Sunday, March 24, 2013

Develop a Family Narrative

Twenty-seven years ago – anxious to try something new, but not really ready to leave – I made the decision to try a new city, thinking at the time that I could always move back home. One of many naïve views I’ve managed to prove wrong in the last 27 years, I still find myself, on many occasions, wishing I lived near my original family. Yet I remain extremely fortunate that the bond I have with my Midwest and DC family is incredibly strong despite the distances.

An article which appeared recently in The New York Times, The Stories That Bind Us, does a terrific job of illuminating an essential contributor to that family bond and the resulting resiliency: developing a strong family narrative. Amazing is the finding that children build self-esteem and resiliency simply by understanding that they are part of something bigger than themselves. As my children study the lives of explorers, celebrities, and famous people who left important marks on our world, it is really the stories like that of their great grandfather who came over from Ireland, alone, with just the shirt on his back at 16 years-old or the great-great-great grandfather who was a drummer boy in the Civil War that stir their underlying sense of self, mold their ideas of accomplishment, and fuel their internal motivation.

They don’t have to be heroic stories: Simple stories of regular lives, describing adversity overcome or the roller coaster ride of experiences, connected by some small, thin thread to who we are today. Those are the stories that bind us together. 

No one likes a good story better than I. That must be why I enjoy my family full of story-tellers so much. I am usually in the audience, rarely the narrator. But I am so glad I sat down and documented my grandma’s story. I started it as a preservationist, but it grew into something more. Reading the NYT article gave me a sense of support, that others see the value in understanding our roots beyond knowing the branches of our family tree. The stories hanging from those branches are priceless in so many ways. 

As we chart our own journeys, we find strength in the traditions of the past. We serve the menu that has come to represent a holiday over countless years. We bake the Irish soda bread using Nana's recipe. We gather as best we can, in honor of the family gatherings we've had since there was family. We learn and gather strength from one another, across generations and across state lines. We absorb new characters into the forward-moving narrative, through friendship, marriage, birth, and adoption. And we start traditions of our own, such as our family talent show, that find a comfortable, enduring place in the narrative.

I see the importance of the narrative from a business perspective as well. As I analyze new markets in my day job, I recognize the need to understand and appreciate the business’ core. As we step, tentatively or boldly, into new markets with new products, it is important to maintain an appreciation of our roots. Those origins are at the core of our success and new opportunities will only grow from lessons we have learned and merits we have earned along the way. The message we build for the new markets must be based on the narrative we have developed in getting to where we are.

But my favorite parts of the NYT article have to do with the family narrative. When my inner child needs a boost to keep the ‘happy’ in my family, I think I’ll watch my old home movies. Overcoming the styles of the 70s is hardship enough and a recurring subject of our family narrative. What is in your narrative? And have you told it to anyone lately?

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