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Finding the magic in the middle of your story

Stoimg_0016-250x250ries have beginning, middles, and ends.

Last week, we talked about exploring the beginning of your story, the Origin Story. This week we’re going to explore the middle.

The beginning sets up our hero’s challenge. The ending resolves it. Yet the middle is where the hero has to work things out, struggle and develop character.

For those us creating a story about our lives and the quest for our dreams, the middle is where we’re going to spend most of our time.

The stage when we’re most likely to be lost.

Traveling through the fog

rapunzel wide

At the start of the hero’s journey, there’s a call to action. That’s the sexy, exciting part, when the air stands still for a moment and you, the hero, are filled with a deep sense of purpose. The call may be subtle or it may knock you off your seat. It may have been years in the making, or hit you like a thunderbolt.

At this stage, you may be scared, confused, or ecstatic, but it almost doesn’t matter: you’ve seen the light and, for a moment, you have all the energy you need to move forward.

Fast forward a little and now you’re in the middle of your journey. Middles aren’t so sexy. The sense of possibility that inspired you just a few months ago has faded. A fog has settled over everything and the path is no longer clear. And obstacles are popping up everywhere, threatening to ruin everything.

Your best friend looks at you cross-wise and says “Huh?” as you describe your dream. The radio pundits predict a terrible recession just as you’re beginning to job hunt. A potential client says “not now” to your great ideas. Competitors spring up out of nowhere. And your computer, which was aging-but-doing-just-fine-thank-you, bites the dust.

You’re only a few steps along this new path you’ve chosen and that familiar specter called doubt is walking beside you, telling you, “It doesn’t matter – it’s OK to turn back”.

Welcome to the middle of your journey – where experiencing obstacles, conflicts and doubt comes with the terrain.

Dreams get anchored during the middle passage of your journey

Maybe it would be fun to jump to the end of your story when everything (hopefully) comes together. But that would be BORING! Because in the hero’s journey or any great story framework, conflict and tension build the drama needed to hold our attention.

The middle of the story is where the hero discovers her true character.

She faces the gremlins and finds her depth. She learns to survive and is transformed – whether she gets the golden apple at the end or not.

Hold on to your dreams, while slogging through the “middle muddle”

It helps a lot to have a friend, a listener, or a coach helping you remember what you’re about when you’re at risk or forgetting.  As a story coach, my role is to help my clients recognize the through-line of the stories they are living.

I coached a woman who spent six years fruitlessly looking for jobs and contracts during the great recession. By the time I met with her, she had exhausted her money, and felt humiliated to tell her friends the real truth of her situation. She was wiped.

Listening to her story (which was understandably whine-y to start), I heard some deep undercurrents. This woman was a dynamo. Despite the set-backs, she was still determined.  She was doing what Brené Brown recommends in her great new book Rising Strong: getting back up and staying the course.

Putting her challenges into a story framework, they became the tests that heroes have to overcome in the middle of their journeys. We shifted the frame around her story from failure to fortitude. She hadn’t given up. She had battled the inner dragons of pride and developed a resilience that would serve her in the future. (Happy ending: she accepted a great assignment soon thereafter.)

Five ways to build resilience during the middle part of your journey

Find the gold in your Origin Story
Developing your Origin Story about your past, and distilling the experiences, interests, values, competencies and gifts you’re carrying, creates a strong foundation for you to stand on. You’ve met adversity before and come through. You’re road tested. You have great skills.

Amplify your vision: Dance your dreams

Visions come in different ways to different folks, sometimes as clear goals, sometimes as a subtle inklings. Sometimes dreams only become really visible as we walk the road towards them.

Your dreams, visions, and goals can powerfully draw you towards the future you want, but only if they stay vibrant and heart-felt. Just having a vision statement on the wall isn’t enough – you have to feel it in your bones.

That’s where the creative arts can be so handy, supporting you to express your vision in multiple modalities. Choose what inspires you. Put on a great song and dance your vision. Take a run with it and then write. Or bring out those fun art supplies and draw it, paint it, or make a collage.

Bringing our imaginations into play anchors our vision into new parts of our brains and our bodies. Like the athlete who trains the right plays into her body so she doesn’t have to think about them during the game, you want your biggest hopes lodged in your body – to call upon when things get tough.

Create an emerging road map

Forget mapping your five year plan – you need a trail guide for the next few months while you’re still bushwhacking your road up the mountain. Choose a few markers (no more than five) to site on that will keep you tracking as you begin the climb. Your big goal – the mountain top –  may disappear from view, but the markers will orient you and help you measure your progress,

Choose a wise mentor

In many heroic journeys, there’s a wise mentor who shows up along the way. He may be an elder, who knows the ways of the path (think Obi-Wan Kenobi in Stars Wars). He may be a trickster who shakes up what you knew but guides you into the realizations you need (think of the karate master in the Karate Kid). Or she may be a good friend or coach who can listen your dreams into being.

As a pilgrim on the path, take the help!  You don’t have to do it alone.

Take time out and reflect

The road may be bumpy, and you’ll need to keep (or build) energy for the long haul. That’s why you’ll want to take time out for reflection, renewal or to tune yourself up. For me, that renewal comes from meditation and remembering my relationship with the eternal. For you, it might come from that or a great hike, time off, a long run, or…. Pick what renews you.

No matter how many mistakes you make, or how much doubt, uncertainty, or hubris you encounter, never forget the great soul that you are.

In the end, the resolution of the hero’s journey isn’t always bringing home the golden apple. The true triumph may be dropping into yourself and becoming more of who you were meant to be.

4 Responses

  1. As always, Sally, I am dazzled and inspired by the elegance, eloquence and relevance of your writing. The focus of this post on ‘the middle of the story’ is particularly rich in both the reality of the challenges of the middle, and also in the quality of your responses to those challenges.

    This may be off the mark in terms of your purpose, but I’ve been intrigued with John Hagel’s distinction between stories and narratives:

    “Stories are self-contained – they have a beginning, a middle and an end. Narratives on the other hand are open-ended – the outcome is unresolved, yet to be determined. Second, stories are about me, the story-teller, or other people; they are not about you. In contrast, the resolution of narratives depends on the choice you make and the actions you take – you will determine the outcome.”

    This distinction is seemingly more relevant within the context of an organization, or some other more complex social entity. However, I wonder whether we might also find merit in seeing ourselves as a sources and/or supporters of a larger narrative?

    Whatcha think, dear one?

    1. Yes Hagel makes that distinction. In my storytelling world, the two words are used pretty interchangeably.

      In The Difference between Story and Narrative
      Written by editor on March 21, 2013 by Steven R. Corman from the CSC he writes:

      A presentation by John Hagel, Chairman of Deloitte, at the recent SXSW conference has been getting a lot of play in the blogosphere. In it, Hagel advocates differentiating story from narrative. While he is right to draw the distinction and gets some of the differences right, he misses some key features of narratives that explain why they can be so persuasive.

      In his presentation, Hagel notes the power of stories for engaging audiences, but says they have limited power because of their closed-ended nature. They have a beginning, middle and end. Once a story resolves, it is more or less over. It is also more about the people in the story than about the listener. It can be retold and serve as an example, but beyond that there is limited opportunity for members of an audience to engage it.

      Narratives are different, Hagel says, for two reasons. First, they are open-ended—they do not have a resolution. Second, they have an implicit “invitation to participate,” which allows listeners to play a role in what the outcome is going to be. “There is something that is in the process of unfolding. The end is yet to be determined. And…there is an invitation for all of us to participate in that narrative, to help determine what the outcome is going to be,” he says.

      But Corman goes on to say the stories don’t have to be closed ended – and that a narrative is really a system of stories. You might be interested in the article, Bill, because he’s also talking on the level of larger systems where you like to play.

      For myself, I talk about “larger cultural narratives” and I also talk about “reinventing the story of working after 60” (which is not a closed-ended chapter). THe later will contain lots of micro-storeis within it.

      Thanks so much for your provocative question, Bill.

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