Topic

Storytelling

When we change the stories we tell ourselves and others, we change too – both as individuals and as a society.

The Power of Stories

Self-efficacy refers to an individual’s belief in their own ability to overcome challenges to reach their goal.

Put simply, it’s about believing in yourself — about telling yourself a story that you are capable of accomplishing what you set out to do.

As a culture, we haven’t fully realized just how important and powerful these stories are.

Studies have shown many times that self-efficacy is a strong predictor of outcomes everywhere from education to medicine. In addiction treatment, for example, high self-efficacy is associated with a higher probability of someone breaking their addiction.

Let’s take a second to unpack that, because it’s such a remarkable finding.

Overcoming an addiction is extremely hard. But the simple act of believing in your ability to overcome your dependence increases the likelihood of your success.

In other words, the stories you tell yourself can lead to profound physiological change.

To be clear, the research on this phenomenon has mostly focused on exploring a correlation. But it doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to see a causal relationship.

Anyone who’s ever told a friend “you can do this!” has already intuited this. Expressing confidence in someone else is a gift – it’s a way of offering them a leg up as they reach for greater self-efficacy.

Because when we share stories about change with others, we plant the seeds for them to become true.

The Stories Left Behind

If you're trying to launder money, running a laundromat is a great way to do so. They're typically cash-only businesses, and cash, of course, is easy to move around without a trail.

But the government has the authority to reconstrunct records of your income if yours are insufficient. And by measuring your water consumption and analyzing it against the efficiency of your machines, auditors can capture a financial snapshot of your laundromat.

An archaeologist examining the ancient remains of a man might be able to piece together a narrative of his life using clues like how he was buried, his age, and the bite marks on his rib cage.

And the woman buying marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate at the supermarket? She has a different story than the person who only came for tissues and cough drops.

When you start to see that the world is comprised of stories – and that we are constantly leaving ours behind – our role in the larger order comes further into focus.

Walt Whitman understood this when he wrote the poem "O Me! O Life!":

That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Reframing

Gumroad CEO Sahil Lavingia tweeted, "You can be twice as rich by deciding you need half as much."

Mentally reframing your situation – financial, emotional, or otherwise – is one of the most powerful ways to change your experience.

The research on it is clear: Reappraising your circumstances can dramatically alter your wellbeing.

Reframing enables you to convert loneliness into solitude. It lets you turn losing your job into an opportunity for a fresh start, and allows you to see getting caught in the rain as source material for a funny story you can tell for years.

If you're feeling stuck, start by identifying ways you can change the story you tell yourself.

You might just discover you are more fortunate than you previously assumed.

Excel Fiction

There's a joke about how Excel is the most popular tool in the world for writing fictional stories.

If you're preparing a revenue projection, for example, it's really easy to simply add a zero and work backwards from there to make all the other numbers work out.

When you're trying to raise money – an investment for your business or a donation for your cause – you'll need to have a story to tell your audience first about the impact they will have.

The story needs to be true. Or at least close enough to being true that your contributors are taking informed risks.

But if you're trying to initiate something new, start by crafting the most compelling story you can. If you get that correct, and others share your vision, the rest will fall into place.

Changing Stories

Changing the stories we tell ourselves is the precursor to change.

In fact, it's the most powerful way to initiate it.

There's a reason why the first step in Alocoholics Anonymous is admitting you have a problem. It’s a lot harder, if not impossible, to break an addiction without first acknowledging that it’s an issue and changing your self narrative.

And at the societal level, stories inform how we see the world as well. The Civil Rights movement, for example, depended on the 13th and 14th amendments, which ended the 3/5ths compromise. If you want to achieve equal rights, you'll need a shared narrative about how all people are created equal.

Having a system in place helps when enacting change. But what if the existing system is built on prejudiced and racist assumptions and needs to be completely transformed?

Start by turning the page with a new story. A story about how the American dream isn't just about working hard.

It's about giving everyone a fair shot at a life of dignity, free to pursue happiness and prosperity.

Extrapolation

This post ends with a joke about extrapolation.

It ends with a joke, so that I could use it as a hook in that first sentence to illustrate a point: In storytelling, a common way of creating tension for your audience is to plant a seed by leaving out a key piece of information.

Doing so leaves an open loop in people’s minds, and because the brain craves closure, it grabs their attention. This is why some stories give away the ending at the beginning. We’re left wondering how the situation evolves from point A to point B.

We are meaning makers and like to fill in gaps based on our lived experiences. It’s why when you read the phrase “to be or not to ___,” you can confidently fill in the blank, even though there are thousands of words that would be grammatically correct there.

The urge to resolve the tension created by gaps in a narrative is irresistible, so we try to fill in those spaces until they’re resolved. Once we’ve done so, we often experience an emotional release.

I promised you a joke, so here it is:

There are two types of people in this world: those who can extrapolate from incomplete data.

Creating the Future

Data can only look backwards. If you want to use it to look forwards to predict the future, you have to combine it with a story. And the longer that story is, the more fictional it becomes.

You might have a pretty good sense of what your business' revenue will be next month, but try to extrapolate that out to a goal for five years from now, and you'll likely find that there are far too many variables at play to make an accurate projection.

The pioneering computer scientist Alan Kay says that the best way to predict the future is to create it.

Analyzing data can only get you so far. After that comes the hard work of making the narrative you craft come true.

The Source of All Drama and Comedy

My college acting professor once told our class that we wake up every day with an image in our head of who we want to be. Then we spend the rest of our day trying to become that person.

This is the source of all drama and comedy.

Our self-image is just a story we tell ourselves. When there’s a discrepancy between it and who we want to be, conflict and humor emerge. The resulting tension is foundational to our experience of the world.

And when our story about who we aspire to be collides with reality, we have an opportunity to grow.

Imposter Syndrome

In Become What You Are, a collection of essays by the writer and theologian Alan Watts, he writes, “Self-consciousness is a stoppage because it is like interrupting a song after every note so as to listen to the echo and then feeling irritated because of the loss of rhythm.”

Left unchecked, self-consciousness leads to self-doubt, which in turn can evolve into imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome is a story we tell ourselves about how we don’t belong, because we’re not qualified or good enough. It’s such a common phenomenon because there’s often a kernel of truth to the feeling. All personal growth comes from reaching beyond what we’ve previously done, which means there is initially an element of faking it till you make it whenever we embark on something new.

In other words, feeling like an imposter is often the prerequisite to doing great work. And it can even persist long after we’ve accomplished something amazing.

Neil Gaiman tells a story about meeting Neil Armstrong at a gathering of distinguished guests. Armstrong reportedly confided, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”

If being the first man to walk on the moon isn’t enough to silence that self-doubt, then perhaps it’s a universal experience.

Because if even Neil Armstrong interrupted his song to listen to the echo, maybe we’re all just making up the music as we go along.

Self-Promotion is Storytelling

I recently asked a group of performers to raise their hand if they felt comfortable with self-promotion.

Unsurprisingly, no one put up their hand all the way.

It's inherently difficult to promote oneself. We worry about being seen as perhaps a little full of ourselves or coming across as too pushy.

But if you ask people if they feel comfortable telling a story, they will almost always say yes.

A cover letter is just a story about your experience. A social media post is a story about where you're at in that moment. And a personal email to family and friends about your new project . . . you get the point.

When we reframe self-promotion as storytelling, it suddenly gets just a little bit easier. And if you can't tell your story, who will?

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