True Story

Recently, I gave a speech to a group of small business owners with the Plumbing Heating and Cooling Contractors Association of Washington (PHCC-WA).  One consistent challenge that seems to ring out across every industry that I have encountered as a speaker, is the difficulty with motivating and relating to younger generations.  At the end of the speech I asked the group what some of their greatest challenges were with getting young people involved in trades.  Two big responses that stuck out to were:

  • “Schools still promote college as the only viable pathway to a financially secure and socially respectable, future.”
  • “I had one kid leave in the middle of a job without telling anyone.  He called an Uber and just left.  Zero communication.”

My jaw dropped a little on both of these responses.  There was also a third response that I think has a lot for all of us to consider as adults:

  • “I’m trying to look at the world from the perspective of kids growing up in this current time.”

This is massively important…

Paradigm, Perspective, Lens, Viewpoint, etc.  I like using the word ‘Story’ to encapsulate all of these words.  For me, ‘your story’ or ‘our stories’, represent how we think the world works.  This is informed by many factors that we can call ‘social conditioning’.  Family life, social circles, education, politics, culture, media etc.  All of these entities are communicating some story, about some part of the world, at some point in our lives.  Probably with the hope that we will then act according to that story.  I think that’s how persuasive marketing works.  It builds the case for the consumer buying a product by creating a compelling story around the use of the product.

For this post, we have to understand that stories have characters and characters play roles that are predictable.  The characters in my story are predictable because I’m the one who writes the story… it’s my perspective.  The challenge comes when the characters deviate from the pattern that has become cemented in my mind.  Examples:

  • “I never thought my wife would cheat on me!  That’s not who I new her to be!”
  • “I can’t believe they won’t refund my money!  Don’t they know the customer is always right!”
  • “I got my degree on time and made good grades!  I can’t believe I can’t find a high paying job in my field!”

The disorientation in these statements comes from a set of unmet expectations.  When I was in college, you wore a suit and tie to every interview and you had a portfolio with multiple copies of your resume, cover letter, and transcripts.  You were early on your first day of work and you definitely communicated if you were not going to be on time.  You were nervous about the impression you were making in those first 6-12 months on the job.  We expect that young adults in their late teens and 20’s will operate with the same paradigm (‘story’) around career and we become frustrated when they don’t.  Frustration is fine, but insistence is deadly.

If you insist that your story is the one true way to operate in life, you risk alienating yourself from everyone else.  As soldiers in Afghanistan, we grew beards and tried to learn the language because it shows respect, builds rapport, and allows a dialogue that could lead to a mutually beneficial solution. If we chose to insist upon the ‘American Way’ that can lead to all sorts of difficulty accomplishing the mission as we lose relational capital with the people we need to help us achieve strategic objectives. The same is true in business. That hard nose plumber that’s been in the game for 25 years can fixate on the ‘back in my day’ mentality and remain beholden to an old paradigm that young people can’t relate to. Or, that plumber can do as mentioned above… try to see what motivates these kids and understand how they organize the world (their ‘story’) and begin to tap into the talent that they bring to the table. Of course, the later takes a fair amount of humility and emotional control as one has to recognize that their story is no longer valid for the time/situation. Managing the ensuing disorientation can be energy consuming but, managing a dying business that has become irrelevant can also be energy consuming. Which problem would you rather have?

As with all my messages, there is a broader principle being worked out here in a specific example:

  • Are you headed toward a physical breakdown because you won’t release an invalid story? “It’s my family’s genetics. There’s nothing I can do!”
  • Are you headed towards financial ruin because of fear of releasing an old story? “We don’t need a budget! We don’t spend that much money except for splurging during the holidays…”
  • Are you headed towards emotional catastrophe because you won’t deal in reality? “I know it’s been 5 years but he’ll change eventually. I know it! He loves me too much!”

I think it’s okay to have a story. Just make sure to hold it with and open hand because characters change and reality has something beneficial to teach us all.

-Travis

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