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Are You a Tour Guide?

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What is the story here? Picture taken by the author at the famous Jagdish Temple, Udaipur.

Whenever my wife and I travel to historical places, we insist on taking a local tour guide. Not that internet or the Lonely Planet Guides don't provide with enough information about the monuments and the ruins already! But, we find it fascinating when a local tour guide tells the story.

Their stories are raw, unedited, rustic, emotional, interactive, rich of emotions, dramatic events, romance, devotion, rivalry, jealousy, bravery, politics, honor, sacrifice, betrayal and friendship! They make the lifeless stones come alive, they make the old structures dance, and they make the dilapidated ruins tell a story that you never knew existed! They create a highly engaging show that not only has audio, and visual content, but even historical, cultural and anthropological element that is unparalleled in modern media experiences.

There were times when we didn't engage with a tour guide - sometimes it was out of laziness, sometimes we felt they were overcharging (yes, I know it sounds a bit mean!). And I can tell you, those were the dullest visits that we never enjoyed! On a couple of occasions, we actually came back and engaged a guide and went back the second time and totally enjoyed the experience.

A lot of us treat our careers, accomplishments, pet projects and interests in a similar manner - taking visitors to a museum or a monument without a tour guide! When you ask them to tell their high points on their last project, you feel as if they are reading the weather bulletin. When you ask them about their passions, you feel they are reading some text from a book on integral calculus. There is no emotion, there is no attachment, there is no belongingness. In short, they are not able to tell their own story in a way that makes the listener sit up and take notice, get curious about what you have to say on something, and possibly ask you more! And when that doesn't happen, the whole experience falls flat and leaves you wondering why people don't take interest in what you have to say!

Not all of us born storytellers, but we can always improve from where we are. Here is a simple way to get started. Next time when you are asked to tell your story, start with these three simple steps:

Why did you do what you did?

Suppose you went out one weekend and helped your neighborhood charity, or you took some old painting to put it on canvas with your brush strokes, or you decided to build a web site. Whatever. Why did you choose any of those problems? What was so different, or compelling, or important, or engaging in it that you were drawn to the problem and decided to invest your time, effort and passion to it? By telling this, you can build a better connect with people and let them understand more about what you care, what your values are, what motivates and engages you.

What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?

To say that you were this cool dude who simply "veni, vidi and vici" would perhaps sound too pompous (even if that is perhaps true!). People get interested in the story when they realize that you were up against this big dragon and you were as infallible as any other human being, but with persistence and hard work and a little bit of smart thinking and creative problem-solving, you slowly and steadily overcame challenges one by one and saved the day. Of course, they don't want to know that out of one hundred and seventy nine team members on that project, you were the only one who actually gave his blood, sweat and tears to the projects' eventual success (while others all slept away to glory). They want to see you as a lifelike human being, and not a larger than life human being! By telling the story, you let others learn about your perseverance, your work ethics, your humility and your teamwork.

What did you learn from your experiences?

When you killed an eighty-foot long monster, what did you learn from that experience, or the half-a-million-lines-of-code enterprise software that was seriously behind schedule and budget that you managed to ship with just two months of delay, what did you learn from it? The learnings, goes without saying, are not the learnings about facts of nature (of course, they are important too), but more about what did you learn about yourself from those experiences that is likely to make you a better person, a better human being, a better professional, a better team player or a better leader. Sharing this shows you are not infallible (and not afraid to show your scars and tears), you are not above learning in the truest sense, and that you are melioristic. Only a person who can change himself, or herself, perhaps can ever bring a bigger change!


So, there you are. These three simple steps will help you get started to become a better tour guide of your own monuments, and ruins too! - after all, if you can make people interested in some of your grand failures and that helps people discover an aspect of yours that might be vital to a future endeavor or an indicator of your response mechanism in a similar situation, then why shouldn't you?

But, do start with asking the more fundamental question. Are you a tour guide?

Tathagat Varma started his career as a computer scientist with defense, before playing a long innings in the software industry. Last year he founded Thought Leadership, a boutique consulting firm specializing in strategy, agility, innovation and leadership. He is among the 'coolest' management consultants having spent sixteen months in icy Antarctica as part of the 13th Indian Scientific Expedition back in 1993-95. He is currently writing a book on Agile Product Development for a major global publisher.