At TED Monday and Wednesday, two powerful talks by poet Sarah Kay and author Jacqueline Woodson showed why the stories we tell are the key to our true success.

As creators, entrepreneurs, and builders, our biggest flaw is believing our ideas are original. They may come from a muse's inspiration or from a particular life experience or from an environmental factor. But they are not just from our genius, and thinking so betrays our past and cripples our future.

Here's why.

Our power is inherited

In a beautiful TED opening, Sarah Kay talked about the natural order of nature: From creatures knowing when to migrate and return to birds instinctively understanding the right formation. There is no school. There is no think piece. There is just the pattern of the living things before them. It is instinct, environmental and passed on.

Kay calls this "inherited choreography." Your desire to change the world isn't just because. It is from your environment, it is from your history, it is from your DNA. It is yours--but you have to understand that it didn't originate with you.

The closer you get to this truth, the more you can harness the power and make a bigger impact.

When we immerse ourselves into our craft, then, for that moment, we are connected to everyone else who has ever done it before. How honorable is that? You are not a struggling artist, but someone participating in the same actions, and perhaps facing the same feelings, as Michelangelo and Picasso and O'Keefe. By doing what you are called to do, by doing what you do best, by doing what only you can do in your special way, then you are not just honoring yourself, but you are honoring those that came before you and the sacrifices they made to make your profession even valid.

Whatever you are, you are not the first. You will not be the last. There is an honor in that. There is also a comfort.

Our stories define us

Later, Jacqueline Woodson shared her legacy as a storyteller. It goes well before her, back to her Southern ancestors who were stripped of their African identities and pulled into slavery. They were not allowed to become literate because, as she shared, knowing and sharing our story empowers it. It is our identity.

"Story is one of our earliest forms of connective technology," Woodson says. She's right. And by preventing literacy, slaveowners were essentially unplugging the internet.


Stories can be conveyed in more ways than one. Stories always want to live. They want to be heard. They want to spread.

As Woodson says, the stories became remembered music and song, and they became memorized tales shared on porches, and they became funny takes on sad tales. They became best-selling stories told centuries later.

They became her.

For both Kay and Woodson, the question becomes, "What part of your story are you neglecting to respect?" You need all of it to create your best future, because all of it got you here.

Published on: Apr 17, 2019
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