To innovate, re-imagine yourself first

Photo credit:  Flying High

Photo credit: Flying High

Hey readers, I'm going to warn you right now. In this era of quick scan 20 second reads, this is a rather freakishly long post. But I hope you'll curl up and spend the time here. Cause sometimes a good story is worth it. Hopefully this is one of 'em! But you can also find a condensed (but still meaty) version of the post on the Normative Design blog. They've also got plenty more food for thought on their website, so check it out!

Designers, innovators and leaders: it's time to re-write your own stories.

Here’s something you already know: to create change or initiate growth we need to imagine new ways of doing things. 

The innovator explores the world around her; she asks questions; she tinkers; she re-thinks; she re-imagines.

You’re probably already doing all that stuff. If you’re a designer, that is your life’s work. 

But here’s something you might not have considered: the exceptional innovator doesn’t just explore the outer world -- she also explores her inner world.

And the exceptional innovator doesn’t just re-imagine new ways of working or doing – he also re-imagines new ways of being.

By looking inwards, and being willing to tear down one’s personal bastions of identity, one’s most carefully tended stories of self, truly exceptional innovation can happen.

On the other hand, if you’re not willing to re-imagine who you think you are, you might be limiting what you can accomplish.


Storytelling at the Business Innovation Factory

Let me back up. I’m a storyteller – that is my life’s work.

It’s also why I was delighted to tag along with the Normative Design team to this year’s Business Innovation Factory (BIF) Summit.

The annual BIF Summit brings together some of the world’s most incredible innovators and invites them to share their stories.

The Summit is built on the philosophy that “a good story can change the world.”

The storytelling principle at BIF is described this way: “We use stories to pull people into transformation, asking them to co-create the narrative as it unfolds. Through stories, we help leaders see the world differently and create the will to invest in new opportunities.”

As I listened to the many eye-opening, thought-provoking, and sometimes tear-jerking stories, I realized the best speakers were already “co-creating the narrative” of themselves. 

In other words: they had wrestled with their own internal stories about themselves. They had re-written the narrative about who they are, and who they are supposed to be.

And in doing so, they were able to achieve some pretty remarkable things.


What are self-stories?

As we go about our days, we carry stories with us, and these stories tell us about ourselves.

These self-stories are things like:

“I was an only child and that’s why I’m so independent; I’ve always been good at making my own fun.”

“I’ve always been an artistic, intellectual type. I’m not a jock and I’m not a gym person. That’s why I’m out of shape and that’s the way I’ll always be.”

“My childhood was so f-ed up, you don’t even know. So yes, I’m a bit neurotic, but everyone else just has to deal with it.”

“I look after other people. That’s what I do: my friends, my family, my colleagues, they all know that if they have a problem they can come to me. I guess you could say I’m a problem solver.”

We all have different stories, and we add to them as we grow. Our self-stories are based on the stuff we picked up as kids, and they evolve as we take on new experiences and add new extensions to our sense of self.

Most of the time, we tell these stories to ourselves or others without much awareness. 

We might not realize it, but we do it a lot.

Basically, anytime you say what you’re good at or bad at, or you define the way you do things, or you talk about defining experiences in your life, you’re telling a story about yourself. (Start paying attention and you’ll probably start to hear it a lot – in yourself and others.)

There’s nothing wrong with self-stories: they’re simply one way we make sense of our world and our place in it.

They can limit us, though.

They tell us where to focus our time and energy. They tell us what we’re not good at, what we shouldn’t bother trying to do. And they narrow in our perspective; they draw lines around what we think is possible.

So if you really want to innovate, if you want to make big change in the world, you’re probably going to have to tear some of those stories down. And you’re going to have write new ones.

Let’s look at a few examples from BIF.

These are a just a few of the innovators who, to do amazing work in the external world (aka real life), first had to re-calibrate their own self-perceptions (aka their inner life).


Rabbi Irwin Kula, radical spiritual-secular innovator

On the first day of BIF 10, Rabbi Irwin Kula gave the end-of-day talk.

Why did a Rabbi close out the day, some people wondered. This was not a religious stage; the opposite, if anything.

But Rabbi Kula has done something really radical: he has actively argued for, and helped foster, cross-over between people of all religious orientations including atheists and agnostics.

He insists that good spiritual wisdom must be able to cross all boundaries.

For example, Rabbi Kula challenges the idea of participating in religious traditions just because they’re there: he asks, does that tradition make a difference in your life? Can it help you, or others? And if not, why are you doing it?

A wise practice must be able to provide value to potentially everyone, he argues.

For that reason he refuses to speak solely to his own community and is adamant about bringing different kinds of exploration and search – like self-help, psychology, design, and innovation – into spiritual discourse.

In fact, Rabbi Kula says jobs and careers can become a “playground” for self-exploration.

He tells us that we can enrich that playground with dynamic interpretations of religious ideas, which can “become lenses through which to see and celebrate our unending complexity” and serve to “facilitate and enrich our infinite unfolding.”

Pretty cool stuff. He’s giving us a new way to think about spirituality, and work, and how the two can be brought together.

Lessons from Rabbi Kula

What can we take away from this?

For starters, we can use Rabbi Kula as a model for the kinds of bold innovation that we can accomplish if we are willing to un-hook from some of the deepest elements of our identity.

In case you haven’t noticed, religious identity is pretty powerful stuff.

But Rabbi Kula risked his perceived 'Jewishness' to break down spiritual and secular boundaries.

Bringing together diverse religious groups and atheists? How many people are able to do that?

Secondly, Rabbi Kula draws our attention to how we can use our work as a space for self-exploration. He argues that our “life challenges” and our jobs and careers intersect. 

This could be an incredibly valuable approach, especially if you are a designer or innovator. Think about what you could accomplish if you brought more of your inner “what ifs” to work.


Elana Simon, facing death and kicking ass

Elana Simon, now a college freshman, became a ground-breaking cancer researcher while she was still in high school. She led significant new developments in a rare form of liver cancer, and went on to become the inaugural winner of the Young Champion in Cancer Research.

But first, she was sick.

Elana was sick for a long time. Turned out it was a rare type of cancer.

Being sick, especially at a young age, is hard – not just physically, but psychologically. You want to be strong, you want to be cool, you want to be normal. You want to be anything but weak, or sick, or strange. 

Elana talked about how it felt to be perceived as sick – not just by others, but by herself.

 She told us about how her cancer operation left her with a significant scar. “Sometimes I would lie and say it was from a shark attack,” says Elana. She says that half-jokingly but you can understand her deep desire to tell a different story about herself; one where she was a brave adventurer, not a cancer patient.

(As a side note, I can relate: when I had a pacemaker implanted at 20, I had a strange urge to tell people my scar was from a stab wound. I guess I had the same desire to see myself as a badass fighter rather than a patient with a heart condition.)

But soon Elana didn’t need to escape into fantasy. She embraced the real life facts of herself – she was, after all, a cancer survivor – but instead of staying in the “I was sick, I survived” story, she wrote a new one.

Elana puts it this way: "I faced death, and I kicked ass."

Elana became passionate about developing much-needed research on these rare forms of cancer. And she started asking “what if” questions. And she led research projects that were published (and applauded) by the scientific community.

Lessons from Elana Simon

I see two take-away lessons in this:

First, re-imagining our own stories doesn’t mean we deny our experiences. But it doesn’t mean we stay stuck in them either. Elana had to accept the reality of being a cancer survivor (nope, not a shark attack victim), but she didn’t have to keep living in the ‘sick, weak’ definition of herself, either. 

Secondly, sometimes all we need to do is open up our own inner sense of possibility. Elana says, “I’m not a crazy genius, I just found something I really, really cared about and went after it.”

In other words, Elana didn’t need to re-brand herself as a superhero. She didn’t decide to be a leader or innovator. She just needed to break through the confines of her previous perception of herself.

She needed to feel free enough to pursue her passion, and believe she was strong enough, capable enough, to do it.


Cheryl Dahle, warrior for possibility

Cheryl Dahle has committed herself to tackling one of the most troublesome environmental challenges of our time: the oceans. She is founder of the non-profit organization The Future of Fish.

Cheryl introduces herself to us by recognizing that she works in a pretty depressing industry. After all, everyone knows the oceans are dying. Sometimes it seems like people who work with fish are, as Cheryl puts it, writing the obituary of the oceans.

But Cheryl begs us to have a little faith, a little trust, in the possibility of change. That somehow things can get better. That it’s worth working on the biggest, darkest, most troubling challenges because maybe, just maybe, we can make a difference.

That right there is a lesson that all innovators (probably all people) need to hear.

But how did she get there?

The story Cheryl told the BIF audience wasn’t about fish. It was about how she was able to become a “warrior for possibility.”

Like Elana, Cheryl had to re-write a personal story that framed her as a victim. But in Cheryl’s case, it wasn’t cancer.

It was violence. It was rape.

Plagued by powerful post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and after 20 years of trying to work through her condition, Cheryl almost gave up. She started to think nothing would get better. She questioned whether life was worth living.

A lot of difficult years passed before Cheryl had a personal breakthrough and was able to start asking some serious “what if…” questions in her own life.

Questions like:

“What if… I could get through this?"

“What if… things could get better?”

“What if…” I’m worth saving?

Cheryl wasn’t able to magically end her PTSD, but she was able to open up new corridors of possibility within herself.

And by doing so, she opened new possibilities everywhere.

Including the oceans.

Lessons from Cheryl Dahle

One of the take-aways for us from Cheryl’s story is that no matter how entrenched, or how painful, or how limiting the stories about yourself are, they can be over-turned.

If you suffer from trauma or any of those limiting mental experiences, it can take a lot of hard work to creatively re-imagine a new story for yourself. (Having personally struggled with depression and PTSD I know this first hand.)

But it can be done. 

To be clear, I don’t mean to destroy those deep-rooted stories. Cheryl will always be a survivor of violence, just as Elana will always be a survivor of cancer. Those experiences make us who we are.

But by taking those stories and rolling them over like rocks, we see them in new ways, and we discover what’s underneath.

Sometimes those rocks are really stubborn. Sometimes they are really, really, heavy.

But if we can keep at it, if we succeed in turning them over, we discover new freedoms. New possibilities. New ‘what ifs’.


Putting it into action

The innovator's approach of asking "what if" and questioning widely-held beliefs can be a huge asset when turned inwards.

Applied to our own sense of our self-limiting beliefs and assumptions, this approach can help us to do more, create more, and innovate better.

Innovators can use their skills in critical analysis to do a thoughtful assessment of the feedback they’re already getting about their current successes, satisfactions, and struggles.

Put another way (in typical therapist terms), we might ask: “how is that working for you?”

You can start by looking at the signposts in your current life. What are the feedback markers that can help you spot recurring themes that could use some re-scripting?

Here are some questions you could ask yourself:

- Are there things you avoid doing, which might be good to try? Why do you think you avoid them?

- Are there things you do regularly that might not be serving you well, but that you feel attached to or are afraid to stop?

- Have you ever accepted a project or an opportunity because it felt like it was outside your personal ‘scope’?

- Do you do work because you’re good at it or it’s just ‘what you do’ but that doesn’t really make you feel good?

- Do you try things that are outside of your comfort zone?

- Do you ever say things like “I’m the kind of person who…”, or “that’s the way I am”?

- Do ever feel like you’re playing a role, or trying to fulfill other people’s expectations of you?

The process of re-defining ourselves is not a quick, simple task. It is a dynamic process. A creative act. 

If you want to open up your own self-stories to new possibilities, start with simply being aware of what those stories are and how you tell them.

Pay attention to the stories you tell about yourself, even when they’re only in your head. And start to gently challenge or question what you hear yourself saying.

From there, you can begin to create something new. To re-write new stories.

You can begin to ask, “what if.”

Camille DePutter