I’m gonna tell you 2 stories, then I’m gonna help you uncover incredible stories and (next week) I will help you tell your best stories.
As Stephen King says in his book, On Writing, the only way to become a better writer is to read a lot and write a lot.
If you want to tell better stories, read (listen to) and write (tell) stories.
Read mine below and as you do ask yourself what makes one “better” than the other. What spoke to you? Did you feel any emotion? When and why?
Of course, I’m gonna tell you what I think, but it’s more impactful when you come the realization on your own.
Story #1: My Quarter Life Crisis
In 2004 when I was a freshman in high school, I walked all 140 pounds of me into the weight room and began my journey into lifting weights. The baseball team didn’t do team workouts like the football team but I saw my friends getting big and strong—I didn’t want to be left behind.
4 years later at the start of college I was not having the experience that was depicted in the movies. I didn’t have a ton of friends, I hated my major and I was still a virgin. So I found my home in the gym. I’ll never forget one day as I was putting the dumbbells back in the rack, I saw myself in the mirror and said, “It would be so cool to be a personal trainer, but that’s not a real career path.”
Not too long after I gave my mom a call to tell her, “I hate marketing. These classes are so boring.” She encouraged me to lean into my skills in math and maybe check out engineering. So that’s what I did.
Before sophomore year began, I switched majors to civil engineering. Over the next 3 years I took classes every summer and one class every winter to catch up and graduate on time.
I took me 9 months to get an engineering job after I graduated (so much for that safe degree) but when I finally did, I didn’t feel like I had “made it.” It felt like I still had to achieve something.
Over the next two and a half years my mind was so focused on making more money and saving more money so I could retired well before 65. I wasn’t super into engineering. It was a job that paid well. That’s all it was.
I wanted to save money so badly that in 2015 I began riding my bike to work just so I could save $135 a month on a subway pass and put that money into my investment account too.
One day I walked into my bosses corner office on the 12th floor. His floor to ceiling windows looked out onto the Freedom Tower. The new World Trade Center building was our project as well as the surrounding area including the World Trade Center museum, memorial and the transportation hub, The Oculus.
This is a dream project for any 25-year-old civil engineer (talk about a sexy resume).
In fact, I was living the dream.
In the greatest city in the world, making $85,000 with a beautiful girlfriend and nice apartment in the East Village.
So why wasn’t I happy?
I was such a good boy.
Got good grades.
Got the great degree.
The perfect job with incredible pay.
On pace to be married by 28 to a woman I love.
Still… not… happy.
I’ve spent my whole life doing exactly what I was supposed to and this is where it got me.
When I got back my desk I saw my future. Continuing to do work I don’t love for 40 more years, move in with my girlfriend, get married, move to the suburbs, have kids, retire hopefully before 65 and then… what?
I could picture my grandkids sitting on my lap asking, “Grandpa!! Tell us a story!!” and I’d have to make one up because I never really lived.
I had to do something.
Thats when I got the idea to ride my bike across America.
Not because it was what I was supposed to do, but because I fell in love with biking.
I wanted to do something for myself for once in my life.
So in the summer of 2016 I dipped my back wheel in the Atlantic Ocean and 90 days 5,019 miles later dipped my front wheel in the Pacific.
Then something happened.
Like an olympian winning a gold medal and walking off the podium, I thought, “Now what?”
I couldn’t go back to a life where I lived to save money.
A life where I, “thank god for Friday”
I had 90 of the best days of my life. I loved everyday. That must be a possibility when I get back to “real life.”
In my head, as my mom poured me another glass of champagne, I made a declaration that I would pursue a life of daily happiness.
When I got back to NYC I did pick up work as an engineer, but the rest of my waking hours doing things I loved. I took up photography and would spend hours walking the New York streets hunting down beautiful photos. I fell in love with CrossFit and even became a certified coach and started personal training after work.
I had a vision and a new spark for life, but it wasn’t enough. I hated spending 9 hours a day just waiting for the clock to hit 5 so I could leave and do what I really loved.
In 2018 my girlfriend became my fiance and we committed to leaving New York City once and for all to a beautiful life in the mountains of Colorado to pursue careers we truly loved.
10 years after that day in the gym where I convinced myself personal training wasn’t a real career path, I arrived in Denver, CO as full time personal trainer.
Story #2: The Meatball Shop
I pushed my fists deep into my pockets as I stood waiting outside The Meatball Shop. I wasn’t sure if my hands were cold because it was mid October or because they always got cold when I was nervous. I just left 3 hours of coaching CrossFit and figured all that movement would keep me warm… so it must be nerves.
Hoards of people began to brush pass me as they unloaded from the subway steps of the M train.
The busyness of New York City always gave me a sense of calm. Even at 3am on a Wednesday its rare to find yourself alone on the streets. It feels safe like knowing the boogie man can’t get you when your parents are in your room.
Finally, I saw my dad’s Green Bay Packer hat emerge from the subway steps. He approached me hand stretched out for a shake. I gripped it tight— the way he taught me as a boy—and embraced him in a hug.
“How was the ride in from good ol’ Connecticut?” I asked.
“Ah you know… Actually there was an great musician playing All Along the Watchtower by Bob Dylan down there” he turned and pointed down the steps he just ascended.
“You mean Jimi Hendrix” I said with a smirk.
“You should go down there a play with him, you’d be so good!” he encouraged.
“I think I’d be more painful to people’s ears than the screech of the subway” I said.
“You getting used to calling Allison Finace yet?”
“Hah. It’s still a little weird.”
“And are you two all packed up? Your mom’s crossing off the final days on her calendar in the kitchen.”
“Pretty close. We’ve got a few weeks. It’s hard to do much more without the UHaul,” I said. “Hey, I want to tell you something before we go in.”
My stomach dropped along with my gaze. My eyes locked in on a fresh piece of chewed gum on the sidewalk. A white contrast to all the other flattened black circles of centuries old gum that littered the sidewalk.
I’ve told everyone so far, except my dad. This was my final chance to tell my dad before my fiance and I move to Colorado.
I know how proud my dad is of me being a civil engineer. I know how proud he is to be able to tell people his son working on the new World Trade Center. I also know the sacrifice he made to put his savings into my college degree.
“So…” I began, “I really feel like I know what it takes to be a great civil engineer. I just don’t care enough to do what it takes.”
I shift my weight.
“But… I know what it takes to be a great personal trainer and I’ll do whatever it takes.”
I couldn’t look up and see his questioning eyes and lose my courage to say what I had to say. I gulped, my eyes still locked on that chewed piece of gum.
“That’s why when I get to Colorado, I won’t continue being an engineer. I’m going to be a personal trainer.”
I clenched my jaw and finally met his gaze.
And there it was.
His smile that told me when I was 12-years-old I’m an all-star even when I went 0-4 in the championship baseball game.
His smile that told me he trusted me even when I lied about going to a friends house and went to a party instead.
His smile 2 years ago as he said goodbye to me on the first day of my bike ride across America that told me I didn’t need to make it to the Pacific Ocean for him to be proud of me.
That smile was there now, as he told me with complete confidence, “I know. And you’re gonna do incredible.”
My chest unraveled and he pulled me in for another hug. This time much longer and much tighter.
I don’t remember if I said anything in that moment.
I don’t know if I needed to.
How could I have been so afraid to tell my dad when all he has ever done was support me and be there for me. Today was no different.
The confident version of Matt people see today is not who I was on that day outside The Meatball Shop or any day before. It’s because of my dad and the rest of my family who has supported every decisions I have made since quitting engineering that has given me the courage to be so unapologetically be me.
Your Big Story vs. A Moment
When asked to tell our story you always want to tell the whole thing,
You want to tell your story.
The big story of your transformation that spans (probably) over the last 10 years or more.
The problem most people face when approaching this is how.
How do I tell such a BIG story in a reel?
Hell, how do I tell it a longer format like a podcast?
There’s so much to share.
Where do I start?
How do I tie it all together?
I know I can’t literally tell it all, so which parts do I share?
Blah, fuck it, I’ll just spew it all out!
…And you get something like my, “My Quarter Life Crisis” story.
The thing to figure out when telling the big story is not how to tell it, but why to tell it.
We know stories build connection so we desire to tell ours. Then instinctively go to the big story, but what if I told you that’s not actually the story people care about.
In fact, that’s not even the story you care about.
When I die—and if it’s true what they say—what will flash before my eyes won’t be my quarter life crisis.
I praaaaaay I get to relive that moment when I looked into my dads eyes and saw his smile outside The Meatball Shop.
It’s not memorable to me that I rode my bike across America. What I will never forget is being embraced by my entire family hugging, crying and celebrating me on the beach of the Pacific Ocean as I crossed the finish line of that ride (not mentioned above because… well I didn’t have time!)
Can’t you see that it’s my families nonjudgemental, unconditional love that is the reason I am capable of doing anything significant in my life?
These moments with my family are what have made me, me.
Those are the moments that I want to relive as I lay down and die.
I’m willing to bet that’s what you too.
The moments of love, tears of joy, hope and excitement.
So…. how did you feel reading those stories?
What did you relate to?
What stood out?
I can tell you how I felt writing them.
Story 1: Just felt rushed. It felt like I was just listing things. The pacing is hurried as I tried to get through it in a proper amount of time because this is an email, not a novel, and I gotta get to the point. Mostly, I felt disconnected.
Story 2: I cried as I wrote it.
Maya Angelou said it best, “People don’t remember what you said or what you did. They remember how you made them feel.”
If you don’t relate to my story with my dad, that’s okay, it wasn’t for you. But those of you who found yourself in that story felt something far deeper than what you felt when reading my big story.
THAT is connection.
And wouldn’t you know it, you learn just as much about me in both stories. In the second story you still learn about me part time coaching Crossfit, that I’m engaged, that I live in NYC, that I rode my bike across America and of course, that I’m quitting engineer and moving to Colorado to pursue my passions.
The purpose of sharing your story (aside from the personal growth part of it) is to build connection with your audience.
The big story can be inspirational and get people hype and jumping out of their chair and take action (and there’s a place for that), but it’s not the story that gets people to truly feel seen, safe, loved and feel a sense of belonging.
Moments do that.
Moments are what keeps people coming back for more.
I know I haven’t extinguished your desire to tell your big story. I love that. It’s still necessary. The problem I see most people have is that they don’t really understand what their big story means. That’s why it gets hard to know what to tell, what to include, and how to tie it all together in a nice bow.
It’s like pouring out all the puzzle pieces and being frustrated you can’t put it all together in a moment.
What is more productive is to begin flipping over each piece.
Then finding the corners. Then the edges. Then separating by color or pattern. Then starting to slowly build the puzzle.
What will help you tell your big story is to start sharing the moments that make up the big story. Not only are the moments more effective connection builders, but as you unravel the moments you will start to notice themes. When you begin noticing themes you begin to see the whole picture.
So, forget about the big story for now (don’t worry I’ll talk about this in another email).
Instead, begin telling meaningful moments filled with emotion that keep people coming back.
🧃 The Juice
There is no perfect story to start with. You are a deeply complex human. It’s such a beautiful thing. You couldn’t possible wrap up everything that makes you who you are in one go anyway. So… just start.
You have people following you who already know parts (or most) of your story, you have people who followed you yesterday and know nothing about you and you have people who will start following you in 3 months from now who will have never heard any of this.
So… just start.
And remember… Great stories are worth repeating.
What better place to start and with a moment in your life you cannot forget.
You know, the one that randomly pops in your head on a walk. Or that one from Christmas. Or that one from that summer barbecue.
There’s a reason you haven’t forget it and I want you to uncover that reason.
Why haven’t you forgot it?
Depending on the story you chose, this might be obvious to some of you.
Maybe for others it’s not because it feels like it’s just be a random moment.
In either case, every story must have a reason for telling it and we want to uncover that so you can learn more about yourself.
The trick is to not force the reason.
And even if you already know the reason, you may be surprised to find the meaning has changed as you have aged and gotten wiser.
In either case, you will uncover your reason as you write.
And yes, write.
Not writing is one of the core reasons you struggle telling stories.
Trying to organize years worth of memories, ideas, and beliefs in your head is like building idea furniture without the directions.
Spend an hour a week writing, or 15 minutes in the morning.
Here’s the process
Once you have the memory in your head, sit down, close your eyes and relive it.
Simply walk through the seen, listen to the sounds, notice the smells, who was there, what do you see and most importantly of all, what do you feel?
Jot down in bullet format what you noticed. Anything that stood out to you is great. This is your story.
Note the specifics like,
The smell of the mint leaves from the garden.
The tempo as the swing set squeaked back and forth.
The sweat drip off my husbands forehead.
4 crushed empty Coke cans on the lawn.
I know some thing happened in that memory. An instant where things changed for you.
Did you watch it happen?
Was it something said or done to you?
What was it that happened? This is your climax of the story.
Write down two emotions.
One emotion you were feeling before “the thing” happened.
One emotion you felt after it happened.
If you need some assistance identifying your emotions, use the emotional wheel chart. It can be helpful to start from the inside of the wheel and work your way toward the outside. There is no right or wrong way to describe how you were feeling. It’s your truth.
Now I want you to write out the story the same way you walked through it in your mind.
Share those specific things you noticed. As you describe the scene, tie it in to the emotion you felt. Only bring in backstory when it’s absolutely necessary to give context to the current moment. Otherwise, lose it.
After you share the climax, be sure to tell me how you felt after it happened.
Finish the story telling us what changed.
Now that you have given yourself time to sit with this story, you may finally understand what it means to you or the old meaning has changed.
Share what that change is.
Did/do you have a new perspective or view on the world? Maybe on a person in your life?
Did/does this help you do something you were avoiding or maybe even set you back further.
Did you just learn more about yourself? What’s the significance of this.
🧃 Your two key points are taking your audience from one feeling to another. This is the audiences pay off and the reason they will walk away feeling seen and like they belong.
🧃 Those external details you listed in step 2 are what pulls us into the story.
🧃 The internal emotions are what we relate to.
I hope you take the space to practice this.
Storytelling is a skill.
When you have your story written, if you feel inclined, please send it over to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to read it.
Next week I want to give you the 5 keys to presenting a great story.
I can’t wait to share these with you. This gets really fun.