The power of storytelling
I used to think of storytelling as people gathered around a campfire toasting s’mores, of bards singing of Odysseus, of family lore told over kitchen tables. Or I would see someone with storyteller
in their Twitter bio, and I would assume that person was in marketing or branding. Storytelling was great, but I certainly wasn’t a storyteller. I hadn’t experienced major life-threatening experiences or hardships. What stories did I have to tell and why in the world would people want to hear them?
A few weeks ago, I made a pretty ambitious goal to publish 52 posts on Medium in 2015. I would publish musings, thoughts, really anything as long as I established a regular cadence of sharing something. As part of that, I recently wrote this story
about my realizations around infrastructure engineering. In it, I said that I had thought infrastructure engineers argue for hours about optimal approaches and complain a lot about specific technologies—and I didn’t see myself as someone who wanted to do those things. So I thought I wasn’t interested in it, until I had an experience that changed my mind, and I realized I had been holding myself back from something I really did like.
A few days after I published the post, my colleague Nathan (who is in fact an infrastructure engineer) pulled me aside and said, “ I read what you wrote about infrastructure engineers
.” I started to become defensive and nervous about what he thought I had written, and tried to clarify my thoughts. But he went on, “I realize that sometimes I do those things, and reading your post made me realize that it’s really
very inviting. If I were on the outside, I wouldn’t think hey I want to go join those people. I wanted to ask you what you think I can do to change that.”
He talked about how his sister was considering switching from Theater to Computer Science, and how he had been thinking about the cultural norms in tech and how we can change them to be more inclusive (especially in infrastructure, where there are even fewer women).
This exchange made me realize the impact of writing about my personal experiences, of storytelling, or writing on Medium, and of open and safe dialogue.
I could have written a generic piece about how there weren’t many women in infrastructure and 5 ways we could change that. But honestly, that draft probably would never have been published because I would have reread it and felt like it wasn’t worth publishing, or that it didn’t sound like me, or who did I think I was to have the answers to these very hard problems? Instead, I wrote about something sort of vulnerable and personal, about something I had thought about myself—really, not just that I wasn’t interested
in infrastructure, but that some part of me deep down thought that I wasn’t cut out for it. Sharing something personal started many fruitful conversations that I never expected.
When I wrote previously, I would publish into a void, and then get a bunch of comments on Hacker News, most of which I would ignore because they were incredibly ignorant and offensive, and some of which were encouraging. I wrote what I thought might hit #1 on Hacker News, or blow up on Reddit.
Now I’m seeing something much more rewarding emerge—probably partly because of the distribution and network on Medium, and partly because of the sort of stuff I’m writing—and that’s the strengthening of my already existing connections between coworkers, friends, and acquaintances. People I hadn’t heard from in awhile emailing me to say “Thank you so much for writing again”
or coworkers saying “I read your post, I feel the same way too!”
and starting conversations about deeply meaningful topics.
I had initially thought that writing about personal experiences would “lower the bar” for what I published so I could hit my 2015 goal, but now I’m realizing it is impactful in its own way. Maybe I could even add storyteller
to my twitter bio.