Brand building through storytelling

The inspiration of everyday heroes

When a woman of my acquaintance just happened to mention that she’d soon be boarding a plane for Argentina, I pictured her drinking malbec and learning the tango. “Lucky you!” I said. “You’re going to love Buenos Aires!” Turned out she was giving it a miss. She was bound for the wilds of Patagonia, where she and three teammates would tackle a 600 km adventure race (trekking, mountain biking, kayaking). I’d never seen this woman dressed for anything but business. I had mentally filed her under “dedicated young professional,” never guessing that she had the tenacity, the courage or the sheer ambition to challenge nature and herself for the best part of 10 straight days.

She finished the race, and I’m thrilled for her. But mostly I’m awestruck at the revealed magnificence of someone I’ve known in a hurried, offhand way, without really knowing her at all.

In my feature-writing days it was my business to get to know strangers, notebook in hand. By listening and taking my time, I learned extraordinary things about people I wouldn’t have noticed if they sat beside me on a bus. Often they’d pause in mid-interview to say, wonderingly, “I’ve never shared that with anyone.” Some had been keeping a painful secret (abortion, abuse), but many others simply hadn’t realized that their triumphs, travails and turning points might warrant space in a national magazine. As a journalist, I had a license to probe: “How did that make you feel?” “Why did you respond as you did?” But my questions mattered less in the end than the attention I focused on ordinary folks you might call NIPs (not important people).

That kind of attention can be hard to sustain when you’re scurrying from here to there in the world of appointments and deadlines. People fix your plumbing, blow-dry your hair, lend a hand at the office at crunch time. They occupy a familiar-looking space in your world, and you in theirs. But what do you know of their dramas? Very likely not much.

Last year I was asked for a reference by a former colleague whose work I respect. I knew she’d been jobless for some time just because there were no jobs to be had. After she was finally hired, she took me out to lunch to celebrate. That’s when she told me what I hadn’t known and never would have imagined. My talented ex-colleague was digging her way out of bankruptcy. While I’d been lamenting the recession’s impact on my savings, she had exhausted hers through no fault of her own and was down to her last nine dollars in the world. “I told myself I could sleep in my car if things got any worse,” she told me. “Then I lost my car.”

In the midst of her escalating panic, she managed to convince an employer that she was just the person for the job. Now she looks back on her ordeal with a grace and good humour that I didn’t see when we worked side by side. She radiates gratitude to have found a job in her field. As much as the adventure racer, she has ventured to the far frontiers of experience and returned to tell the tale.

I’ve often pondered Alex Haley’s famous insight “Every death is like the burning of a library.” I’ve found it’s equally true that every life is a vast trove of books with the power to change other lives for better and worse. That’s why I read biographies, why I wrote a memoir and why I’m drawn to conversations about unsung heroism. Like the conversation we’re having right here, this post-Olympic winter day with no more feats of strength or speed to transfix us.

Do you ever talk to strangers on planes and trains? Me, too. Click here to read about the most surprising and moving story ever shared with me by a seatmate. 

Posted by Rona

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