When we talk about achieving a personal goal, such as losing weight or getting a job, we tend to focus on the mechanics of the process: how often to exercise and what to eat, which companies to apply to and when, etc.
But so often, we end up falling behind, getting discouraged, and ultimately not meeting our goals. In these cases, it’s not enough to just talk mechanics. Something more fundamental is needed, something to keep us moving forward even when we are painfully aware we’re off-track.
That something is a story.
A story is like a configuration file in a software program. It tells you your limits and the limits of your environment.
These boundaries can be set by stereotypes which others apply to you, or by cues from previous experiences, such as being labeled “gifted” or “slow”, “creative” or “logical”, “hard-working” or “lazy”. Sometimes they are true. But stories don’t have to start out as true. The amazing thing is that, over time, for better or for worse, they can become true.
A good story pushes those boundaries far out. It tells you who you will be. Not can be, but will be. It is a vision of who you are after you’ve reached your goals, and it says that that person is already inside of you, waiting to come out.
The power of stories
Great coaches know the magical power of stories. By feeding compelling stories to those they coach, they are able to turn hopeless underdogs into phenomenal achievers.
Successful people have extremely powerful, reinforced stories woven into their identities. They have been told, or have told themselves, that they are capable, intelligent, and disciplined. Oftentimes, they have been told this before it was even true, by their parents and teachers who expected it of them. Naturally, they grew into the world’s expectations of them, and the prophecies fulfilled themselves. They could recover after failures because ultimate failure is inconsistent with their stories.
For those who feel they are perpetually behind, off-track, or disadvantaged, stories also play a key role, but a disempowering one. The stories they have internalized paint a picture of a bleak future. Subconsciously, they may say to themselves, “I can’t do it. I’m too far behind. Even if I make progress, I’ll just fail again.” In this case, the story is a negative self-fulling prophecy.
How we can use stories to improve ourselves
First, identify the story we are telling ourselves. What are the imaginary limits we’ve placed on ourselves about who we are, how others can see us, and what we can achieve?
In my senior year of college, I took an improv course. I loved how it challenged my classmates and me to look at everything in a new light. We realized that typical social interactions are spectacularly constrained, dictated by norms that we learned as we grew up and which have become invisible to us over time. We discovered that, by rejecting those norms, we could have a heck of a lot of fun and create experiences together which were far cooler than anything we could have each done on our own.
Second, modify the story or change it completely. Besides working on practical tasks to achieve a goal, consider the necessary motivating story and make it a priority to internalize it.
Doing this is not trivial, especially for older people. It requires persistent reinforcement and psychological retooling. It means creating an environment where your story will be nurtured and can take root. It means avoiding people or situations that reinforce the old story and/or getting people on board to reinforce the new one. Sometimes you may be lucky and have an external event like a crisis to disrupt and dislodge the old order, making room for new. But most of the time, you have to be deliberate about creating your enabling environment for change.
Luckily, there are techniques to help with this process. Activities that help you achieve small, incremental progress are powerful not just because they help you reach your goal, but because these little successes gradually rewrite your story, so that you are more resilient to failures along the way. You grow to know that one failure does not mean failure forever. How could it, when you have so many successes suggesting otherwise?
How we can use stories to drive social change
When we come up with strategies to help low-income kids excel in school, or to increase the number of women and minority leaders in business and politics, we need to recognize and leverage the power of stories.
I argue that, far more important than teaching a child facts, or even fundamental concepts, is helping them internalize a story that says they have what it takes to succeed. The ultimate success is a student who is resourceful and teaches herself what she needs to know. The teacher’s primary role, then, should be coach and leader.
Even in the absence of a great teacher, students can still internalize this story through personal achievement. Software that lets students learn at their own pace, with personalized feedback, such as Khan Academy, reinforces a powerful positive story through frequent, incremental successes.
Many people who have achieved the impossible in social change have been tremendous storytellers. Al Gore is one of the most influential people alive. He played a central role in escalating impersonal scientific findings, a classic tragedy of the commons without immediate repercussions to most first-worlders, into a top global priority. This is no small feat.
How did Gore do it? He and his team turned the issue into a very tangible, emotional story, through his presentation and Davis Guggenheim's captivating documentary An Inconvenient Truth. He articulated a gripping story that both inspired and intimidated, which challenged the audience and forced them to reconsider the boundaries of their personal responsibility. This single story created more momentum than terabytes of statistical projections could ever hope to achieve.
In a nutshell
We humans are not purely rational beings. We’re fueled by stories that capture our imagination. It’s why movies, books, music, and games can be so addicting. A great story, internalized, is an instrument of alchemy. With it, you can create something from nothing.
Too often, we focus on the mechanics of how to get from point A to point B, without recognizing that the fuel - a rich, inspiring story - is just as important as the directions.