If I can do it, you can do it!
Well … maybe.
Is your story about your extraordinary personal journey? Talking about yourself for your own sake will be perceived by listeners as narcissism or seeking validation. Stories of dramatic personal transformation can be inspiring and life-changing, but too many storytellers fall into the “If I Can Do it, You Can Do it” trap. Tell your transformational journey story, but do so in a way that positions you as the guide in your listener’s story, not as the hero in your own.
What’s keeping you from achieving your dreams?
When I was twenty-three-years old and still in college, I bought my first sailboat for $3000 and began to fix her up with money I earned working after school. I knew little about sailing, but I learned the basics by exploring Miami’s Biscayne Bay.
A year later, when I sailed across the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas, I had $30 left, but I was determined to visit the islands I’d heard such marvelous stories about. I odd-jobbed my way around for the next six months, returned to the US, and then went back to the islands again on the same minuscule budget.
Eight months later, I joined a friend on a crossing to Gibraltar. I arrived on the other side of the Atlantic without a penny in my pocket, but found work playing music in bars and designing graphics for a small advertising agency.
I made enough money to pay for my passage home, returned to my boat in the Bahamas, and sailed some more.
And here comes the curveball:
If a 24-year-old kid with no money can go out and travel the world, what’s holding you back? Maybe it’s you holding yourself back. Maybe your attachment to material things … blah-blah-blah.
A weak speaker prescribes advice; a strong speaker leads listeners to discover their own truth. “If I Can Do it, You Can Do it” stories are a flawed attempt to shame the audience into imitating you. What kind of leadership is that? You may or may not enjoy hearing about my low-budget globe-trotting adventures, but a moralistic and condescending narrative won’t help you identify or face fears or overcome limiting beliefs.
Numerous speakers and authors share “adversity journey” stories about how they overcame addiction, suffered through paralyzing or disfiguring accidents, endured harsh natural environments, or triumphed after staggering setbacks. Others tell stories of personal achievement—winning Olympic medals and climbing mountains. These stories are seductive because they contain all four elements of engagement— a journey from conflict to transformation through waters deep (authentic) enough to keep the boat off the bottom, usually motivated by the magic wind of determination.
One-legged marathon runners and cancer survivors and climbers of Mount Everest should tell their stories, but framing is critical. If listeners conclude, I could never do that, your story will backfire. What if there’s a bigger loser than you in the audience—someone who isn’t capable of mastering their challenges just because you were able to? Your “If I can Do it, You Can Do it” motivational speech could produce devastating and disempowering results.
“What’s your ocean? What’s your marathon? What’s your mountain? We all have challenges and goals….”
The authentic message lies not in the story that your fears were faced and your challenges met, but in the story of where and how you found strength, inspiration, courage, or an unlikely solution. Your listener has their own set of obstacles to overcome and goals to achieve. They are probably not going to confront adversity or face formidable challenges just because you did (and the results might be disastrous if they tried). Your success is not equal to theirs. What made you decide not to give up that your listener can draw strength from? What inspired you? Did you find a teacher? Did you leverage skills and knowledge you didn’t think would be applicable? Did you have a sudden burst of inspiration?
Global speaker Neal Petersen tells the story of how, as a young black man growing up in apartheid South Africa, he dreamed of racing a sailboat solo around the world—a goal he eventually achieved.
“They wouldn’t even let me into the yacht club,” he tells his audiences. “And I realized I’d have to work for decades before I could afford to buy a boat.” He pauses to give the audience a moment to feel the conflict. “But though we were poor, my mother was a teacher who always encouraged me to read and learn. I went to the public library and read everything I could about boats and sailing. If I couldn’t buy a boat, I’d build my own.”
The title of Neal’s speech is No Barriers: Only Solutions. He does not encourage his listener to build a boat; he encourages them to use available resources to find alternatives, move forward, and achieve their own dreams.
As a storyteller, your job is to be the wind in your listeners’ sails—the invisible force that propels them from their stormy sea of conflict to their safe port of transformation. Instead of bragging about your journey, address fundamental limiting thoughts like the conflation of fear with weakness. Bravery is not fearlessness. The most courageous journeys are undertaken by those who allow themselves to feel scared.
“Was I scared?
“Of course I was scared! I was a young man living alone in a foreign country, getting ready to sail across an ocean on a wooden boat! If I wasn’t scared, I wouldn’t be here to tell you this story. Being scared is what keeps us alive.”
Can you shift your listeners’ perspectives or inspire them to challenge their limiting beliefs? The transference of fear from one set of consequences to another can motivate anyone to accomplish anything.
“… but I was more afraid of growing old and looking back and regretting all the things I hadn’t done because I had been too afraid to do them.”
“If I can do it, you can do it!”
Maybe. Maybe not.
Offer inspiration, not advice. Be a leader, not an animated statue erected in your own honor. Your underlying story doesn’t have to change, but it will be more powerful and useful when placed in the service of your listener.