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Change Your Story, Change Your Life

Woman laughs during a meeting


By John Millen

In my storytelling courses with company teams, we delve into our origin stories and how they shape who we are and how people perceive us. 

I note that we tell stories all the time and the person we tell the most stories to is ourselves. We can change our stories to feel more authentic at work and in life.

I heard a great example of this from prolific author Michael Lewis, best known for his books Moneyball and The Big Short, on the importance of how we position ourselves in the stories we tell:

As I’ve gotten older — I would say starting in my mid-to-late 20s — I could not help but notice the effect on people of the stories they told about themselves. 

If you listen to people, if you just sit and listen, you’ll find that there are patterns in the way they talk about themselves.

There’s the kind of person who is always the victim in any story that they tell. Always on the receiving end of some injustice. 

There's the person who is always kind of the hero of every story they tell. There's the smart person; they delivered the clever put down.

There are lots of versions of this, and you’ve got to be very careful about how you tell these stories because it starts to become you. 

You are — in the way you craft your narrative — kind of crafting your character. 

And so, I did at some point decide, “I am going to adopt self-consciously as my narrative, that I’m the happiest person anybody knows.” And it is amazing how happy-inducing it is.

This is a powerful idea, particularly in this time of uncertainty. 

And it’s borne out by research. 

Stories define your personality

Our stories actually define our personalities, according to Dan McAdams, Northwestern University psychology professor, who’s been studying life stories for more than 30 years. 

McAdams says our personalities have three layers related to our stories:

  1. Our basic character traits, formed by our genes and our environment, nature and nurture.
  2. A second layer is related to areas like our goals and values.
  3. The third layer is the story of our lives as we tell it to ourselves and others. 

McAdams says the third layer is a kind of cognitive script that helps us understand ourselves by tracing how we got here and where we are going. It helps us find meaning and purpose in our lives.

He said these stories have a powerful effect on our lives: “The stories we tell ourselves about our lives don’t just shape our personalities –- they are our personalities.”

The really good news is that we can rewrite our stories to find more confidence, authenticity and truth in who we are.

As Dr. McAdams says:

It’s important to remember, especially when we’re feeling lost or confused, that we can reshape our stories. There will always be different settings and characters to discover, as well as lessons to be learned. 

Although we can’t control everything that happens to us, we can control the stories that we tell about ourselves.

How we perceive ourselves, and how our lives play out, is deeply influenced by the story we create and tell to ourselves and others.

What’s your story? 

How do you characterize yourself? 

Is it true to who you are, or want to be?

This week watch for the stories you and others tell about yourselves and the world.

You’ll be opening a new window of perception about yourself and the people around you.

When you're ready, change your story, to change your life.


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