The Protaganista
Linda (Elle) Yaven
May 15 2020

          "I always thought great storytellers were born that way.                                                Now I see telling my story is more than telling my story.            
             It’s me designing my life."


                                                       - A client


Wherever we were in our respective storylines at the year’s start 2020 has been a disrupter. 

VUCA times (velocity/unknowns/complexity/ambiguity) require self leadership or we may easily be set off course. Sheltering in place highlights how adept we are at spending time with ourselves. Social justice unveils the power of the story beneath the given story. More than ever, human to human interaction depends on the competence to self-modulate.

Coaching people on their communication repertoires, the difference between learning asked and learning unasked is helpful. Baking your first cake or taking a course are examples of the former. Here you foresee the outcome and won't necessarily be changed by the experience.

Current unprecedented uncertainties and constraints position us as the later. We have each been thrown into a state of learning unasked. We did not choose to be the learners we now find ourselves to be.

When my sister passed away way too early, I understood learning unasked more fully. Without recourse to the usual signposts and guidelines place us in a learning curve. Character and integrity are more visible when things get pared down. We may also be clued into strengths we didn’t know we had.  

Unless we take the reins in our lives, the world makes decisions for us. While this has always been so, in sobering times we are called to set intentions more deliberately.

Intentions crystallize out of our needs, our interests and how we picture the future.The thing about intentions is we are not always consciously aware we have them. Let alone possess an awareness of their impact on others – or on ourselves.


The protagonist is the main character in a story who faces conflict and seeks resolution. Presented with a blank page a protagonist grapples with a meaning making process, having several possible outcomes.

When I first heard the word protagonist I was a high school student in Brooklyn. The concept, like much of traditional pedagogy, didn’t click. Years later in a different language, school and landscape it felt right. I was a visiting educator to Reggio Children in Northern Italy. Their use of the protaganista personacomes to mind given the odyssey we set global sail on.

Newsweek had called Reggio Emilia one of the top ten learning systems in the world. Given their young learners are not text reliant a learning system integrating visual design has arisen. Visualizing ideas enriches enthusiasm, adding to “We are in this together” thinking.

The Reggio educators view each child as a protaganista on a learning journey. They claim even young children have the right to be at the center pf their learning. Children are agents - not just consumers but producers of meaning and culture. Children are seen as capable of hypothesizing, researching and interpreting the world.

Their students were three months to six years of age; I coach grown-ups. Yet their learning model knocked my socks off in its relevancy for adult learners keen on creative agency. I so appreciate returning fortified by this systemic model of the world working. It has informed what is possible in my practice with clients and students.

As a coach and educator my ethos runs parallel to the one for the bambini. As learners we each have an ethical right to interpret the world alongside others in diverse contexts. And to articulate authentic voice and choices on our respective paths.



            To begin with, I worship at the altar of intention and obstacle.
             Somebody wants the money, the person, to get to Philadelphia.
             The obstacle has to be formidable and the tactics they use to
             overcome that obstacle are what show us character.                                                                         
                                             -Screenwriter Adam Sorkin  

If only it were a straight shot. As a founding member of an MBA in Design Strategy, over 12 years we have seen this discipline mature globally. Yet when students ask about the program’s start, I stand quietly in front of class. I stretch my arm out as if feeling for our next steps in the darkness.

Design is a change methodology, with a driving bias for the possibility within constraints. It assumes going in you don't have the answers but provides structures and discipline to uncover their construction.

                          "My intention is to learn to spend time by myself."

                                                                  - A client.

Setting intentions at the outset a protagonist will not fully know how the story unfolds. iterate their way forward: they test, discard, refine and repeat. Whether they recognize it as a design process or not, this is so.

Forks in the road are not always clear; they may remain hidden yet still compel action. Coaching those keen on the freedom to invent they often trust, as one entrepreneur said, an intuition to simply "make a situation different”. Turning points can be easier for us to identify after the fact.

                Along with simplicity and sincerity
              immaturity is taken as a virtue in this country.

                                             - Author James Baldwin

So what is the silver lining in this unasked for collective crossroads? When my niece Eliza was five, if you asked her about something she didn't know she would say "I cannot know that". Maturing provides the potential to author our lives in ways not possible when little. Working with young professionals I know gravitas has less to do with age than our stage of understanding.

            "Growing up the external world did not make much sense.                         With maturity I see I was always held by my own creative force".

                                                                     - A client

It’s as if we have collectively been sent to our rooms to assess what works and what requires revision. However uncomfortable at first, updating trajectories, conversations, relationships by design is a sign of health.  

                 Mirroring is something so many creative people do,                                                this idea of shadow dancing – we’re touching the exterior world,                   but ultimately we’re defining the contours of our own interiority. 

                                              - Kehinde Wiley, Artist         

In developing an internal locus of control, however paradoxical it seems, we become kinder witnesses of someone else’s experience. As a client said "It makes you nicer to be around and brings integrity to leadership." In this global reset an ethos of equivalency, listening and healing surface as leading edge markers.
A neighbor walking her dog shared she felt lost and unmoored. I thought of a friend who’d sailed from San Francisco to Tahiti with his brother. “It’s like sailing when you
hit the doldrums in the Pacific” I replied. In this moment of learning unasked we puzzle through framing the challenge in ways to suggest alternate routes.

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