This winter, I made a significant professional title leap from Self-Organizing Groups Researcher to Community Story Wrangler.
This recognizing-and-claiming-who-you-really-are business is fun. And scary. Not that it’s a one-time deal. I seem to do it again and again. Now that I’m in my 40s, though, it’s beginning to feel more fun, because I’m getting closer to who I really am. Some moments it’s scarier—those moments when I feel I have a lot more to lose. But most days it’s easier now because I recognize that I have nothing to lose on the path to my true self except the things I don’t really want anymore anyway.
When I was in fourth grade, I won a ribbon for a story I wrote. I still remember the premise. I wove what appeared to be a sad tale of a lonely old woman, slowly moving around her lonely house, preparing for her lonely day, walking down the lonely street, going to the lonely store, and coming back to that lonely house. As the story concluded, it was revealed that she’d simply been preparing to go to her afternoon job as a clown at children’s parties. She wasn’t lonely at all. Wasn’t sad at all. The reader’s own loneliness told that part of the story. Our own connectedness and joy wrote the end. The story made me cry, so I knew it was good. The story felt like a gift I’d been given. That blue (or was it red?) ribbon I won at school was cool, but the story itself was the true prize. And I knew it.
I knew that much about storytelling at the age of 9. Adults hadn’t taught me this, not really. I just knew it.
So fast-forward a few years in my life. The middle part may sound familiar. As I got older, I often let go of the things I innately knew and loved in favor of the things I thought I was supposed to do and learn and be.
Well-paying job. Check.
Car, house. Check. Check.
More school. Check.
Better job. Check.
More stuff. Check.
Even better job. Check.
Better car, better house. Check.
But that part of the tale’s not really sad and lonely either. All the right characters showed up along the way. Through it all, some region, some thread, of myself, hung on to what I really was. Storyteller/gatherer me never left—she watched, guiding, cherry-picking skills I’d need later, and surrounding me with people I needed. Even when I was too busy to notice: perhaps especially when I was too busy to notice. You may name this region, this thread, this “I AM,” as collective intuition, or God, or the nature of the universe, or our self-organizing nature, or personal growth, or pure mid-western stubbornness, or luck. Call it whatever you like. That’s your story.
For the past few years, my 9-year-old self has been making my decisions, in conjunction with a growing community of people cheering her on, including grown-up me, telling her to discover and become who she is. This time, we’re pulling the best out of her instead of telling her she must change who she is to better suit the world. We’re telling her she’s a co-creator of the world. We have no boxes to check at all now. It’s all new, surprising, rewarding, fun, scary, and wonder-filled. Together, she and I can weave stories filled with wonder, because WE are filled with wonder.
If you don’t like bulleted lists, that’s the end of this story. We like them.
When I began listening to my 9-year-old self, I noticed that:
- Depending on the company I was in, I would either call myself a Self-Organizing Groups Researcher or a determined learner. Because there is significant baggage that comes with the title Researcher. Whole communities—hurt in the name of research in the past—would fear me if I used the title. While other communities wouldn’t listen to me unless I did. “Whose side would I come out on?” appeared to be my choice. 9-year-old me clung to the words determined learner like a new puppy on Christmas morning. And taught me that it wasn’t an either/or choice. Now other academics who are really just determined learners show up. Last week I heard this: “I LOVE THIS, Lori Kane you are renewing my faith in academic play by leaving the fearbased bits behind, without leaving the careful listening, and Nancy Drew clue followin’, and accurate-fun languaging, and also by allowing yourself to sally forth, swashbuckle in hand, chicken in the other, to the next space between, which, may never have words enough to suit others, but enough for you. Cuz you ain’t scared no more.” Holy crap. Wow. Thank you Natalie.
- Last year updating all my research spreadsheets and tracking every last little detail stopped working. The groups and communities I study are always moving and remarkably interwoven. The compartmentalization and edge defining that a “good researcher” must do didn’t work for me anymore. I live in a world without walls and edges most days now and am now usually disinclined to create them. 9-year-old me said “You are more than spreadsheets and itty bitty details. The people you want to be with won’t need you to be armed with 100-page spreadsheets.” So goodbye spreadsheets.
- I didn’t have the energy for professional consulting work that all my consulting friends have. 9-year-old me shouted “Do what you love! Let’s have fun!” So we did the work that consistently fills me with energy: listening to group and individual stories, building relationships so stories go deeper, weaving stories together, encouraging people to create and recreate their own stories, writing about what we’re doing and learning together, and through this work—recognizing and supporting the emergence of new and healthier communities and a newer, healthier me. Basically, much of what I did as a qualitative researcher, without the anchor weight of the big R “Researcher” title around my neck (not that it’s an anchor for all, just for me). Within a few months, my community and I had an eBook in the works—a collection of stories. I was asked to teach a storytelling workshop. A friend and I began to imagine a collective digital magazine type thingy. We opened our home as a free neighborhood coworking space, so more stories would show up. All orchestrated by 9-year-old me, working in fluid conjunction with her community, typically only stumbling when grown-up me gets in the way.
- 9-year-old me holds the key to creating a healthy, diverse, lasting community around her wherever she goes. Even when we make mistakes: especially when we make mistakes. You are a “Community Story Wrangler!” she shouts. The moment I said that out loud to other adults, the whole world changed. Fun people show up all the time now. People who stretch me. People doing work very different from my own and who often look and sound nothing like me. People listening to their own 9-year-old selves. Or trying to, like me, and needing the group to help consistently hear that voice. Poets! Project Managers! Photographers! Artists! Scientists! Filmmakers! Neighbors! Moms! Social entrepreneurs! Performing artists! Researchers! Family members! Teachers!
I’m not an optimist. What I am is a big fluffy ball of gratitude. Grateful for the people I’m with. Grateful for the opportunity to tell our own tales. Grateful to witness myself and my community change and grow together. I believe the rest of my own story is already told. It just has to be lived. I don’t feel the need to write that tale myself anymore. I feel the need to swing from monkeybar to monkeybar, and branch to branch, having over-the-top fun gathering and sharing others’ stories: stories of humans quietly living ordinary human lives while also becoming and doing amazing things. Stories we all have. Stories patiently waiting to be discovered.
I have no idea how my own story will end. Although I’m beginning to suspect that Clown At Children’s Parties will be my final professional title and round, squishy red noses my last business cards. The story I’m most interested in hearing, and sharing, now is yours. And ours, as we recognize ourselves as partners in crime, community, friends.