Day 4 yesterday of the The Reinvention Summit: A Virtual Summit on the Future of Storytelling saw two sessions with similar themes and messages and a vision of one’s career as a story.
In the session “Screw Your Career Path, Live Your Story,” Jason Seiden railed against the idea of the “career path.” In fact, he said, “You never had a career path; you had a career story.” Seiden’s suggestion that people “live a better story” reminds me a lot of the work of Donald Miller (A Million Miles in a Thousand Years), on whom I plan a three-part series later this month.
I furiously typed notes during Seiden’s session, only to discover that much of what he said is contained in a blog post of the same title as his presentation, which is especially helpful in explaining why career paths are “fiction.”
In both communications, Seiden explained why career paths exist. “People think they are on a path from point A to point B toward enoughness,” he said. “But the whole idea of career path is misguided … We’re complacent. We’re trained to go through a linear career path, not trained to live our stories. Being a good student doesn’t make you a good teacher; being a good worker doesn’t train you to be a good leader or manager.”
Seiden noted that the “career path is unnatural.” The boxes and straight lines of a linear career path don’t exist in nature, he said. He then juxtaposed the negative consequences following a career path can lead to with the more sanguine aspects of living one’s story, as seen below:
Seiden used Freytag’s Pyramid (second box from top, above) to illustrate career as story. “You’re not really in control of your career,” he said. “When you accept that you’re living a story, things get interesting. You become open to a world of possibilities.”
As a starting-point exercise in how to live your story and get away from a career path, Seiden in his blog post, uses Freytag’s Pyramid. But in yesterday’s session, he used the familiar “95th birthday” exercise:
- Write a letter to younger self.
- If you had had all the money in the world, what would you have done with it? As a 95-year-old looking back, what did you do with your money?
- Talk about a skill you developed in your life above all else and the joy you got from embracing and making the most of that skill.
- Think of event thrown for you on your 90th birthday — who spoke, who threw it, all the details.
The letter you come up with, Seiden said, becomes the blueprint for living your story. “You already are living your story,” he said, “so embrace it. You are exactly where you’re supposed to be right now. You’ll become trapped at the exposition stage if you don’t embrace it.”
He offered three quick tips to keep participants focused (the three bottom slides from the graphic, above right, beginning with “Don’t commit …”)
One idea he offered (tying into the final tip: “‘Yes’ turns opportunities into stories”) was one I’ve been hearing more and more about and seeing increasing numbers of story practitioners pursue: Take improv classes. One improv activity illustrates the effectiveness of saying “yes” in creating opportunity. It’s the “Yes, and …” exercise, and I actually participated in this one at the 2009 Golden Fleece conference while partnered with the wonderful Paul Costello. One person suggests an activity. The partner must respond with “yes, and …”, filling in the rest with some twist on the suggested activity, which keeps the story going. The partner cannot respond with “no,” because to do so would end the story. I remember that one of my twists was “Yes, and let’s take pictures of each other.”
Seiden’s session was covered by two folks who take visual notes and make them available: Mouseover the camera icons for Nicky Grunfeld and Sacha Chua here to get a flavor, but see the full-sized graphics: Nicky and Sacha.
Jason Seiden’s Web site is FailSpectacularly.com. He believes that “if you’re not truly messing up in life, you’re not living your life.”
Julie Ann Turner’s session, “Shift Your Story Arc: Crafting the Trajectory of Your Life, Work and World,” built on Seiden’s. Hers was perhaps a bit more conceptual, as well as better suited to story newbies than those who’ve been working with story for a long time. Her thesis was that our lives, work, and world are shaped by story — the stories we tell and the stories we believe. “Story is a container,” Turner said, “filled with built-in, inherent relationships that create the meaning in our lives.” Quoting the Buddah, she said, “With our thoughts, we create worlds.” (As in the Wizard of Oz world in the top box at left.)
Turner devoted much of the session to the hero’s journey — the master archetype consisting of departure, initiation, and return — hence, my observation that the session was best suited to story neophytes.
She focused on people’s unique “Story Arcs” and how we can shift, step by step, to our highest life and work trajectory. “Story arcs take us to a higher level,” she said, “and we discover the power was in us all along.
Stories of overcoming obstacles are powerful because we realize the limits we feel we face are only in our minds, Turner noted. Citing President Obama’s improbably story, Turner said, “We can envision possibilities that never existed before we imagined them.”
The centerpiece of her thesis, she said, is: “You may choose to create something that already exists.”
We can look at “What is” vs. “What can be” and ask ourselves in which realm are we currently living. (second box from top, at left)
The Power Arc is the the creative process through which we can claim our power. It’s a three-step master system or sequence that works at every level, in every setting, Turner asserted. Here, her example was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s story — his transition from body-building to his ambition, eventually realized to be the “No. 1 box-office star in Hollywood.” The bodybuilder turned movie star turned governor of California created a vision of who he wanted to be and then lived into that picture as if it were already true, Turner explained.
The Power Arc, she elaborated, involves three questions (third box from top at left):
- Where? Where am I going?
- Now? Where am I now?
- How? How do I get there?
“If you look only at where you are now,” Turner said, “you see limitations.” She pointed the limitations that could have held Schwarzenegger back — lack of acting experience, thick Austrian accent, for example — had he not taken the storytelling view.
We must, Turner exhorts, ask ourselves: “What is my unique gift and greatness? What is my highest story arc?” You can find more of Turner’s work here.
Both Seiden’s and Turner’s approaches are well suited to these tough economic times in which many of us are without jobs. As explained in an article this blog’s parent site Quint Careers, ran on Job Action Day earlier this month, the workplace has changed forever, and we must take charge and become proactive if we are to prosper. That’s why career paths no longer make sense and why we need to reimagine career goals in terms of where we want to be instead of where we are.