Storytelling at Work
December 30, 2021
A Thousand Muslims and a Jew


At last count, there were 7.7 billion people on planet Earth. The odds of any two people meeting, I believe, is something like 7.7 billion to one. And the odds of any two of those 7.7 billion people deciding to collaborate on a complicated, culture-changing project -- especially if one of them is an Australian Muslim born in Pakistan and the other is an American Jew born in New York -- is in the slim-to none-zone. But that's exactly what happened to me three years ago, a collaboration that took seven years to manifest, seven being a classic span of years noted 700 times in the Bible and God knows how many times in the Quran.

Like any story, the one I am about to tell has a very juicy back story which, technically speaking, is part of the story, depending, of course, on how far back I decide to rewind the karmic tape -- the seemingly invisible, below-the-surface prelude to what I would only later discover to be one of the most fascinating collaborations of my life.

Ready? Here goes:

Seven years ago, Fazeel Arain, the Co-Founder and Principal of Al Siraat College, a K-12 Australian School in the Islamic tradition, located on the outskirts of Melbourne, found his way to my Heart of Innovation blog. Unbeknownst to me, he had become a big fan of my writing, point of view, and sense of humor. After three years of tuning in to my various articles, stories, videos, tools, techniques, and quotes, Fazeel decided to contact me, curious to know if my organization might be available to be of service to his.


While I was tickled to be contacted by the very forthright Fazeel (a name, in Urdu, that translates as "knowledgeable"), I was also skeptical that anything much would come of it -- not because I didn't want anything to come of it, but because, historically speaking, educational institutions had proven to be highly unlikely clients of mine. Their budgets were low. Their risk aversion was high. And when you considered the fact that Fazeel's K-12 school was 10,000 miles away and was Islamic, to boot, the odds of anything real coming of this seemed microscopically small to me. So when, after our first conversation, Fazeel asked me to submit a proposal, my first reaction was to raise my metaphorical eyebrows and think "no way."

Having trained myself, however, for the past 28 years, to go beyond the knee-jerk, nay saying negativity that often accompanies the appearance of a seemingly long-shot possibility, I made my way over to my favorite cafe, ordered a cappuccino, and started to noodle. Four hours later, proposal done, I emailed it, fingers crossed, to the aforementioned Mr. Fazeel -- a man I had come to learn was a former Oracle IT consultant, father of five, and the husband of a brilliant woman named Rahat, a former civil engineer.

The plot thickens.


Fazeel loved absolutely everything about my proposal except the fee, which, he explained, was "too rich for his blood" or whatever the equivalent Australian/Islamic phrase was for "Ouch, our budget just can't handle it." Unwilling to discount my already discounted fees any more, it was obvious we had come to an impasse. And so Fazeel went his way and I went mine.

Two years passed.

Then, very much out of the blue, in the midst of attempting to guide Al Siraat through yet another "change process," Fazeel contacted me again. The more I listened to him wax on about the school's many challenges, the dizzier I got. Although I was quite familiar with the phenomenon of "change management" (a second cousin to getting your teenage daughter to clean up her room), it was not, shall we say, my cup of tea. Three decades of consulting with a wide variety of forward thinking organizations had taught me that "change management" was often a euphemism for "How would you like to spend the next few years banging your head against a wall?" And besides, I had several other clients to serve, a marriage to nurture, two kids, and a huge need to write my next book in whatever spare time I didn't have.

And so, I asked the very dedicated Fazeel Arain if he would be open to two of my colleagues taking on the project. He was. And so began an inspired, four-month, dialogue between Lynnea, Michael, and Fazeel.

Other than me recognizing my own weird tendency to be open to projects that had very little chance of materializing, nothing came of it. Zero. Nada. Zilch.

Another year passed. (We are now six years into the process.)


And then, one morning, while showering, I was hit upside the head with what I considered to be a brilliant idea. You see, Fazeel's school wasn't the only organization going through changes. Mine was, too. With the American economy in the toilet and my company's sales distressed, I decided to launch an online raffle -- a clever way, I thought, to drum up interest in our online, Conducting Genius training.

The offer was a simple one. Raffle tickets would be absolutely free. All a company had to do to was send us an email with "Conducting Genius" written in the subject line. That was it. And then, on index cards, we would write the names of the companies who had entered and randomly select three winners. The prize? A 75% discount on our training. Street value? $6,500. "Such a deal!" I could hear my grandfather saying from the Great Beyond.

One person entered. Guess who? That's right. The very bearded, tenacious, Allah-is-in-Control, Mr. Fazeel Arain.

Thrilled to learn he had won, Fazeel, understandably, assumed that I would be the one to deliver the training. I wasn't. Maxed with other responsibilities at the time, I handed the project over to one of my long-time colleagues, the very accomplished brainstorm facilitator and trainer, Valmore Joseph Vadeboncoeur.


The first three sessions went quite well. After Session #3, Fazeel asked if I would lead the fourth.

My first response? Ummm... I'm not sure how to translate it into Arabic, but in Yiddish, it was "Oy vey," an abbreviation of the slightly longer phase, Oy vey ist mir, a well-known expression of dismay or exasperation whose English equivalent was "woe is me."

My second response? "Sure, why not?"

Session #4 turned out to be an AHA moment for me -- the difference, as Mark Twain once put it, between lightning and a lightning bug. Until then, my relationship with Fazeel and Al Siraat had been mostly theoretical -- the concept of working together, but not the reality itself. In just 60 minutes all of that changed, me having the real-time experience of teaching five Islamic school Directors how to begin unlocking the creative genius of their workforce. These were not "Muslims halfway around the world." These were living, breathing, soulful human beings, each with a name, a face, a personality, and a sincere desire to expand their horizons -- Andrew, Shahzad, Esra, Rahat, and Fazeel

"Hey Mitch, how would you like to visit the school?" Fazeel asked me two weeks later.

A single image came to mind. Rocky. Fazeel, like Sylvester Stallone's iconic, street smart dreamer, was totally relentless -- a man on fire with purpose and possibility. He knew what he wanted and was going for it, against all odds. No matter how many times I ducked, dodged, or deflected, his invitations kept coming.

"Fazeel," I replied, "thank you so much for your kind invitation, but Melbourne... you see... is... uh.. a 22-hour flight away for me. We're talking two days of travel, three days on-site, and probably another three days to recuperate. I just don't have the time. Maybe next year."

Three months passed.

And then, as fate would have it (or was it Allah or Jehovah?), I was invited to attend a five-day conference, with my teacher, outside of Brisbane -- just a two hour flight from Melbourne. This news made Fazeel happy. He paid for my Brisbane to Melbourne flight, picked me up at the airport, took me to lunch, introduced me to his wife and children, made me chai tea (often), fed me chocolate, toured me around the school, asked me to teach a few classes, invited me to speak at the prayer hall, and proceeded to enter into an off-the-grid, non-stop, three-day dialogue about what our future collaboration might look like. He even offered me a full time position.

To quote Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore."

Bottom line, my three-day introduction to Al Siraat was a total delight -- mind opening, heart opening, door opening, intriguing, inspiring, fun, soulful, endearing, encouraging, provocative, unforgettable, and very educational. Until then, I had never had a single conversation with a Muslim. Though I had many friends from a wide variety of religions and spiritual paths, I didn't know a single soul from the Islamic world. My only exposure to Islam had been the late night news.

For want of a better phrase, let's just say a Red Sea parted for me. I got to experience, first hand, during my three-day visit, what Fazeel, Rahat, their Directors, Teachers, and Staff were trying to do, against all odds -- to create a model for what Islamic education could be in the future -- a heart-centered, values-driven, learning community that built character and prepared the next generation of movers and shakers to make a real difference in the world.


Beyond their hopes and aspirations, it was clear to me that Al Siraat had more than its share of problems, challenges, and disappointments. But so what? Life is not always easy. Moses wandered in the desert for 40 years. Noah had to build an ark. Muhammed lost all six of his children. And Jesus was crucified. Even baby chicks have to peck their way out of the shell.

What I found so compelling about Fazeel and many of his colleagues -- the mojo that moved me to spend three months of my life, last year, working at the school -- was the recognition of just how powerful an experience it is to be called. Clearly, Fazeel was being called. And so was Rahat, his wife. And Mufti Aasim, the school's Spiritual Director. And Esra, Shahzad, Sheikh Wasseem, Gulhan, Leah, Najma, Vis, Evla, Noori, Javed, Bilal, Naveed, Maqsood, Zev and so many others on staff who had come to a point in their life when it was time to take a stand.

The name of the force that calls a human being? It has many. And it was calling me, too, a Jewish man from Woodstock (with an Indian Guru) -- someone who didn't speak a word of Arabic and has never read the Quran. But peel away the superficial differences that seemed to be separating us and we were all on the exact same page -- the page of life -- no matter what language or tradition the words on that page originated from.

To be continued...

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Helping children understand the moral of a story
Fazeel's testimonial
PS: I am now a columnist for an Islamic newspaper in Australia

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 10:14 AM | Comments (2)

December 18, 2021
Ten Reasons Why People Don't Share Their Stories

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I'm sure you've heard the expression, "Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?" -- a question whose roots go back to an old Carl Sandburg poem. The same question holds true for the storytelling revolution. I can flap my mouth about the power of personal storytelling until the cows come home, but unless you and a critical mass of others step up, nothing much will happen. This is a volunteer army I'm talking about, a self-appointed crew of courageous people willing to make their way to the front lines of their own life and tell it like it is -- to share stories that will spark reflection, insight, wisdom, and love in others.

Are there obstacles on this storytelling battlefield? Of course there are. But the biggest ones are invisible -- old thoughts, assumptions, and beliefs that stop us from speaking up. What follows are the ten most common of these obstacles:

This is the biggie, the mother of all obstacles -- the belief that you are not heroic or important enough to speak up -- that your stories are mundane, insignificant, and meaningless. Nothing could be further from the truth. You are a human being, the "crown of creation", a member of the species known as homo sapiens -- "the wise ones".


You already have a ton of experiences worth sharing. If you don't think your stories are interesting, it's probably because you haven't probed them deeply enough. In other words, if your story was a box of Crackerjacks, you haven't found the prize yet -- or what William Blake, the 17th century poet, once described as "eternity in a grain of sand."

Bottom line, everything becomes interesting the moment you become interested. You can find meaning anywhere. The stories you tell don't need to be earth-shattering. They don't need to be cosmic. You don't need to be a spokesperson to speak. All you need to be is a human being who wants to elevate the conversation on planet earth. Sometimes, it's the simplest of stories that pack the biggest wallop.

Well, it is certainly possible that no one will care about your stories. And it is certainly possible that no one will listen -- especially these days, when ADD is almost epidemic and listening is in short supply. Your assumption about this, however, most likely comes from your past experiences and if you buy into this belief, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Maybe, from time to time, you've made attempts to tell your stories and have had little success in getting people to pay attention. Join the club. But just because it's been that way in the past, doesn't mean that's the way it's going to be in the future. Just because your last relationship ended badly, doesn't mean your next one will. Hopefully, you have learned something from your experience -- something that will increase the odds of your next relationship being all you want it to be.

The same thing holds true for storytelling. If you want to increase the odds of people listening to your stories, there are some simple things to pay attention to:

- Make sure you care about your story.
- Practice telling it and get feedback from friends
- Choose a time to tell it when people are most available to listen
- Be animated in the telling. Modulate your voice.
- Before beginning, set some context and get permission to tell it.

There's a high probability that you and I have never met -- that I know nothing about you other than the fact that you are reading this. But that's not entirely true. One thing I know about you is that you are a way better storyteller than you think you are. First of all, you are very experienced. You grew up on fairy tales. You watched TV, movies, and read books -- all of which were made of stories. Indeed, 65% of your present day conversations, explain sociologists, are composed of stories. It's the DNA of how human beings communicate. It's the spine of our interactions.

Psychologists refer to this ability of ours as an "unconscious competency" -- the ability to do something without totally being aware that we are doing it. Like breathing... or complaining.. or riding a bike.

The other reason you think you're not a good storyteller is because you have a tendency to compare yourself to other storytellers. Like Garrison Keillor, for example. Or your grandfather. Or your favorite TED speaker.

Cease and desist! It is a waste of time. The storytelling revolution you are being asked to join will not be covered on the nightly news. It will not be turned into a screenplay by Steven Spielberg. The storytelling I'm asking you to do takes place on the front lines of your life -- often with an audience of only one -- maybe your best friend who will love you no matter what. But if you keep telling yourself you're not a good storyteller, you silence yourself. And silence is not what's needed now. What's needed now is millions of people stepping forward to share what really moves them.

We can't wait for Sundays or someone "in a position of power" to shape the narrative. Look where that's gotten us. We need you and all your friends to come out of the closet and let it rip.

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And why might that be? Usually, because you don't like feeling self-conscious or stressed or judged. Or maybe because you think people will think you are "full of yourself", "hogging the show", or otherwise being a prima donna. Fuggedabout it!

While it may seem as if storytellers are the center of attention, the reality is this: the listener is the center of attention. Or, even more accurately, the meaning of the story is the center of attention. The storyteller is merely a catalyst, a facilitator of a moment of insight and understanding in the mind/heart of the listener.

Is an actor, on stage, the center of attention? For a brief moment, yes, but only to capture the attention of the audience so they can feel something and leave the theater with that feeling becoming the center of attention in their own lives. Of course, there are always people who want to be the center of attention for all the wrong reasons: Egomaniacs. Narcissists. People looking for approval. They care less about what people get from the story than being remembered as the person who told the story. But that's not you. You are not about hogging the show. You are not about trolling for love. You are about speaking authentically and sparking moments of insight and understanding in others (and all without proselytizing, evangelizing, or trying to convince anyone of anything).


Public speaking is a bigger fear than the fear of death. Strange, but true. Standing in front of an audience (or even one person) is so anxiety-producing for some people they say they would rather die. Ouch! OK. I get it. You imagine yourself on stage and everyone is looking at you and some of the people looking at you are frowning or bored or checking their email under the table. Of course that would be stressful. But guess what? I'm not asking you to stand on stage and be a public speaker. All I am asking you is do to is share your stories in the informal flow of your own life. One-on-one, with your best friend or your mother, is absolutely fine. No pressure!

The storytelling revolution I'm inviting you to participate in is happening wherever you are. It is not a big deal. There will be no marketing campaign, no slogans, and no dues to pay. And, if all else fails, remember the words of Mark Twain: "If you speak the truth, you never have to remember a thing."

Kapish? To tell your stories, you do not have to memorize anything. You do not need to affect an English accent or look longingly into the distance. All you need to do is tell your story.

Here's as simple as it gets: There's a person (you) with a goal and some obstacles to overcome. Then there's some kind of resolution. That's it. All I'm asking you to do, when the time is right, is to share a meaningful story from your own life -- a surprise moment, an unexpected victory, or a lesson learned.

HINT: Speaking is not stressful. What's stressful is focusing on what people think of you.

Of course! That's totally fine. Your stories are your own. They are no one's business until you choose to make it their business. Indeed, there are some indigenous tribes living deep in remote forests who believe that if someone takes their photo, they will also take their soul. This is sometimes how we feel when telling a story -- that the person who had heard our story will now have power over us, that we have given away access to a sacred part of us that will now forever be violated by "the other". This is especially true if you are very identified with your story -- an experience, in fact, you consider to be sacred.

Telling one of those stories to a disinterested, arrogant, or judgmental audience will put you in the "pearls before swine" zone. Totally understandable.

That being said, you have two choices: You can choose not to tell stories about parts of your life that are "out of bounds" for the general public. Your second choice? You can see yourself as a catalyst for change -- that, somehow, your life experiences, told in story form, may be of benefit to others, a way to help them gain easier access to parts of themselves they may out of touch with.

That's what Woody Allen does in his movies. He puts his neurosis on the silver screen and "takes one for the team". He gives shape to the collective psyche so the less adventurous people in the audience can get in touch with aspects of their own life that may be hidden or ignored. This, of course, takes courage, insofar as some members of the audience may become so uncomfortable with what they see on the screen that they shoot the messenger. C'est le vie.

If you truly want to be on the front lines of the storytelling revolution, you will need to come out of your privacy closet and let it rip.


Here's my simple answer: Yes. Sometimes, you will be judged, but so what? First of all, you are already being judged almost all the time by others -- including the people closest to you. It comes with the territory of being human. You could, of course, choose to isolate yourself from others, armed only with your favorite mobile devices and some ice cream, but even then people are going to judge you from a distance. "Your FB posts are too long." "Your texts have too many typos". "You wait too long to respond to my emails".

What you need to remember is this: At the highest level, storytelling is not about you. Not only are you not the center of the universe, you are not even the center of your own story, even when logic dictates that you are. You may be a character in it -- even the hero -- but the real center of the stories you tell is the meaning other people will derive from it -- the learning, the lesson, the insight, or wisdom they will be able apply to their own lives.

See #7. Having "trust issues" is simply another way of saying that you think people are going to judge you. You've been hurt before by others. Or ignored. Or misunderstood, blamed, abused, dissed, diminished, ridiculed, mocked, or disempowered. Yup. Welcome to the human race. If you let trust issues have their way, forget about becoming part of the storytelling revolution. You'll be holed up in your house filing your papers or waiting for your next lifetime.

Remember... my asking you to join the storytelling revolution is not the same thing as asking you to go on CNN and hold forth as the spokesperson for the storytelling revolution. All it means is that you are willing to share your stories with at least one other person at a time and place of your choosing.

Certainly possible, but so what? Songwriters, whose songs are "covered" by other singers, always run the risk of their songs being stylized until they're barely recognizable. What began as their song will be interpreted in countless ways by others. It will morph. It will change. A folk song may become a blues song. A blues song may become a rock song. This is not a bad thing. It may, in fact, increase the shelf life of the song. So let people change your stories. Remember this is really not about you anyway. You are just the messenger. This is about the meaning people will make of your story and how they will apply the essence of your story to their own lives. Your storytelling is just getting the party started.

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Ah.. welcome to the fabulous world of storytelling Zen koans. The thought that your story isn't ready to share can be both true and untrue at the same time. Indeed, it is the tension between these two polarities that most commonly leads to inaction. On one hand, it is absolutely true that your story may not be ready for prime time. You may be in the process of incubating on it, refining it, hatching the "story egg", so to speak. If you tell your story too early, you may be trotting out a half-baked message that will fall with a thud. Yup. It's the same thing with new ideas. Sometimes you might have an awesome idea, but if you communicate it too soon, you might subvert its potential of it actually landing.

But there is another side of the storytelling coin for you to consider. Sometimes, the assumption that "my story isn't ready to share" is simply a function of perfectionism -- the same reason why you don't try anything new. You tell yourself you don't have enough information, or enough degrees, or haven't done enough research yet. Please be mindful of this tendency.

Sometimes, the only way your story will be ready to share is to tell it. Or what Tom Peters meant when he said, "Ready, fire, aim!"

This is the same reason why many Broadway plays start off in Peoria. "The path is made by walking on it," goes the old adage. Start walking.

The Wisdom Circles of San Miguel
The facilitator of Wisdom Circles
Storytelling for the Revolution

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 10:19 AM | Comments (1)

December 03, 2021
Mr. Tomato Head!


What is Mr. Tomato Head doing on my storytelling blog? Whatever he wants!

Mr. Tomato Head and his good friend, Mr. Watermelon Head, were two of my kids' favorite stuffed animals growing up. I just rediscovered them yesterday and am thrilled beyond belief. Whoo hoo!

Stories, you see, are often triggered by a single word, memory, or image. In my case, seeing Mr. Tomato Head transported me back to the days when my kids were young (they are now 27 and 24).

Childhood! Imagination! No responsiblities! The time when anything was possible -- the time when just seeing Mr. Tomato Head on a shelf, pillow, or floor was enough to realize that everything was absolutely perfect -- that life was not only GOOD, but chock full of love, sweetness, delight, cuddles, bedtime stories, cookies, snow days, cartoons, birthday cake, and endless innocence (which, by the way, it still is, even if it is 20 years later -- as long as I allow the heart of a child to beat deep within me. And it does...

All hail Mr. Tomato Head!

And here is a story about his cousin, Wolfie.
And one about the time I save my mother's sterling silver
And the only hit I got one baseball season
And my favorite book of the year

PS: The older I get, the younger I get

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 02:25 PM | Comments (1)

December 02, 2021
The Cornstalks Are Too Small

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When I was 21, a Senior in college, I had my first psychedelic experience. My "guide" for the day was my good friend, George, a philosophy major deeply immersed in the study of Nietzche and "alternate realities".

Knowing this was my "first time," George kindly volunteered to look out for me that memorable day -- to "be there" for me if I needed any help or support. Plus, he had a car and some time, so could drive me to a cornfield ten miles outside of town where I would be free from the prying eyes of others to have whatever experiences were in store for me.

The day, as you might imagine, was very off-the-grid, me having several mind-blowing realizations about the nature of life, God, the universe, gnats, and what I had previously come to know as my "self".

Anyway, towards the end of the day, I had a moment that taught me the true meaning of friendship and how important it is to have a friend.

As the sun went down and I realized it was the perfect time to exit that cosmic corn field, I began walking back to the car, the place where George was patiently waiting for me. As I made my way, I found myself, progressively, as if I was following some kind of universal algorithm, walking slower and slower until I came to a complete stop. That was it. I just stopped. There was no way, in the world, I could take another step. I just stood there, motionless, frozen.

Somehow, I had gotten it into my head that the SPEED of my walking was irreversibly connected to the SIZE of the cornstalks and since the cornstalks were getting smaller and smaller towards the edge of the field, so did the length of the steps I was taking until I stopped walking altogether. I just stood there, unable to proceed, cosmically certain that whatever it was that had stopped my forward movement was an indisputable message from the beyond to stop moving.

I was stuck.

It was at that precise moment that George, patiently waiting by his car beyond the edge of the cornfield, called out to me.

"Ditty, come on, let's go!"

"I can't!" I replied.

"Why not?" George responded.


That's when George jumped down from the hood of his car, walked into the cornfield, took my hand, and gave me a tug.

"Come on, Ditty, let's go!"

That's when my trance broke. That's when the conclusion I had conjured up -- that it was impossible to go anywhere because the cornstalks were too small -- completely fell away. That's all I needed to get on with my life -- just having someone not buy into my oddball reality, make their way towards me, and take my hand.

George's simple gesture -- his perfect reading of the moment -- his commitment to my well-being -- snapped me out of my bogus belief that kept me frozen in place -- the story I believed with every fiber of my being, but one that was, shall we say, highly questionable.

It was at that moment that I understood the value and the meaning of a FRIEND -- someone with the presence of mind to see through the fable I had invented, approach me, take my hand and tug.

Who of us doesn't get stuck, sometimes, in this grand adventure of life? Who of us doesn't fall prey to bogus beliefs, conclusions, and made up stories? Who of us doesn't fabricate "realities" that are not only strangely subjective, but are not, at all, in our best interest? And so, enter stage left, a friend. That's what friends do. They cross the chasm. They reach across the "divide", lovingly take our hand, and help us wake up from our trance.

FOR YOUR REFLECTION: What friend of yours could use a hand these days -- perhaps someone who is a bit stuck in the cornfield of their life?

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 08:09 AM | Comments (0)


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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