Stories in Development

Charley Johnson and I met as classmates at Harvard Kennedy School in 2009. At that time, we both believed that we were obligated to live lives of 'public service.' Like many of our classmates, though, we had very little idea what that meant; the feeling of obligation came first, and the details would come later.

Matt Bieber: You and I have talked about how pernicious this feeling of obligation can be. It's not that public service is bad, of course. But there's something poisonous about living under this burden, this sense that you are among a small minority of people who are uniquely positioned to do good, that you have to ascend to positions of power and influence so as not to waste your potential.

This leads to all kinds of distorted thinking, not the least of which is the entitlement that is so rampant at the Kennedy School. Of course it's appropriate that we'll end up as managers and directors and leaders; we're us.

It also leads people to think of themselves -- and present themselves to other people -- as finished products at a bizarrely early age. So many of the people in our class were excellent at branding themselves, at conveying an image of certainty and authority.

It was obvious that many of us were pretending. Sure, we knew facts and inside baseball, but we were also largely incurious. Our ethics class made that abundantly clear. We almost never had a coherent exchange, much less a searching inquiry, but that didn't seem to slow us down. We remained untroubled, locomotives bearing full speed ahead.

The fuel that kept those locomotives rolling were our stories about ourselves -- our narratives about who we were and where we were going. These stories provided our lives with (superficial) meaning and coherence, but at too great a cost. We couldn't afford to lose our stories, to acknowledge our questions and doubts and uncertainties, to examine the premises and assumptions underneath. And frequently we didn't. We held on for dear life as our trajectories shot us out of grad school and into prestigious jobs in government and elsewhere.

At a certain point, I stopped being able to go through the motions quite as smoothly. It wasn't that I was more courageous than anyone else -- I was just starting to get sick of my own dishonesty. And in that sense, I was lucky. The hamster wheel was spinning faster and faster, the claustrophobia was getting more and more intense, and I began to glimpse just how badly I needed a little space.

So I went and tried a bunch of other things, and eventually, I ended up giving this writing thing a whirl. But of course, I'm still caught up in many of those old mindsets -- the desire for recognition, the hunger for prestige, and at a more basic level, the need to be able to tell a coherent and meaningful story about what I'm doing with my life.

Charley Johnson: First, a confession: I too told my story with a false sense of certainty. Like I knew what I wanted to do, who I wanted to be. Even if in truth, I had no idea. I didn't give myself the space or time to figure it out. I had three and five year plans to execute. Why let deep reflection get in the way? Transition sentences served as the stepping stones between one gig and the next and a few years back, I found myself at the Kennedy School, an explorer of ideas and interests cloaked in a neat story, trapped by its implications.

We tell our story with such clarity that no one could doubt what our future holds except maybe -- if we're honest with ourselves -- for us. We stop imagining all the possibilities and settle on a story told enough times it appears true even if it doesn't feel that way. We're so intent on garnering practical credentials for the next step that we foreclose the evolution of our own identity. We don't listen to ourselves. We don't allow ourselves the solitude, wandering and wondering necessary to develop our own thoughts and values. Instead, we construct resumes that tell an uncluttered, spotless story even if ours is messy. We frame who we are through a particular and purposeful lens, even if "who we are" stems from a series of things that just sort of happened. We force the colors to fit within the confines of the lines even if, in truth, they want out. And at some point, we believe it.

This is an even greater challenge when a happy, ordinary life, isn't quite enough. Somehow 'ordinary' came to mean that you weren't trying hard enough, working long enough hours. Among people I know, 'ordinary' doesn't cut it. They want to make a difference. Yet tying your story to a public cause means hitching meaning and success to something that's measurable but not completely in your control. In a world where "impact" is a fixture of identity, it is unsettling to admit let alone live the questions -- to tell your story one sentence at a time -- because you want to know that the journey was worth it in the end. Storytelling offers an out -- it provides structure and internal coherence, justifying and rationalizing our actions along the way.

Oddly enough, these ideas don't reflect my experience at HKS. Quite the opposite, actually. I made friends who inspired me to be a better person, who challenged my story, who encouraged me to live the questions through their words and deeds. I took a class with Professor Timothy McCarthy who, not unlike a magician, architected a community out of a classroom, giving grown ass adults the space to find their values and themselves, express their hopes and fears. It was because of these people that I threw away the script and learned to live in the present with intention and purpose...

The full conversation is available at The Wheat and Chaff.