The tangle of human lives is spun with stories. Every relationship, every shared belief, and every history is made up of such things. More importantly, your stories are what define you, whether you are conscious of it or not. Being aware, being conscious in your tale telling, can make all the difference in your life.
Other people’s stories
If you want to understand someone, start by listening to the stories they tell. How often are they the protagonist? When they are, what challenge are they facing?
Ignore their stated motivation, and instead focus on how they present their success or failure. What did they try? What seemed to be the lesson? What did their opponent (human or otherwise) try? How did they present that? Did they admire it, or not?
From this you will learn what they value.
Now, this only works if you have a reliable narrator.1 You can infer quite a bit from the behaviors they attribute to themselves, even if the story itself is false. The challenge comes from a savvy storyteller who thinks they know what you value and tailor the story to suit. Some of this is to be expected in human interaction2, but there are some who are capable of doing this consistently with each individual they meet and maintaining that false narrative over extended periods of time.
These people are sociopaths. And they are hard to spot.
If you experience any kind of success in your field, you are certain to run into at least one of them if not a handful. They do particularly well in business, whether they happen to be competent or not. After all, culturally we have a difficult time differentiating confidence from competence, even though they are often unrelated.
Short of a psychological evaluation, you may not even spot them. There’s no magic trick I can give you for this. You can only root them out by comparing their stories to behaviors. If their behaviors are consistent with their implied values you’ll know they are at least at one level honest, though that does not rule out a sociopath, merely that you found an honest one. Forewarned is forearmed, and all that jazz.
Ok, so now you have a grasp on their values, so what? Well, now you have a lens to evaluate their motivations. In other words, you have a little better idea of what they are after. That can help you immensely in negotiations or discussions of any kind.
But the point of all this is not to manipulate people. After all, I promised that this post was really about you. And it is. Using these same techniques, I want you to apply it to yourself.
What stories do you tell other people? And more importantly, what stories do you tell yourself? From this begins your sense of self.
Whether this is a fundamental aspect of our neurophysiology, a structurally bicameral mind, or merely a framework for reduce the complexity of social consciousness to an understandable metaphor, it’s clear that we’re wired for storytelling. Our memories, both in terms of details and emotional tones, become more deeply grounded when framed as a story, and our social relationships are made up of shared stories. We are social animals, and thus it makes sense that the same faculties that allow us build our relationships are also reused in our vision of ourselves. If you’ve ever been through talk therapy, you no doubt have heard your clinician refer to this at some point as “self talk”.
Man is the animal that tells stories to itself, about itself.
— Salman Rushdie, Lecture at the University of Iowa (March 2004)
Every day you tell yourself a story, about who you are, what you value, and what makes you valuable. In some cases, the tone of that story might be very negative. Whether you are aware of it or not, your behavior is often the result of that story and not the other way around, and often that self talk can feel more real to you than your actual memories of events, until all your recollections begin to be seen through that filter. If that filter is negative, you need to try to find a way to tell a better story.
There are limits to this. If you, like me, have a chemical imbalance in your brain, then this doesn’t obviate the need for medication or other treatment. I cannot emphasize enough that if you are suffering from depression, if you feel worthless or hopeless, please seek professional help right away. Do not try to turn it all around on your own.
The other limit is one well known in literature, and that is the suspension of disbelief. Initially, when you try to change your story, it will feel like fiction, because at first it is fiction. The popular advice, “fake it ‘till you make it,” is not only relevant to your career. In order for your new tale to take root in your psyche, you need to be able to hold off your skepticism. You have to change your behavior in such a way to support the narrative you are creating. You cannot simply tell yourself you are an astronaut, if you don’t also spend time studying, training, and putting in the work to pursue that path. No more than telling yourself that you can turn invisible will eventually make you transparent.
So what do you want? Who do you want to be? What do you want to do?
Do you want to be an actor? An expert in your field? Or maybe for you the job is only a means to another end. Maybe all you care about is buying yourself the time to pursue some other hobby. Maybe you have no interest in trying to turn your passion into a business, either due to your financial situation, or even your temperament. That’s okay too.
Tell that story. You want to be a writer? Drop the “aspiring” and call yourself a writer. You want to be an entrepreneur? That’s your new title. You want to be a traveler, a skilled gardener, or musician? Start from there, that’s your character description. That’s the true north of your narrative.
Now, plan it out. Where do you want to end up? What’s your plan to get there? And just like all stories, there will be lots of try/fail cycles. What are willing to do get there? What kinds of failures will you tolerate? There’s the limits of your plot.
While you have this all fresh in your mind, start now. Every day you wait is a another day where you could stop believing in yourself. If you want to be a writer, start writing something. You want to be an engineer? Start studying. Keep at it. Whenever you act out parts of your story, it grounds it more deeply into your sense of self. Use your work to make it easier for you to buy into the story, and in return the easier the work becomes.
Beware the “You Can, Too” advice
You’ll read all sorts of advice from people telling you that everyone can find work that they love that’s aligned with their passions, so long as you are willing to hustle. That’s another kind of story; it is called a lie.
The people telling you that have conveniently forgotten, or do not understand, that in our society, the dice are most certainly loaded. There are many for whom the odds are stacked against them based on circumstances of their birth. I have no doubt that those giving out such well-meant advice truly believe what they are saying. They have convinced themselves it is the case, because that is what it takes to suspend their disbelief around their own story.
You need to keep this out of your self talk. Hustle is good. Working hard to achieve goals is good. Being passionate about who you are and what you value is good. But that does not change this fact: Opportunities are not distributed equitably. You work hard at what you care about so that if the opportunity appears you are prepared to take it. But do not for a moment believe anyone telling you that the work guarantees you a golden ticket. Because every day that the ticket doesn’t arrive, your story has a greater chance of turning toxic.
Don’t let your narrative hinge on what other people will do. You can set goals about that, but don’t let that be the sole measure of your self. You are not your job. You are not your bank account. You are your story. You cannot ask for your life. No one else can give you your soul. You have to take it for yourself, success or failure be damned.
Keep your eyes open to the world
You can change your life with the right story, but you can also be destructive with the wrong one. Remember, you are not alone. Your actions have consequences for both yourself and everyone around you.
Don’t let your story blind you. It’s your story, but it doesn’t change the nature of the world. Listen to others, don’t ignore injustice, and pay attention to the shape of life around you. Once you start understanding your own story, and the stories of the people around you, you’ll begin to see the bones that make up our societal narrative, and there you will find both light and darkness. We can change that for the better: for equity, for love, and for life that burns bright as a star, but to get there, we have to tell a better story. More than that, we need to act on it.