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Storytelling and Survival

I had a tough childhood. I'll spare you the details for now, but suffice it to say the kids in our family became grown-ups at a really young age. So I told myself a story. I imagined that I was a warrior princess (Hello Xena!) from another galaxy, and that the world I was living in was some kind of elaborate training camp where I had been sent to perfect my skills and become the warrior I was fated to be. Then one day, when I had reached the needed level I would be called back to save my homeland.

It's pretty easy to understand why a kid with a complex childhood might invent this kind of story. If you think of everything as training, it makes it easier to go through the hardships, and somehow become more acceptable when you or those around you fail. Fall down, and then get right up again. It's kind of a drill.

Till this day if you ask me about my origin story, that is the one I choose to tell, and it's one that shapes the way I take on life. Those who know me will confirm I've never met a challenge I didn't jump at the chance to tackle: another chapter in my story of life. It's made me the kind of person that feels like superwoman to others, which in turn means that most people don't realize, that like each of them, I need help.

Nowhere is this more true than at work. And so, very early on, I discovered that I would have to be extremely vulnerable in front of my teams and colleagues if I expected them to support me. God knows we all need all the help we can get.

So I did that through storytelling, but I didn't know that's what it was called. I shared intimate stories with colleagues who were struggling with work, or whose relationship that was going sour. I told people about my many failures when they felt ashamed of their own. I even told people a lot of stories about my mother (another warrior woman) so they could understand why I behaved the way I did.

I started sharing my narrative because I needed others to see me as a normal, broken, fallible human. The funny part is I quickly discovered that by doing so it made other people grow, and help make them stronger.

Then I started telling stories in classes I taught at universities, largely attended by managers from the Middle East. Having grown up in a single parent household many of my stories I told my students were about my Lebanese mom. When we were young, she did what every Lebanese parent does, she pushed me and my brother really hard to excel at school. I remember coming home after having received my grades, which were usually in the range of 18/20. Rather than congratulate me on getting 90% of the exam right, my mother would look for the questions I had gotten wrong. I told this story to a class full of managers in order to illustrate how our upbringing has affected our working environment. We had all been raised in a context where failure was frowned upon, which made us extremely risk averse managers, who stifled innovation, and left no space for experimentation.

By the end of the class we were all talking about our mothers, and those of us who were mothers where talking about their daughters. I can tell you it was an incredibly cathartic marketing class.

In a recent storytelling class by the generous, vulnerable, and incredible storyteller and INSEAD professor Neil Bearden, I got to stretch my storytelling muscles even further.

The class titled Cuts, Intent & Stories (CIS) focuses on decisions, both personal and professional, how and when we make them, and how we can use storytelling to make sure they contribute positively to our narrative. The word "decision" has latin roots, which it shares with words such as incision, scissors, concise. The CIS part means to cut.

We often think of decisions as an additive process, but when we go back to the root of the word it becomes evident that in fact making decisions means to exclude all other options, to choose one version of your future self, and as a consequence to give up all others.

The course culminates in a storytelling session where each of us describes an important lesson from their own life and recalls the events that lead them here. I told the story of my first and only job. How it began, how it ended, and how I was able to cope with the loss that inevitably resulted from that.

Sharing stories is an incredibly powerful experience, one that is age old, and for which our brains are complete suckers. I came out of this class promising myself to both tell more of my stories, but also listen to those of others.

As a first step I am going to record the story I told at the end of the class and share it with all of you. Many of the women we reach out to don't feel like their story is worthy, or they are ashamed to share it with everybody else. I am hoping that by sharing our own stories we can prove that EVERYONE's story is interesting.

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