The Stories That Matter (and It's Not What You Think)
I am here to tell you a story that matters. Here it goes. Earlier this year, I attended a 2-week summit with some of the most passionate and talented educators from around the world. It was an incredible place where we had tough and vulnerable conversations about adversity, about the obstacles that schools face at all levels, from students to teachers to administrators. I had never seen educators speak so openly about their hopes and struggles, from mental health to politics to identity. It felt so magical because for the first time, I felt that I had been privy to the stories and experiences I needed to solve things back home. It changed my life.
When I returned to Toronto, I became committed to keeping this practice, this routine of authentic and full self-expression. Now that I had a taste of it, this freedom and courage through storytelling, I couldn't go back. I couldn't bear the idea of going back to a life where I was forced to omit or even modify my story for fear of offending others, or more tragically, for being apart from the stories that could lift me from my suffering. Stories have a funny way of connecting us to one another, to strengthen the bonds already there, but more importantly, to show us our blind spots. The things that we can't see but need to deal with. The things that control our lives without our awareness.
As many of you will know, my intention for 2017 is to speak at TEDx Toronto. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to speak at TED someday. I was drawn to the power of stories and how they made me feel. As a child, I spent my days creating novels and blogs, drawn to the creativity and potential of storytelling. However, I always thought I'd pursue TED much later in life, when I had another successful startup and a book under my belt. However, I came to a realization this year: my most transformational moments in life started with a story. And my second realization? I have been drawn to these stories because our stories, as humans, are universal. In fact, our suffering is universal as well; the human condition remains the same across continents and cultures.
What does it mean? When I was an undergraduate student, I took a course from esteemed researcher and professor Jordan Peterson. He is one of the Big 3 of the University of Toronto, famous for the long waitlists to attend his psychology classes. His work has been documented by TVO, and he has published several books, many of which discuss the universal nature of stories. When we look throughout human history, one of the things that continues to persevere and even repeat is stories. There are stories about the hero, the mother (feminine energy), and the father (masculine energy), and how upbringing and struggle shape individuals into who they are meant to become. These patterns, these roles that people adopt, are called archetypes. They get passed down across space and time, and all cultures show similar patterns or themes, such as the struggle between good and evil.
I know many of you are thinking: Well, if my story isn't unique, why bother sharing it? It is because your stories are universal that people can see themselves in your stories, connecting with them and lifting them from purgatory. People are rarely inspired by "outlandish" stories like the Kardashians precisely because they are superficial and inauthentic; they tell a story that isn't really true, and instead, we observe these stories for fascination or entertainment. Counterintuitively, what our world needs is for you, yes you, to share your story with the world. We need to increase the breadth and depth of our stories, so that we as a world have more experiences to learn, draw from, and connect to. Every story counts; you don't need to be famous to make impact on this world.
By giving yourself permission to own and share your story, your true and lived experiences on this Earth (good and bad), you help yourself and your community. For yourself, storytelling allows you to feel gratitude for what you have, to understand that every moment is there to prepare you for what you are meant to do in this life. Storytelling empowers you by taking your moments and expressing them externally, so that you can evaluate and reflect on your life from a more objective lens. For community, stories are like mirrors, showing us our blind spots and how we can overcome them. Stories show us exactly where we are in the journey of life, and where we might end up in the future. Stories represent love and possibility, the things we can create if we believed in and trusted ourselves. Stories are powerful.
When I have encouraged people to share their story, whether in-person or online (e.g. blogging, YouTube), the initial reaction is often resistance, such as "Why me? Why now?" or "I don't think it's good enough." From personal experience, I can say it is absolutely untrue. A special moment from this year comes to mind, when a stranger changed my life. We were outside, sitting beside each other, and he could tell I was in a lot of emotional pain. He asked me how I was doing, and I was retreating into my body, scared to share what I really thought: I was lost and frightened by so much uncertainty in my life. And from his own volition, he made the choice to help me, to share his authentic and courageous story: a lifelong struggle with depression and abuse. He spoke about the lows and the highs, and the sacrifices he had to make in order to get to where he was now. I was in awe; never would have I expected to hear those words out of his mouth. He had an air of confidence and poise and seemed invincible from the outside. I felt so honoured that he let me into his world, letting down his guard to share his truth. It was this moment that made me realize that I wanted to do the same for others.
As an educator, we spent most of our days telling stories. In fact, when you think about knowledge, it is mainly transferred through the medium of stories. Schools, conferences, documentaries, and blogs are stories packaged in different forms. However, there seems to be a growing cynicism of schools as the vehicle for knowledge. Many people are opting for self-learning instead, such as YouTube and entrepreneurship, and avoiding the brick-and-mortar schools entirely. I would argue that it isn't that schools are ineffective in themselves, but that we are sharing the wrong stories. We share stories that we don't really mean, and our students can see that; they can see how little we believe in what we teach. The new generation craves and needs the stories that actually matter, the authentic and courageous ones.
As a Department Head for Executive Functions, I spend my days teaching middle school students about human nature. Drawing wisdom from the psychology courses I took in university, I teach students the nature of learning, to understand how their brain works. I focus on the soft skills they need to empower themselves, such as stress management, goal setting, and mindfulness. These ideas are what students need to be happy and resilient, yet we don't teach them explicitly in schools. I feel very privileged to be teaching at a school where I am able to co-create with my colleagues to teach what matters.
When I first started, I taught these courses from a science perspective, focused on the research. I was quoting peer-reviewed journals left and right and sharing books and videos from conferences. This year, I decided to take a different approach: to merge the strength of research with the connection of storytelling by sharing my own story. My story is one of a ten-year struggle with depression from elementary through high school, reaching out to teachers and feeling that I wasn't been seen or understood. I spoke about the journey I took to save myself, to learn about self-awareness through psychology: observing, understanding, and embracing the human condition so that any obstacle can be conquered. I spoke about the teacher who did save my life, who held the space for me to be vulnerable, especially during those years of bullying and loneliness. It was the fullest story of myself I had ever shared in my history as an educator.
In my classroom, I chose authenticity and courage and because of it, I can see my students changing; our conversations are no longer laced with platitudes and illusions of perfection, but with the raw honesty and potential of their voice. They share their hopes and fears, they ask the questions they have always wanted to ask, and from these experiences, we are building a community grounded in self-awareness and self-love. They are learning that it is okay to feel, not just happiness but also sadness, and to ask for help. We are beginning to have the conversations that matter.
If you are reading this blog and feeling heartened by the stories I've shared with you, give back. Choose to own your story without judgment and to share it with others. Believe that your story matters and that you are the best one to tell it. Choose to be brave, to light the path for others. Your story matters, right here, right now.