How to Uncover, Own and Tell Your Story

What’s in a story?

Backstory Joseph Campbell

Life lessons, funny anecdotes?  Travels and takeaways?

The story of your life is not about your vacation or even the bio you’ve written for work.  It is the value that comes from your experience and the essence of what your life has taught you.

Everyone has something important to say and everyone has a story that is  powerful and unique. Despite moments of doubt, you must believe there is power in your story.  Knowing it helps keep you from trying to convince anyone of who you are.

Over the years, over and over, people have asked us, “Just how do I do that?”  This is the first of a three-part series that will walk you through the process of harvesting your story.

Part 1:  Go Back and Fetch It

“Sankofa” (SAN-KO-FA), is a West African word meaning “Go back and fetch it.”  It also describes the process of going back to collect the wisdom of your early influences, in order to build for the future.  If you connect with your own experiences deeply, you will begin to uncover your story.

To help you work through the five focus areas, download the Interact Backstory Worksheet.  Simply jot short answers as they come up for the 5 Focus Areas.

5 Focus Areas for Uncovering Your Backstory

  1. Geography.  Where were you raised? Describe traits, geography or history of your hometown.  How did it influence you? If you moved a good bit, describe what that was like. What did you learn?
  2. Family.  How many siblings do you have and where do you fall in the birth order?  What was that like?  What did you learn?
  3. Parent Talents. What were the talents or career choices of your parents? What did they want for you? How are you like or unlike them?
  4. Role Models. Name a role model who had a positive influence on you. Teachers, siblings, coaches, friends and relatives can have significant impact on our leadership philosophy.  What did you learn from this individual?
  5. Early Interests.  What were your early studies and activities—subjects, sports or hobbies–in or outside of school? What about them did you love? What were the wins, losses or disappointments?

The Trap of Pre-judging the Process

One of the dreaded terms in business is “touchy-feely.” We recoil from the idea of getting emotional; we are afraid that going back to capture our backstory is some sort of psychotherapy.

Push past these false ideas.  Leadership is hardly a impersonal science.  You bring to it what you have–including an understanding of your influences and the sense of purpose they’ve given you.

Everyone’s story is different and you might be tempted to think yours is too ____ or isn’t ____ enough.  Sidestep the trap of judging your story as “too vanilla.”  Often the hard lessons come later in life. Neither should you judge your story as “too personal and filled with hardship.”  Either way your backstory has depth and impacts the way you see the world.

Don’t worry about anyone else’s interpretation.  Your story belongs to you, and you are in charge of connecting the dots.  Going back will not change the past, but capturing the wisdom that you’ve gained from the past can take you to a place from which everything makes sense.

Jump in!  Respond to the questions on the worksheet and notice the ones that are most meaningful to you.  Do this without putting pressure on yourself to write some sort of novel.  Simply jot short answers. If you give your story time and space it will grow. Follow the most powerful emotions and images and you’ll find your story fleshing itself out (seemingly) on it’s own.

Soon you’ll notice that 2-3 of the focus areas have more “heat” for you than others.  They stir your feelings, which indicates they’ve helped shaped your outlook, and they offer meaningful material for “story bites” that will give your communication engaging depth.

How?  Tell us what your life has taught you–the learning you’ve carried from your circumstances.

For example, here are two of my life lessons (which are “story-bites”).

Backstory Circumstances

Outcome, Learning or Results 

Geography – I was raised in a military home and we moved often. I experienced being the “new kid” several times.

Today I cherish my community and I feel a sense of responsibility for its future. I love being grounded.

Parent Careers – My father was a pilot who saw the world, fought in three wars and had a sense of duty.  My mother was a nurturing school teacher of 40 years, who helped students believe in themselves.

I am the daughter of a pilot and school teacher–I am fiercely committed.  I am also a teacher at heart.

Coming up next, Part 2: Tracing Your Adult Influences

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Avatar for Lou Solomon

Lou Solomon

Lou Solomon is the founder of Interact. She is a TEDx speaker and a member of the adjunct faculty at the McColl School of Business at Queens University of Charlotte. Her articles have appeared in Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur.com, CEO.com, and Fast Company.