On Knowing The Real Story

It’s crazy how quickly your perspective can change the moment you hear someone’s story. The shift can be mind-numbing and so radically change your opinion and attitude that it will make your head spin.

I think that is the power of stories and storytelling and how often we are not open to the opportunity to really hear someone’s real story that can forever change our approach, our stance on who that person is.

How quick are we to judge? How quick are we fully and completely make up our minds about a person, a situation, an experience?

We make these judgements so quickly and so conclusively that we nearly bar ourselves from opportunity to really see what’s going on and, consequently, hamstring ourselves from knowing the real truth.

But there is nothing more important than how we treat other people. You see, when we hear someone’s real story, the truth behind who they are and where they’ve come from and what they’ve experienced we can better understand and appreciate where they are going.

They no longer become a creation based on opinion, or worse, just an object or weakly put together idea; they become flesh and blood – they become human.

And, perhaps just as important, we fundamentally change because of their story. A story is that powerful. It changes everything that it comes in contact with. It’s like getting hit by a freight train and living to tell the tale. There’s just no way that you can get hit (literally) by a train and not be changed.

I think often about the incredible story that Stephen Covey shared in his well-known work, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Here, Stephen shares the power of what he calls a “Paradigm Shift” in an experience he had on a subway in New York:

I remember a mini-Paradigm Shift I experienced one Sunday morning on a subway in New York. People were sitting quietly — some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. It was a calm, peaceful scene. Then suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway car. The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed.

The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers. It was very disturbing. And yet, the man sitting next to me did nothing.

It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could be so insensitive to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. It was easy to see that everyone else on the subway felt irritated, too. So finally, with what I felt was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?

The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”

Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? My paradigm shifted. Suddenly I saw things differently, I felt differently, I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior; my heart was filled with the man’s pain. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely. “Your wife just died? Oh, I’m so sorry. Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?” Everything changed in an instant.

Many people experience a similar fundamental shift in thinking when they face a life-threatening crisis and suddenly see their priorities in a different light, or when they suddenly step into a new role, such as that of husband or wife, parent or grandparent, manager or leader.

It becomes obvious that if we want to make relatively minor changes in our lives, we can perhaps appropriately focus on our attitudes and behaviors. But if we want to make significant, quantum change, we need to work on our basic paradigms.

I love how Covey ends this segment with a quote from Thoreau:

In the words of Thoreau, “For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root.” We can only achieve quantum improvements in our lives as we quit hacking at the leaves of attitude and behavior and get to work on the root, the paradigms from which our attitudes and behaviors flow.

It might be time for you and I to build in a “paradigm shift” of our own in terms of how we view and treat people. It’s yours and mine to take hold of, to leverage, to take advantage of; it’s an opportunity for us to grow not just incrementally, but at a wildly-accelerated pace.

Just think about this in the context of your own life and your own story – how would you like to be perceived? You would want, just as I do, for others to know the full and unadulterated truth about who we are, where we’ve been, the experiences that we’ve gone through, the ups, the downs, the side-to-sides, the backsteps and failures, the triumphs and brilliant moments of (brief) success.

We want people to know the real story of who we are – how fascinating (and ugly) is the reality that although we want that for ourselves we are so unwilling to do that for others, how quick we are to judge and over-prescribe our own feelings about a person flippantly. How grossly unjust and unfair.

Let’s play a quick game, shall we? Assuming that you know nothing about me, you most likely have a perception of who I am. To be fair and honest, it’s most likely incomplete and perhaps even lopsided. How does your opinion and perspective of me change the moment you learn the following…?

  1. I’m a suicide survivor.
  2. An small software project that I built won a huge award last year.
  3. I used to work for a non-profit, I was an executive at a Fortune 50 (at the age of 25), I’ve been fired a handful of jobs, and failed out of my Computer Science major at Georgia Tech.
  4. I had to work at Starbucks once to cover my basic financial needs and moved my pregnant wife into a small room over my parent’s garage to live while I got my shit together.
  5. I am challenged with depression and was diagnosed as an adult as an autist.
  6. I was once so addicted to an MMORPG video game that it nearly cost me my marriage.
  7. I’m adopted from South Korea, I have a fraternal twin, and I am married to the love of my life (11 years this year!) with two beautiful daughters.
  8. I have two Master degrees, one with a focus on education. I’m a certified pre-marriage and marriage counselor.
  9. One of my heroes, besides my father, is my pastor at my church.
  10. I still, generally, have no idea what I’m doing. And that’s okay.

Now, your turn. What would you like for others to know about you? What’s your more complete story?