Humans are natural storytellers and in many ways telling stories is what makes us human. Stories help us make sense of the experiences of our lives. Stories create an emotional connection to events and facts — they give meaning to the past and create a sense of hope for the future.
When we think about our lives we are really thinking about the story that we tell about our lives. We have created a narrative thread that connects the events that have happened and encapsulates who we were, who we are and who we want to become. We tell stories to other people to form connections and to inspire and we also tell stories to ourselves for the same reasons: to connect our present self with our past self and to inspire ourselves. In this article, I will look at 3 questions that I think we should ask about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
Does your story create limits or expand possibilities?
Some of our stories place limits on who we are and limit who we can be. The stories create a set of rules for how we have been that we feel are part of who we are and how we will always be.
I always thought of myself as an introvert and, while that was true, it became a limiting story. I would repeat the tropes that I prefer a keyboard and code to a person or a conversation. I let it prevent me from speaking in front of groups (despite my years performing on stage as a musician) and I let it hold me back from thinking about management roles. It was a story that held me back.
Over time, my role changed and I began to have an externally facing role working with partners, that story changed. I was required to new people all the time and I began to use the phrase a social introvert more. I was able to create a story that allowed me to be more social and to become a leader.
What makes a story authentic or true is that the events and facts are real and the meaning that you give them resonates with who you are. The fact that I need alone time to recharge did not change, but how I thought about myself did, and this allowed me to do things I never could have otherwise.
One way to tell stories that expand what is possible is by using the word yet. In my own life, when I try to tell stories about myself and there are things I have not done or am not able to do I will add the word yet. Yet opens the door that this is not the final state and things will change. There are more possibilities when I say, “I have not been published professionally, yet” instead of, “I have not been able to publish professionally.”
Is your story carved in stone or drafted in pencil?
Many people take their personal story for granted and see it as a static tale — stringing together of the facts into a narrative that that they accept as truth. Things that can be objectively agreed upon are facts: whether an event happened, how many people attended an event what words were spoken. These are things that objective third parties would all have to agree to as true.
Stories are not the truth. There are many ways to describe a single event and each is a shade of the truth. The facts and occurrences may be immutable, but how we connect the events together with meaning and emotion is dynamic. Stories are flexible, they create meaning where there is none and can change meaning as well.
We experience events from our own perspective that has as much to do with who we are as what really happened. We cannot change the facts, but the story around those fact can shift. We can frame our stories to shape who we want to be rather than who we were. We can choose which events to highlight and which to reinforce as meaningful.
For a long time my career story started by talking about how my dad taught me to program as a child. I remember sitting in the office of his building. He was working and he had set me up at and taught me how to write a simple script to draw on a plotter. I would talk about how we had a commodore 128 (128K of RAM!) and my brother and I would write our own games. This story made my becoming an engineer clear. It was a great story when I was an engineer. Now my career origin story starts in another place. I talk about high school and being elected the captain of the fencing team and how that first moment of leadership taught me about what it means to bring people together and how I enjoyed coaching my teammates during bouts.
What can you see in your past that can foreshadow where your story is headed?
(This question is inspired by a question that Michael Bungay Stainer often asks guests in his podcast.)
We always have the opportunity to reframe our past, not just to be able to learn from it, but also to help shape the present. To see the moment and the events that knowing what we know now become not only possible but inevitable. You can also look for the moment in the past that can make what you want inevitable. The thing about stories is that although they unfold in the telling, repeated telling allows us to know the ending before we get there. We get to choose the ending and we can make sure it is foreshadowed in the story.
In my earliest years I wanted to be a priest and then a psychologist — I always had the desire to help people see a version of themselves that they couldn’t otherwise and to help them learn and grow. While my religious beliefs have changed and my path in life took many turns up until now, I am at a point where I see that again as my mission: “I help people discover their inner greatness and actualize that potential so that they have the compassion and skillful means to make the maximum positive impact on their world.”
How is your story limiting you? How can you frame that story and make it dynamic? What from your past points to your future and shows that what you can become was always there waiting to be discovered?