08/25/2010 04:59 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Your Very Own 'Once Upon a Time'

This weekend was a family event for us and a lot of family members came in from out of town. That means a lot of stories got told and repeated. Stories of childhood, embarrassing moments, funny anecdotes and, well yeah, more embarrassing moments.

One of the stories I overheard being told about me was innocuous enough, but it was wrong. I wondered how often the story had been told and how many times it had been practiced and polished, retold and embellished, so that it became more of an amusing anecdote than anything resembling the truth. What was funny, yet not 'ha ha' funny, was that both of us, me, the one the story was about and them, telling the story, were each sure we were right in our version of the same incident. Each of us claimed the same moment, yet saw it differently.

That's the way it is with stories; they depend on the vantage point, if not the memory, of the story teller.

So today I wanted to try a little exercise out with you and ask: What's your story?

How about stopping right now and spending five minutes writing out on a piece of paper "the story of me" -- who you are, how you got that way and include all of the judgments you make or have made about yourself. Judgments start with "I always ...", "I would never ...", "I couldn't ... "

Write out the story of you as you are and don't be afraid to complain a bit. Think about it as a narrator at the beginning of story bringing the audience up to speed so that we can begin the movie.

Start with "Once upon a time there was a (girl/boy) who ... " and write it out for at least five minutes without editing yourself or holding back.

Now ask yourself: Does this story work for you? Does it make your life more interesting, more fun or more exciting?

If the answer is "yes," then let's write the next chapter in the story. It starts with "Having accomplished all of this, our hero set out to really stretch their self and have an amazing breakthrough by ... " Then get busy living into that future.

If the answer is "no," then let's get rewriting the story to suit you. Suppose the story you're in has you stuck in a job you're not passionate about, a job you find boring and dull but where you stay just to keep the money coming in.

You can rewrite the story as it is with a different view point. Try it. "Having found himself stuck, bored and dull, our hero decided to create the next day as the most important day of his life. He set his sights to ___ at work and then ... "

Try writing it out as it might happen, as if it was nearly impossible, as if it was impossible, as if it was a soap opera, a farce, a slapstick comedy and any other way that comes to you. Write, write, write and let your pen guide you.

After you're done, read all of the versions over and see if you can create an interesting, powerful story by taking bits from each of the stories and creating something that covers all of the things in the past. Make sure you take responsibility for your own choices, challenges and bad decisions, but don't beat up on yourself. See the decisions as the best that could be made at the time without denying responsibility. Create a new overarching version of your life story that inspires you and helps you move forward.

I've done this exercise with lots of different groups in different settings and had some fun and interesting results. Each group has its own stories but one thing happens in each of the groups. They realize that at the core of the whole exercise is: pick any version and it's still only a story.

Stories are interpretations, and if your story isn't serving you then it's time to rewrite it and reinvent yourself. Your story, from too close to the material, can be limiting, suffocating and leave you as the victim instead of the hero. But seen from a higher vantage point, your story could be a lesson in perseverance, lessons learned, adjustments made and growth into a new and brighter future.

But remember: it will still only be a story, so don't get married to it. Be willing to rewrite yourself from moment to moment, make corrections and make changes and become now what you only thought possible before.

Write the story that you'll want others to tell in your future and live it. You only get one chance, but you get as many stories as you want. You can be the hero, the villain, the victim, but you'll always be the star, so make it work and don't waste your time!

"Since our destiny follows our stories, it's imperative that we do everything in our power to get our stories right."
--Jim Loehr in "The Power of Story"

Bonus Material: Weaving the Story. I want to also challenge you to be aware of your words and the stories you tell on a little different level. How about this for an assignment: Listen to yourself talk. Shocking, eh?

For the next week or so, please listen to yourself as you talk. The challenge is not just listening, but noticing how many times you say the same thing, either exactly or in essence, and making every possible effort NOT to repeat anything.

This may be hardest for you 'sales' types; some of you polish your stories to the point that you can pull them out on a potential client for 'color,' but I'll challenge you on that. The sales people I work with are learning how to listen more, to cut out the 'patter' and build relationships. Most sales people (and a lot of us) love our stories so much that they'll tell them to the end, whether or not the audience is actively listening any more.

This bonus challenge can be the thing that brings you present to yourself and your 'story' of you that keeps playing on a never ending reel. Try it but be warned: It's simple, not easy.

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