Storytelling at Work
May 13, 2020
The Island of the Fireflies


The year was 1981. Ronald Reagan was the U.S. President. Lady Diana had just married Prince Charles. And I had just landed a job, in Los Angeles, with the highly respected consulting firm, The Inner Game Corporation, who was on the brink of landing a big contract with Atari, the $900 million dollar maker of Pacman.

And so, as negotiations heated up, Inner Game's chief negotiator, the very savvy Prentiss Uchida, decided to sweeten the deal by promising Atari that we would deliver, in time for their upcoming computer summer camp, an interactive, make-you-own-adventure children's book that would teach young teens how to learn faster, the Inner Game way, with much less stress than ever before.

I was thrilled to hear that Prentiss had closed the deal. That is, until I found out who was going to be writing the book: me -- especially since the deadline was only 30 days away and I had never written a book before.

Thirty days didn't seem like all that much time to write a book, so I tracked down the only professional writer I knew, the co-author of Tron to get her take on the matter.

"Six months," Bonnie told me. "This is a six-month project. Don't even think of writing a book in a month. That would be completely insane."

But that's not what I wanted to hear. What I wanted to hear was "Hey, Mitch, anything's possible. Go for it!"

So I thanked Bonnie, returned to the office, and accepted the assignment.

The first thing I knew I needed to do was change my living situation. Sharing a house, as I was, with 10 other people was highly unlikely to yield the kind of concentration I needed to write a book, so I rented a cabin a few miles away.


The next thing I knew I needed to do was come up with the plot and a setting for the book, so I hustled on over to my nearest bookstore and bought an illustrated book about dwarves living underground. Why these dwarves were living underground, I hadn't the foggiest clue, but there was something about the illustrations and the idea of dwarves creating their own, invisible world that really knocked me out.

Upon returning to my cabin, I ripped the pages out of the book and taped them to the walls. Dwarves to the right of me. Dwarves to the left of me. Dwarves everywhere I looked.

Knowing time was short, I unplugged from everything I could think of -- shaving, sunlight, chit chat, friends, exercising, changing my clothes, asking people how they were doing, yoga, and a whole lot of other things I didn't have the time to plan unplugging from. Man on a mission, the world had suddenly became background noise, my focus having migrated elsewhere, though I couldn't tell you where.

Bottom line, I sat in my cabin for 30 days and 30 nights and did my thing -- a bouillabaisse of writing, staring out the window, thinking about writing, rewriting, editing, daydreaming, thinking about dwarves, making lists, making coffee, and wondering how I got into this predicament in the first place. Oh, and, for seven of those 30 days, I didn't sleep a wink. All-nighters. I pulled seven all-nighters

If my task had been to write a normal book, with a beginning, middle and end, that would have been one thing. But that was not my task. My task was to write a make-your-own-adventure book for the next generation of computer geeks -- a story with 28 alternate endings, each of which was supposed be informed by Inner Game's learning principles, none of which I completely understood.

I lived in my pajamas. I sat at my desk. I did not floss, cultivate friendships, garden, date, remember the date, read the sports section, debate politics, nap, or try save the world. Surrounded by dwarves and more than a few doubts, I found myself drifting further and further out to sea. The undertow? My strange fascination for attempting the impossible and the ever-approaching Atari deadline.

Yes, I was living alone, but I was not lonely, there being a house of ashram-dwelling women just a stone's throw away -- women who would show up, every day, with a tray of food and flowers.


Other people, too, would show up at my door -- people, I soon realized, who fell into two distinct categories.

Category #1 were friends of mine who were, shall I say, concerned about my state of mind. They wanted me to "get out" or "exercise" or "see a movie." I knew they meant well, but, their suggestions felt like spiritual nagging. Get out? Exercise? Watch a movie? Are you kidding me? I was on fire... a man on a mission.. obsessed with completing my book in 30 days, which, I am thrilled to say, I was well on my way to accomplishing when.... oops... 20 days into the project, I hit a wall.

Not just any wall, mind you. THE wall. The wall from whence the phrase "hitting a wall" originated. Not a brick wall. Not a nicely photographed wall covered with ivy. No. The primal wall. The one with the kind of Olympic dimensions that kept everyone out. Or, if everyone was already out, then everyone in.

That kind of wall.

Staying up late didn't help. Getting up early didn't help. Nor did getting up late or staying up early. Nothing helped. But I needed help and knew I needed to leave my hermitage to get it.

It wasn't a mystery where this help was going to come from. I knew exactly where I had to go to get it -- to a computer school in Silicon Valley, a school for gifted, young geeks -- one of Atari's "charter schools" that I, as a newly minted Inner Game consultant, had instant access to.

The first thing I did when I got there was ask the teacher who his most creative student was.

"Him!" said the teacher, pointing to a blond, buzzcut kid in the back of the room. "That's Lewis. He's the only one you need to talk to."

So I made my way over to the boy and asked if he'd be willing to listen to my story and share his ideas for where he thought it needed to go.


When I got to the part where I had hit the wall, Lewis laughed, looked at the ceiling, paused, then launched into major tribal storytelling mode, me feverishly taking notes. The amulet? A brilliant touch! The evil Dr. Stuckenmyer? Now we're talking! The quicksand from nowhere? Pure genius!

Thanking Lewis profusely, I made my way over to Atari's Headquarters where I was ushered into the office of a man who not only made a lot more money than I did, but had apparently slept the night before. After the predicable chit chat, Mr. Big asked me how the book was coming. Not missing a beat, I told him the entire story -- the first half, which I had dreamed up in my dwarf-infused cabin for the past three weeks and the second half, which Lewis, the boy wonder, had channeled to me only 30 minutes ago.

"Wow," said the man with the corner office. "Amazing! I can't wait to read it!"

The next ten days were a blur. Or maybe two blurs. Me in my cabin. Me in my pajamas. Me sitting at the same desk, listening to knocks on same the door by the same worried friends, not to mention perfectly timed visits from other people bearing tuna fish sandwiches, smoothies, and asking if I wanted a massage.

They came and they went, these two human sides of the same coin, but I was living in a different realm where the currency had nothing to do with two sides of anything -- not good or bad, not up or down, not in or out or this and that or you and me or any of the flora and fauna that defines what we have come to call our life.

The world I was living in at the time was a world where thought and action had merged, where words made flesh and flesh fell away, where night and day didn't matter and matter held no sway. Time was just something to keep the watchmakers employed. And yes, the proverbial clock was proverbially ticking, but so was the unspeakable glory of letting the story shake, rattle, and roll through me onto the page like some kind of divine palsy. Done! I was done! Gone! Gone! Gone beyond! Honed! Stunned! Down to the bone.

Now there was only thing left to do after picking up 200 copies of the tome -- and that was drive them to Atari's summer camp in San Diego and hand deliver them to VP of Education

Boom shakalaka.

I arrived at the exact same moment the VP arrived, both of us pulling into the same parking lot, her car much fancier than mine. She got out of hers, trailed by her entourage. I got out of mine, trailed by no one, book in hand, moving towards her in slow motion Chariot's of Fire mode, extending the book, as best as I could, and placing it into her outstretched hand.

"We got it!" she exclaimed, waving the book high over head. "We got it!"

SO WHAT? None of us know what we're capable of. We may think we do, but we don't. And most of the people we know don't know what we're capable of, either, because they don't know what they're capable of. And while there's nothing wrong with not knowing what we're capable of, there's something wrong about not being willing to find out. Your friends may think you've lost it. Your loved ones may try to reel you in. Your sirens may howl, but that's just the way the play unfolds, you center stage, not knowing your next line.

For now, here's all you need to know. Let go of fear. Persist. And ask for help when you need it. None of us are here alone, even if it seems that way a lot of the time. There are angels everywhere -- angels and muses and guides and helpers and clues everywhere we look. All we need to do is say YES and trust the process of our own outrageous lives.

NOW WHAT? Think of a challenge before you that feels impossible or, if not impossible, very difficult. Maybe it's a move you want to make, a career you want to change, a project you want to launch, a product you want to invent, a school you want to start, or a wrong you want to right. Whatever it is, bring it to mind. Now close your eyes and feel it. Imagine it's sometime down the road and your seemingly impossible venture has succeeded. What do you see? What do you feel? Who's in the picture with you? And what can you do, right now, to begin creating the conditions you need to manifest what it is within you quaking to be born?

Excerpted from this book
Flower photo: Freestocks on Unsplash
Boy photo: Andriyko Podlinyk, Unsplash

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at May 13, 2020 08:08 AM

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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
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.
Storytelling at Work
"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.
Do you want to know more about the book before buying it? Click here for Mitch's response to frequently asked questions about Storytelling at Work – the perfect book for people who think they have no time to read.
The Workshop
Storytelling is an "unconscious competency" – an ability we all have that all too often remains inaccessible to us. Enter the Storytelling at Work workshop – a simple way to activate this powerful, innate skill.
Wisdom Circles
Want to establish a culture of storytelling in your organization or community? Looking for a simple way to help people to share their meaningful, memorable stories with each other? Here's how.
Podcasts & Videos
Click here to view and listen to a series of interviews with the author of this blog. Go beyond the written word. Listen. Feel. Elevate the conversation. Understand what the big deal is about personal storytelling.
Blogs 'R Us
If you like this blog, you might also like Mitch's other two blogs: The Heart of Innovation and The Heart of the Matter. Mitch is also a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.
Idea Champions
When Mitch isn't writing, he's captaining the good ship Idea Champions, a leading edge innovation consulting and training company based in Woodstock, NY. What their clients say.