Many of us face confusing times in our life when the career we chose isn’t what we want to keep doing. This happened to Steve Donahue when he faced a career crisis and his life as a motivational speaker ran out of gas. So he went in search of new meaning and discovered that all personal change requires us to create a new narrative. Enjoy his story and check out the movie he made about his journey! ~InPower Editors
Personal change is hard, even if you’re in the business of helping others change. I make my living telling stories. Recently I discovered that I’d gotten stuck in my own story. The only way out was to stop telling my old tale and live my new one.
It started when I realized that I hated my job as a motivational speaker. I could motivate everyone but myself. People would say to me after a speech; “Steve, your presentation has completely changed my life!” And I’d be thinking; “Then repeat it back to me! What part worked?”
My problem was that I’d told the same story – about my youthful adventure across the Sahara Desert — almost a thousand times. My career became Groundhog Day. Like Bill Murray in the classic comedy every day was the same. For an adventurous soul like me, that’s the definition of hell.
What do you do when your story gets stale? I went in search of a new one and a reason to tell it. I traveled 72,000 miles over three years. My journey resulted in two bestsellers, one documentary film and rock star status – in Asia, of all places.
Along the way, I learned how powerfully the stories we tell about ourselves shape our lives. I learned that if we want to change jobs, overcome a career crisis or just become happier doing what we’re doing, we have to look at the stories we tell and are told. This is true for us individually and for the culture we create in our families, offices and communities.
3 Ways To Get Out Of An Old Story
We all tell stories and hear them in the culture around us. One of my favorites is the story of the “glass ceiling,” which certainly exists though many find their way around it. Changing the stories we tell can change everything, including how the “glass ceiling” does or doesn’t affect us. Here are three things you can do to get a new story when you face a career crisis like me, or anything else
GIVE THE OLD STORY BACK.
People will tell you to “let go of your old story”. But you can’t actually do that because you don’t have the story, the story has you. You must actively break the spell.
My old story was about my early travels in North Africa. So I went to the middle of the Sahara Desert to give it back. It was a great story. I needed it to carve out my career. But in order to get a new story I gave it back to the same tribe of nomads where I’d gotten it. Literally – I went back to Africa to give it back. That doesn’t mean that I never tell the story anymore. It just doesn’t own or define me now.
This step requires identifying your story and where it came from. The act of giving it back, although symbolic, is very powerful. This step is also personal. For example, people around you tell a story about how the glass ceiling limits your options. You don’t have to eradicate the glass ceiling from all of society or even the organization you work for, to stop it from limiting YOU. You just have to symbolically give it back to wherever you personally think it originated. When you give the story back it no longer owns you. Then, a new story about your true opportunities can emerge.
2. PURSUE PLOT CHANGES.
Action drives a story forward. You are not just the writer of your new story. You are also the protagonist. That means you have to actively pursue a new storyline.
A few months ago I asked my girlfriend to marry me. This was not a new story as we have each been married twice. My fiancée is an ardent feminist who has raised three feminist daughters and two feminist sons. I’d like to think of myself as a feminist too. But I asked her to take my last name, and then ducked. While crouching behind the couch I said; “It just feels more married.”
She agreed! In that moment part of her feminist story changed. Now we have a plot twist that will help create our new story about marriage.
3. KEEP THE ENDING A SURPRISE.
The best thing that I did to change my career narrative was to make a documentary film about my dilemma as I was living it. The hardest part was remembering that I was the main character. And the protagonist never knows how the story is going to end until he or she gets there.
The stories we tell ourselves are so powerful that we have to respect the process of story-making. You and your story are collaborators. The ending must be unknown for you to make an honest journey. If the ending is predetermined then you will try and rig the storyline from the start and you won’t believe it when it’s over. For example, smashing the glass ceiling might have, much to your surprise, nothing to do with that promotion you so desire. It might be more about starting your own business, volunteering for a non-profit or going back to school.
I recently traveled to Asia to find out why a book I’d written that sold 200 copies in Canada had been purchased by over 100,000 Koreans. I wanted to discover the secret to my success in a country I knew nothing about. I believed that this knowledge would change my work and point me in a new direction, which it did. But the direction was a total surprise and so is the new story that I acquired. It’s a delightful story to tell audiences. But more importantly, I’ve got a new story to tell myself about myself and that’s what has transformed my career.
Live your new story until you get to the finish, until you’ve created a story you’re excited about living. You’ll know when you’re “there” because it feels just like you watched a great film or read a good book. Satisfaction in a story well-lived isn’t because the credits are rolling or you’ve run out of pages. You know it’s the end because the story is complete. You feel both surprised and at the same time that strange sense of satisfaction that it could only have ended this way.
Steve Donahue is a writer, speaker and filmmaker. His film, Take My Advice – I Can’t, can be viewed at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/motivationlost. Steve has worked with over 500 organizations around the world including IBM, Pepsico, Roche, UPS, Boeing and The World Bank. He is currently pursuing a graduate certificate in executive coaching at Royal Roads University. Email. Blog. Twitter.
Take charge of your career development to get the job that supports your work and your life. Check out the tools and resources in the InPower Coaching Career Center.