You’ve decided to live your story.
The question now is, “How?” As in, “What are the action items involved in living my story? How do I make sure I’m doing this right?”
And the answer—the real answer, not the tailored-for-our-consumerist-culture answer—is, “There are guidelines, which I’ll give you, but after that, ‘living your own story’ means figuring the answers out for yourself.” (Just ask Alice about that.)
Now, at this point, I can see our conversation forking: some of you will reply, “An adventure! Cool! Gimme the guidelines and let’s get rolling!” Others will complain, “No, you don’t understand. I’m looking for your 1-2-3 plan I can put into action right now.” A third set will say, “That’s so like a coach, putting it back on me.”
For one moment, I’m going to address this second group. (I’ve got nothing for the third group.) This is a large percentage of the working world, and there are two things I need to clarify to avoid getting sidetracked later.
The first is, give me an effing break with your “immediately actionable.” What do you think this is, English class? Do you think there’s some Cliff’s Notes version of your life somewhere? Do you think you get ahead by cramming for the next “test”? Knowledge Lite will not help you here, no matter how much some marketing department tells you otherwise. Pre-digested, immediately actionable information? That’s all it takes to solve your thorniest career problems?
Because I’ve heard you complain about being treated like just another number, you know. And I’ve heard about how much you hate when your company treats you as if you came out of the same cookie-cutter mold as everyone else. And I’m wondering why you’d expect that to ever change if you keep acting like your problems can be solved with some quick-hit, knowledge-lite, cookie-cutter solution?
“That Path Is For Your Steps Alone”
The second thing I need to remind this group of is, your story doesn’t start until your guide wire gets cut! Do you not see the irony in thinking that there can even be a step-by-step plan for the unscripted aspects of your life? Sure, others print clouds and palm trees on their materials and claim to have a path for you to follow to freedom… but that’s impossible. No path provided by someone else can ever lead you to freedom. All they can offer you is another guide wire. (And really slick marketing to make you momentarily blind to the fact that it is, in fact, just another guide wire.)
I could be wrong, but I don’t think we’re all meant to live authentic, exciting, meaningful lives. I believe some of us are here as supporting characters, or as enablers, or as students, or to provide lessons for the rest of humanity. When it comes to our work, many of us are generalists who won’t ever find what excites us because nothing excites us, we’re generalists. Our livelihood is a subplot in our life’s story.
(Speaking of subplots, do you know the source of the subhead quote? No Googling! Here’s a clue: it’s from a song by a band famous for their touring.)
Now, the guidelines. Even improvisational comedy has guidelines. But note well, these are merely guidelines. There are no “rules” here. Once on stage, anything goes—and “all the wold’s a stage.” These are a few things which, if you keep them in mind, will help your story along. Ditto your career.
The magic of these guidelines is in how (and when, and if) you use them:
The Answer Is “Yes”
You’ve already fixed your ending, so we don’t have to worry about where we’re going. But how do we get there? You won’t get there by talking yourself out of forward progress, that’s for sure! Sharing your idea, “making the ask,” taking the risk… these are all prerequisites to you getting what you want, and they only happen when your internal dialogue—the kind that goes, “Should I or shouldn’t I…”—ends with, “Why not. Yes! I’ll go for it!”
Literalists: Please, Hush.
Before you start barking about needing to focus and saying “no” sometimes, engage your brain: “Yes” doesn’t always literally mean “yes.” Sometimes, it means “No,” as in this recent story:
I submitted a speaking proposal to a company based on my How to Self-Destruct material. The presentation explodes conventional wisdom about success and failure, taking people on a journey that concludes with them taking full responsibility for their current and future station in life. An HR practitioner got her hands on the deck before I gave the presentation, and wrote back a number of suggested changes. She wanted caveats put into my more daring statements to “clarify” that I wasn’t actually espousing failure. So I said “Yes,” but not to her: I said yes to my gut, which was to cancel the gig.
See, How to Self-Destruct is good. It may not be for everybody, but it is good. What makes it good is that it has the balls to make bold, exaggerated statements about the impact of peoples’ actions. These exaggerations serve three important purposes: (1) They get you thinking, (2) They lighten the mood, and (3) They give the real solutions context. Adding caveats to the presentation would neuter the presentation. This woman didn’t trust her team to hear me correctly, and she certainly didn’t trust me. And she said so: “I’m sure this is in your speaking points, but…” “I understand what you’re trying to say, but others might misinterpret…” As I say: No trust, no nothing. When I read her email, the tone of which was not inquisitive, but authoritative, I had a gut reaction to cancel. Did I listen to my gut?
Yes. Yes I did.
Keep the Scene Alive
Let’s say you believe it’s time for you to take the next step: it’s either up or out. You could do what most people do, which is picture the career path you want in your head, then put your resume together, then shop it around on the presumption that your boss will say no to a promotion, then ask your boss for a promotion anyway, then get annoyed when the answer is no as if you didn’t see it coming, then blame your company for not recognizing your value, then go to a new job, then repeat the whole process over anew.
This process is a total drain, and no wonder: there’s no story here! It’s just a series of disjointed, energy-sapping scenes that all die, one after another. If it were a movie, it’d be the kind of documentary that challenges your hope for humanity.
Look at it: prepping your resume divides your attention, takes your focus away from the current scene, and kills it; shopping your resume is like shopping for a hit man to whack the current scene; gearing up for a “no” puts you in a bad mood—and bad moods are definitely scene killers; putting your boss on the spot sets up a “kill shot” from which nothing can flow, either positively or negative—no matter what your boss says in that moment, you’re next scene includes an emotional crash where you realize you have no idea what to do next.
What I help my coaching clients do is to move toward what you want without killing the scene. You can do this by “stepping out of one of your current behaviors.” There is a lot of nuance to doing this well, but the gist of this approach is, since nature abhors a vacuum, as soon as you stop one thing (e.g., by delegating it) you will naturally and unconsciously begin to fill the vacuum with a new behavior. And since everything else remains in place, the scene continues through the change. Now repeat this process, with your end goal firmly in mind (and written down as the conclusion of your story), and you will organically move closer and closer to where you want to be. You’ll flow there; no start/stop dynamic, nothing forced, no shouting “I’m 35 and haven’t been made Vice President yet!” Keep your story alive long enough, and eventually, you’ll reach the end.
Follow No One
If you go with your gut, you’ll be moving so fast that you won’t have time to look around to see what others are doing. And if you don’t have time to see what others are doing, then logistically, it will be impossible for you to follow anybody.
Which is as it should be.
Again, Literalists, I know. Hush.
With 6 billion people jammed onto this blue marble of ours, chances are, you’re going to have to follow somebody. Alternatively, if you were to go alpha and refuse on principle to follow anyone, you’d be contributing to the problem faster than you’d be contributing to the solution.
So when I say “follow no one,” I don’t mean “don’t listen,” I don’t mean “don’t learn from others,” I don’t mean, “refuse to play second chair,” and I don’t mean “go do something rash when you’re not #1.”
What I mean is, be your own person, and when it comes time to make the final decision, make the final decision. Dare to move into a place that no one else yet occupies. Stop dreaming of taking the road less traveled, and do it. And if for you, the road less traveled means accepting that you’re a bit player and not the star, then suck it up and accept it!
That, right there, is everything you need to know to succeed.
Seriously. That’s all.
Now all you have to do is, put it into action!
Next up: common pitfalls in trying to live your story, and how I started living my own story.
Jason Seiden is CEO of Ajax Workforce Marketing. Ajax amplifies brands by aligning employees' online messaging.