Turn economic hardships into stories of strength

by Jerry Waxler

Jutting out of the landscape of our lives are those times when we struggled to provide for ourselves and our family. Whether we were transitioning to a new career or scrambling to recover from a layoff or other setback, we stumbled through uneven and unfamiliar territory. Years later, we take pride in our effective decisions and the cunning with which we applied old skills and learned new ones. We overcame discouragement and other obstacles and survived. Now as we tell the story of those triumphs, we develop our role as the hero at the center of our own life.

But what about today’s challenges? In the last few years, millions of us lost savings and jobs, forcing us into economic changes we didn’t anticipate. In some distant future, when we write the memoir of these times, we will again discover the resilience, strengths, and the excitement of the story. But for now, it’s hard to feel like a hero, constrained as we are by the narrower scope of just getting through the day.

One way to improve your perspective is to develop as quickly as possible the story of these hard times. Stories let you grasp the whole situation, letting strength dominate worry. Through stories you can find courage, poise, and make better sense of your choices. And stories have one more benefit. They let you share your experiences, providing an opportunity for mutual support. I have been following two organizations who have taken a keen interest in turning stories of economic survival into the shared experience of a community.

One group, called Civic Ventures, was founded by Marc Freedman, author of the book “Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the Second Half of Life by Marc Freedman.” Freedman’s organization, Civic Ventures now also publishes the Encore Careers website to provide a forum for people going through the transition to a new career. The site is loaded with stories of people who have reinvented themselves, turning loss and frustration into a catalyst for renewal.

The other organization that is encouraging people to tell their stories is First Person Arts, . Their programs help people share the artistry of life experience through paintings, video, and written works. First Person Arts even conducts “story slams” in Philadelphia, adding live performance to the teller’s repertoire.

Because of the historic changes in the economy in the last year, First Person Arts has launched a national story writing contest, to solicit stories of how individuals are coping and adapting and reacting to hardship. Inspired by the explosion of storytelling in the Great Depression, the First Person Arts contest encourages people to find their stories and share them. For more about the contest, click here.

To organize your story, consider the universal framework that converts life experience into a narrative form that other people will relate to. In the beginning there is a protagonist who wants something – in this case economic survival, with a dash of dignity and satisfaction. On the road towards that goal, you push through or outsmart the obstacles. You gather allies and skills, and overcame discouragement. By the end, you achieve some goal. To help you get the ball rolling, I’ve listed a few questions. Try answering them as if you are giving an interview. (If you’d like, post them here, or on other storytelling sites.)

“What was your goal?”

Look for a mix of motivations that drove you forward. Be specific (“I want my old job back”) or general, (“I want to find satisfaction”). In fact, this may be the most important part of the exercise. By trying to explain what creates the dramatic tension in your story, you will begin to see it more clearly yourself.

“What were the main obstacles that blocked you from achieving that goal?”

The external ones will be relatively obvious, like money, education, or age. But like any good story, there is also an inner dimension. What did you fear? What options were you reluctant to face? Did you impulsively lunge forward, meaning your biggest obstacle was lack of clear thinking? Turn storytelling into a mirror. As you explain your story to others, you’ll understand more about yourself.

“What tools, allies, and choices helped you overcome these obstacles?”

In any good story, the thrill is seeing the protagonist overcome the enemies, and reach the end of the maze. How did you do it? What mentors gave you  advice? What learning did you acquire? Cleverness is a fun story element. What choice felt especially cunning?

“What milestones did you pass?”

Describe the important milestones to let the reader see how things moved from beginning to end.

“When did you know you ‘arrived’?”

The satisfaction of reading the story comes from achieving or releasing the dramatic tension you established at the beginning.

“What would tell others who want to make this journey?”

A good story often has a second payoff. After the external goal is achieved (you got the job), you can offer the reader the additional reward of offering what you learned or how you grew.

It will take additional effort and skill to polish your interview and turn it into something fun to read. But it’s worth it. While you challenge yourself to achieve the goal, you’ll also be gaining some lovely benefits, not the least of which is to increase your ability to tell a story. Learning this knack of telling your story could be the best investment you can make, because once you own the skill, it will pay dividends for the rest of your life.

Leave a Reply