I haven’t spoken much about my career before dentistry. Some of that is because it was a serious left turn. My education background is seminary. “From ministry to dentistry,” I tell people – which I realize is not the normal road one takes. The other reason is because my career experience before that felt like it ended in a failure.
Joanna and I moved to Columbus, Ohio, in 2002 without kids in what was supposed to be the most amazing season of our lives. We were given the opportunity to work with some of our closest friends to build a church in one of the fastest growing areas of Columbus, Ohio.
Joanna and I were ecstatic. We bought a home that would allow us to start a family and settle down long term. We were living the dream.
If I’m being honest, I would tell you that we realized it wasn’t going to work right from the start. Organizational dysfunction, team chemistry issues, failure of empowerment, hyper-paranoia and just overall bad leadership became apparent.
But I stayed and fought through it. I was there for five years. Five years of starts and stops. Five years of professional frustration. Five years of feeling like I was the crazy one. Five years of trying to fix myself so that the whole thing would work. I gave it my best shot.
Towards the end I had a conversation with my boss in which I asked him for a raise (I hadn’t had one in the entire five years).He said he was going to solve the problem by adding the nightly janitorial duties to my job description (I’m not joking – ask me about it sometime). For the first time, I had a moment of clarity. I was tired of feeling like I was the crazy one. I said no. I was done.
“Where will you go? If you walk away now, you’ll never find your way back. This decision could ruin you.” He probably meant those statements to scare me into reconsidering, but they actually galvanized my decision. I stood firm. In five years of a lot of wrong, this was right.
Back then it took so much guts to make that decision. I was the first one on the team to stand up and say enough. I know all my other friends thought I was crazy, but over the next couple of years, they would all decide to leave for the same reasons. After I left we would begin to hear stories of alcoholism, affairs, misappropriation of money and violence from the lead pastor. The whole thing culminated in a fist fight in the parking lot with a neighbor where he was arrested and taken to jail (again, I’m not making this up). The board members flew into town, changed the locks on the door and removed him from power.
See, I wasn’t the crazy one.
At the time I couldn’t see it, but that experience taught me to trust myself. It taught me to listen to my intuition. Throughout my life there has always been a little voice inside me that speaks. Over time I’ve learned to trust it because it’s always been right. It had been whispering to me for five years. I was just trying to convince it that it was wrong. “This will all work out, you’ll see. I just need a little more time. He didn’t mean it like that. This work that we’re doing is so important.”
Ever since, I’ve learned to trust that voice. That experience turned out to be a gift.
Theory of Narrative Identity
Psychology expert Dan McAdams lectures and writes on the “Theory of Narrative Identity,” a simple framework for how the human personality develops over time.
McAdams sums it up by saying we are all born as actors (traits, talents, gifts), begin to develop agency (goals, values, outcomes) and ultimately become the author of our own stories (narrative, meaning, understanding).
We are all actors, we all have agency over our lives, but, here’s the most important part, we are the authors of our stories. We are the stories that we tell.
It’s a powerful thought.
Your life is the story you have chosen to tell. Your business is the story that you have chosen to tell. Your friends and family, marriage and significant relationships are all the product of the stories you’ve chosen to write.
In my experience, I find that most of us live as agents. We create visions, we set goals, and we have senses that we can control and affect outcomes along the way. This is why the market for productivity journals is so big right now. We’re buying a small book of paper pages, but what we’re really buying is agency: the ability to decide, the ability to control where our lives are going.
However, for most of us, there’s a belief that the story is beyond our reach. The narrative is being written by someone (or something) that may or may not have our best interest in mind. We do the best we can, but we submit to an unknown author. Life tends to become lots of hard work and fingers crossed, hoping for luck along the way.
Others live purely as actors, relying on their gifts and talents. They build a scaffolding around what they’re “good at” and lean on their strengths to create opportunities. They’ve never developed a sense of agency in their lives. Talent is the agent. Their gifts open doors and direct the actor to the next scene. The idea of a story is something that will be told by loved ones somewhere down the road when all is said and done.
Yes to the actor! And yes to agency as well! But a bigger YES to the author. You are the writer. You hold the pen in your hand. Of course, life can be random. Of course, many events are out of our control; but when we realize the power of our individual narratives, we take control over the stories.
So when I say, “That experience was a gift…” it’s because I’m in control of the story. I get to decide how the chapter is written. Where others tried to create their own headlines saying, “If you walk away, you’ll never recover” or “You’ll never be happy pursuing something else” or “You won’t ever come back,” I decided that decision to walk away would be a priceless gift.
That’s the story I decided to write.
Have you ever noticed that many stories start with “Ever since…”
“Ever since I quit that job…”
“Ever since Dad died…”
“Ever since I started my business…”
“Ever since I met her…”
“Ever since the babies…”
“Ever since…” becomes a milestone, a marker along the way that tells us something significant is beginning here. Most of us start with that statement without even realizing we’re an author reading a story. But who wrote it?
The crazy thing about 2020 is that everyone had an “Ever since…” moment. For the first time in history, we’ve been given a global, shared experience. COVID-19 created a moment from which our world will never be the same.
“Ever since COVID…”
Fill in the blank.
“Ever since COVID when I had to close my doors…”
“Ever since COVID when we lost mom…”
“Ever since COVID when the PPP money ran out…”
“Ever since COVID when I decided I no longer wanted to be in that relationship…”
That’s one of the reasons why this time has been so difficult on relationships. It was an “Ever since…” moment. Some people looked down the road and realized they no longer wanted to live that story. They took agency and made a change. Others also made a change.
“Ever since COVID I decided to put my family first and not travel as much.”
“Ever since COVID I decided to pull the trigger on that project I had been putting off for five years.”
“Ever since COVID I decided to take the commitment I made to my spouse seriously.”
“Ever since COVID I decided to invest in my leadership and be there for my team.”
Here’s the thing: We get to decide how those conversations go. We’re the authors. Was 2020 a gift? Was it tragic? Was it the death of one thing or the beginning of another?
Even now, we hear the story start all around us. “Ever since COVID…” Our friends are doing it, our coworkers are doing it, our families are doing it, and we’re even doing it. 2020 became a mile marker on the road that says a story starts here. What do we want to look back and say?
“Ever since COVID…” what?
You get to be the author of that story.