My Backstory & How We Develop Talents

September 27, 2018

I’ve heard backstory expert, Mark Levy, speak several times over multiple years.  The light bulb didn’t go off in my mind regarding my backstory until a month ago – thanks to a conversation with Nancy Cramer.  Much appreciated Nancy (a colleague who has helped me with a few key concepts over the years)!

Although my backstory is a bit longer than I’d like for this newsletter, I’m posting it anyway.  It’s a good example of how skills are derived and helps to explain where my talent for maximizing multiple variables came from.  

(None of these pictures are of me.  However, I will share a video of my junior high ice skating video after my friend and colleague, Susan Brunasso transfers it to a digital file for me.

My parents grew up during the depression.  Because my mom had to work various jobs from an early age and had an busy daily schedule (taking multiple buses an hour into the city, going to school, going to work, taking buses back home, performing other jobs, studying into the middle of the night and starting all over again), she wanted us to have all the opportunities she didn’t.  Thus, I grew up with an amazing childhood that included a wide variety of activities.

My mom signed me up for everything.  And, I grew up believing that I could be good at whatever I put effort into – whether it was competitive ice skating, tennis, ballet, chess, pottery class, bowling, painting and more.  My dad was also involved.  I think he is the only parent who made games of catching stop lights at 5am while driving me to skating, swim team or somewhere else.

Some activities I enjoyed more than others.  And, I gave everything a ‘go’.  For example, I finished out a few swim team seasons before deciding I really didn’t enjoy jumping into cold water at 6 or 7am and swimming countless laps.  With that said, I was glad I passed the most advanced swim test – where you swim with your clothes on for survival training – because I knew I could.

On the other hand, I loved softball.  I waited for my dad to get home to play catch every day (and even enticed my best friend into playing catch on countless occasions and am sure she preferred to do something else).  I eventually switched to other activities where I could succeed longer-term and carry them forward throughout life.  But, the bottom line is I knew I could try new things and eventually find a path to some sort of success – similar to business, there are always additional options and avenues for finding success.

I succeeded and failed many times over and learned to “keep going”, certainly a secret ingredient to business success as well!  Although I succeeded in winning several ice skating competitions, I also fell in front of a row of judges – more than once. It was a great learning experience, and I enjoyed it. On the other end of the spectrum, I also played count Dracula in a Christmas ice show which stretched my creative powers (or lack thereof) to be sure.  No matter the challenge, my parents assumed I could do it – and so did I.

I ended up giving up skating as I went into high school as it is quite costly and requires an immense commitment which was no longer reasonable as I entered the new phase of life.  This happens in business as well, where one of your most successful products or services runs its course and you need to know when to jump S curves.

In my case, I took on tennis so that I could play with the high school team and focus on an evergreen activity (of course, that was more my mom and aunts’ thinking at the time because what 13 year old cares about when they turn 50?).  My mom thought ahead and knew that for me to make the team, I’d have to speed up my improvement . So, she signed me up for indoor tennis classes in the winter in Chicago – a great way to leap forward. In Raleigh, she also signed me up for indoor tennis, and it worked!  I made the tennis team, played in the singles lineup and won “most improved” one year. I see this as quite similar in business – those who find ways to improve while the competition is resting succeed. Similar to chess, you have to think 3 moves ahead! Also, my relatives’ long-term thinking paid off, as I have been hanging out at the Claremont Club to take lessons and play with a group whenever I am in town. After all, you know what they say about all work and no play!

Fast-forward many years – it turns out that my best talent is in maximizing multiple variables in businesses and seeing down-the-line impacts others don’t.  I have no doubt that this directly correlates to my unique activity-filled childhood.  Clearly, my parents are to thank for my success today!

One tip to implement this week:
As I said, it took me years, thinking off and on, about my backstory before the light bulb went on.  So you shouldn’t expect to figure out yours in a day (although I’m sure someone will, if nothing else to show me up:-)).   Perhaps this is a good time start to think about your talents. What are they? How do you utilize them? Or how could you utilize them? Also, take some time to think about your employees, peers and leaders.  What are their talents? There is no doubt that success occurs by building on strengths. Perhaps you should think harder about yours….

What is your backstory?

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