Tell Me a Story

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, my next door neighbor Don sat down at my table while I was having lunch at a club we both belong to…this was last week. Don is 76, nearly 30 years my senior. He just sat down to chat. Told me about a funeral he just came from. Told me about a few of my shrubs that he thinks need attention. He talked about what he was doing in his yard. I talked about what I was doing in my business. He shared a few thoughts on business, government, people in general and life. Then he got up and strolled over to another table for an afternoon of cards with his peers. They play every afternoon.

And there on my table where Don had been was a small collection of nuggets of wisdom. Left there for me to do with what I choose.

I sat there for a few more minutes, passively finishing the newspaper and my tuna sandwich and glancing across the room at the collection of eight or 10 men all over 70 enjoying each other’s company, sharing soft jabs over a mistake made in the play, and sipping iced tea and decaffeinated coffee. Omaha is a small town. I know all of these men’s names and more importantly their professional history. The experience and wisdom at that table runs deep and wide.

As I was driving back to the office after lunch I reflected on the value of stories and seemingly casual conversation. I thought about my first 25 years in business and what I had learned so far, more so how I learned it. College educated, advanced degree, etc. and yet most of what I know and do that makes a difference I learned from wise men and women who took the time to tell me a story and make sure the meaning and moral was in plain sight.

If you think back to how generations learned the "how’s" and "what’s" of working and simply of being men and women prior to the last 20 years or so it was predominantly by oral tradition, example, and side-by-side instruction. Methods such as self study, online learning, one-day seminars and even singular lecture hall mass instruction are relatively new. These methods are usually pretty effective at sharing the concepts and buzz words, but completely devoid of passing on experience, true understanding and the real world application of knowledge to practical problems and opportunities.

Learning via story, shared experience, side-by-side hands on patient instruction is out of fashion simply because it takes too much time and we probably aren’t collectively as interested in another person’s success as we used to be. I don’t think we realize holistically how their success makes manifest our work and contribution.

Just like the Wall Street bankers we are so willing to vilify for their short term perspectives, we behave in very short term ways. In our careers many if not most of us are looking for the immediate raise, promotion and recognition. The people around us become at best temporary companions and allies on our professional migration. At worst they are simply obstacles and imposed nuisances.

And yet we know that learning and teaching are truly the foundation of sustained success. The transference of accumulated knowledge, sharing of experience, good and bad, and creation of the foundation for further experience and knowledge to be gained is the grist of perpetuating enterprises (businesses, non-profits, schools, families, communities, etc.). Simply stated, learn or die applies to people as well as to companies. And as learning and teaching are inextricably intertwined, doesn’t the logical linkage flow that the phrase can simultaneously be teach or die?

The truly successful organizations of history and those of the future will encourage and invest in the real transference of knowledge via the creation of relationships between the seasoned veteran and the high potential rising star. There will be time and resource set aside to create the environment to tell stories, to patiently assure that not only the facts, but the lesson and implications are understood. And equally as important that the relationships are forged, leaving not only a legacy enterprise and personal success, but also a bond to the honor of carrying on the work of our predecessors building on the foundation they laid for us.

The landscape is rife with corporations and other institutions that lost sight of teaching, learning, remembering and passing on their historical footings and moral compass. Soon they become purely transactional and hence commoditized. Learning and teaching become quaint topics overrun by market share and quarterly profits. And soon, no one remembers why the company does what it does and what value it was attempting to create, and what made it different, better. And death ensues as the teachers, the learners and those whose character requires them to do work that matters silently depart for more meaningful and fulfilling environs.

The companies that encourage the perpetuation of wisdom and stories and interaction that has little immediate value but substantial long-term value will ever progress. And they will attract the most desirable people, and they will work with the most coveted clients, and they will leave legacies. And their stories will continue to be told.

And soon (sooner than we can accept) we become the story tellers, we stop by the table, pull out the chair and patiently ask the questions that allow us to plant the seeds of our collection of experiences. And the vine grows longer, and more entangled, and the story goes on. And so our work goes on after we fade into the storied history. And soon our teacher’s story will become indistinguishable from our own and our students, and they become one history as the foundation set for the new student.

The End….and the beginning….