Jen Hetzel Silbert | Telling My Story Right

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Typically I'd provide an introduction, but as Jen Hetzel Silbert shares her story of breaking the rules, and disrupting herself… you'll hear all about how we met.

I first met Whitney Johnson when she took the stage at the Business Innovation Factory (BIF) Summit in Providence in the fall of 2011. She shared her “Disrupt Yourself” story that opened with an all too familiar question: Are you sure youre not making a mistake?

Whitney shared four lessons learned from her own disruptive path, each loaded with stories and images illustrative of the pain and reward that comes with the uncertainty of leaping into the unknown.  One slide resembled an impending steep descent on a roller coaster that left me with butterflies in my stomach.  “If it feels scary and lonely, you’re on the right track,” she said, assuredly, “…and you have no idea what will come next.”

It was as if the room went black with one spotlight shining on me alone. Tears welled up in my eyes. This was all too familiar territory, and she was talking about me – about the crossroads I had been standing at for quite some time, changes I needed to make in my work and my life. I felt validated and terrified all at once.

Several months after BIF, Whitney reached out on Twitter and invited me to guest blog on her Dare, Dream, Do site.  I replied with enthusiasm, sending sample articles I had written about strong, empowered women who had disrupted themselves and inspired my consultancy work and me.  When it comes to discovering and lifting up another person or organization’s powerful story, I am on it like white on rice.

Whitney phoned soon after to thank me for my writing samples and to clarify her request.  “I want to hear your story,” she said.

My story? I wasn't sure I had one.

“Do you have a few minutes? I'd like to ask you some questions,” she said. It was as if she knew what she was looking for, and confident she was going to find it, regardless of my doubt.

“Shoot,” I said, ambivalently.

And then it happened again. The room went dark and the spotlight came on. She asked the questions and I opened doors to rooms in my past I forgot existed.  It was but a 20-minute conversation and I shared it all – the vulnerable, the scary, the glory. The tears welled up again and my story, which came out of nowhere, revealed itself in all its magnificent purity and simplicity.


Perhaps more liberating than the story itself was the journey of finding it. The narrative I was holding about my past was loaded with shame and guilt, and yet little did I realize

[until this fateful phone call] that it was also loaded with courage and heroism. Whitney’s questions didn't change the events of my past, but they dramatically changed how I felt about them, and in ways that radically altered how I viewed myself – the person I was and the person I was capable of becoming. In a matter of minutes I went from shameful rule breaker to proud warrior, heroine.

And this is significant, because the stories we tell about our past shape our vision of the future. Whitney hits on this in Chapter One of Dare Dream Do, sharing a piece by psychologist Dan P. McAdams, author of The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By.  McAdams writes: “[Our personal] narratives guide behavior in every moment, and frame not only how we see the past but how we see ourselves in the future.”

It's not about escaping from our past (which is impossible anyway); it's about tapping into it with the right questions, harnessing its teachings with fresh eyes, and revealing its story in ways that shape and strengthen the person we long to be.

Shortly after that call I was invited to speak at the 2012 TEDx Providence, and boy was I ready.  I shared “Breaking the Rules and Finding WORTH,” my first ever deep reveal, stepping out of the shadows and into the very spotlight Whitney symbolically shined on me just months before.

I embraced that speaking engagement as if it was a grand finale to honor bold disruptive steps I had taken in the past, and yet little did I realize that my disruptive course had only begun.  That TEDx talk marked my stepping up to the starting line of a disruptive course, not the finish.  As a former marathon coach I could appreciate the significance of this: no strong runner trains just to get to the end; rather, we train to muster up the confidence and courage to step up to the start.

And here’s another small piece of irony: I shared my TEDx story so that others might ask themselves what “rules” they’re holding on to, even unknowingly.  What assumptions or game plans have them running on autopilot, and what do they complacently accept that they ought to re-examine and re-imagine?

And so began my readiness to internalize these very questions and to disrupt myself – again.

It's funny how life flows in circles, one disruption planting seeds of learning to ready us for the next.  As one outcome of this journey, I challenged my loyalty to stay in the very company I had co-founded less than a decade earlier.  Simply put, I dared to dream even bigger—for myself, and not just for the people and organizations that I live to serve.

Additionally, I took up kickboxing classes (the Ying to my yoga and running Yang) and participated in and led various civic engagement forums in cities around the country around topics I was personally passionate about, like rethinking how we learn in schools and communities.  With little to no seed money I began a movement to spark storytelling around powerful learning moments, capturing evidence-rich narratives of education at its best in ways that inspire more of a good thing.  Our Rhode Island movement, aptly called #Learning401, continues to gain momentum and interest across social media channels and area schools, community organizations, and education institutions.  I didn’t get permission to start this movement; I just did it.


As for the kickboxing, I am mastering physical challenges I never imagined this 5’ 1” warrior would tackle, doing more than 80 pushups in a minute, getting certified in Mixed Martial Arts fitness training, and very recently was promoted to Green Belt in Muay Thai Kickboxing.  I make health and fitness a priority in my still hectic soccer mom workweek, getting strong on the outside in ways that fortify me on the inside.

It is one thing to view life as a book of premeditated chapters and pages that we turn and either anticipate the worst or hope for the best.  It’s quite another to view life as empty pages within which we muster up the courage to choose what to draw and write.  Choosing a path of disruption and embracing its uncertainty creates discomfort and pain, yes, but more possibility for those pages than we could ever gain from a static life stuck on autopilot.

My journey of self-disruption continues in painful, uncertain, exciting ways.  I'm breaking more rules and finding more worth than ever before. It doesn't get easier, but it does get increasingly more worthwhile.

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