Once upon a not-too-long-ago time, I was an impostor in a focus group. Wildly impressive people gathered under palm trees for what seemed like the purpose of giving others (okay, me) an inferiority complex. Really they were there, like me, to focus-test their media meddle.
One serious, ex-military general was preparing to present a multi-billion dollar project to the Pentagon the next month. A brilliant, German scientist was testing her TED talk about her discovery of a whole new way of looking at cancer. A best-selling author was prepping for a sit-down with Oprah, and another clever entrepreneur was practicing for a Today Show segment. And then there was (um) me, focus group testing my new project concept.
When it was finally my turn to present and I had reached a dangerous level of intimidation, I explained my project idea and was relieved by their enthusiastic response. Then came the part where I felt the need to provide all my (not-as-) fabulous credentials. I know the persuasive power of authority, and I wasn’t afraid to use it…and I didn’t want to look like a complete slouch. And yet, if I had to describe the impressive group’s response to the bragging part of my presentation, I would say their unsmiling (albeit pleasant) lip formation and still eyebrows were most like an EKG flat-line. I was a dead to them.
I knew better than to ignore what’s most important when establishing connections in order to establish a brand or sell something. I know the value of diving in and digging out the seemingly mundane stories and messy artifacts that we toss in the dumpster of our lives. Those are often the throw-a-way things that we discount as unimpressive, but may be the exact recollections that allow us to connect. In these stories we meet at the intersection of uncommon commonalities—the rare things we share in common. I knew the power and importance of dumpster diving, and yet, when faced with intimidation, I skimmed my dumpster surface for all the impressive credentials I could gather…and came up clean and empty.
Thankfully, before slinking off in humiliation I snapped out of it and, although it was a bit awkward, I lobbed:
“When I was six-years old my parents chopped off my hair, dressed me as a boy, and dragged me to what would become hundreds of industrial auction sites so I could learn the lost art of sales from the old master-persuader auctioneers.”
Looking at the curious, smiling faces and arched eyebrows of the other focus group members was like watching an EKG response to cardiac paddles. Sure they had questions about a lot of things about this small story, and that’s one of the points–to spark curiosity.
In their smiles I could see that they were also relating my unique experience to their own. We’ve all been six-years old. We’ve all had adult figures who have made us do something we didn’t want to do for our own good. Maybe my six-year old experience didn’t exactly line up as an uncommon commonality, but when the German scientist came up to me afterward to show me a cherished photo of her scowling, pixie-haired, little girl self, I knew we connected on a much deeper, uncommon level than our almost common, fancy degrees. We talked about being roughly the same age and we tried to remember if traditionally boyish haircuts were popular for girls in the US and in Germany back then, or if it was just a coincidence that we both had parents making unfortunate fashion decisions for us. I was pleased, but not surprised, when she asked to get involved in my curiosity project.
How can you reignite curiosity in your own stories and artifacts that you have tossed in the dumpster of your life? Why should you?
When we make an effort to look, we can always find commonalities with others. The more uncommon, the more powerfully the commonalities help us connect. From our unique experiences come our signature stories, and from our signature stories we find hidden paths to uncommon commonalities.
What makes you unique will most likely be hiding in your life’s dumpster waiting to be excavated. Are you afraid of getting too messy, or are you curious enough to dive in, slosh around, and pull out that precious garbage? Maybe you’ll dig past credentialed authority and find that elusive authenticity we talk so much about.