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WE ARE OUR STORIES

October 28, 2015

A few years ago, my wife and I took a trip to Burlington, Vermont. It was one of those perfect long weekends. We were there in November, and winter was running late, so the weather was ideal. It was cold and clear, but not unbearable, and we would watch the sun set over Lake Champlain, bundled in our scarves and sipping hot chocolate.

We went to a market where we met a woman who made hand-knit wool caps from yarn that came from sheep that grazed in a pasture just three and a half miles from the market itself, and in fact, she was the third generation of women in her family to make these caps.

At that same market, we met a guy who made honey that came from a local breed of bees that harvested pollen from some native flower that I now forget the name of, but this honey was the color of amber and tasted like butterscotch.

We had dinner at this tiny little restaurant in an old farmhouse where we ate the best salad ever. Yes, salad! The lettuce was crisp and fresh and tasted like it had been picked that very day.

And every single person we met was so … incredibly … kind. I remember how much they smiled and how much they asked us questions. They were curious about us and excited to share stories about themselves and their town, and they made us feel so welcome.

We came back from that trip and told everyone about Burlington … people got bored hearing our incessant stories about “perfect Burlington.”

But that trip was so special that here I am still sharing my stories five years later.

Our stories – that’s what we brought back from our trip to Burlington. Not wool caps and honey, but stories.

When we hear stories and create stories and tell stories, we are crafting and sharing the brand of a place, spreading awareness and interest far and wide.

There was nothing we experienced in Burlington that we don’t have right here in Winter Park. Literally. Incredible farmers market? Check. Spectacular weather? Check. Local history? Check. Sunset over the lake? Oh yeah!

But something happens when we travel away from home … we open our eyes and turn off the cynicism that normally shades our view, and we welcome into our brains and our souls all those things that make a place special.

And maybe that’s the point of my being here tonight … because I want to invite you to change the way you see and talk about this incredible town that we all have the great fortune of living in.

And perhaps to think differently, too.

To get us started, I want to ask you to do something. Over the next few minutes, I want you to turn to someone near you who you didn’t come with and I want you to tell that person your origin story, in other words, the story of how you came to Winter Park. That should take about 90 seconds … And then, let your partner tell his or her story

Now, tell me, who thinks their partner told a great story? And, did anyone have the exact same story as the person you shared with?

As I ask people to share these stories, what I find is that almost all of them are both personal and positive. We all wound up here for vastly different reasons. Many of the people I know in Winter Park go back multiple generations … and many others chose this place and are the first to make a home here, but almost everyone feels a deep emotional connection to this place.

What’s interesting, though, unless I prompt you to tell me a story about why you came here or why you love it here, what I hear mostly are … well … complaints.

We complain about traffic. We complain about parking. We complain about our brick streets…and we LOVE our brick streets. We complain about the restaurants that are here and those that aren’t. We complain about how the Christmas parade isn’t what it used to be. We complain about the weather. We complain about how crowded the park is. We complain about how expensive the frozen lemonade at the art festival is… now that I think is worth complaining about … is there someone here who can do something about that? But frozen lemonade notwithstanding, there is a very real reason that we complain even about things we love … we’re actually hard wired to do so.

We are genetically predisposed to find and focus on danger and threats … which today translates into noticing and complaining about just about everything. But we also complain because we know that negativity makes for better storytelling. Come on, 5 more minutes of me telling you how wonderful Burlington, Vermont is would feel like an eternity … but let me engage you in a debate about how annoying it is that I can’t turn left out of the Einstein’s parking lot, and we will trade stories for an hour at least.

But, I want to invite you today to think differently about what we see and what we say when we talk about Winter Park.

And the reasons I want you to talk differently about this great city is because people are listening.

Now, please don’t misunderstand, I don’t work for the mayor or the city council or the chamber of commerce, and I think it is absolutely critical that we continue to work together to evaluate the problems, address the important issues and plan for the future of our great city.

But I want to make sure that we don’t spend so much time focusing on what’s wrong … that we fail to spread stories about what’s right. For one, I want people who visit here or are thinking about visiting here to know that we don’t take this place for granted.

And two, because my children are paying attention … and I want them to hear more than just the negative. Because despite what they see around them, if all they hear is the complaining and bickering and negativity, they will soon believe that that is what Winter Park is all about. And I want them to grow up thinking and believing that they live in one of the most special cities in the country … because after they have gone away to college and done some exploring of their own, Steph and I desperately want them to come back here … to take care of us in our old age.

Now, to get us thinking differently about the stories we tell about Winter Park, let’s start thinking about how we want people to feel when they’re here … and, in fact, how WE want to feel living here.

Using what they call a Positive Experience Index, the Gallup organization seeks to find the happiest places to live in the world. This Positive Experience Index distills it down to just a few extraordinarily simple questions … and maybe these are the kinds of questions we need to be asking ourselves, as we seek to attract people to live here, to start and grow businesses here and to develop the kind of place that we love living in today and want our children to return to when they become adults.

So, here they are.

  1. Did you smile or laugh today?
  2. Were you treated with respect today?
  3. Did you feel well-rested today?
  4. Did you do or learn something interesting today?

That’s it. Those are the main questions in Gallup’s Positive Experience Index.

And these are a lot different than the questions we normally ask….like, how in the world did the mayor give “them” permission to build “that” house on “that” street?

Or, do you know how long it took me to find a parking space in front of Palmanos this morning?

You see, maybe the questions we should be asking when it comes to the quality of LIFE that we’re cultivating … or the kind of town we want to build a LIFE in should actually be about … our LIFE.

So…

Did you laugh today?

Were you treated with respect today?

Did you feel well-rested today?

Did you do or learn something interesting today?

And just so you know, America ranks 24th in the world in this poll, tied with Taiwan, the Dominican Republic and Iceland … and to put it into perspective, we are three points behind Venezuela, el Salvador and the Philippines.

So, any guesses what country had the highest positive experience index the last time Gallup took this poll?

The answer – Paraguay!. Not what you would have thought, right?

What this tells us is simply that it’s more about the relationships we form, the way we treat one another and the way we approach life that makes a great community. By no means am I saying that our beautiful oak trees and lakes and historic homes and the walkability of Winter Park and our brick streets are unimportant. I’m simply saying that we need to pay equal attention to the way we interact … and, we need to spend more time appreciating what we have.

I’ll leave you with a simple story.

Many years ago, a young boy was seeking the secret of life and was told to visit a wise emperor.

For days and weeks, the boy hiked across scorching hot desserts and tall treacherous mountains and at last arrived at the emperor’s palace. The boy was greeted at the doors by the emperor who welcomed him to the palace and explained that he had some business to finish up and would be ready to see him shortly. In the meantime, he asked the boy to fetch a teaspoon full of oil from the kitchen and bring it to him.

The boy did as he was told, found the kitchen nearby and the cook gave the boy a gold spoon filled with the richest olive oil the boy had ever seen.

Anxious to make a good impression on the emperor, the boy took the spoon full of oil and hurriedly, but with the utmost care, carried it to the emperor’s quarters, walking through the long hallways, up the steep steps, as carefully as possible so as to not spill even a single drop of that precious oil. In fact, as he walked, the boy said to himself over and over again, “I mustn’t spill the oil. I mustn’t spill the oil.”

At last, the boy arrived at the emperor’s quarters, proud and excited, he handed the emperor the spoon, all of its contents in tact.

The emperor took the spoon and looked at the boy. “So,” he said, “What did you think?”

“Think of what, your majesty?” the boy asked nervously.

“What did you think of the palace?” the emperor asked.

The boy looked at the emperor dumbfounded.

“Surely you noticed the great tapestries that lined the walls … they are made of the purest silk and were woven by hand, each one took over a decade to complete.”

The boy stared blankly.

“And surely you noticed the oil paintings, created by the greatest masters of the last century? And the frescoes? And the rugs? And the alabaster sconces?”

The emperor continued to describe the beauty of his palace, the beauty that the boy failed completely to see because he was so focused on not spilling what he had in his hand at that particular moment.

That was the secret of life that the boy had traveled so far to learn.

Let’s not fail to see the beauty that surrounds us because we’re so focused on trying to hold on to what we have or so focused on not losing what we had.

We live in a place that is as close to perfect as just about any place I have ever been. Let’s appreciate it … and love it … and share lots and lots of stories about it.

Thank you.

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