Our Founders' Stories:
Elderly Woman Behind the [Grocery Store] Counter in a Small Town: True Confessions of the Uncool
When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my response was “I want to listen to people’s stories.” As an uncoordinated, un-artistic kid, my hobby was bonding.
The bonding habit got started in the same place savvier preteens were getting introduced to much more exciting activities: in the back seat of a parked car. My friend and I, waiting in the driveway for our high school sisters to finish practice and drive us home, poured out to each other our family dynamics, fears, dreams, and sense of our place in the world.
It was embodied Namaste: the divine 12-year old in her saw the divine 12-year old in me. This magical alchemy—which years later I’d learn had the fancy name ‘vulnerability’—happened when we bared our souls. For the first time in a world of budding teen angst, I was held, hopeful and hooked.
Going off to college, I thought I’d be a psychologist, because that’s the only profession that got to listen to people’s deepest needs, right? When that didn’t resonate, I joined the world of non-profits, thrilled by the prospect of being part of a team united by a core mission to build communities, who dared to spend their lives believing they could make a difference.
Rising through the ranks of international NGO’s felt important and right. But my inner landscape was catching up with me. My increasing responsibilities started taking a toll that I couldn’t sustain.
In a new leadership position during a time of significant organizational turmoil, I was tasked with downsizing seasoned leaders who were 20 years my senior. My insecurities skyrocketed. I could no longer hide behind my middle-child, peace-making, people-pleasing tendencies. Who was I if I couldn’t be liked?
I shared my griping anxiety about having to hurt my staff, and how torn up I was after each conflict encounter with a trusted colleague and dear friend. You know that friend who tells you the uncomfortable stuff that you don’t want to hear? That was her: “Why is this so hard for you? It’s just what you have to do! You might need to figure out why this whole not being liked business is messing with you so much.” Wait, so the human pretzel I would twist myself into so that I could maintain this shaky façade of being LOVED! Being ACCEPTED! Being a GOOD PERSON! Wasn’t that what everyone did?
My children were 4, 2, and newborn when the anxiety came back with vengeance. It was a dark and painful time, brought on by feeling disconnected from my husband, underwater with three young kids, and finally fully opening to the suffering of seeking my worth externally.
I literally couldn’t feel my heart. It was in a tight box. And it was terrifying. For the first time in my life, my mental health felt like it was at stake. I had taken for granted that I could handle life the way I always had. But now I realized if something didn’t change, the black hole would swallow me.
I’ve always been a seeker, but this was a desperate and ugly grasping. It felt like a fight for my life. There was no lovely, lavender scented mountainside pilgrimage. I hungrily devoured anything that could help: journals, time in the woods, labyrinth-walking, meditation, yoga, retreats, praying so hard my knees bled and knuckles ached. I read the masters, the shamans, the healers, the teachers. I cried out in fear, mostly in the shower. That there was light beyond the darkness I trusted, I just didn’t know if I could hang on long enough to find it.
My loving family and friends could sense my suffering, and I bless them for holding space for me. One beloved friend sent a letter that simply said: “I know how horrible this is. I wish I could help, but I know I can’t.”
This was between me and God. That, I never doubted.
Subtle shifts began, and I began to remember.
Regular time alone in nature—on a wooded path, near a stream, didn’t matter, but that silence and introspection became absolutely non-negotiable to my well-being. I realized slowly, painfully, in a one step forward, two step back kind of progress, that there were key elements I needed to maintain this shaky stability. Like Little Mermaid Ariel walking on the beach for the first time with her new legs, I was newly grounded, but incredibly wobbly.
The gray, early December afternoon I cracked open, I’ll never forget. What struck me was just how physical this awakening was. My body trembled, dry heaved, shook. Years and generations of pain and density poured out of my shedding skin. A new day was dawning, as I slowly began to comprehend just how profoundly connected my body is to my spirit.
Slowly, with lots of help from my rock star, ‘A-team’ tribe, I remembered how to walk, and eventually run, leap and dance. The work wasn’t done, but I now had tools that ensured I could better handle what would come. The most fundamental shift: I learned to listen to my inner wisdom. A revelatory mysticism had been awakened inside; I now had God, my divine source, on speed dial.
Throughout my life, there has been a nagging sense that I never quite fit in. I was never fully at home or content in one faith, one clique, or one club. There are great benefits to living this wide-webbed life, but it can be feel isolating. Mrs. Buckley, my high school history teacher, labeled me a fence sitter because it was so difficult for me to choose a side during debates. But I can so deeply understand both sides, I’d argue. Guess I’m just indecisive, I resigned—a character trait firmly on the “weak” list in our culture.
As we drove to social events when we were first married, Mike would give me “the talk.” I knew it well. It was the same talk my big sister had given to me before we went out, growing up. My cooler, wiser, beloved counterparts have been trying, to no avail, to make me cooler my whole life.
The talk? It goes something like this: “if you see someone you met once, pretend like you don’t remember every single detail of everything they ever told you. It freaks them out! It makes you look like a stalker.” Or “try to just have a regular conversation!” And “don’t ask so many inappropriate questions. Whatever you do, don’t cry with people you just met! It makes everyone really uncomfortable! Plus, it’s weird.”
I never could get the hang of it. I’m no good at watching TV, sports, and, like I said, no hobbies. Small talk is tough. So I like to dive into the juicy stuff. How can your heart not break open when you really listen? Why wasn’t everyone crying all the damn time?
Connecting with folks came easily and brought so much hope and joy. The hope that there is so much that binds us. The joy is that we aren’t alone in our suffering. Could it be that the same stuff that made me an indecisive fence sitter also made me a curious empathizer? That notion that our weakness might be our greatest strength rang true.
In the food store the other day, I saw the kind lady who sometimes helps me bag my groceries. We fell into our usual routine, focusing on the task at hand, exchanging jokes & some pleasant small talk. So I didn’t actually look at her until I had finished paying.
“Sylvie! You gorgeous babe! You got your hair cut!” She smiled a shy smile. “It looks brand new!” Yes, she affirms, “I just got it cut this morning.” Noting the fresh black dye and part down the opposite side of her head, I respond, “Well, it looks beautiful.”
At that moment, our eyes locked. In her twinkling stare, I recognized something. She felt truly seen by me. Her penetrating look told me how much she had seen me, in return. Time stood still. Tears filled my eyes. Together, we peeled back the illusionary layers that separate us. And what was left? Love. Love so tangible, you could reach out and touch its beating form.
So 3-Minute Storyteller might just be an elaborate ploy to give me the luxurious space and a more socially appropriate venue to dive deep. People are endless fascinating. And since we are all connected, their story is my story. Maybe just a chapter I haven’t learned yet, or forgot. I am so curious about how people tick, what they’ve learned. What inspires and frustrates them. So I invite them to share their stories, and am awed by how many say ‘yes.’
I get to have meandering, open-hearted, gorgeous conversations with folks who have done the work. Taken risks. Found a path. Who have the courage to blaze a trail and invite others to follow. These conversations illustrate how there are staggeringly infinite number of trails back to wholeness. Ultimately, each one of us has to create a path, a life, that brings us back to our most authentic selves.
Like many of my fellow empaths, I find it easier to be on the listening side than the sharing side. My inhale is seeking; my exhale is stillness. On those days when I’m balanced, centered, stable and strong, joy is the tiny pause—the splendid space—in between each breath. 3-Minute Storyteller gives me the ridiculous pleasure of inhaling a tenderly curated gathering of some of the most inspiring people I can imagine. Such rich and full content for my seeking heart!
What a joyful, pleasurable opportunity to shift through and immerse myself in books, ideas, conversations, modalities, faiths. STORIES. All of these rich, wise, funny, brave, heart-breaking, challenging STORIES. This place has become my creative expression. A people-loving, wisdom-seeking, story-collecting playground. It might not always be cool, but if you listen close, you’ll hear me cry. Lots.
But there’s also a danger of losing myself in the questing.
The only way I know to protect and fortify myself is in the exhale, through my contemplative practices. Sometimes that looks like two hours out in the forest dancing, crying, sitting or stomping. (My code when I’m on the edge and need to get back to myself fast: “I just need to run out to Target.” Mike’s learned to translate.) But often it’s five minutes before the kids need breakfast on the back deck with my journal.
Maintaining a disciplined practice helps me notice if I’m out of alignment and veering towards loosing myself to the great ideas and compelling visions of our storytellers. I don’t always get this delicate dance right.
When I’m faltering, God sends me folks like Sylvie to remind me: It may be that the only thing I have to offer this world is the gift of noticing that our 60-something grocery store bagger got a new cut and color. But if that exquisite sensitivity allows the two of us to share a tender, fleeting moment that reminds us that we are all just waking balls of love aching to be seen, to be held, and that we matter, then maybe that is enough.
--Shannon Mannon September 2016
So, What Is This 3-Minute Storyteller Thing, Anyway?
For the last 15 years of my professional life, I’ve been working with people trying to tell their stories better. Whether that was an employee trying to get her manager to understand all she did, or an engineer trying to cut through all the technical detail to get to the root of the problem, or a salesperson getting a customer to not hear bullshit but to actually listen for value, the approach is very often the same.
Tell your story. People listen when you tell your story.
So here’s a little bit of mine.
This time last year, I was in a dark place.
On the surface, everything was as it should have been. My wife Shannon and I have three beautiful, healthy children; we live in a wonderful neighborhood, we have incredible friends and family support. I had just finally realized my dream of becoming owner of a company I had long worked for and mostly loved. Shannon’s work in the non-profit sector was the realization of her dream of true community building.
And in spite of it all, I was struggling mightily to hold at bay a depression and a feeling of emptiness that had been periodically rearing up since my early teen years.
As a child, I always imagined I’d be famous when I grew up. As an unhappy adolescent, I scaled my expectations to just imagine myself happy. As a frequently heartbroken twenty-something, I just wanted comfort. And somehow, as things got better and better externally, somehow approaching middle-age, I was still fanaticizing myself being not miserable.
What was eating at me most was a series of questions: “Is this who I am?” “What am I giving; what am adding to the world?” “Why have I been hiding from the creativity that so clearly drives my joy?” And the one that really kept poking me: “Is this life?” Is this my life?
When you ask yourself who you really are, don’t expect a short or easy answer.
At 42, I had very clearly found myself as a “businessman.” Which, considering my talents—and lack thereof—was fairly remarkable. All my training and interest had been in the arts and writing, but somehow I had carved out a consulting life for myself with Fortune 500 clients. This wasn’t new. It was, in short, my life. And it was a good life, a noble profession. All along though, there was something unsettling about it. Something not entirely me.
When my daughter was given the assignment at school to draw what her mom and dad did, and she drew a picture of me holding a briefcase in a suit—which was entirely accurate—it rocked me to my core.
I always told her I was a “teacher,” but she saw right through me.
Last February, I was working with a small group at a healthcare client on conference-speaking preparation. It was a great session, amazing really in the growth that the participants showed. But to be honest, we see that growth almost every session we do. We typically get people coming up to us and telling us how the session had changed them, will change them for the better. In fact, as bad as it sounds, that kind of response had actually become somewhat mundane—wrapped up, as it were, in my malaise.
But this day, a woman approached me at the end of the session in tears with how the crowd had so positively responded to her new set of skills.
She talked with a lump in her throat: “I can’t believe that after all this time, in my native country [China] and here, in two languages, I’ve been struggling to get people to pay attention to me, and all I ever had to do was tell them my story and they would start to listen.”
And, like her audience that day, I finally heard. I woke up that next morning to the sound of my own heartbeat in my ears. And it was glorious.
Our mission at 3-Minute Storyteller was immediate and clear. To seek out, question, and listen to wisdom from the most inspirational figures in our lives: people leading inspired lives, people putting their creativity and their humanity on full display, people living courageously and deliberately.
For me, I’ve always believed what Beethoven and Kurt Vonnegut said: music is the closest thing to God. Music is my happy place; my place of inspiration. So I wanted to hear first from musicians. How did you get to where you are? Isn’t that a crazy life choice? Where do the ideas come from?
My wife, with her international humanitarian background, loves talking with change-makers.
But as with most of life, we’ve found inspiration from so many different and surprising people.
A year ago, we recorded our first interview with a Native American storyteller in Tucson, AZ. It was proof positive of our concept. Though you’ll never see the footage (we had no idea what we were doing), our conversation brought all three of us to almost immediate tears. After he told us his story of regret and redemption, we all looked at each other and felt “this is how to live.”
Do you remember that famous ESPY’s speech by Jim Valvano, a version of which he gave for years? The one where he said “if you laugh, and you think, and you cry, that’s a good day. That’s a really good day”? Do you remember how intense that felt, how when he said it, it felt so raw because he was feeling the immediacy of his words at the end of his life?
That’s it. That’s the way to live. I’m so glad I heard and felt that one too, finally—before I had to wait for death-bed wisdom.
Without question, this past year was the best year of my life. Not because I figured out what I wanted to do with my life, although that was part of it, not because I had incredible experiences meeting some of my biggest artistic heroes, although that was thrilling, but because I had more moments of bliss thinking about and talking about vulnerability and humanity than all the rest of my life combined.
At the heart of almost every story we feature is the concept of vulnerability. We show people opening their heart to fear and change and coming out the other side.
I’ve learned that as a man, a provider, a leader, we are ingrained from very early on with certain limits, certain lines in the sand that we hesitate to cross.
I lead, so I direct people. I provide for my family, so I must keep focused on the end goal of making money. I’m paid to give my opinion, so I try to be very definitive and not waste people’s time.
I think like a lot of men, I say a lot but reveal very little.
Sadly, most of those constructs of male “strength” has very little to do with living life.
Much more importantly, I learned to listen just a little better. When you ask someone how they felt in a meaningful moment, how something influenced their choices, an incredible thing happens. If you give them the time to engage with the memory, the light comes on behind their eyes.
Watch for it in our videos. It happens almost every time—that look of inwardness. That self-realization of something deep and personal. And though you can’t see me on the other side of the camera, I have that look too.
What I thought in the beginning was that my favorite thing in the world is to tell stories. And my second favorite thing was to hear them. This year, that order has reversed.
Most of the time the talk ends when a click startles us and we realize a memory card is full. Our original intent of talking to people for five minutes and cutting to three was a bit of a pipe dream.
More typically, we’ll ask for 10 minutes of someone’s time and our conversations will last 30. And like normal conversations, I almost never ask the questions I intend to. Because what I find over and over is that I’m not all that interested in facts. I’m not a journalist. I want to talk about the feelings and the turns of the heart.
Even as write this, I’m 30,000 feet over middle America, on my way to NASA, where a man who just returned to Earth waits for me to ask him about courage. It’s all been fairly surreal. Beautifully surreal, in a way that life, in its very best moments, can be.
Strangely, I want to talk to him not about all the normal things that you’d want to talk to an astronaut about, but I want to talk to him about his heart.
So clearly, this amazing experience has given us a spark that’s rekindled our spirit and our humanity and our curiosity about the beauty that creative and passionate and brave people have.
But why three minutes—why not long-form? I mean, we are talking about some pretty deep stuff here. And the answer is, I’m going on instinct. I’m going on one cliché I know to be absolutely true: the best things come in small packages.
I love TED talks, but I rarely get 18 minutes to sit down with anything (or before this year, anybody). I love written stories, but to see someone tell a story is a whole different animal entirely.
And I think what we are beginning to realize is that 3-Minute Storyteller is about the intersection of inspiration and courage. Because you can’t really have one without the other.
You can change somebody in three minutes. You can tell a story that moves someone to do something different or inspiring or better with their life in three minutes.
So I figured, let’s give people a glimpse. A glimpse. A spark. And let our audience go find the rest of their story.
So back to our title here. What is it? What is 3-Minute Storyteller? I’ve been asked this question so much I’ve started to challenge myself to give a different answer each time and see just how many things it can be. I’ve led a professional life of setting limits, understanding margin, and defining best practices. It’s pretty clear to me that my laser focus has only gotten my heart so far.
So, a company? A PR vehicle? A non-profit? A community? The feeling that I have is simply, it’s a gift. When Shannon and I come back after an interview and talk about what happened, how it went, that’s the word that seems to come up the most. A gift.
What a gift. What a gift to talk to someone about their life. What a gift to see that flicker of memory in someone’s eyes. What a gift to watch a person’s face change and voice soften as they talk about their heart. And back to how it started, what a gift to share those stories, those little moments with people.
And so I settle on “gift.”
Everyone has a story. We just have to listen.
So who knows what it becomes? For me it already has.
--Mike Mannon February 2016
About 3-Minute Storyteller:
Mike and Shannon Mannon started 3-Minute Storyteller in late 2015 as a way to capture brief, inspiring stories from artists and activists and gurus they loved. In the short time since, they've featured an incredible diversity of fascinating people and stories--from astronauts just returned to earth to best-selling authors.
Each week, they release a video story and essay, sometimes written by Mike, sometimes by Shannon, most of the time, a little bit of both.
A key theme of 3-Minute Storyteller is the commonality of the heart that connects us all. One of our missions at 3-Minute Storyteller is to figure out why humans disagree about so much, when in conversation, we seem to have so much in a common.
What we hoped, and what we've found, is that by telling each other our stories, we find the vulnerability, the heart connection that leads to greater understanding. We hope you enjoy our stories.