I meet new people frequently in nearly every facet of my life. Sometimes it’s a one-time interaction and in others our paths cross multiple times. The context of the interaction dictates the scope and depth of any discussion, which could be either a one-way or a two-way exchange of information or ideas.
In my experience, I can say with certainty that everyone has a story. I’ve rarely been disappointed to have heard another person’s story, or at least some small portion of it. We’re often so focused on a task or a need that we don’t ask for, care about or listen to others’ stories.
There is much to be gained from hearing another person’s story. Listening for someone's story is sometimes an uphill journey for me because I’m usually very tuned-in to what I need to get out of an interaction and try to be efficient at doing just that. I consciously make an effort now to do a better job of getting someone’s story if at all possible.
When I do hear someone’s story, one or more of the following results: Learning, Empathy, Optimism, Motivation.
Every time I’m with my last living grandparent, my maternal grandfather, I hear stories. 85% of the time I’ve heard a version of the story before, but I look forward to the 15% that is either a brand-new story or simply new information about an old story. He shares a birthday with my youngest daughter, albeit 76 years apart, and it’s amazing to think about the change he’s seen in his lifetime, and how that will compare to the change my daughter will see in hers, and how that shapes the stories they have.
While listening to his stories over the years I’ve learned how to change the oil in my cars, build furniture, fix all kinds of things, navigate without GPS, complain about technology, yearn for the good old days and much more. I’ve heard what life was like being born in the 1920’s, growing up during the Depression, going into the Army the day after graduating high school, walking through the aftermath within days of an atomic bomb detonation, being an entrepreneur, having open heart surgery, traveling the world, fighting a union, being the last living sibling, etc. I don’t get tired of his stories because most of them are about things I’ll never experience (and many I don’t want to) and I know that soon they will only exist as second-hand stories because he won’t be around to tell the first-hand account.
Growing-up, most of my focus was on whatever was important to me in a given moment. I am still like that to a degree but my capacity for empathy and awareness of others’ situations has increased significantly as I get older. The opportunity for empathy is everywhere. It's particularly strong when I learn about struggles of students my daughters go to school with, whether they be in high school or college.
Hearing these stories continually reaffirms that at any point in time there are people in all kinds of tough situations. Whether it’s a lost job, a death in the family, an illness, a disability or other hardship, the reality of the impact is usually much greater than we assume looking in from the outside. Hearing the stories of how these obstacles were dealt with and the fact that life goes on at school, work and elsewhere invokes my empathy and respect for these students. It also tempers my tendency toward reactive judgement and lack of patience, since I don’t know what the other person is going through unless I listen to their story.
One of the most energizing activities I have the good fortune of doing is speaking to college students about topics like entrepreneurship, business, resumes and networking. After speaking to a class or group I usually get a chance to chat with students in smaller groups or one-on-one, at which time I ask questions that prompt them to share their story (whatever one they want to share that day).
Many times, I’ve heard from students getting interviews or job offers and they’re super excited about the possibilities this new phase of life will bring. I enjoy the passion with which they talk about the opportunities they’re pursuing. These stories about hope and new beginnings are as fun to hear as they are to share.
As an entrepreneur I’ve failed and succeeded. Stories about others’ successes and failures never get old because I’m always learning something. I love business, especially the entrepreneurial kind, and hearing stories from or about entrepreneurs motivates me because it gives me hope as to what’s possible.
I’ve met with entrepreneurs who’ve pitched to investors 70+ times and others who have pitched to potential clients many times more. Learning from those experiences motivates me to continue on my path as an innovator, story-seeker and risk-taker.
In conclusion, my recommendation is to ask questions that get someone talking about their story…then just listen.
Special thanks to my grandfather, Vince Stowell, for his service and all his incredible stories, and to Parker Graham, whose story is inspiring and whose entrepreneurial venture will help others create positive stories in their lives.