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


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?

The Four Minute Mile

In December of 1952, John Landy ran a mile in 4:02, just shy of his goal of breaking four minutes. For decades, runners had fought to overcome this seemingly impossible barrier, and according to his remarks after the race, Landy had started to doubt himself:

Frankly, I think the four-minute mile is beyond my capabilities. Two seconds may not sound much, but to me it’s like trying to break through a brick wall. Someone may achieve the four-minute mile the world is wanting so desperately, but I don’t think I can.

In 1954, Roger Bannister, a full-time medical student ran the mile in 3:59.4. Landy broke that record just 47 days later, achieving a time of 3:57.9.

Soon after, Bannister and Landy went head to head at the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games, and millions of people tuned in to listen and watch as the two fastest milers in the world competed in the "Race of the Century."

Both men ran sub-four minute miles, and Landy lost, looking over his shoulder as Bannister passed him on the other side.

In a matter of weeks, the four minute mile had gone from impossible to a losing time, and many others soon followed in their footsteps. Today, Hicham El Guerrouj holds the record at 3:43.13.

Advances in training and nutrition certainly played a role in enabling this physical accomplishment. But when people like Bannister show the world what's possible, it helps others change the story they tell themselves about their own potential. The rest is history.


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