Storytelling at Work
April 30, 2021
Is That So?

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Once upon a time, many years ago, before the invention of Starbucks, Velcro, or Fructose, there lived a humble monk in a remote monastery in China. His name was Wan Loo and he was much beloved by everyone he met, dedicated, as he was to realizing the highest truth with every fiber of his being.

Every morning, he meditated with the other monks in the Central Hall, then ate breakfast, washed his bowl, and worked in the garden for the rest of the day, taking brief moments now and again to read the sutras and teach calligraphy to the younger monks. Life was simple for Wan Loo. And very fulfilling. He couldn't have imagined a better life.

One day, in the 17th year of his monastic life, while cultivating radishes in the upper garden, he found himself being approached by the venerable Abbot and three of the local townspeople -- a husband, wife, and their very pregnant 16-year old daughter.

"That's him!" the girl cried out, pointing to the monk "He's the one who did this to me! Him!"

Wan Loo, still weeding the radishes, looked up slowly, smiled, and uttered just three words: "Is that so?"

And with that, the Abbot, a stern expression on his face, began to speak. "It is time for you to leave the monastery, young man. It is time. You have broken one of our most sacred vows. Now go!"

And just like that, Wan Loo was exiled from the only home he had ever known.

For the next five years, he lived in a small hut far away from the monastery. Each day he woke at 4:00 am, meditated, and then from dawn to dusk, dug graves in a nearby cemetery to make the money he needed to buy milk for the little boy the people of the region had now come to call "the young monk's son."

Wan Loo continued with his life. He never complained. He never took a day off. And he never stopped meditating.

Then, one summer day, in the fifth year of his exile, while cultivating a few tomato plants just outside his hut, he looked up and saw the young girl, her parents, the Abbot, and the now five-year old boy all standing over him.

"Mother and father," began the young girl, in between tears. "The time has come for me to speak the truth. It was not the monk. It was a boy I met in the fish market. He was the one. He is the father of my son."

Big silence. Big, big silence. No one spoke, The young monk just sat there, looking up, a ripe tomato in his left hand.

"Is that so?" he said.

Adapted from an ancient Zen story

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 08:30 PM | Comments (0)

April 21, 2021
The Dream Letter

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Stories, like air and most people's discomfort with their driver's license photo, are omnipresent. Stories are everywhere, even in our dreams.

Deconstruct any dream and you will find story, the narrative our subconscious mind conjures up even while we are sleeping. Yes, our body may be asleep, but our mind is not, continuing the saga of our lives. We are late night scribes, it seems, purveyors of tales that need to be told, at least to ourselves.

What follows is a story I dreamed, one night, early in my 29-year marriage to the extraordinary Evelyne Pouget -- a marriage that has recently come to an end. Ah... the dream of it all!

The scene opens with Evelyne and I in what seems to be a classroom at her Guru's ashram. We are both sitting behind wooden desks, which are neatly arranged behind a number of other desks, all in rows. Each of us are handed "test books" so we can write our answers to a question that has not yet been asked. I look to my right, where Evelyne is sitting, and notice that her test book looks very different than mine. Hers is an elegantly bound brown leather tome with embossed designs on the cover. As she turns the pages, I can see that each one contains a line of sanskrit, with space below it for her answers to be written.

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Mine is a plain-looking "blue book", the kind my college professors used to hand out before exams. It is bound together with staples and there's a place for my name on the cover.

The topic we are being asked to write about? The Motherhood and Fatherhood of God. That's it. Nothing else. There is no fine print beneath that sentence, no word length, no time limit, no detailed instructions. Just write about The Motherhood and Fatherhood of God. That's it.

I open my booklet to begin writing, but notice there's a piece of paper in the front of it -- one with all the answers. But I don't want anyone else's answers. I want to write my own. So I raise my hand and someone comes to take the answer page away. As I do, I notice, that Evelyne's Guru has begun slowly descending a staircase -- one I cannot see from where I'm sitting. I continue watching. Twenty seconds later, her Guru reappears, holding, in her right hand, a glass with some mint green powder on the bottom of it. Then she fills the glass with water and hands it to me to drink. I do. Then I complete my test.

The next thing I know, I am being handed a sealed envelope with Evelyne's test scores in it. On the back are two words. Just two: "Support Evelyne."

Then the scene changes. I am standing in a forest. It is green, dense, and very ancient. I am alone. There are no paths, no signposts, and no one to ask for directions. Letter in hand, I begin walking. Off in the distance, I see the vague outline of what seems to be a hut. I keep walking until I arrive. I do not knock. I just turn the doorknob and enter. The door is open.

In front of me, to my left, is a wooden staircase, going up, it's stairs well-worn. To my right, I see six young men, who I assume to be some kind of security force. Thin, pale, and silent, they seem to be yogis. All I am doing is standing there, letter in hand. I glance at them and they glance at me. Their thoughts, which I can read, are telling me to stop, but there is no power in them, no conviction, no life. It was, as if, they were performing some kind of ritual they don't completely understand. The more I look at them, the more I see they are not really yogis at all -- merely New Age, suburban pretenders, trying too hard to be holy. I walk past them, without a word, and ascend the staircase.

At the top, there is a room, a small room, some kind of sanctuary. Evelyne is standing in the middle of the room, waiting. I walk forward and hand her the letter. Then I wake up.

FOR YOUR REFLECTION: Some spiritually-minded people, including Australian aborigines, claim the world is just a dream -- that it's not real, even if the dream seems real. Lao Tzu, the great Chinese sage once dreamed he was a butterfly, but confessed to not knowing whether he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man.

If there's anything certain, it's this: nothing is certain. The stories we dream and end up telling are our best attempts at making sense of our life experiences. Are they real? Only if we believe them. Can they be interpreted differently? Of course they can. Does this mean your life is a dream? Or, perhaps more accurately, does it mean that you are dreaming your life and then telling stories to help you make sense of your dream. Who knows? The fact is this: you have a choice -- and so do I -- about what stories we dream and what stories we tell.

What is the most memorable dream YOU have ever had and who might benefit from you telling it?

"Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes." - Carl Jung

I was awakened from the dream by this man
Photo: Ryul Davidson, Unsplash

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 02:45 PM | Comments (0)

When It's Time to Move On

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There is a moment in everyone's life when all the cards are on the table, all the chips, too -- the moment of truth when the entire universe is conspiring to call one's attention to the choice we have every single second of the day to let go of our past and move towards what is truly calling us, even if we have no idea where it will lead.

One such moment happened for me in 1969, during my first and only semester as a graduate student at Brown University's prestigious MFA Creative Writing Program.

Like most long-haired, sallow-cheeked, Vietnam-phobic seekers of truth whose depression-imprinted parents would have much preferred him to have chosen law, medicine, or teeth over poetry, I found myself, at the ripe old age of 22, majorly existentially challenged -- sleeping 12 hours a day, posting my newly minted poems on trees at midnight, and feverishly reading Rilke, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams just in case the conversation turned thusly with any number of my far more well-read poetry professors engaging me in literary conversations at any number of ultra hip parties that I kept getting invited to -- the kind of heady gatherings where Kurt Vonnegut and other traveling bards kept showing up, laugh lines around their eyes unable to mask a lifetime's worth of sadness, disappointment, and despair.

It was at one of these Ivy League soirees, emboldened by drinking and smoking more than I should have that I found myself consumed with a burning question rising from deep inside me -- the kind of question that, if left unspoken, everything I ended up writing from that moment forward would be nothing more than a clever overcompensation for my inability to speak my truth now.

Approaching my first professor, large glass of cheap red wine in my right hand, I let the question fly: "If you could be anywhere in the world, at this precise moment in time, where would you be?"

"Hmmm..." Professor #1 replied, dramatically pausing and looking to the ceiling in case a beautiful co-ed was standing nearby, "excellent question! Let me see... if I could be anywhere in the world at this precise moment in time where would it be? Well... that would be Baja California. Definitely Baja California. I love it there."

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Nodding and doing my bearded graduate student best not to bump into anyone as I made my way across the suddenly tilting-to-the-left room, I spotted my second professor, an unhappily married, hammock-bellied, minor poet of a man who, I knew, had been, for the past few weeks, hitting on the same unhappily married shopkeeper in town that I was.

"Guatemala," he blurted. "Definitely Guatemala, especially the small village whose name I can't, for the life of me, remember -- a village just 15 miles outside the capital city. Love that place!"

Fueled as I was by what was now emerging as a definable pattern of response from my professors, I quickly found my way to the bar where Professor #3 was holding court, a large hummus stain on his too small polyester shirt.

"Where would I be if I could be anywhere in the world?" he repeated. "That's easy! The Pacific Northwest. How I love the rain and the fog! What a great place to write. You should definitely go there sometime, Mitch."

As I walked away, 22-year-old-knowingly, to the last of the lot, it began dawning on me that none of my so called mentors wanted to be where they were. All of them wanted to be SOMEWHERE ELSE -- a better place, a warmer place, a more exotic place. And here I was, restless, semi-depressed, aspiring to be just like them when, 20 years later, a wise-ass graduate student would be standing in this exact same room asking ME where I wanted to be and my answer, like those of my underpaid professors, would be SOMEWHERE ELSE.

Why not leave NOW while I could still get out of town? If I needed proof, I had all the proof I needed. Four professors. Four questions. Four of the same responses.

I slept very well that night and the next night, too.

When my Monday morning poetry class rolled around -- the one Professor #1 began by calling my name and noting with tenured gravitas that he wanted to SEE ME immediately after class -- a request that indicated only one thing -- the jig was up, that I, Mr-Attempt-to-Outstare-My-Professors-So-They-Would-Think-I-Knew-More-Than-I-Actually-Did, was about to be summarily kicked out of school, underwhelmed as my teachers were by the spotty quality of my work and the insidious ways in which Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Dylan Thomas kept leaking into my writing, not to mention the fact that I still had no clue why Wallace Stevens was such a big deal.

"Mr. Ditkoff," Professor #1 announced as the class emptied out, "the faculty and I... after much consideration... having reviewed your work carefully.... have decided... um....to give you a full teaching scholarship."

"Wow. That's interesting," I replied. "I quit."

"Quit?" he said. You can't quit. Don't you realize what you're being given here -- a totally free graduate school education at Brown University?"

"Like I said, sir. I quit. Thanks for the offer, but my education needs to happen somewhere else."

Which is exactly what happened.

Two days later, I was no longer a graduate student. Two weeks later I was living where I really wanted to live -- Cambridge, Massachusetts, and doing what I really wanted to do -- being a night desk clerk at a second rate hotel, plenty of time to read what I wanted to read, plenty of time to write what I wanted to write, and plenty of time to live the poetry of life, not just study it.

Clarity! Freedom! Choice! A bold step forward into the unknown!

It doesn't take a genius or a Professor at an ivy league university to figure out the moral of this little story. DO WHAT YOU WANT TO DO. LIVE WHERE YOU WANT TO LIVE. AND DO IT NOW, NOT LATER.

Time is passing. Life is too short to be living someone else's concept of it, too short to be living even your concept of it. There is something, beyond logic, beyond reason, beyond your ability to understand, that is calling you. Listen to it. Honor it. Trust it. What others might call "quitting" isn't really quitting at all -- it's letting go of the past, following your muse, and moving into the moment called NOW.

Your move.

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One of my books of poetry

Storytelling for the Revolution
Storytelling at Work
Teaching storytelling to second graders in an Islamic school
My personal website
My business website
Photo #2: Beatriz Gonzalez, Unsplash

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 01:33 AM | Comments (2)

April 19, 2021
What Have You Accomplished?

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Halfway through the 73rd year of my life, I find myself at a curious crossroads -- the intersection of WHO and WHAT, one of those strange intersections far out of town where the sagebrush rolls and the GPS signal is just out of range. In semi-self isolation in an Australian AirBB, I ask myself a question highly unlikely to make me the life of the party: "Have I done anything of significance these past 73 years?"

It's an age-old dilemma, methinks, a classic rite-of-passage -- the time when a man takes stock of himself and realizes his so called "portfolio" of accomplishments doesn't necessarily measure up to what he imagined it would one day be. And though I have always felt a breathtaking magnificence inside me, OUTWARDLY much of what I have expressed, in this life, seems to have been lost in translation -- not unlike a child's game of "telephone" where you whisper something to the person next to you and they, in turn, whisper it to the person next to them and so on and so forth around the circle until the last person blurts what they've heard -- a jumble of words not even remotely close to what it was the started the whole game.

Six months shy of 74, focused more, today, on the butterflies in my stomach than the ones that herald spring, I find myself looking in two directions at once. One is forward, trying to make out what I see with the time I have left. The other is backwards, trying to make sense of the forces that have brought me to this precise moment in time.

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What I see, behind me, is my father coming home from a long day's work. He's exhausted, unsettled, my mother greeting him with a martini and the officiousness of a 50's housewife, me tentatively approaching, receiving a quick hug and the all-too-familiar question my father routinely greeted me with: "What have you ACCOMPLISHED today?" -- a kind of Zen Cohen that always left me feeling I hadn't done enough.

Yes, I played roof ball and punch ball and kick ball and stick ball. And yes, I played with my dog and read the backs of my baseball cards. But did I accomplish anything? Did I do anything that really mattered?

The older I got, the more my father's accomplishment mantra embedded its way into my psyche, a kind of microscopic parasite a person might pick up on a quick trip to a third world country. And though I couldn't see it, I could FEEL it -- radiating outwards, driving me to DO, DO, DO -- moving me to create something I considered "significant" -- something meaningful enough I could sign my name to once and for all.

My friends, I think it is time for me (and maybe you) to answer the question my father used to ask. Ready?

IT'S THE WRONG QUESTION!

While the intention may be harmless, the act of being ruled by it is not. "The foolish man is always doing," said Lao Tzu, "yet much remains to be done. The wise man does nothing, yet nothing remains undone."

Kapish? In the end, there is nothing to do! Nothing to prove! Unless we can live fully in this present moment where everything is already perfect, our life will never be more than a programmed/neurotic/obsessive attempt to achieve -- a carrot dangled in front of us by the collective hallucination that we have never really done enough.

Guess what? We have.

Face it. There is absolutely nothing we can do that will ever be enough compared to the outcome we IMAGINE it should be. Maybe that's why Van Gogh cut off his ear. Maybe that's why countless creative souls drink too much and think too much. You see, the obsession with proving our worth is a losing game. First of all, the self does not need to be proven. It is ALREADY complete just the way it is. And second of all, there is no second of all.

THIS is the moment. THIS. NOW. HERE. Just the way it is!

In the end, WHAT we do is way less important than HOW we do it. When that recognition dawns, joy replaces struggle, gratitude replaces complaint, and everything comes to us in its own, sweet time...

Prem Rawat's Lockdown talks

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 05:31 AM | Comments (1)

April 09, 2021
The Whirlpool of Life's Play

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Last year, my finances were in the toilet. No matter how much effort I made to get gigs, nothing was happening. This was the time I was heading back to Woodstock, from San Miguel, to get my house ready to sell. Anyway, after much effort being made and no results showing up, I realized I needed to totally let go. So I did. I entered the "What Will Be Will Be" space -- not just as a ploy for the universe to come around to my way of thinking, but as a deep recognition that my well-being did not depend on money or work or any of that stuff.

Four days passed. Then the phone rang.

It was someone from the Whirlpool Corporation, who had found my name in a google search and was calling to see if I was available to do an innovation-sparking workshop for them. Usually, these kinds of requests take at least 3-6 months to turn into anything, so, although I was glad I had a potential gig, I didn't get all that excited. Then, the client told me they wanted the session in TWO weeks (in just enough time to pay my daughter's final month's college tuition).

Standing in the kitchen as I was, and increasingly curious, I walked over to the dishwasher to see what brand it was. Surprise, surprise, it was a WHIRLPOOL -- and I happily told my new client that, right then and there. That's when she asked me what MODEL it was. So I bent down, looked again, and told her.

"MY TEAM DESIGNED THAT MODEL" she told me. "The dishwasher in your kitchen was made by my team."

Once again, I was humbled (and amazed) at how perfect this whole play of life is.

Mitch Ditkoff
Storytelling for the Revolution
Idea Champions

PHOTO: unsplash-logoIzzie R

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 05:28 PM | Comments (0)

April 08, 2021
On Reading an Audience

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Astrologers read stars. Meteorologists read weather. Palm readers read palms. And storytellers? They read people. At least, good storytellers do. No matter how many times they have told a story, the way they tell it depends on the subtle cues they are picking up (or not) from their audience. Attuned to the signals their listeners are putting out, good storytellers adapt and adjust their delivery accordingly.

Simply put, storytelling is a lot like dancing. It is alive and dynamic. It is not a static art form, not a canned speech, not the repetition of memorized words. Rather, it is an in-the-moment expression designed to move people. And while it is true that, just like dancing, there are steps, patterns, and structures to be mindful of, the difference between a good story and a great story is often a function of the storyteller's ability to improvise.

How does this spontaneity happen? What is the responsive storyteller paying attention to in order to make the kind of subtle adjustments needed to ensure their story truly has impact?

In a phrase, the in-the-moment feedback being communicated by their listeners -- the subtle cues and signals their audience sends, whether it is one person across a kitchen table or a thousand people in an auditorium. The more the storyteller is able to sense this feedback and adapt, the more successful their storytelling becomes.

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What kind of feedback are we talking about? Primarily, two kinds: facial expressions and body language -- the unspoken signals people put out that express their responsiveness (or lack thereof) to what they are seeing, hearing, and feeling.

Like head nods, for example. Like smiles and frowns. Like the way a person looks or doesn't look... or where they look... like the way a person leans forward or backward in their chair... or folds their arms.. or rolls their eyes... or grunts... or sneaks a glance at their cell phone.

All of it matters. All of it communicates its own story to the storyteller.

The more storytellers are able to pick up on these cues, the more they are able to adjust the dynamics of their delivery: How fast to talk, or how slow. Whether to pause, or not, and when. How dramatic to make their voice. When to move. When to be still. When to elaborate on a detail that has caught the audience's fancy. When to dig deeper into a specific plot point. And when to move on.

If you, as a storyteller, are nervous, self-absorbed, seeking approval, or impatient for the whole thing to be over, it will be very difficult to pick up on the signals coming your way. You won't truly be with your audience. While you may be physically inhabiting the same space, metaphysically you will be somewhere else -- off in your own world. Will real communication have taken place? Will the depth of the message you were hoping to convey have landed? Highly doubtful.

Words may have been spoken. Characters may have been introduced. Points may have been made. But the real story will have gone untold.

Excerpted from this book
Photo: Antenna on Unsplash

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 07:16 AM | Comments (0)

ABOUT THE BLOG

Storytelling at Work is a blog about the power of personal storytelling – why it matters and what you can do to more effectively communicate your stories – on or off the job. Inspired by the book of the same name, the blog features "moment of truth" stories by the author, Mitch Ditkoff, plus inspired rants, quotes, and guest submissions by readers.

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Storytelling for the Revolution is Mitch Ditkoff's newly published book about the power of personal storytelling to elevate the conversation on planet Earth. Provocative. Evocative. And fun. YOU have stories to tell. This book will help you tell them.
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"The world is not made of atoms," wrote the poet, Muriel Rukeyser. "It's made of stories." Learn how to discover, honor, and unpack the stories of yours that show up "on the job" in Mitch Ditkoff's award-winning 2015 book, Storytelling at Work.
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