Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up? The power of your story

This month I took part in a slightly unusual interview. The interviewer was from a publication called Authority and the interview was carried out entirely via email, but that's not the unusual bit. The title of this interview was: 5 Things You Need To Know To Optimize Your Company’s Approach to Data Privacy and Cybersecurity. Again, nothing unusual there—I have spent several decades studying how companies approach data privacy and cybersecurity. But consider the very first question of the interview: Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Six year-old me, with my father,
an engineer, in Canada, 1959

Now, that would not be an unusual question to be asked if you were being profiled in a lifestyle magazine, but as a prelude to professional opinions on cybersecurity? To me, that was unusual.

However, as I thought about my response— words that would truthfully answer the question while remaining relevant to the context—I not only enjoyed the process, I realized that this was a question I'd been discussing with myself for decades. 

Furthermore, across those decades, the answer changed, many times. Indeed, the answer to "how I grew up" was often a story of both origins and change, a way to make sense of how my life started out and then turned out. And of course I have told that story many times, in job applications and interviews, at business dinners and networking events, and on the internet via websites and social media profiles. 

I don't know how you feel about making sense of your life, but I have found that having a coherent personal narrative helped me cope with some of the tough times that I've had to live through, mercifully few though those have been. (I am well aware that have enjoyed exceptional good fortune in life and of course, as a white male, a massive amount of privilege; however, I have had to face grief and loss, prejudice and enmity, and I know from experience what it is like to be unemployed and homeless.) 

Your story of change

Speaking of tougher times, 2020 seems to be determined to bring more of these to more people in more places than any other year since the 1940s. During the ongoing Covid-19 upheaval I have found myself advising several people whose lives and careers are now—for a variety of reasons—in a period of involuntary transition.

However, because I am not a professional career counsellor or life coach, I felt obliged to bolster my own advice with that of experts. Fortunately, I found this very relevant perspective:

When you’re in the midst of a major career change, telling stories about your professional self can inspire others’ belief in your character and in your capacity to take a leap and land on your feet. 

This appears in an article titled What’s Your Story? by Herminia Ibarra and Kent Lineback that was originally published in the Harvard Business Review magazine. While the article was written over 15 years ago, it remains 100% relevant to 2020. Both authors are considered experts in their field with books to prove it. 

According to Lineback's profile on Amazon: "he helps companies and executives tell their stories, so others can learn from their experiences." Ibarra is an organisational behaviour professor at London Business School and offers lots of organizational and personal development resources on her website; she is also active on Twitter as @HerminiaIbarra

The authors begin their discussion of "Why You Need a Story" with this observation:

"All of us tell stories about ourselves. Stories define us. To know someone well is to know her story..."

However, and to the point of this blog post, they continue: 

"Seldom is a good story so needed, though, as when a major change of professional direction is under way...In a time of such unsettling transition, telling a compelling story to coworkers, bosses, friends, or family—or strangers in a conference room—inspires belief in our motives, character, and capacity to reach the goals we’ve set."

If you are dealing with an unsettling transition right now, I strongly urge you to read What's Your Story. And if you are hesitant about the idea of "telling stories," the authors make it clear that: 

"In urging the use of effective narrative, we’re not opening the door to tall tales. By "story" we don’t mean "something made up to make a bad situation look good." We’re talking about accounts that are deeply true and so engaging that listeners feel they have a stake in our success."

Personally, I have been very fortunate to have a lot of time to think about my life this year, and I now see that in the past my career benefited greatly from discussing—with myself and others—factual accounts of my life that are both "deeply true" and "engaging." 

In a 2018 TEDx talk, Ibarra refers to her work as teaching and researching people who come to those points in life that she calls: "what got you here won't get you there moments." I think most of us have experienced moments like that, even before 2020. I hope her article, and the other resources that I have pointed to in this blog post, prove helpful to you in getting through such moments now and in the future.

My story of change

Allow me to close with my version of "a bit about how you grew up" that appeared in Authority, the online publication which uses this tag line: Top Lessons. Top Authorities. Authority is published on the Medium platform, which I have used a few times myself—like this story about lack of trust in tech companies—but Authority uses Medium at scale. I think at least a dozen other people were interviewed with the same set of questions. You can read the full interview here, but the following is the bit about how I grew up:

I have spent much of my adult life in the US but was born and raised in Coventry, England, a city synonymous with innovations in industrial technology, like the pedal chain bicycle and the turbojet engine, and manufacturers like Jaguar, Land Rover, and Triumph. My father was an engineer, as were my grandfathers. As a teenager in the 60s I aspired to be a celebrated poet and songwriter, but the oil crisis of 1973 crushed funding for the arts and I pivoted into petroleum accounting, tax auditing, and from there to computing; that’s how I became enthralled by the clash of technology and ethics that is at the heart of cybersecurity.

I hope that gives you a sense of who I am, and how I got to be who I am, a person who made a career of studying how humans create and confront technology risks.