The following is a letter I wrote for the The Escape Tribe in London, a community of 46 people determined to find direction and pursue more meaningful work. For the past three months, I’d been acting as “Tribe Leader” for this group, and our intensive time together came to a close a couple weekends ago in an emotional and deeply meaningful Closing Ceremony. I wrote this letter to them at the kick off of our experience together in April.
My eyes danced around the tiny basement bar as I downed a beer and considered my situation: surrounded by Estonians yet completely alone. I was in a place, in a city, in a country, and in a region where I knew no one and no one knew me. I smiled and wondered how I ended up there.
It was August 2012 and I was in the middle of a seven-month sabbatical from my consulting job at IBM. What began as a perfectly planned one-way ticket to Iceland grew into a delightfully unplanned but deliberate wander around northern and eastern Europe. Three months in, I found myself standing at a dark bar in Tartu.
As I ordered another beer, I caught an odd sight: the face of a young Texan named Zoom whom I’d met briefly at a backpacker’s hostel in Tallinn one week earlier. It was strange enough seeing the rare breed of the solo-traveling American once in a place like Estonia, let alone spotting one for a second time in Estonia’s second city. It seemed like a nudge from the universe that I should not ignore. I shuffled up to him and reintroduced myself.
Matt from Chicago. Zoom from Texas.
Zoom had zen-like coolness about him on the surface but his eyes were windows to a fiery underbelly. Maybe we were on similar journeys.
“So, what’s your story Matt?” Zoom asked.
One year prior, this question would have thrown me for a loop.
What’s my story? What the hell does that mean?
Yet in that moment, in Tartu, standing in a random bar that I didn’t know existed thirty minutes beforehand, in a random city that I didn’t know existed three days earlier, I got it. The question no longer phased me. Without hesitation I told my story.
Tales from a Deliberate Journeyer
“I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden.
Although I didn’t enter the woods quite like Thoreau did, after reading Walden I now believe I had similar motivations to the 19th century philosopher for making my own unique journey “into the woods.” On the day I landed in Iceland, I decided to start writing about my story and documenting my journey to become more deliberate in work, travel and life on my blog GiveLiveExplore. My strapline became “Tales from a Deliberate Journeyer.” I didn’t have it all figured out, but I was hellbent on working at it.
I was eager to strip away the noise that was surrounding my life and see if I could front only the essential facts of my life. It was exciting as much as it was terrifying: if I could peel away and have a peek underneath the skins of who I was — an IBM consultant; an engineer; a third generation American of Greek-Italian-Irish descent; an Ohioan, a Clevelander, a child of an upper-middle class American suburb; a Greek Orthodox Christian by birth — what would I find? Was there anything bigger and brighter somewhere down there? It was my first attempt to become deliberate about understanding who I was. Not just for the sake of mental or spiritual masturbation, but to use it to inform me of the path I should be deliberately carving for myself going forward, in career and in life.
As I wandered, I wrote. As I wrote, I floated burning questions up into the air above me and allowed myself to reflect upon them: Am I spending my fleeting time on earth doing things that matter? Am I fulfilling my potential? Utilizing my unique gifts? Embracing my passions? And what are my gifts? What are those passions?
All of these questions led to the overarching theme of: Who am I? Who am I meant to become? Why am I here? They were heavy questions to bear, but I let them travel with me and sit snugly at my hip.
As I reflected upon these questions, I slowly began unpacking who was doing the reflecting. As I unpacked him, I became more comfortable with that person. As I became more comfortable, I shared my story with others. As I shared, I connected with those who were on a similar journey. As I connected, the more I understood the importance of storytelling in inspiring change — within oneself and within others.
And the more I told my story, the more I became obsessed with stories and storytelling. And the more obsessed I became, the more stories and books about stories I read. And the more I read, the more I spotted this literal or metaphorical journey “into the woods” to discover something that’s lost or missing.
Into the Woods: The Anatomy of a Great Story
To prepare for my current role as Tribe Leader for our Escape Tribe, I decided to take a walk along a portion of El Camino de Santiago del Norte (a portion of which I did physically walk “into the woods”). With me I took a book entitled Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them by John Yorke. Yorke goes to incredible lengths to reduce all great stories, at least the archetypal stories that tend to resonate most strongly with us, to a simplistic framework:
“All plunge their characters into a strange new world; all involve a quest to find a way out of it; and in whatever form they choose to take, in every story ‘monsters’ are vanquished.”
He goes on to say that there a few things all stories undoubtedly have:
The Protagonist. This is our hero — the central character (or characters) around whom the story revolves. We desperately want the hero to succeed in his or her pursuits.
The Protagonist’s Desire. In all great stories, the protagonist desires something. It’s to capture the holy grail. It’s to save a loved one. It’s to protect and secure their hometown. It’s to get the girl (or the guy). It’s to defeat the bad guy.
The Antagonist. This is often an external force — it’s the bad guy, the alien, the natural disaster. Sometimes the antagonist is internal — it’s the protagonist’s own flaw keeping him or her from capturing their desire and developing into the person they have the potential to be. Either way, the antagonist is the force standing between the protagonist and their desires.
But the greatest stories — the stories that resonate with us long after we’ve finished them — contain two more profound bits:
The Transformational Journey. This is the quest of the hero — the story arc itself. It’s the story of the hero as they pursue their goals and desires. If it’s a story that sticks with us and makes us feel something, a change of some kind will occur inside the protagonist. According to Yorke: “Change of some kind is at the heart of this quest, and so too is choice, because finally the protagonist must choose how to change.”
The Theme. Theme is “an active exploration of an idea, it’s a premise to be explored, it’s a question.” The Theme is a burning question, asked by the writer, overarching the entire story. At the end of the story, if the story is told well, that burning question is answered.
I’ve oversimplified this a bit (Yorke does go on to describe the anatomy of a story in much greater detail). But for our purposes, if we have three things — a protagonist, the protagonist’s desire, and an antagonistic force working against the protagonist — then we have the makings of a story. If we have a journey that evokes change in the protagonist and an overarching theme hovering above the entire story and seeking an answer — we have the makings of a great story.
What Does This Have To Do With Us?
Everything. Your career change journey has more in common with this archetypal story structure than you may believe. Let me explain.
Just as there are five main components of a great story — Protagonist, Protagonist’s Desire, Antagonist, Journey (including the change that occurs within the Protagonist) and Theme — so it is with us.
The Protagonist = You.
You are the hero. You are the one we want to see succeed in your pursuits.
The Protagonist’s Desire = What You Want.
Perhaps the toughest question of all — what do you want? What are you pursuing?
When the protagonist has no wants, no goals, no desires, no dreams, no problems to solve — we have a shit story. The same applies to us and our story.
“If a character doesn’t want something, they’re passive. And if they’re passive, they’re effectively dead. Without a desire to animate the protagonist, the writer has no hope of bringing the character alive, no hope of telling a story and the world will almost always be boring.” – John Yorke.
The Antagonist = What’s Stopping You.
These are your perceived (real or imagined) blockers and obstacles, external or internal.
The Journey = Your Journey.
Your story arc in your pursuit of something different and the change that will inevitably occur.
The Theme = Your Burning Questions.
These are the big burning questions you will inevitably carry with you as you make any sort of big change.
Does this make sense? Or does it sound ridiculous to you? Either way, I implore you try it on for just a moment — for an evening, for a day, for a week, or for a month if you can. If you can allow yourself to view your your life as a story, I think you’ll experience what I’ve stumbled upon in evolving to become a storyteller myself through writing, speaking, and my work at Escape: once you start viewing your life like an interesting story, it has no other choice but to become one.
Living an Interesting Story
“If you’re going to have a story, have a big story, or none at all.” – Joseph Campbell.
Three years ago, I would never had thought to ask such a question as “What’s your story?” I certainly would have struggled to come up with a thoughtful answer if prompted by it.
Having a story implies you’re doing something interesting. Something worth talking about. Something worthy of a remark. It means you’re living a life that has the potential to inspire a song, a book, or a movie.
When we learn to think of our lives as an interesting story, we accept that our lives have the potential to be told as a beautiful and romantic story, complete with secret twists and unforeseen turns, euphoric highs, gut-wrenching lows, and moments where we see with complete clarity how our story fits perfectly into an even bigger, much more beautiful and even more romantic story.
But our lives only become an interesting story when we care enough to zoom out and describe them as such.
In honor of my fellow wanderer Zoom, I call this practice the art of “Zooming Out.”
Zooming Out is the act of viewing yourself and your story in the 3rd person. As an impartial observer. As one who cares deeply about the protagonist and wants him or her to succeed in their pursuits.
By zooming out and seeing your life as the beautiful story it has the potential to be; by learning to articulate it as such; by caring enough to share it with the world; you’re making a statement to yourself that you believe your life is an interesting story. And when you start to view your life like an interesting story – like a mysterious myth, like a beautiful piece of folklore, like a wonderful adventure – and you begin to view yourself as the story’s hero, you become the hero. Your life becomes the interesting story.
If my experience in making a massive change is any indicator (and the experience of the thousands who have come before me and the thousands like you whose time has come), it’s a journey that will feel very much like stepping deep “into the woods.” Sometimes you’ll feel lost or lonely. At times it will also feel exhilarating and thrilling. And as you go forward, you’ll encounter many teachers along the way; you’ll be put through mental, emotional, physical challenges; sometimes you’ll feel high on life. Other times you’ll wobble and you’ll worry. And that’s okay.
Throughout it all, try to remember:
- Zoom Out. Your life is an interesting story that’s unfolding before you. It helps if you actually believe it and live your life in such a way.
- You’re the Hero. How would you want your favourite protagonist to act? When in doubt, go and do that.
- Ask Burning Questions. Float your burning questions into the air and let them hover above you as you press forward. Have faith that you’ll grow into the answers.
- You Must Desire Something. Perhaps the toughest (but most important) piece of the puzzle — what do you want? Maybe this is your burning question.
- You’re Not Alone. This is perhaps the most important thing to remember. If you’re looking for something more — you’ve found your tribe. We’re right here.
I wish you the strength to change course if you choose to and to write the next chapters of your story — deliberately, courageously, with your own pen and by your own hand. Use stories as your guide. And remember to share yours to inspire the next generation of career changers to do the same.
Buen Camino, friends.
“Life loves to be taken by the lapel and told:‘I’m with you kid. Let’s go.’”