Tell Your Own Story, Invent Your Own Future

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Take control of your own narrative - what is your personal startup founder pitch? By Karen Gifford (Co-Founder & Principal, Broad Ventures Leadership)

When I was practicing law, the arrival of the opposing side’s brief was a much-anticipated occasion. It was our chance to finally see the other side’s best arguments, and after we had a chance to read it, inevitably a little drama would ensue. If the brief was written with any skill at all, most of my team members on the case – as well as the many on-lookers in the office who had some sort of stake in the matter – would be shaken by it. Seeing the story it told about our client’s conduct was disturbing.

Invariably, I’d get panicked advice that ran something along the lines of, well this is terrible. We have to refute everything they said in their brief, point by point. We should go back through their story and explain to the judge how all those details are just not accurate. All this delivered with such fearful looks, it was clear that those offering the advice thought we had an impossible task before us.

The advice-givers were right to look worried, because the advice they were offering was a recipe for disaster. Picking apart individual details of the other side’s story still left a compelling narrative that made our side look awful. And even if we undermined their story completely, what was left? No story at all – and that’s not how you win a lawsuit.

The way I responded to this deluge of well-intended advice was: forget about the other side’s story. We are absolutely not going to validate it by responding to it in any way. What we are going to do is tell our story. And we are going to tell it so well the judge will forget there was ever any other story. Of course, we’ll rebut the other side’s points along the way, but we’ll do it in the context of our own narrative, that we define, not theirs.

In my experience, the only way to win a lawsuit is to take control of the narrative.

And I see the same dynamic at play in our own lives. Other people are always trying to tell us the story of who we are and, shockingly enough, half the time we listen. Someone else’s story about us can sound so compelling that unknowingly we buy into it. Obviously, that’s pure poison for anyone. Letting someone else create the narrative of your life, no matter how attractive it may be, is deeply disempowering.

But accepting another’s story about you is particularly dangerous for women. Let’s face it, things are better than they used to be, but there are still plenty of people out there who will offer up every kind of ridiculous story about us – as some of the dreadful, misogynistic stories in the popular press recently have made far too clear.

And just as in brief-writing, responding to someone else’s story about you by trying to disprove it doesn’t work. Refuting someone else’s story about you is basically letting them cut you off at the knees, because you’ve given over the power of the narrative to them.

Imagine any woman leader you admire – Margaret Sanger, say, or Martha Graham – or someone less well-known, like the CEO of a startup you like or an inspiring professor.

Whoever you pick, you know she didn’t have even ten minutes for someone else’s story about who she was or what she was trying to do. She was way too busy getting things done and way too interested in her own story, as told by her.

You may be thinking, that sounds great, but how do I tell that kind of story about myself? Just as in brief-writing, the first step to a powerful narrative is research. You have to get to know yourself deeply, so that your story will come from an authentic place. Ironically, the best way to do that is to set aside all stories, at least for a time. No matter how attractive a story is, it is limiting. The minute you put a label on yourself, you take on the responsibility of living up to it.

Spend some time with yourself, outside of any narrative. This is where having a meditation practice is wonderful, because it does exactly that. If you don’t have a meditation practice, periodically take yourself out of your routine and spend some time alone. Walking in nature is a great way to do this, but be sure to do it by yourself. Even the presence of another person can subtly bring roles and narratives into play.

Notice what it feels like to be you, without reference to any other person, label or story. If you keep doing this, over time you will get to know yourself in a new way, and as you do you will begin to access a place of greater and greater authenticity. That sense of authenticity will help you with the second step – finding confidence in yourself and your process. This means having faith that your story will turn out just fine, even if you’re not sure just what it is at the moment. Or knowing that it can change over time, and that’s fine. Let your story flow naturally from your heart, and see how you like it. You may be surprised at just how potent it is, and how fascinating.

Finding confidence in your unfolding story is terrifically powerful, because knowing you’re aligned with your authentic self is something that can never be taken away. You won’t be too worried if your story doesn’t seem congruent with socially sanctioned definitions of responsibility, achievement or external success, because you’ll know that outside approval is always subject to the actions, views and whims of others.

If you know you are acting and speaking from the heart, you’ll be congruent with the only definitions that matter – the ones that come from deep within you.

When you tell people about yourself and what you are doing, you’ll do so with so much authority that people will forget anything else they’ve ever heard about you.

This post was originally posted at Broad Ventures Leadership's blog.

About the guest blogger: Karen Gifford is Co-Founder and Principal at Broad Ventures Leadership. She has been active in the start-up world as a founder, investor and advisor. Previously, she worked in the financial industry, first as an attorney in the private sector and at the New York Fed, where she did litigation and enforcement. She and her co-founder Marina Illich started Broad Ventures Leadership with the goal of supporting women to become exceptional leaders. Follow them on Twitter at @BroadsBlog.