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Saturday Morning with Rick Lewis
"Do you still feel emotionally blocked, Chao?"
That’s the questionasked me on Saturday morning during his Pivot to the Podium masterclass for those interested in public speaking.
I had told him just minutes ago that recollecting my emotions often felt out of reach as a shy, introverted engineer. So what I was feeling now was a surprise.
"No, it was really cathartic to tell my story of betrayal," I said.
It was early-ish Saturday morning and I had decided to get outside my comfort zone and attend Rick’s Podium Day. I didn't know what to expect except I had fears of embarrassing myself. I had come to know Rick through Write of Passage which we attended (twice!) together and I had grown to love his writing, his willingness to help and his work ethic. I was eager to learn from him.
Rick started the session by explaining that we all have a treasure trove of personal stories available for the telling, and that being able to call upon them at will would give us a confident advantage in social settings, in business interactions, and with presentation opportunities. Not to mention getting to know ourselves better in the process.
As someone who often feels awkward in social settings, that sounded heavenly.
We were then presented a helpful spreadsheet to help jog our memory and mine for stories
Another attendee, Nancy, gushed about how many stories were flowing in her head and that she was worried she would be boring folks with the many details she was recalling. And I was.... crickets. I couldn't think of a single interesting story. I felt emotionally blocked.and have written lots about the under-rated importance of good writing in an engineering career. I think engineers struggle with writing because it is in many ways the opposite of what we are trained to be good at.
In Write of Passage, I learned about sprinkling POP - the Personal, Observational and Playful - in my writing. As humans, we communicate through stories, and stories are engaging when there are personal, authentic details written in a playful manner.
In contrast, my engineering and educational background was all about synthesizing abstractions. I grew up in Singapore where doing well academically is really prized. Wanting to spend the least amount of time mugging in books to get the best results, I learned early on to get the gist of what each lesson was about, and to disregard the rest of the fluff. The examples given were used to help me understand the underlying principles, but once I grokked those principles, I could forget the examples.
It makes sense to add engrossing, realistic details into your story. But what if you draw a blank in trying to recall? In storytelling, you are given "poetic license" to embellish. This is another aspect of storytelling I feel that my engineering brain and instincts shout against.
A lot of what I value in writing is to help clarify my thinking, to make concrete my intuitions because writing takes me down a "zoom level" and forces me to disentangle the more concrete reality that mere abstract thinking glosses away.
But if I embellish or hallucinate a detail in order to make narrative sense, am I then also betraying my goal of clearer thinking?
I was trying to articulate all these excuses to Rick as to why I was drawing a blank. In the most encouraging way, he gently switched tact and persuaded me that sometimes to gain clarity, you need to take action and just do it. And so he challenged me with one of the rows in the sheet and asked me to tell a story of betrayal.
I was a little shocked - what, no prep time? Betrayal… I don’t know if he gave me that theme on purpose but almost immediately, a magical thing happened.
Seemingly out of nowhere, I started recalling the first time one of my start-up companies got funded by an established venture firm. It felt like a big win, until the venture capitalist tried to silence my objections to a CEO candidate by offering more shares to my partner behind my back.
I hadn’t thought of this betrayal in 25 years. But just as Rick assured me, the details started trickling in. As I told my story to the other attentive participants, the specifics came into focus. I remembered I was not on the board of directors, but my co-founder was, a detail that was important because it was the reason why the venture capitalist wanted to bribe my partner to get board approval. I realized I would need to mention this salient point earlier in my story the next time I shared it.
But even more amazing was the feedback I received from the listeners, who said they truly felt the pain, hurt, and loss of innocence I sustained from that experience. By simply sharing the details of my story, it seems, something of significance was conveyed.
This was a revelation. Storytelling can be honed and maybe I can become better through practice. But how I practice is perhaps just as important as how much I practice, especially if it engenders this new found confidence that I'm feeling.
I've still not learned the ultimate form of storytelling, which Rick wisely says is about self transformation. But perhaps, as I practice retelling this story of betrayal sufficient times, I will learn how to forgive, for I already know intellectually that the forgiveness will be for myself.
I really enjoyed Rick’s free session and would encourage any engineer who is at all intrigued by storytelling to give it a try. I’m still mulling over my pursuit of objective truths in the real world and these very different subjective truths that storytelling can liberate me from my current world. Can I find the right balance? Is that even the right way to think about it? I am not sure but I am happy to follow down this path of discovery. I’ve already signed up for Rick’s paid program and eagerly await the next Podium Day.