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The “Storyteller” Label: Wings or Shackles?

Do you remember discovering storytelling?

One day in 1976, I asked a school music coordinator to hire me as a folksinger for school assemblies. He said, “Sorry, Doug. The music schedule is full. But our Literary Resources office is desperate for storytellers – and you tell stories when you sing. Call them!”

sign: "storytelling here"

How did you discover storytelling?

Up until that moment, I had considered storytelling only as a small part of folk music. So I was astonished that “storytelling” made me eligible for a different category of work.

Now that I had discovered “storytelling,” though, I could find books about it. I could even join an organization and get a newsletter about it. I had done much more than discover an activity called “storytelling”; I had begun to take on a new identity called “storyteller.”

“You Mean, Storytelling Is a ‘Thing’?”

Many storytellers have similar experiences.

photo of Joel ben Izzy, corporate storyteller

Joel ben Izzy

Think of Joel ben Izzy, who tells us that, as a child, he learned to cheer up his mother during her bouts of sadness. A smile or a laugh from her was the compelling reward for his verbal antics, which inevitably included telling jokes and humorous stories. Much later, he was thrilled to discover that these early skills qualified him to become a “storyteller.” (See Joel’s wonderful book, “The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness.”)

photo of Jay O'Callahan, master storyteller

Jay O'Callahan

Or think of Jay O’Callahan, who improvised stories to entertain his younger brother and sister during car rides and moments of waiting. Later, his own children demanded story after story at bedtime. When a friend (who was also an educator) suggested that Jay take his storytelling seriously, Jay was astounded. Make a living from storytelling?

The “Storyteller” Label As Magic Wings

When we adopt the label “storyteller,” we gain entry into a world of storytelling performances, festivals, workshops, conferences and even organizations.

We become inspired by other storytellers. We may feel, perhaps for the first time, that we have “come home.” We get a chance to further our skills, to gain wisdom about the powers of storytelling, to develop our unique ways of exercising those powers.

Adopting the label “storyteller” can be liberating. It can help us fly over barriers to our creativity and passions – in short, to discover an aspect of our true selves.

“Graduating” From Storytelling?

photo of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (Reb Zalman)

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was raised as an orthodox Hasidic Jew in Eastern Europe. He completed his studies in New York with the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Yet Reb Zalman (as he is lovingly called) went on to participate in spiritual movements from Sufism to the Lama Foundation and the Nairopa Institute. He founded the Jewish Renewal movement as well as the Spiritual Eldering movement.

I once heard someone ask Reb Zalman if he repudiates his orthodox background. Reb Zalman said, as I recall, “I graduated from Hasidism, just the way you graduate from a school. You don’t have to repudiate it, but you have to build on it, go beyond it.”

Once we have found our “place” as storytellers, though, it can be tempting to never graduate. Whether from feelings of loyalty, a fear of being without enough support, or just from attachment to the “outsider” status that being a storyteller can grant us, we don’t always recognize that our once exhilarating storytelling eyrie has turned into a cave to retreat to.

Not everyone needs to “graduate” from storytelling – or from Hasidism, for that matter. But once it’s time for us to leave the cave and explore more of the mountain, staying in the alma mater can be destructive.

The “Storyteller” Label As Iron Shackles

Think of it like this: in your years of successful storytelling, you have learned a unique wisdom. You have developed your own ways of engaging, persuading, moving, or transforming people.

In that way, “storytelling” has been your laboratory, your proving grounds. You have developed wisdom in this relatively protected environment – wisdom that is needed elsewhere in society.

Hanging on to the storytelling label too long is stultifying, like trying to walk with shackles around your ankles. But the real tragedy is that, by not sharing what you know in other contexts, you are depriving others of what they need – and yourself of knowing you are needed.

In this case, the storytelling label, once so liberating in our lives, becomes a chain holding us in place. It can encourage us to discontinue the evolution that led us to storytelling in the first place.

Seeking New Labels

Jay O’Callahan, after years of performing and creating stories – first for children, then for adults – discovered a new market for his now expanded skills: organizations wanting their complex history to be represented in a story.

NASA, for example, knew that even a brief history of its thousands of projects over 50 years would take volumes to describe. So they commissioned Jay to boil it all down into a performance that would, in just 75 minutes, convey the spirit of this epic endeavor.

Joel ben Izzy, on the other hand, discovered that his ways of seeing stories “at a slant” could be vitally important to Silicon Valley executives, who constantly need to “think out of the box” and then convey their plans as effective narratives of the future.

Storytelling is a category of work, but it is fundamentally a tool for communicating. To be sure, it sometimes makes sense to base your identity on your tools. If people say, “He’s a great welder,” you’ll get more jobs welding. That’s the helpful side of the label.

But at other times, it’s absurd not to label yourself according to what you create with your tools. Think of Alexander Calder, the innovative sculptor of metal mobiles. He welded, but who would describe him as “Alexander Calder, the welder”?

Instead, Calder used the tool of welding to create sculptures, just as O’Callahan and ben Izzy use the tool of storytelling to create better-understood institutions and more effective executives.

What About You?

In a future article, I’ll talk about ways to re-purpose your storytelling wisdom under other categories.

For now, though, ask yourself, “Is it time to start describing myself by what I accomplish, rather than only by the way I accomplish it?”

Is it time to become a proud graduate of storytelling?

What More Help?

Want help discovering new labels for your existing skills?

Try this product: The “Who Needs My Wisdom?” Toolkit.

Or ask when this course will be offered next: The course, “How to Create an Irresistible Offer That Will Attract Those Who Are Hungry For What You Have to Offer”.

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