Master Your Story, Master Your Life - Scott Livengood

Master Your Story, Master Your Life

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The sevenfold story-path to your best life

Richard Stone StoryWork International.
Scott Livengood StoryWork International

In traditional cultures, if you are dispirited or ill, one of the questions a shaman would ask is, “when did you stop being enchanted by telling and listening to stories?”1. In contemporary culture, we are challenged by this question because we have undergone a process of destorification, the cultural equivalent to deforestation in which we replace an old growth forest with rows of pines. In this scenario, the rich variety and interconnectedness of life never returns. When we become cut off from our authentic stories, something comparable dies in us.

How can we avoid destorification as we pursue demanding careers? What does it mean to live an authentic life in a soulless society whose dominant story of success is painted predominantly in material terms? These thorny questions transcend discussions of work-life balance. They require a deeper, more thoughtful inquiry into what it means to be fully human.

Fortunately, there is a wide body of knowledge, some of it derived from ancient sources, some emanating from contemporary discoveries, that illuminates how “story” can powerfully answer these questions and provide a pathway to achieving personal excellence, all the while shedding a bright light on what it means to live a life filled with meaning and connection.

Let us start with a story… In the 18th century there lived a famous scholar, Rabbi Zusya. As he lay dying, his disciples gathered around him and saw that he was crying. Naturally, they attempted to comfort him. “Don’t be sad. Certainly, you have led a good life and there will be a revered place for you in the world to come. You were almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham.”

Rabbi Zusya shook his head. “I am not sad, but rather afraid.”

“Afraid of what?” they asked.

“I am afraid,” he said, “that when I arrive in the world to come, God will not ask me how come I was not more like Moses or Abraham. I am afraid that God will ask me, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Zusya? Why didn’t you follow the path that was yours alone to follow?’ And, I won’t know what to say. That is why I am crying.”

We believe that a central task for all of us is to become more of who we essentially are and to harness that knowledge to fulfill our deepest potential. What we have discovered is that you will not realize more of your potential than your personal narrative, or story accommodates and animates. The stories you adopt, consciously or unconsciously, set a range and trajectory of possibilities, defining the way you will experience the world, whether it will be one filled with wonder, possibilities, and miracles or one dominated by limits, doubts, and fears. Ultimately, to become your authentic self and fulfill your greatest potential, you must discover the story that aligns you with the path that both reveals and nurtures your unique calling.

The Sevenfold Story-Path is all about learning to master and assume full authority over the trajectory of your life. Instead of living a story conditioned by forces outside you such as family or culture, you can consciously become the author and master of your story in all of its dimensions.

Story-Path 1: Explore and Understand Your Storied Brain and Life

Our brains are wired for both telling stories as well as for listening to and remembering them. In fact, PET scans of the brain demonstrate that storytelling and story listening activate nearly every important sensory and language center. In contrast, information that is not “storied” tends to activate only the two regions that deal with language processing and comprehension.

Interestingly, at any one moment, there may be up to 40 million data points available to our perceptual system; yet, our mind can only process about 40 a second—so we must make choices about what we attend to, disregarding the rest. As a result, our stories are more of an interpretative affair than a perceptual one. This, in part, is how two people from the same family can have such divergent stories about the past.

Finally, neurons that fire together wire together. 2 Story and physiology converge in this way, accounting for why it’s difficult to adopt a new story that contradicts one that we have been telling ourselves habitually for years. To live our best life and fulfill our greatest potential, the first step is to tune into how our brains insidiously work to subvert our best efforts to change and grow. The next step is to identify the source for our stories and begin the process of preserving what is life-sustaining and potentiating while discarding what is crippling and limiting.

Story-Path 2: Explore the Source of Your Stories – The Treasures and the Trash

During our lifetime, we accumulate a host of stories from our family and society about ourselves and the world that define us and our possibilities. If left unexamined, they become like the operating system of a computer, determining the range of everything that you see, yet remaining hidden from view. When you take time to examine your “code”, you can decide which stories are worth preserving because they support your best, most authentic life, and which to jettison because they limit, often in pernicious, unconscious ways, your potential.

Your treasure stories connect you to your strengths and your indomitable spirit, open you to experiences of joy, reinforce a positive self-image, connect you to meaning, and remind you that you should be the author of your life’s journey. In contrast, trash stories remind you of your limitations and weaknesses, reinforcing negative conditioning and harmful learnings. They limit your possibilities, promote a negative self-image, generate sadness and remorse, make you see life as a series of intractable challenges to overcome, and delegate control of your story to others. Most importantly, they blind you from seeing your innate worth.

Being on the path to your authentic self requires a fearless inventory of these stories, cross-examining them with the searing question: do you elevate my life and possibilities, or do you drown me in negativity?

Story-Path 3: Become a Master of Your Storylines

Beliefs are animated by what we refer to as storylines that bring them to life through feelings and actions, building the universe of experiences that we call our world. In every situation, there are numerous storylines we can adopt, each having profound positive or negative consequences. For example, imagine that a colleague gets a raise and promotion. Perhaps you’re their equal in all ways, or maybe even notably superior in certain realms. Whatever the reason for your colleague’s accolades, there are two distinct storylines that you could adopt, each deeply impacting what you think, how you feel, and what you do, all of which have a cascading effect on your personal and professional potential, and that of your company.

On one hand, you could adopt a storyline that angrily maligns your colleague, seeing her as worthless and underserving, while at the same time deriding leadership for being idiots for not seeing that you’re the superior candidate for recognition. This may cause enough for you to begin looking around for a better job where you believe your talents will be more appreciated. Alternatively, you could choose to adopt a storyline to celebrate your colleague’s promotion, and even find a way to see that every success that elevates the company in some way elevates your own prospects and possibilities. The important point is to see that you have a choice in the matter at hand. Which would you choose? Why?

Story-Path 4: Deploy Story Authoring Tools to Access Greater Possibilities

“When one door closes another door opens, but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”3 In fact, no event is necessarily a bad thing or a good thing. It becomes such only in terms of the meaning we ascribe to it and the story we tell about it. In reality, no story is ever finished. If we are willing to live with curiosity without appending a definitive conclusion onto our stories, we open ourselves to seeing possibilities where none existed.

Secondly, it is possible to take any situation, no matter how challenging and dire, and see it through the eyes of all the important players. This may not change a life altering event, but it can powerfully transform our relationship to the events and conditions of our life. Every situation is open to reinterpretation if seen from a different point of view. We can train ourselves to master the art of seeing multiple storylines in every life experience rather than settling in on one perspective and letting that point of view stultify us. This approach to story creation introduces playfulness into our stories and injects life vitalizing nuance and possibility into every life scenario, no matter how tragic and painful.

Story-Path 5: Discover the Source of Your Most Powerful Storyline

Aristotle once said: “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross—there lies your vocation.” It’s important to note that Aristotle was not referring to a job perse; rather, vocation in this context means a call or summons. When you know your calling and use it as a central pillar of every life decision, something powerful occurs. You inhabit your skin with a remarkable level of energy, focus, and attention. You see challenges in a new light—not as obstacles but as opportunities. You feel empowered to engage with the world with an expectation of success. Setbacks are not seen with a sense of finality. Rather, they become stepping stones to the next choice that will get you closer to your goal in alignment with your authentic self. More importantly, your life becomes engaged with things that stretch way beyond your narrow self-interest. Life begins to develop its deepest meaning when you are in service to something bigger than yourself.

Story-Path 6: Activate Your Master Story by Creating a Personal Covenant

It is not enough to develop new perspectives and insight if they do not result in meaningful actions that lead to real change. In this story-path, everything you have learned from the previous story-paths can inform how you approach each aspect of your life. Now it becomes imperative to answer questions like: How do I want to impact the world and make a positive contribution? What capabilities or traits do I need to develop to nurture and guide my quest? What commitments would I like to make to myself and to others? In the parlance of the Hero’s Journey, who are already or can become my allies in this venture? Your answers to these questions can stretch you and keep you on an even keel as you journey on the seas of change.

Story-Path 7: Imagine Your Best Aspirational Story

In this story-path, we invite you to first identify the needs in the world that you would like to address with your gifts, talents, and calling in hand, then, actively imagine and tell the story of three ways you impacted that need that makes the world a better place. Imagining this optimal future sets an intention for its actualization. By seeing your deepest desires fulfilled in the shape of a story, you will be pleasantly surprised how readily your brain will begin identifying evidence among those 40 million bits of data that are available each and every moment that confirms this new reality. You will also begin the process of laying down new neural pathways, rewiring yourself to look for possibilities and manifestation in a world that is waiting for you to fulfill your deepest potential. This is the last, but perhaps a most important step, to becoming more of who you are, day in and day out.

About Scott Livengood

Scott Livengood is the owner and CEO of Dewey’s Bakery, Inc., a commercial wholesale bakery with a respected national brand of ultra premium cookies and crackers.

Previously, Scott worked at Krispy Kreme Doughnuts for 27 years, starting as a trainee in 1977. He was appointed President of the company in 1992, then CEO and Chairman of the Board.

Scott has served on numerous boards including the Carter Center, the Calloway School of Business and the Babcock School of Management, Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County, and the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce.

He started a new business, StoryWork International, in 2016 with Richard Stone. The signature achievement to date is LivingStories, a story-based program for improved patient experiences and outcomes in partnership with Novant Health.