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Book review: rewriting your life story

The Power of Story: Rewrite Your Destiny in Business and in Life

By Jim Loehr

Free Press, $29.99

There are these two office towers in downtown Orlando. The buildings are 30 stories high and 10 metres apart. A wooden plank spans the two roofs. Walk the plank and the Human Performance Institute will write you a certified cheque for $5 million. Your chance of success is 80 per cent.

Not interested? How about $50 million.

No? Then here’s an offer you won’t refuse and there’s no money on the table. Standing on the other roof is your family. To save their lives, you’ll have to cross the plank.

Of course, you’ll do like Jack Bauer and fearlessly sprint across the plank to rescue your family. You’ll do it backwards, with your eyes closed and hopping on one foot. You’ll go across in gale force winds and you won’t balk if your odds for success are just 50, 20 or even 10 per cent.

Author and Human Performance Institute cofounder Jim Loehr makes this hypothetical offer during his workshops, asking for a show of hands from the audience. He gets few if any takers for the $50 million deal.

"When the stakes are a large sum of money — almost never a transcendent purpose — no one walks across that plank. When the stakes are love and life and that which has incalculable value, everyone goes. Purpose is the epicentre of everyone’s life story."

Loehr is a big believer in purpose-driven life stories. He says the stories we tell ourselves about family, work, health, happiness and friendships determine our personal and professional destinies.

"Your life is the most important story you will ever tell, and you’re telling it right now, whether you know it or not. From very early on, you’re spinning and telling multiple stories about your life, publicly and privately, stories that have a theme, a tone, a premise."

There are great and inspiring stories and then there lousy stories that get us into trouble and lead to flawed endings. Any of these stories sound familiar? Yes, I know I’m 30 pounds overweight and eating my way to an extended stay in the cardiac intensive care unit, assuming I survive the ambulance ride and stopover in the emergency department.

But when am I ever going to find the time to exercise, eat right and get enough sleep? Yes, I’m never home for dinner, baths and bedtime stories with my kids but I’m working hard to provide for my family.

And they understand and accept that the reason I work 16-hour days is because of them. Most of my problems in life stem directly from my job.

Without all the stress at work, I’d be a more responsible, engaged and generally pleasant parent and spouse. I’ll lose my job if I don’t keep checking my Crackberry every five minutes on weekends and holidays.

I’ll be happy when I’m rich. I’d love to get involved in the community but I have a young family and a full-time job.

These are not good stories to be telling ourselves. And Loehr knows how these stories end. He’s built an entire company around helping otherwise smart and successful people do a rewrite of life stories that aren’t working. These folks are all too often joyless, spouseless and not on the best of terms with their kids. They’re suffering a slow death and an acute case of presenteeism. They show up to work and return home in a fog that doesn’t lift and keeps getting thicker.

The good news is it’s never too late to do a rewrite on dysfunctional life stories that aren’t getting you where you want to be with family, friends and work.

"To author a workable, fulfilling new story, you will need to ask yourself many questions and then answer them, none more important than those that concern purpose. Purpose is the sail on the boat, the yeast in the bread. Once you know your purpose — that is, what matters — then everything else can fall into place."

So what’s your purpose? If you’re not sure, start by asking yourself these questions and invest the time to come up with honest answers. How do you want to be remembered? What is the legacy you most want to leave for others? How would you most like to hear people eulogize you at your funeral? What is worth dying for? What makes your life really worth living? In what areas of your life must you truly be extraordinary to fulfill your destiny?

If you’re suffering a slow death at work and becoming an unwelcome stranger on the home front, this book is well worth the read. You’ll learn how to write a truly great and inspiring life story with the essential elements of purpose, truth and action.

"In the end, your story is not a tragedy, " says Loehr. "Nor is it a comedy or a romance or a thriller or a drama. It’s something else. What label would you give the story of your life, the most important story you will ever tell? To me, that sounds like an epic. End of story."

Review: Influencing behaviors to drive change

Influencer: The Power to Change Anything

By Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler,

McGraw-Hill, ($29.99)

Before rolling out the next great change project at work, remember the Guinea worm. It’s hard to forget. The worm is among the largest of human parasites. Once the larvae burrow into your abdominal tissue it can grow up to one metre long. And then it burns and blisters its way out of your arm or leg. Ripping the worm out all but guarantees a life-threatening infection. So you have to gently tug at the worm and slowly wrap it around a stick. This can go on for weeks or months and you’ll be in excruciating pain the entire time. You won’t be suffering alone. The worm’s been infecting millions of people for thousands of years.

But the worm’s days are numbered. Dr. Donald Hopkins and the staff at the Carter Centre in Atlanta have declared war on the worm and they’re doing something that has never been done before. They’re wiping out a global disease without finding a cure. Instead, they’re changing behaviours.

The centre was founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn. Think of the team’s work as the ultimate change management project.

And according to the authors, the worm’s demise offers lessons to the rest of us whose paycheques and livelihoods depend on getting other people to work and think differently.

"Hopkins was interested in this particular disease because he knew that if 120 million people in 23,000 villages would change just a few vital behaviours for just one year, there would never be another case of the infection. Ever. But imagine the audacity of intending to influence such a scattered population in so many countries — frequently faced with a corrupt or nonexistent health systems or fragile political stability."

So how is the Carter Centre team making the seemingly impossible possible? The team started by focusing on a handful of vital behaviours, which is how all master influencers begin their work. "When faced with a number of possible options, take care to search for strategies that focus on specific behaviours.

"It turns out all influence geniuses focus on behaviours. They don’t develop an influence strategy until they’ve carefully identified the specific behaviours they want to change. They start by asking: in order to improve our existing situation, what must people actually do?"

The Carter Centre team discovered those vital behaviours by paying a visit to villages that were free of the Guinea worm. In those villages, the team watched women carefully strain larvae-infested water by pouring it through their skirts and into separate pots for drinking.

The team also studied how villagers recovered from outbreaks. When the worm is burning and breaking its way through your skin, there’s an overwhelming urge to plunge your arm or leg into water. But that’s the same water used for drinking. In worm-free communities, villagers policed themselves. "It turned out that if everyone in a village enacted two recovery behaviours — speaking up and keeping infected people away from the water supply — for one full year, the worm would be gone forever."

The team then set out to influence other villages to adopt these vital behaviours. All of us have only two questions when we’re being asked to make a change. Is it worth it? And can I make this change?

Contrary to standard corporate practice, you don’t answer these questions with a barrage of facts and stats, memos, newsletters, brochures and PowerPoints. You share stories and rely on personal experience. "With persistent problems, it’s best to give verbal persuasion a rest and try to help people experience the world as you experience it." The Carter Centre team also enlisted trusted and respected opinion leaders to spread the word and help villagers develop the skills to eradicate the worm.

Today, the Carter Centre has eliminated the worm from 11 of 20 endemic countries. World-wide infection rates have dropped 99.7 per cent and the team is on track to completely wipe out the worm by 2009.

"Team members have done this not through a medical breakthrough but by learning how to motivate and enable absolute strangers to alter their behaviour."

So if the pain of pushing through a change initiative at work feels not unlike having a worm burn its way out of your leg, read this book cover to cover. And then read it again.

Recommend it to everyone you know at work. The authors present case studies of remarkable and inspirational master influencers and they draw heavily on research and theory to give you and me the power to change pretty much anything at work, at home and in our communities. Far and away one of the best business books of the year.