“The most important story you will ever tell about yourself is the story you tell to yourself.” ~ Jim Loehr, The Power of Story, Free Press, 2007
Stories that don't work happen to everybody. Each of us operates with a variety of organizing principles, or “stories,” that swirl around our brains. They often prompt us to work harder and faster, even though we're not getting any closer to achieving the life we want.
Even the most successful people, with brilliant professional histories, carry old stories in their minds. One of the most commonly shared (and seriously flawed) beliefs is that simply spending time on something will generate positive results. If you buy into this premise, then you’re probably rushed much of the time.
High-quality, focused energy is necessary to achieving results. As performance psychologist Jim Loehr writes in The Power of Story (Free Press, 2007), “…the key to almost all of our problems, more fundamental even than poor energy management, is faulty storytelling, because it's storytelling that drives the way we gather and spend our energy."
Indeed, energy is the most precious resource we possess—the heart of the solutions to our most pressing problems and needs. The stories we tell ourselves, however, cause us to lose valuable energy, leaving us too tired or stressed to perform at optimum levels.
Find a Faulty Story
To generate the energy you need to fulfill your greatest desires and goals, you must identify your faulty stories—the erroneous old chestnuts that you tell yourself over and over again. We rarely examine them or question their usefulness. We simply go about our workdays and lives, telling ourselves these familiar tales to convince ourselves that we’re OK.
Answer the following questions to determine whether your stories are working to your advantage:
- Do you feel energized?
- Are managing your time well?
- Do you get things done?
- Are you living the life you dreamed?
If you have answered “no” to any of these questions, then your stories aren’t working for you. Now’s the time to develop a story that compels you and improves your energy.
Stories Create Our Reality
Humans are wired to create and tell stories. Our brains continuously look for explanations to the events around us. Whatever we encounter, whether random or planned, forces our minds to impose a chronology and apply cause-and-effect logic.
“We automatically, and often unconsciously, look for an explanation of why things happen to us, and ‘stuff just happens’ is no explanation,” according to psychologist Justin Barrett, a senior researcher at Oxford University’s Centre for Anthropology & Mind.
We use stories to find meaning amid chaos. This is how we organize and give context to our experiences. Facts are meaningless until we create a story around them. As business consultant Annette Simmons writes in The Story Factor (Basic Books, 2006), “People don’t need new facts—they need a new story.” In most cases, these stories matter more than what actually happens.
We tell our stories constantly, even when we’re unaware of doing so. They reflect issues with our work, family, overall happiness, and personal strengths and weaknesses. Each story has a theme, hero, villain and conflict, and the way we communicate it involves both verbal and nonverbal communication.
Because we alone craft our stories, we may as well make them as inspiring as possible, suggest leadership coach Rosamund Stone Zander and Boston Philharmonic Orchestra Conductor Benjamin Zander, authors of The Art of Possibility (Harvard Business School Press, 2000).
Consequences of Negative Stories
Some of our internal stories are so tragically inaccurate that they lead to stress and burnout:
- “It’s a competitive, cutthroat world out there.”
- “If I don’t look out for No. 1, nobody else will.”
- “The world is moving too fast for me these days.”
- “I’d love to spend time with my family, but I have to work.”
- “If I’m not the first person at work and the last to leave, I’ll be viewed as a slacker.”
- “I'd exercise and eat better, if only I wasn’t so busy.”
- “I’m smarter than most people at work, so I don’t need to prepare, train or worry.”
A USA Today survey reveals that one in six employees is so overworked that he/she doesn’t use up allotted annual vacation time (even though Americans receive the fewest vacation days in the industrialized world).
Another survey shows:
- 34% of workers report that they have no downtime at work.
- 32% eat lunch while working.
- 32% never leave the building until they head home.
5 Kinds of Stories
We tell stories related to five basic subjects:
While there are myriad variations, these themes form the basis for everyday complaining or bragging—two facets of storytelling.
Do a reality check to see if your stories excuse your actions or inspire new behaviors. How do you feel about your results? Are you happy with the way you conduct yourself? Answering these questions allows you to uncover how your internal stories influence your behavior.
3 Steps to Rewrite Your Story
- Make a list of your current stories. Identify the areas where your stories are clearly hurting you.
- Articulate, as clearly as possible, a story that isn’t working for you. Are you, for example, rationalizing a behavior or scapegoating a colleague? Are you bitter or boastful? Your story should be as authentic as possible.
- To rewrite your story, first identify its faulty elements. Ask yourself these three questions:
- Does the story reflect the truth?
- Will it take me where I want to go in life (while allowing me to remain true to my core values)?
- Does it stimulate me to take action?
Loehr says a constructive story contains three key components:
- Hope-filled action
If your story lacks one or more of these elements, it remains flawed and unworkable. Only a purposeful, truthful and hope-driven story will inspire you to unleash your intrinsic energy and achieve what you want from life.