the telling of stories

Photo by Antenna on Unsplash

Recently I was in a team building day.  It happens that the (work) team I’m part of has undergone some significant changes recently, so we decided to spend a day together as the ‘new’ team to mark this new beginning.

Part of the day involved the invitation to take 7 minutes to tell a little of our life story in answering the question “how did you get to be here?”.

Even as I write, it sounds like a simple task, that would have been no big deal; just tell the stories and move on to the important parts of they day. Right?

That (of course) isn’t how it worked out. It turns out that the opportunity to listen carefully to a bunch of colleagues tell something of their life story (even if only for 7 minutes each) is a rich and rewarding one, revealing all sorts of connections with one another, finding out what really matters, or why the other is a certain way.  The opportunity to tell your own story too, to an intently listening group is a rare privilege – providing the opportunity to think about the core of who you are, and to organise your thoughts around your own life’s adventures.

We discovered all sorts of things about each other over those 63 minutes (do the maths and you’ll work out how many are in my team).  We laughed so hard the actual laughter was funny in itself. And we were on the very edge of tears at other time as genuinely moving or profound stories were shared. It was, for me, the highlight of our day together.

I walked away so much the richer for the time shared, and so glad for the opportunity to listen, and to speak.

And also a little nonplussed.

Maybe it’s just in my world (genuinely I mean that), but it seems opportunities like this – to listen to another speak of their deep story – are a bit too rare in our modern world. Social media is not the place where deep stories are shared.  Increasingly busy schedules means the time to stop and listen (really listen…when was the last time I did that? you?) seems harder to find. Minds filled with a thousand and one things are less able to slow down, focus, pay attention to the other.

It seems we (by which I mean I) might be missing out on something important here.

Later that week I dropped into the mechanic to pick up my car – usually a 2 minute interaction involving me transferring horrendous sums of money to his account, and a few inane pleasantries.  This day, for reasons I couldn’t articulate at the time, I went a little beyond the usual and asked a couple of more open questions – and we got into quite a valuable conversation.  It only lasted maybe 5 minutes, and for all I know he might have been thinking “c’mon mate, take your car and leave, I have work to do” – but it didn’t seem like that.  He seemed to be enjoying the conversation, and the storytelling as much as I was.  This encounter reminded me that it doesn’t need to be team building meetings, or campfires or counselling sessions where we share our stories…it’s possible even in the moments of our every day…provided we’re willing not to be rushed.

Now it’s quite possible that this is not news to you, and I’m just late to the realisation (or to be charitable, the reminder) about the value of listening to the story of another – but it felt like quite a big couple of moments for me in that week as I encountered the importance of telling and listening to stories from one another’s lives.

Of course we can hear the story of another through their actions too, as the famous quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us: “Who you are thunders so loudly I can’t hear a single word you say.”  But while that is without question true and valuable, it seems to me there’s also something precious about inviting someone to tell their own story using words – and listening carefully and interestedly (a new word I just invented) while they do so.

It’s a personal challenge for me, a life-long introvert fairly well down one end of the I-E scale of your average Myers-Briggs personality test – but it is a challenge I find myself interested in taking up.

So…hit me up for a chocolate milkshake…I’m ready to listen to your story. 😉

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small change…big deal

In recent weeks I’ve become somewhat enamored with America’s Cup sailing. If you haven’t seen any of it, then I should let you know (spoiler alert) that New Zealand defeated USA in the finals (both boats skippered by Australians!) to bring the Cup back to NZ.

The boats that are sailed (and I used both terms loosely) in this year’s America’s Cup are incredible. They’re catamarans that rise out of the water on adjustable hydrofoils. Getting the boat up out of the water (called “foiling”) means a massive reduction in drag from the hulls being in the water in the style of a traditional sailing boat.  Add an enormously effective sail (that’s more like an aircraft wing tipped on its side) and the boats are amazingly fast – sailing at 3 times the speed of the wind (or more) in the right conditions.

To understand a little better how it works, watch this (it’s worth it, they’re amazing!):

The part of this video that caught my attention is about how much difference a tiny variance in wind speed makes to the performance of the boat.  At 6 knots of wind, both hulls will remain in the water and the boat will be sluggish – at best generating 6 knots of boat speed. At 6.5 knots, the catamaran will be able to lift one hull from the water, and just that 0.5 knot additional breeze suddenly enables the boat to race to 10-11-12 knots of boat speed. Go up another 0.5-1 knot of wind speed (to around 7-7.5 knots total, and the boat will fly on its foils – increasing speed dramatically up to somewhere around 20 knots.

Such a tiny difference in wind speed, such a massive difference in boat speed.

Naturally the challenge for boat designers is to generate that critical lift at ever lower wind & boat speeds to get the jump on the competition – and to then keep the boat up on the foils and sailing as fast as possible. They’ll make minuscule changes to the shape of the foils, and to the systems that control them to generate better boat performance. That’s how NZ won the Cup.  If you want to hear more about the tiny changes they’ll make, here’s another video (I told you I got hooked!):

It strikes me that maybe, just maybe, there are similarities in life. That sometimes just small change to habits, to decisions, to approaches to life’s challenges can make an enormous difference to the outcomes. A small change to diet, or sleep patterns, or the words I use as I talk with family, friends or colleagues (to name a couple of examples) might make all the difference

And, just as in the America’s Cup, maybe it takes a team to find and make those changes. They have designers, engineers, builders and sailors working together to find and make the right changes to boat designs in order to fly the boat sooner and faster.

And so I wonder, who are the team that I (or you) turn to? The colleagues, the mentors, the friends, the family? And what opportunities do I (you) look for to make the small changes to life that might enable me (you) to fly?

What’s the tiny change to help make things fly?

have you had a busy week?

A couple of days ago I was in the corner store picking up some bits and pieces. As I wandered up to the counter I asked the assistant “have you had a busy day?”

She answered in the affirmative and we got into a pretty typical shop-counter conversation about how busy life is.

I bet you recognise that conversation.  Lots of us have it, nearly every day.

Sometime over the last couple of years something has changed in our society.  It’s subtle, but I wonder if it’s important.

We used to start conversations with something like “how are you?” or “are you well?”…..but now it’s “have you been busy?” or “do you have a busy weekend coming up?”.

Busyness is the new in thing.

The expectation when we ask that question is that we’ll hear back “yep, flat out”.

Busyness is the new fashion accessory…the “new black” if you like.

We pride ourselves on how busy we are. The one with the most full diary is the most worthy. The one with the most evening commitments, the busiest social calendar for the weekend, with the most extra-curricular activities for the kids….the busiest wins.

There’s very little in our society today (apart from our treatment of the vulnerable, or the ongoing ingrained sexism in our world….but they’re stories for another day) that are more damaging I think to families, and to individuals than this perpetual obsession with busyness.

The costs of busyness are high.

Physical tiredness, mental exhaustion, emotional strain, spiritual flat-ness, relational distance.

And a messy house…though maybe that’s just my house…I can’t be sure.

I wonder too – and I worry – about the kind of example we’re setting for our kids with this perpetual busyness.

I wonder if we should be striving really hard to keep lots of empty space in our home diaries, make sure there are afternoons when we just go for a walk around the neighbourhood then come home for a simple dinner and hang out.  I wonder if we should prioritise the preservation of down-time on weekends rather than back-to-back-to-back social, sporting and other engagements.

I’m a big fan of couch time, or hammock time, or “promenade time” (as we used to call the kind of relaxed afternoon walk that we seem to preserve for holidays only) but it’s rare.  I don’t even really like being busy…but it’s such a point of pride I can’t help getting sucked into it, and filling any empty moment with something planned.

What might happen if the next time someone asks “are you free Tuesday night?” I answer “No, I’m having some relax time with my family”?

And will it be weird if I ask the shop assistant when I next stop by “have you got a quiet afternoon ahead”?

So how about you?

Had a busy day?

I don't like third umpires

I’ve been keeping an eye on the Ashes test this morning, watching Australia take on England in that most time honoured cricketing contest.

Apparently it’s been a while since I watched cricket, because I discovered that the “third umpire” has been introduced to cricket. Each team has the opportunity to object to an umpires decision and ask for it to be reviewed.  The system allows each team two unsuccesful challenges each innings (and presumably an unlimited number of successful challenges).

At face value, it seems reasonable.  We have the technology, and it only holds the game up for a little while, so why not? “Third umpires” and the capacity to challenge have been succesfully introduced in other sports – tennis and rugby league to name a couple, so why not cricket?

Because life isn’t perfect.

We all make mistakes.

Part of the challenge facing us is how we cope in our humanity, how we give expression to our emotions when life doesn’t go as planned.

The ‘third umpire’ sets an impossible standard of perfection, and sets up expectations of sporting officials that cannot possibly be lived up to.  It effectively says to the sports officials “we don’t trust you”.

Life is imperfect, and messy.

Sport is too.  And as a reflection of life, that’s just the way it should be.

Knowing the ending

I read a book last week.  It happens occasionally.

It wasn’t the latest literary classic, or a leadership text. It wasn’t even theology.

It was, how shall we put this, airport fiction. Clive Cussler.  Adventures. Craziness. Action.

I like reading Cussler’s stories when I’m after a bit of escapism.  They are non stop adventure romps. This particular book featured a husband and wife treasure hunting team who lurched from adventure to adventure, taking on and single handedly defeating the bad guys, finding the treasure and saving the world.

All good.  Right?

Somewhere along the way, I found myself getting annoyed at the book.  I was frustrated at the predictability of it all. No matter what the odds, no matter what the obstacles, the hero couple always prevailed, always found the hidden clue no-one else could see, saw off trained commandos with a piece of rusty steel and some basic physics…..and so on…..endlessly.

Now I knew full well what I was getting into when I opened the book. Cussler books definitely follow a fairly standard format, so I wasn’t surprised.

But still, I was annoyed.

Where was the reality?  The obstacles that sometimes are insurmountable? The good guys that sometimes can’t defeat the bad guys?  I found myself just wanting a little more rawness, a little more “real-ness” in the story.

And somewhere along the way I got to thinking a bit about church worship services (no, I don’t know why my mind makes these strange leaps either).  I got to thinking about how so often our church services follow predictable plotlines, where the good guys always triumph, where we are always able to “praise God”.

Sometimes in church, as in Cussler, I wish for a little more rawness, a little more real-ness.    Sometimes we should spend a little more time crying out to God about the awfulness, and a little less pretending we’re full of praise and worship.

Sometimes life just sucks, and church is one place we shouldn’t be afraid to name that reality.

Even if Cussler doesn’t.