Recently, a client came to me and confessed, in her sweet Australian accent, that -- despite being a successful entrepreneur several times over and having her Kenyan restaurant brilliantly reviewed by The New York Times -- she had no idea how to "pitch" herself.
"It's just not something we DO in Australia," she lamented. "I know I come off like a total bore, but it just feels so inauthentic and weird to try and sell myself and all my accomplishments."
Listening to her, I had to laugh -- remembering how disconcerted I felt upon arriving in SF to hear such blatant self-promotion come out of people's mouths at casual gatherings amongst friends -- and assure her, there was another way.
So we got to work, exploring how she got to where (and who) she is today -- not just incredibly sharp and disarmingly witty, but extremely passionate about sustainable food systems, and hoping to land her dream job in SF -- which would pay her to travel the world and advance the cause dearest to her heart, while her own businesses continued running themselves.
And as I listened to her describe how she went from idealistic college graduate to badass business owner,
I started to notice a pattern.
In the beginning, fresh from the "north country" and without a lick of experience, she walked into a management consulting firm in Sydney and asked for a job. Looking at her incredulously, the head of the firm said: "Why are you here? You're sitting here, asking for a job, and you have no idea what you're doing. You're incredibly high risk... But you know what? I'm going to take a gamble on you." And he gave her the job wherein she would spend the next three years learning how to build a business.
Much later, after deciding to turn her casual backyard brunch into a proper restaurant business, she described riding from market to market in Nairobi on the back of a friend's motorbike, chasing down the next link in the supply chain and negotiating with vendors, balancing old tomato crates for later transformation into chairs. Her friend's name was Johnny, and he came up again and again during her earliest stages of entrepreneurship.
And as a final example, there was the young Kenyan woman who sat down and ordered a strawberry milkshake before listening to what may have been the worst possible pitch: "Look, I want to start a bar/restaurant, I've got no expertise, no location, and very little money. Are you in?" And who immediately said: "Yes, I'm in, let's do it."
Over and over again these kinds of characters appeared, acting as catalysts of the next shift in my client's amazing and improbable trajectory. She spoke of them with great fondness; aware, on some level, that she could not have done it alone.
After articulating the pattern I saw in her stories, I found myself reflecting:
How often do we pretend that we DID get there all on our own?
Given our obsessively individualistic culture, it's no wonder Americans assume they must position themselves as the primary hero of their stories. For all our talk of "collaboration" as the solution to the world's problems, and despite the glaring truth of our growing interdependence; it is still rare to meet a person with enough grace and self-awareness to openly honor the roles that others played in their success.
As the big interview approached, I asked my client how she would respond if someone asked her "how the hell she did it" -- in other words, why it seems like everything she touches turns to gold.
After some discussion, we agreed that she would take that question, or any similar invitation, as an opportunity to express gratitude for the string of people who decided, against all reason, to take a chance on her.
After all, who is she talking to -- but a person she hopes will do the exact same thing?
So, how do supporting characters show up in YOUR story?
Are they peripheral; glossed over; suspiciously missing? If they are present, how does their presence illuminate you, and provide fuel for your listener's imagination?
And if I were to tell you a secret -- that you are NOT the hero of your story -- do you think you would tell it any differently?