The Shape of a Life


“You find your genius by looking in the mirror of your life.” —James Hillman in The Soul’s Code

How Would You Describe Yourself?

The deceptively simple question, “How would you describe yourself?” can take people by surprise. Asking someone to name as many adjectives as they can think of, including the ways they know themselves more personally but don’t reveal so readily.

Leaders accustomed to briefing investors, facilitating dialogue at big conferences or doing Grand Rounds in medicine can suddenly grow shy. Prompted to just begin, a river of meaning starts flowing: “Passionate. Impulsive. Smart. Impatient. Funny. Generous. Irreverent. Somewhat introverted. Loving. Ambitious. Curious. Funny. Oh, yeah, and a lot more anxious than I let on.” Words that tumble out not only shape our impressions as listeners but also shape the speaker from the inside out.

Quick. How would you describe yourself?

This simple question opens a door into our past. What shaped us? What tempered our character? What called forth our talents? What brought forth our humility? What made us who we are? Our identities are on the line with such a question, so we reach for what is handy, what we’ve heard from others, what we were taught, and, perhaps, what we aspire to be as well.

ThE leadership AutobiographY - A Kind of Personal TED Talk

In our Leadership Learning Communities, the end of the year is all about leadership presence, standing in the middle of the theater of leadership, sharing meaningful stories that move hearts as well as minds. We start with the “Who am I?” and “Why should you care?” story. Participants each have 20 minutes without any interruption to tell their leadership autobiography. Twenty minutes to hold the center while colleagues listen intently. Twenty minutes to share crucible moments.

It’s a kind of personal TED talk, and it terrifies many. No matter that listeners are instructed to listen in appreciative ways—i.e., sharing what most touched them, what gifts and strengths did they note, and what made them curious to learn more.

The intimacy of showing more depth, more drama, more humanity just feels vulnerable. And, then there’s the real art of storytelling, which requires editing much out and amplifying a few meaningful episodes with emotionally vivid details. This exercise is not about winging it. It’s about deep reflections on what has shaped a life, with origin stories knitted together with moments where purpose became clear, where belonging gloriously existed or was quite sadly lost, and where contributions and efforts were incredibly significant or woefully insufficient.

When I did this exercise in Denmark, with a group of leaders and country managers from Philips Lighting, the big surprise was how many felt that talking about themselves would be a burden yet felt spellbound by others’ stories. The takeaway was that protecting others from our own story is not only unnecessary, it is also thoroughly lacking in generosity!

When we tell our story, we invite others into our lives more deeply and make it safe for them to do the same. Consider exploring this with someone close or even your team at work. Let them help you find important threads and themes as you share your answers to:

  • What experiences most shaped you?

  • Who most influenced your values, sense of self, and/or possibilities for yourself?

  • How did you overcome hardship? What most helped?

  • What are you most committed to bringing to the world (through what you do and/or who you are being)?

You’ll have a good start on your very own personal TED talk. Then, return the favor and help someone else go through the same process. Let me know what you discovered in doing this exercise.