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The most important story you will ever tell is the story you tell yourself.
I’ll say that again, the most important story you will ever tell is the story you tell yourself.
One of my professors, Curtis Lebaron, shared this with our class many years ago. I didn’t fully know what he meant at the time, and I’d like to explore it further today.
The stories we tell ourselves start at a young age. We love labels. Our society loves labels. In high school we label people as jocks, or we label people as nerds. When I was in high school there was a group that dressed in all black. We called them goths. Not sure if that’s still a thing.
Why do we label? Labels make it very easy to categorize things. Labels make a complex world appear simple. Labels allow us to tell easy stories. But labels can be very dangerous. We know the danger of applying inappropriate labels to groups of individuals–we call these stereotypes–but have you stopped to think about the danger of the labels you apply to yourself? Have you thought about the story you tell yourself about who you are?
I’ll share a personal example. Throughout most of my life, I have told myself the story that I am not creative. I was never fond of drawing or painting. Art class never was fun. Part of the reason is that I’m color blind. In 2nd grade I had a very traumatic experience where I was made fun of by my teacher and classmates for being color blind. In front of my class I shared a picture of my “green frog” but I had colored it brown. Everyone laughed at me.
I told myself: I am color blind. I don’t like art or drawing . Therefore, I am not creative. That story, which was repeated regularly, turned into a fixed mindset towards all things creative. Whenever an assignment in school came up that required creativity, I shied away from it. I told myself, I’m just not a creative person. That’s not me.
This story stayed with me until I joined LinkedIn on the compensation team. I had a few projects I was leading and my manager pushed me hard to be creative. I still remember when he used that word. It was like fingernails running down a chalkboard. I didn’t tell him, but in that moment I thought, oh no, that’s not me.
My manager and I had several conversations on the topic of creativity. I decided to give it a try, so I read a lot of articles and a couple books on the topic. My favorite book was Steal Like an Artist from Austin Kleon. I highly recommend this book and it helped shift my perspective on what creativity is and super practical ways we can be more creative.
As time went on, I changed that story. By trying to act in a way that was creative, and by telling myself that I can be creative, a virtuous cycle was forming. I was becoming more creative. The change didn’t happen overnight but I made consistent progress.
Over the next year, I wrote a book–something I had never done before– learned to edit video, learned how to market a book, and developed several other skills.
Back to LinkedIn–I later left the compensation team to join another group that was highly analytical. We were working on a large data integrity initiative and my team was tasked with coming up with a creative way of making it stick. One person in the group said–I’m not creative. You’re the creative one. What should we do? I was tempted to say that I’m not that creative either but I owned it. I had been labeled as someone who was creative, which was in line with the person I was trying to become, and I wasn’t about to ruin that.
The lesson for me was that if you don’t like the story you’re telling yourself, you can change it. As I wrap up that example, I’m tempted to add that I still don’t feel like I’m very creative but I’m not going to say that. I can be creative and the more I work at it, the more creative I will be.
This example focuses solely on creativity, but the stories we tell ourselves can cover anything. You might be upset with your spouse because he was rude to you or didn’t clean up his messes for the last few days. Another person might have the same experience but tell themselves a story about how her spouse has been working hard at his job, has gone out of his way to cook a nice meal for you, and is tired and needs some comforting.
Here’s the challenge for this episode — start to notice the story you’re telling yourself about everything. Your boss was late again to your 1:1. Does that really mean she doesn’t care about you? Your colleague has been dragging their feet on a project. Does that really mean they are incompetent
When you catch yourself in this way of thinking, pause —- then say, the story I’m telling myself is ______. What’s a different story I could tell?
Stories are incredibly powerful. They shape how we view the world and how we view ourselves. Always remember that we have the power to rewrite our stories. We have the power to change.