I recently attended a storytelling dinner. The rules were simple:
Come to the dinner table with a story of someone who has changed your life. When you are moved to tell it, do so. Do not clap for other stories. Instead, respond with respectful silence.
Stories trickled out about teachers, family members, daughters, friends — so many people who had given gifts that led us all to sit around that little table at that moment. I was struck by how many people told stories of people who may not have had any idea the impact they had made.
The dinner inspired me to share a few people who have changed my life and led me to this moment, nearly one year into a business I co-own with Nathan Groepper. It’s not an exhaustive list, nor does it mention my my husband and two children, my business partner, the entire cohort in the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship who attended Stanford with me in 2017–18, and many other family members — because obviously they change my life in subtle and enormous ways daily. It’s the people on my mind right now, like a secret squad of super heros behind me, capes a-billowing, that secretly inspire me daily to reach for audacity.
- Zeba Khan is a truth-teller and a catalyst. I once told her that I had fallen in love with a research methodology called design thinking but I wasn’t sure how I could use it to help my own community. “Offer to do some workshops for free,” she said. “Help a non-profit. Show others what you know before you start charging for it.” I did just that and one year later I co-own a business that leads teams through transformation projects.
- Justin Schoen, Chris Snider, Heidi Mannetter and Susan Judkins are connectors and cross pollinators. Each of these people, separately, pushed me to connect with others in my earliest days, the times when I was full of fear of the unknown. They were able to nimbly make sense of my new skill set and the needs of their network, generously opening up their contact lists for me.
- I recently joined an improv comedy troupe. One night of a performance, I felt a lot of resistance to getting on stage. I was worried what the audience would think. I wondered what mistakes I would make during our completely unscripted performance. And then I asked for help — from my troupe and from the larger comedy community. My troupe responded by heaping positivity my way. Nothing was too small for them to call out and compliment. And improvisers from across Des Moines urged me to reframe my relationship with fear. Fear just means I want this.
- Dr. Seema Yasmin is a light so bright in my life, sometimes I have to put on sunglasses. We have an ongoing discussion about what we can do that is cringeworthy. The point is to push beyond where we are comfortable, to speak up, to act. She is an author, a doctor and a professor, with a beautiful dog named Lily. She challenged me to say no, a journey I deepen every day, knowing I’m not alone in it.
- Keith Summerville is an environmental scientist whose work has him sometimes wading through rivers. He’s also a champion of change and a straight talker. The other day, he urged me not to downplay my accomplishments, a drumbeat of encouragement I go back to almost daily as I work to tell my story of how I can add value to my partners and clients.
- My grandmother Phyllis Livermore died when I was 10. I wear her over-the-top, show-stopper of a bracelet every day, thinking of the family she raised under the most enormous of constraints. She had multiple sclerosis. She was trapped in her body and yet she loved jewelry that sparkled really bright. Because of her, I remind myself every day to not mute myself.
- I went to a bar in Des Moines recently after a bad day at work, and a group of young men who were all friends from high school made me laugh when I thought I was there to cry. And the next day, I was ready to wake up and try again.
- Mago Torres is a philosopher. She doesn’t make assumptions about people. She was on the team of journalists who exposed the fact of mass graves in her home country of Mexico. Mago lives with so much grace, taking time to feel and think. Her life is an example to me.
- There is a group of school-aged parents in my neighborhood who like to get together, send the kids downstairs and dance to loud music around a kitchen island, reminding me that youth lasts as long as you let yourself dance.
- JulieAnn McKellogg is a listener. I once shared with her a relationship struggle I had. She could have come at me with advice. But instead she said, “That must have been hard for you.” I realized I wanted more of this kind of listening and empathy in my own life — after a long journey of trying to cultivate it in myself. I have used her example of friendship to share with others the kind of connection I desire in this world.
- In high school, I was a cheerleader. One of our jobs was to write inspirational notes and posters for the boys before the big game. We baked them cookies and snuggled them into their lockers and we learned about their interests and bought them little presents. I never imagined it would come back to me, but Don Day and Kara Jackson have never wavered in cheering me on, and their words have had the power to reverse some toxic narratives I’ve had about myself.
- Nico Gendron is powerful. She was our first client. She has no idea how much her vote of confidence meant to me. She is a model for what a change agent should be, containing multitudes — vulnerable, questioning, and bold.
Each of these people offered a gift to me this year so profound, they needed to be deeply in tune with their own humanity to give it. And none of these people could have offered me the gifts they did had I failed to reveal a need. And I’m so grateful to them and so many others who have shared their talents and opened their hearts up to me this year, including Christina Trombley, Amy Jennings, Kathleen Richardson, Kathryn Dickel, Renee Cramer, Mackenzie Ryan, Neil Ward, Suzanne Heseman Behnke and Chirasath Saenvong. Collaboration is ultimately an act in vulnerability. There are so many people out there ready to change your life as soon as you are ready to let them.