing some space in whatever space you're in, give people room to move around, get physical, blood flowing, and connecting with the energy of the room and one another.

    Places of Origin

    Think of the room as the world and ask people to go to the part of the world where their family is from. Don't limit them to the places they or their parents were born or moved from. Or even the place where their grandparents came from. Ask them to think about the places of origin they associate with their families, and the origin stories that have been passed along to them. And then ask them their associations with those associations. What do they think they know about place however they define it, and their place in it? How did they get from there to here, the journey, the decisions? What drove those who came before them?

    Life Line

    Next, ask the participants, assuming you have some, to line-up to one side of room. Tell them that where they are standing is when they were born. Have each of them tell you in 30 seconds the story of their birth based on the stories they were told by family, whether it's their biological or adoptive family, or the family they've built for themselves.

    After that, you, or me in this case, stand on other side of the room, and announce what the moment is right then, both the date and time.

    Identify a small group of participants to walk towards you, and say to them by name, if that moment is your birth and this moment is now, you are walking across your life and everything you've experienced - crying, laughing, heartbreak, love, loss - and this point - and then you point - is when you were 5, 10, 15 years old and so on. Now give yourself ultimate permission to think about what comes to you, and resonates with you, about what was happening then.

    Remind them that everything they've ever experienced is available to use and that personal narration is full of life experiences. Then have them walk to that age, and while they don't need to tell the room everything, ask them to share their story for 30 seconds.

    For the next small group, share some prompts: Go to the moment that rocked your world. Go to the moment that changed your life. Go to that moment where you learned a lesson. Coach them to try to focus on place, to put themselves back in that moment, and then have them walk towards that moment and tell you 30 seconds about it.

    After you're done engaging everyone, take a moment to have them assess the experience, how it felt, what they learned, and always taking a moment to reflect.

    Circles

    Now have the participants form two circles, and if the group is really big, multiple circles, but the idea is that there is a circle of participants facing outward, and another circle circling them, standing face to face, and facing inward.

    Start by having the members of the inner circle tell whatever story has captured their imagination, the moment, and what has come to them since the exercises began to the person facing them in the outer circle. Remind them to think about dialogue, what rooms look like, smell like, who was there, their stories too, and to think about contect and texture.

    Give them two minutes.

    Then have the inner circle rotate one person over and tell the same story again to someone new, but now give them one minute. Encourage them to concentrate on what's most important to the story they want to tell. What's the actual story? Which details, characters, feelings, and conversations are most pertinent?

    After that, its the outer circle's turn. Two rotations, rinse, repeat.

    And then take a moment to have the participants reflect, again, this time as both storyteller and listener. What worked, what didn't, what did you want to know more or less of?

    All of it.

    Write

    Now we write. Ten minutes. Again, whatever story resonates most with the participants, have them channel it, and write it, no editing, just writing.

    Maybe though nothing has quite resonated yet, or inspired them, maybe this has been a warm-up for the story they most want to tell, which is great. But maybe that story hasn't taken form yet. The idea is to liberate these ideas, to take action, to keep pushing, and so give them more prompts - one of the happiest days they can remember; their first crush; when they learned to do something new; when they were scared but overcame it.

    Just write, feel something and seek to capture it in words, and on paper.

    Workshop

    And then, and again, assuming you have participants to share their work, ask each person to read what they wrote, and the group to share their thoughts on that work.

    I always encourage people to share something positive first, but then be thoughtful, push people, offer constructive comments about the characters, and point of view, what made sense or didn't, the gaps, and issues around continuity.

    Next

    At this point, we would be done. People would have been on their feet, talking, sharing ideas, moving, digging, reflecting, and writing.

    They would leave with a story, and if the day went really well, stories.

    But that would be it.

    For now.

    And that would be cool.

    But in preparing for this workshop and mixing and matching these different ideas, I started thinking about how this kind of exercise will benefit writers, but my initial interest in these exercises was in helping my Loop 202 students learn their stories.

    We only brief touch on these exercises in class, but why couldn't there be an extended stand-alone session such as this for any individuals who are looking to better tell their own stories as they think about work and what makes them happy?

    Further, and full-disclosure, this has very much been on my mind lately, how do we even know if we are on the path we want to be on professionally?

    Are we happy, effective, and motivated by our work?

    Are we energized?

    When's the last time you asked yourself that? I've been thinking about this alot, and if you aren't certain how to ask yourself that question, or even how to start, why not engage in a series of exercises like these that focus on your origin stories?

    With some tweaks they could be focused on work. Instead of your place of birth for example, what was the first place you ever worked? And what if we asked ourselves not what was our happiest day in general, but what was our happiest day at work?

    Do you know even know the answer to the latter question? Might you want to find out?

    I know that in personally exploring these questions, much of what I have been doing recently is not what made me happiest and most energized earlier in my careet when I first started finding some direction and my voice.

    How do I, you, get back to those things? The first step is making sure you recognize them for what they are and why they meant something to you.

    Further though, why stop with individuals?

    I've worked with many organizations over the years who no longer quite realize, or recognize, who they are, or why they're doing what they're doing, much less how they got there?

    Couldn't we adapt exercises like these for the individuals running these organizations, inviting them to spend time reflecting on their organization's origin story, it's history and timeline, what happened when. What it felt like? What energized the staff? Why people want, or wanted, to come work? What the organization did well and may have gotten away from?

    I'm sure we can and I think this would be really cool, and really doable. I'm still thinking about what it could look like, but if you have ideas about this, or interest in making something like this happen, and you want to talk about it with me, let's do that.

    Just give me a shout, share your thoughts, and we will get down to business.

  • Control Your Own Narrative: Or The Ongoing Search for Story and Flow in Loop 202: Professional Development in the 21st Century, Part I.

    INTRODUCTION

    One thing I do is teach Loop 202: Professional Development in the 21st Century, which is part of the Lake Forest College In The Loop Program. The stated goals for this class focus on providing context in three professional development areas: 1) the trajectory of a student’s career and intellectual aspirations, 2) the development of effective professional communication, both oral and written and 3) the curating and management of a public facing profile as it applies to the work world.  

    Since I first began teaching the class in 2015, I have continually focused on honing the content and flow of the class, seeking to create a real time, organic vibe, with lots of energy and interaction.

    It all starts and ends though with the push to increase self-awareness; the need to be able tell one's story, and control one's narrative; and making the effort to build the tools necessary to engage prospective employers. Not to mention, how one engages in a process of applying one's story and tools in an professional environment, whether attending a networking event, an informational interview, or when presented with the opportunity, to be interviewed for the job one is interested in pursuing.

    Did I mention story?

    Good.

    How about controlling one's narrative?

    Also good, because that's big, if you don't control it, someone else will be happy to do it for you, and that we just cannot allow.

    Ultimately, one needs to separate oneself from the pack and we do that with story, preparation, the proper tools, and when the moment comes, pulling all of that together with a cohesive, kick-ass narrative.

    What does all of that look like however? In the coming weeks I will unpack the syllabus for you, but for now, what follows are the key elements of the class.

    WRITING

    For one, students in the class work on response papers throughout the semester written in reaction to assigned texts, which are synched-up with the themes we are exploring and building-on throughout the semester. The model itself is articulated like this:

    "Response Papers of 1-2 pages, and a word count of approximately 500 words, on various course texts will be composed of (1) two questions you have about the readings and (2) your answers to those questions – unless there are specific questions assigned. The questions you may ask yourself, may be as straight forward as, “Why do I think Professor Tanzer even cares that I read this article?” Or, “Despite Professor’s Tanzer’s great interest in my reading this article, why should I care?” And, if you feel stuck and can’t think of any questions, 'Why do I think I’m stuck, and how might I become unstuck?'"

    And the goals are straight forward: one way to grow more self-aware is by asking one self the hard questions, putting what we think we know or are stuck on into words.

    PRESENTATION AND FACILITATION

    I will share the assigned texts noted above in future posts, but one thing I want to note here, is that I strongly believe that being comfortable leading discussions, facilitating, and tackling ideas are integral to leadership, and again separating oneself from one's peers. I also want the students to be engaged at each step of the class in opportunities to speak in front of their classmates, and so where I once led the response paper discussions, I now have the students volunteer to do so, asking them to prepare in advance for class, and then seeking to create a safe space for them to do so.

    I also work with Lake Forest to hold two Mixers during the semester where the students interact with alumni, practicing how to network, and tell their story, all the while connecting with professionals even when they might not immediately seem helpful to their own job searches.

    In addition, and more than becoming comfortable speaking in front of a group, I feel the students must be comfortable presenting ideas, and we build towards a presentation early in the semester titled "What's My Story," where I ask the students to think about the pivotal points, people - family, teachers, coaches, mentors, opportunities - be they work or travel, decisions, cultural, and if applicable, political, influences, that have made them who they are and what they want to be. I also ask them to articulate where they think they could be going and how they think they might get there.

    I will also share the grading rubric and expectations for this presentation later, but what's important to me is that this exercise combines two elements that are key to class: crafting one's narrative and creating both self-awareness about what's important to them and the process for getting there.  

    TOOLS

    The students also do presentations on the fields they picture entering, more on that later as well, but one key element to making this presentation a success, is prodding them to not only explore the kinds of fields they might work in, but what they want from a job to be happy and successful.

    I also want them to start thinking about what they don't want.

    The students must also enhance their LinkedIn pages and Resumes during the semester, and I bring in experts to assist with this, along with an expert who helps them think through creating a public profile. The semester ends with the students creating a public portfolio, that integrates all of the work that has preceded it.  

    PRACTICE

    I strongly believe in bringing in experts to talk the things they know best, so the students can learn from the best. I also believe this is important for not only maintaining the kind of energy that is required for both attending a three-hour class and staying engaged for an entire semester, but the job search itself, which requires an ongoing level of focus, connection, and positivity.

    Along with that however, is the need to be interacting with professionals, learning about they operate, their paths, successes and challenges, and what they expect when they meet professionals new to the job force.

    So we create these interactions in class itself, at the Mixers referenced above, by encouraging informational interviews and how to approach them, practicing interview skills, and by introducing Improv to the mix.

    I should state here that I have no Improv training myself, but in watching it and meeting performers, I have come to believe that the ability to think on one's feet, to react in a postitive manner to whatever is being thrown at you, and accepting the reality being created, the "Yes... And...," approach to situations, one is better prepared for whatever comes at them. 

    CONCLUSION (for now)

    Again, I am always tweaking the flow, and looking for more ideas, more energy, asking how a three-hour evening class should be run, when it's the right time for a field trip, and how many presentations can be held in a row in one class. All of this will be covered in more depth in the coming weeks. But for now, please let me know what you think, and please let me what questions you might have.

    Thanks.