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Storyforth: Stories evoke our desire to trust

Jane tweeted on Storyforth’s blog entries and watched the interest in dreams grow. Dreams are where things begin. They are about choosing yourself and your path.

Stories help us reflect on the human side of our work. They create the space we need to share these experiences with each other.

Stories evoke our desire to trust—to live and work with others that we trust.

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Meaningful Work: Persistence takes many forms

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There are dreams that never leave us. The longing to follow certain work keeps revealing itself—even with children and all the wildness that family life brings. How to keep holding the thread of your dream is one of life’s magic tricks for us humans. Once, an artist told me how she held the thread of her dream to create art under seemingly impossible circumstances. For eleven years, she cared for her husband who suffered from a debilitating illness. At the time, her work had nothing to do with her art, but she needed the job to save the house from the bank. Each day as she drove to work, she imagined drawing lines between the clouds in the sky. Now in her 70’s, this artist is creating an astonishing body of work. She held the connection to her dream.

The clues on how to hold on to the thread of our dreams are inside of us. Sometimes they are right in front of us. So many individuals have excellent ideas and they have the drive to create something useful for humanity. Yet their ideas languish due to life struggles, lack of support, or not having a connection to the market.

Poonam Ahluwalia understands how fragile this thread can be. This knowledge inspired her to create YouthTrade which supports and develops young entrepreneurs. The photographs in this blog entry show three YouthTrade entrepreneurs at a MIT Conference with Aluwalia in 2013.

• Priya Samant created EarthFrendz to develop a community of women in India who make tote bags designed by Samant from beautiful recycled textiles. A mother of two children, Samant dreamed of this business when she was forced to slow down to save her health during her second pregnancy.

• Entrepreneur Annie Ryu deferred entering Harvard Medical School to build Global Village Fruit, a business designed to support sustainable agricultural development in communities in rural India.

• Frederic Byram adapted his mother’s recipe for muesli when his father encouraged him to follow his dream. With Tutu Foods, Byram plans to adapt recipes from his Costa Rican family to encourage healthy eating at modest prices.

At YouthTrade, they offer each other support and practical advice to develop their vision.

Many of us are well acquainted with the idea of dreams, but not how to nourish them and bring them to our daily lives. In upcoming Storyforth blog entries, I will share more stories on the practical ways that others held the possibility for meaningful work. I’ll close this blog entry with the poem that Ahluwalia reads at her global summits.

The Way It Is
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it, you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t every let go of the thread.
Rainer Marie Rilke

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Meaningful Work: Dreams are where things begin.

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What helps a person grow and sustain an idea? Here is a story of one woman saying “yes” to young people’s dream for meaningful work.

In 1998, Poonam Ahluwalia saw a mismatch between youth—who ranked work as their top priority—and her employer, EDC’s (Education Development Corporation) focus on education. Young people wanted education, but it wasn’t their first priority. When Ahluwalia delivered workforce development seminars in Namibia, Peru, and India, she observed youth and noticed that they did not feel they had the power to speak at these meetings.

Also in 1998, Ahluwalia studied these population statistics: one billion youth were in the labor market, 85% of them living in developing countries. Ahluwalia reflected on these trends while she considered an opportunity to develop a youth employment program in South Africa to employ 1000 youth. She decided not to pursue this program because she believed it was an inadequate gesture given the alarming numbers.

Poonam Ahluwalia, who was born in Jaipur, India, immigrated to the US in 1986 to further her education. A mother of two, she recognized that the dreams of youth around the world were the same as the dreams of her son and daughter. And her life goal began to take shape: She wanted to create support structures for young people to participate as equal partners with governments and businesses to solve the challenges of youth employment in their native countries.

She wrote a letter to the (then) president of EDC, Janet Whitla, to ask for her support for a global youth employment campaign. Whitla immediately agreed. She told Ahluwalia that she would call the human resources department in the morning to create for Ahluwalia a new position for this important work. For the next eight years, EDC became the incubator for YES (Youth Employment Summit). Ahluwalia and her team developed a 10-year campaign to raise global awareness about youth unemployment, and subsequently built 55 YES Country Networks. During this time, Ahluwalia transitioned YES to become an independent organization.

There are many stories within this story. Dreams are where things begin and it’s the action one takes that makes the dream begin to evolve into a new reality. I’ll share a story about the evolution of YES to YouthTrade in the next blog entry.

In 2009, in Boston, I met Ahluwalia when I was searching for more meaningful ways to approach work. Over a cup of tea, she reflected on her experiences in life and work. Then she invited me to learn about youth leaders—first at a YES Youth Leaders meeting at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt, and then at the 2010 YES Global Summit in Sweden. “We don’t need to think for youth,” she said. “We need to create the support structures that allow them to participate and solve the problem of employment. Come see for yourself.”

Meeting Ahluwalia was the beginning of a new direction for my own work—researching and writing a book, Creating Meaningful Work, about social leaders who are integrating work, education, and life purpose for today’s challenges. Their stories served to teach me many lessons about perseverance. No matter how impossible a daily challenge feels, I think of the ways Ahluwalia has faced obstacles. And I pause to rethink what is possible for me. That moment of pause helps to open my imagination.

Ask yourself: What is your dream for work? Who can you ask to support your idea? Then find the story, the inspiration that will carry you forward to act on that dream.

Jeanette Eberhardy

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Storyforth: Where adventure and achievement combine forces

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Our best stories are recreated in the intersection between something we care about and something that matters in the world. How often do we associate adventure with “good followship” or achievement with “staying put” when appealing offers are made for another job? This is the power of stories. We learn new ways to see and to engage in our work.

Sophie Lavaud is an amateur mountain climber. She is one of ten women in the world who climbed two 8,000 meter peaks in one season. For Sophie, the adventure started as a bet with a friend to climb Mont Blanc at 4810 meters. “I’m just a normal woman,” Sophie said. “I did it as a follower.” She continued, “Everyone talks about leadership, but we need to learn how to follow too.” Her lessons came from fellow team members and nature itself: “You are not deciding, the elements decide what is next.”

While Sophie spoke, I imagined the wind, the rocks, the soil, and the cold glacier. Born in France and living in Geneva, Sophie prepares for her next climb. She will walk on the Everest with film videographer Francois Damilana to capture “the roof of the world.” When she returns, in her role as a motivational speaker, she will continue to teach us how to move through a wide range of emotions in seemingly impossible moments. This is the generative nature of her work: teaching us how to navigate uncertainty.

Betty-Ann Heggie focuses her current work on mentoring women to find the inner resources to grow and advance in business. Early in her career at Potash Corporation, a worldwide supplier of fertilizer, Betty-Ann was tested to perform work she had never done. She was traveling to a business meeting when she called her office to ‘check in.’ At a public pay phone in the Minneapolis airport, her assistant told her to sit down. Betty-Ann learned that all of senior management had been fired, except one. Common thought dictated that her level of management would be the next to go. During this stressful time, Betty-Ann remembered the words of her mentor who told her, “Times are tough right now, there will be many changes.” Her mentor also told her that he had experienced many cycles in business and that, “Things will turn around again.”

Instead of jumping to another company that offered an attractive job, Betty-Ann stayed and focused on the promises they had made to customers. Former employees were gone, but the work wasn’t. Hearing the words of her mentor made all the difference: “Hang in there, this company needs you.”

Betty-Ann began in a small town in Saskatchewen, Canada. She is the mother of two daughters, and during her 26 years with Potash Corporation, she grew to become their Senior Vice President of Corporate Relations. In 2006, she was named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women and was subsequently inducted into their Hall of Fame. Then Betty-Ann found the way to combine what she cares about with something that matters in the world by establishing a mentoring program to support the development of mentors worldwide—to bring forward the best in all of us.

We met Sophie and Betty-Ann at the 16th Global W.I.N. Conference in Prague where founder Kristin Engvig invited participants to bring “a more feminine, global, and sustainable vision to work, communities, and life.” This blog is dedicated to all the women and men who find ways to share their expertise and experience with others.

All culture begins with learning.

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Storyforth: Remembering how to listen

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At the 16th Global W.I.N. conference in Prague, Jane noticed that I began a storytelling workshop by focusing on empathic inquiry—the ability to listen and ask open questions.

Why is empathic inquiry important?

Because listening to stories engages our attention in meaningful ways. When we sense that a story is authentic, we begin to look for connections in our own work.

This type of listening is different from hearing a list of imperatives given in a Powerpoint presentation. We listen in a deeper way to stories and we begin to ask the question: How can I use this story in meaningful ways?

Jane thought about the potential for connections at work. Then she said, “This reminds me of an experience in a seminar I gave on Finding Hidden Talent.”

Jane said that at the end of that seminar one financial executive stood up and said, “I’m going back to my office to look at all my performance reviews. By listening to these stories today, I realize I have been walking right past all kinds of talent and possibilities.”

The stories helped this executive move beyond his habitual patterns of thoughts.   Jane reflected on this moment: “and the rest followed…that simple act led to multiple actions.”

Stories have action built into their core: character–action, character–action. The sequence of actions in a particular story shows us the possibilities for movement in a new direction—especially once we connect our story with something that matters in our work. We will share examples of these connections in upcoming conversations.

Storytelling changes the way we listen. Action presents a new path.

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Storyforth: Where can it lead you?

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In Rome in 2012, and then Prague in 2013, Jane and I became inspired to create Storyforth, a cross-cultural initiative bringing storytelling skills to the workplace.

Jane lives in Singapore. I’m in Boston. When we met, we were both teaching at the annual Women’s International Network (WIN) conference. Against the backdrop of Rome’s night sky, we were surprised to learn that we shared the same degree: Social Ecology (University of California, Irvine, USA).

“This is the first time that I have met someone with my degree,” said Jane.

“Me too,” I replied.

During the decades that followed our graduations, we didn’t expect to meet another person who studied Social Ecology, an interdisciplinary program that taught students to find unusual connections between ideas for today’s human problems. In fact, in the 1970s, Social Ecology offered a new approach to learning in a University setting. Few were familiar with crossing boundaries between disciplines to find new ways to address our current challenges.

Jane and I confessed to each other that the impact of this undergraduate work was profound. Today we both appreciate how these interdisciplinary studies have shaped our approach to work and life—including our methods for teaching storytelling skills.

One year later, our conversations continued at the next global WIN conference, only now surrounded by the artistry of Prague’s old buildings. We discovered that when we earned PhDs, we both conducted research using narrative inquiry and qualitative analysis. In other words, we focused on stories.

When we listen to stories, we see the relationship between the story and our own experiences. We become engaged and that engagement can lead to meaningful action at work.

Action leads to action.

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