How many of us have secretly felt, from time to time, like we were frauds in our professions?
In 1978, Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes coined the term “imposter syndrome” to describe high achieving individuals who worried that they were frauds, who were someday going to be “found out”.
In a similar vein, Dr. Stephen Brookfield shocked me when he described how many adult educators he surveyed (like me!), believed they were imposters, despite enormous experience, credentials and competence.
Maybe we raise the bar too high on ourselves. Or fear that we won’t meet the next big challenge. Then there’s always someone we know who really knows what they’re doing, whereas we…
If experienced professionals can doubt their credibility, what happens to folks who are just starting out in a profession, re-entering the labor force, shopping for a different kind of job, or making a major transition?
How do we paint the case that our life story has cohesion, despite the many times we’ve been challenged, felt confused or been stalled?
How do we claim the special credibility we have for just doing the work we’re passionate about – the work we’re meant to be doing – what Stephen Cope calls our dharma, or The Great Work of our Lives?
How do we show that life has prepared us, in varied ways, for the future we’re creating?
We can start by finding the beauty hidden in our Origin Story.
Finding the power within your past
By identifying patterns in our past, we can build a compelling narrative about where we’re going.
My colleague Jeff Rock, of Swift River Coaching, uses the Origin Story as the bedrock of his career coaching practice. He says:
“The Origin Story is the part of your narrative that tells how you came to be the person you are. It’s your backstory with all its twists and turns. Your Origin Story reflects the milestones in your life, times at cross roads, paths chosen or paths forced. Your Origin Story is as unique as your DNA or fingerprints.”
As a kid, I was a wanderer. My family loved to tell the story about the day my grandparents found me, aged four, standing on the corner of a busy intersection several blocks from my home. My worried grandmother asked, “What for heaven’s sakes, are you doing, child?” To me, it was obvious. I told her, “Well, you’ve just got to know people.”
At four, I was off to see the world. At twenty-six, I became a sociologist, and worked in fourteen countries. I smile when I think about it now: it’s as though being fascinated by people and groups was in my DNA.
Your Origin Story is not the full story you’ll use to present yourself to the world through your bio, presentations or social media. It’s a powerful backdrop that shows your authenticity, passion and commitment to what you care about – and can separate you from the crowd.
Using your story to change your script
Sometimes life hands us scripts that are limiting. “You should be an accountant, not an artist.” “You should settle down and have a family.” “You’ll never go to college.” “Stop working with your hands, or you’ll never make something of yourself.”
Ouch. Labels and judgments hurt. They cause us to doubt ourselves.
Jeff says that many of his clients come to him needing to recover from bully bosses and abusive workplaces. They’ve been told stories about themselves that eroded their confidence and sense of what they could contribute.
He helps them reclaim their true stories.
Why having a story listener helps
Often, the pearls in our origin story are right in front of us ready to be harvested, but we might not be able to see them. Having a witness, a coach or a story listener can help us sort through our competing stories, identify what is true and powerful, and decide what parts of our story-past we want to leave behind. Listeners who aren’t burdened by the emotions of our past (even though those emotions are powerful places to explore!), can help us see gold we might otherwise miss.
Approach your story as an artist
Examining your past, you’ll find lots of data – but don’t get bogged in analysis. Instead, approach it like an artist. Look for patterns and possibilities, choose what to highlight (not everything about your past is relevant!) and what to ignore. Pay special attention to what has emotion, heart or meaning to you. (Those are the parts where your story comes alive!)
While the process of examining the past may be therapeutic, this isn’t therapy. You don’t have to examine or understand everything. You’re building a story.
Questions to get you started
- Parents: What did your parents do and have their choices influenced you? What did they expect of you? What parts of your parents and their choices can you see in yourself? Where did you want to prove them wrong?
- Place: Where were you born and raised? How did where you lived influence you?
- Turning points and people: What were key turning points for you? Critical incidents? People who changed your life?
- Interests: What did you love? What talents did you have? What did you dream of doing when you grew up?
- Successes: Describe a time when you were working and things were going really well.
- Misfits: Describe a time when you were working and things were not going well or you did not fit the situation; work or circumstances you didn’t like.
- Challenges: What were the biggest challenges you had to overcome? And what did you learn as a result?
- Peak moments: When did you feel most alive? Passionate? Engaged? Successful?
- Patterns: What patterns do you see in your work/life. What have you been drawn to?
- Learning: What did you study? Is there any relationship with this and the work you are drawn to do?
Sharing your story with the world
Your distilled story is a great way to interest potential clients, employers or an audience on social media.
One client of mine, a mining industry exec, worked on his backstory with me. His origin story, amplified with degrees and experience, boils down to this: “I was born into the world of mining”. When he shares about the summers he spent as a toddler playing in a mining camp, he pulls you in. You know that underneath his degrees and experience, this guy has a passion for his industry. It’s in his bones.
That’s when credibility becomes undeniable. And we, as artists, can paint that picture through our origin story.