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What I Learned From TEDx and Taylor Swift About Telling Our Stories

a ted talk
Here’s the punchline: Telling the story we’re afraid to tell is what unleashes us to be ourselves. It does the same for others around us, too. If you don’t believe me, just ask Taylor Swift (I respect her and, yes, I recently watched her documentary). Let me explain… *** A few weeks ago, I went on stage to give my first ever TEDx Talk. It wasn’t one of those viral TED Talks where someone tells you how to ace every job interview you have, or explains the science of happiness. It was really pretty simple: I just told my story. It’s a story I was afraid to share for too long; the story that changed my life once I finally owned it.  It’s the story of my adoption, the way its reveal impacted my sense of belonging and dignity as a kid and young adult, how it took me years to learn to trust others and not fear abandonment, and how once I finally learned to ask for help, it changed my world. It sounds pretty simple here, but for decades—truly most of my life—I was ashamed of my story, and I was so worried people wouldn’t accept me, that I tried to hide my vulnerabilities and pretend I didn’t really need anybody.  Boy, was I wrong. Luckily, I had a good friend, Dorrin, who finally encouraged me to speak out. I began with a small group of business peers during a Toastmasters talk, then with larger groups I was associated with, and finally with the entire National Council for Adoption, then the TEDx stage. Telling my story started as a way to unleash myself from the fear that I’d lived with since I was nine years old—the fear that people would abandon me if I wasn’t perfect, strong, and infallible. Telling my story saved me. Because I was so afraid to be abandoned, I spent most of my youth and adult life chasing validation in ways that didn’t actually match who I am. I took jobs that I was excited about but, in reflecting back, were also ways to validate myself and prove I was worthy. It was something that was ingrained in me from sports and my personal experiences: If you perform, you will be rewarded. That’s no way to live. And of course success—or at least happiness—doesn’t last long when you’re chasing it that way. I recently learned that Taylor Swift understands this, too.  In her documentary, “Miss Americana,” Taylor said she chased acceptance through her work and record sales. When she had a bump in the road or a record didn’t perform, her own sense of value and belonging plummeted. She lived based on the praise of her fans (and critics). But it all came to a head when she was a plaintiff in a painful and public sexual assault trial. She realized her past approach of staying quiet, trying to please everybody, and thinking about her fans and the media above her own needs just couldn’t work anymore. She was miserable and alone. So when a Trump-supported senator ran for office in her home state of Tennessee, she decided to finally speak her truth and not hold back. Her parents and publicist told her not to get involved in politics because of the potential impact on her fan base, but she had had enough and basically said, “If I don’t speak up now, about this thing I really care about, how can I ever feel genuine in my life?” She wanted to be on the right side of history, and not feel like she hid her true self to please other people. She overcame her fear and spoke up. She shared in the documentary that it really changed everything for her and helped her not only become more true to herself, but it even elevated the fans who were truly aligned with Taylor and her story. And, it encouraged them to be more true to themselves. Sometimes it feels like a scary leap, because we might lose certain people, but declaring where we are going in life—our real truth—opens the door for the right people to come join you. And, it gives them the power to be their true selves, too.  I know I’m not Taylor Swift, but I have to say: I’ve found the same thing in my small corner of the world. Telling my story also helped unleash others to do the same. Telling our stories allows us to finally, once and for all, “be okay” with ourselves as we are.  There is no better feeling than claiming, “I am good enough.” It doesn’t mean we don’t continue to work on ourselves, to grow and evolve, but it means nobody can take away our story and the meaning in it. I had a lot of fear of judgment as I prepared to give my first TEDx Talk. No matter how many times I tell my story, it can still be daunting. But I let go of that fear, because I know this isn’t really all about me. It’s about leaning on each other—in all our mutual vulnerability and humanity—so we can show up in life in a way that allows us to have the joy and happiness we all deserve. And we don’t get there by hiding the parts of us that we’re ashamed of, or afraid of, or worry aren’t “good enough.” We get there by showing our true, real selves to others and inviting them to do the same.  It’s asking, “What’s your story?” and really listening to hear what they share with you. We’re all on our own stages somewhere—It doesn’t have to be on tour in front of 50,000+ people, or even on a TEDx stage in front of 100. Our lives are our stages, and our stories are waiting to be told. I want to hear your story. Please reach out if you feel like sharing. Let’s unleash our greatness together.

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