Struggling Whether to Finish or Quit?

Last year, I wanted to resign from a volunteer role about six months before the end of my term. There were many, many rational reasons why it made sense to walk away from a toxic situation. But something inside me wouldn’t let me quit.

Every time I’ve faced the dilemma about quitting versus finishing something, I’m transported back to my 7-year-old-self standing in my parents’ living room, begging them to let me quit swimming lessons.  My parents simultaneously looked over their newspapers and replied, “You must finish what you start.” I persevered and eventually accomplished all the skills that frightened me, including the junior lifesaving test. Their value guided many of my childhood and adult decisions to persevere through adversity.

So, last year I completed my term of service. Once again, this proved to be a good course of action. The organization is in a much better place, and I’m happy that I weathered the turmoil rather than throwing in the towel.

My bias to finish what I start, even when it involves enduring painful and unpleasant circumstances, is tied to a deeply held belief. It is one of my core values.

Finding Your Leadership Stories

Influence stories that you’ve curated and developed can enhance your impact in networking, job interviews, and other professional interactions. Taking time to prepare a collection of stories that reveal who you are and what you stand for can pay off over and over again. After some reflection, you’ll probably discover that certain moments of your life have defined your character and leadership style. To help you curate and develop four to six go-to stories for career-building situations, try the following tools.

Six Stories Framework

Annette Simmons is a pioneer of business storytelling and the author of several books on the topic. In her first book, The Story Factor, she describes how six core stories establish rapport, credibility, and trust—which can help you lead and persuade others. Her six-story framework might help you identify some of your core leadership stories.

  • Who I Am—Make yourself human by sharing a vulnerable moment, such as a mistake you made or a lesson learned the hard way to build trust and rapport.
  • Why I’m Here—Reveal various twists and turns in your life through stories that reveal how you made key decisions that bring to you where you are now.
  • Vision Stories—Paint a vivid picture of a future that is different than todays reality through a narrative that inspires others to help the vision become reality.
  • Values in Action—Reveal how you came to hold certain values and principles that guide your life. “Struggling Whether to Finish or Quit?” is an example of a values in action story that traces back to my parents’ insistence that I finish my swimming lessons and a story from my childhood.
  • Simplify—Convey complex or ambiguous concepts through stories and metaphors that help others comprehend and remember these concepts.
  • I Know What You’re Thinking—Share a story that illustrates a common experience or understanding to bring a team to consensus, break tension, or “name the elephant in the room.”

Your Playbill

Another way to identify the stories that define your career is to use a values clarification process. I created a tool to help the leadership team of an arts organization explore their individual values and character traits. Sometimes you gain more clarity about what you value by also understanding what drains you. What experiences shaped your values? Do any of them have potential to become one of your go-to leadership stories?

A few of my leadership stories reveal pivotal events that shaped my career and life:

Objects in Your Workspace

Look at the objects in your workspace. Pictures, knick knacks, awards, or memorabilia you’ve collected over the years often have meaning. They might reflect a value or an episode in your career that defines how you lead. There might be a story behind these objects. A few of my mementos remind me of key values:

  • Wand—Dare to be creative.
  • Gratitude Statue—A thank you gift from my mentee as a thank you gift reminds me to show gratitude to those who help me.
  • Rocks in a Jar—Focus on the important things in life rather than get distracted with minutia.

Leadership Stories … Told in Six Words

According to urban legend, Ernest Hemingway was challenged in a Paris bar to write a story in six words. He wrote: For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

He won the bet and claims it was his best story. Six-word stories capture attention, spark curiosity, and leave the listener wanting to know more.) Take the Hemingway Challenge and craft six-word versions of your leadership stories.

Once you’ve identified your go-to stories, practice telling them in less than three minutes. Then cut them to less than two minutes, then less than one. When your story is clear and concise, take the Hemingway challenge: find a way to tell it in six words or less. The six-word limit imposes a constraint that yields a sense of mystery and often piques curiosity. It’s a wonderful way to spark dialogue and inspire the other person to ask you questions about the story. Use the six-word version in networking conversations, during job interviews, or if you land in an elevator with a key stakeholder or someone you’d like to influence. Then, as time permits, you can share your longer versions if the listener shows interest.

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