When it comes to installing your chosen stories in business, the options are endless.
One woman in the group had a story ready anytime her condescending boss approached her cubicle (by the end of our sessions, she had left her job and was starting her own company with her husband). One man in the group told himself his stories just before stepping into meetings, virtual or in person, with key donors. One woman told herself her stories right before she opened her social media accounts and again right afterward. You read in chapter 7 how I installed stories right before I took the stage. Tammy can tell herself the stories anytime she feels hesitant about sending her resume. Heather can tell herself the stories anytime she starts to feel anxious about the progress she’s made.
Professional life is rich with opportunities for installing better self-stories. Here are a few situations that are particularly important.
The Story You Tell Yourself About Why You Can’t
Julie has more energy than a brand-new puppy, more positivity than the top of a Duracell battery and defies all laws of gravity and nature with her wrinkle-free face and ageless physique. Julie is a health and fitness coach and has been teaching fitness classes since long before virtual instruction was a twinkle in Peloton’s eye. She leaps through life in spandex and makes you feel like you could too, and in fact you should. Julie’s professional dream? To build her fitness and coaching empire. Seems reasonable, right? Especially after the little you already know of her and yes, she is well on her way. But though Julie desires this and despite the fact that all signs point toward her innate ability to achieve this goal, if you were to really ask Julie, she’d tell you she can’t do it. Why? According to Julie, she can’t achieve that professional goal because she is too old.
Yes. The woman who could be twenty-three or fifty-three would tell you, “I got started too late. There are too many people younger than me who want to do the same thing. I’m too old.” If you pressed further, Julie would tell you plenty of stories to make you (and herself ) believe the story she’s telling herself.
Julie is not the only one with a story about why she can’t . . . . There’s also Mark. Mark started in the warehouse of a company affixing labels to boxes and eventually worked his way to becoming a senior member of the accounting team. But if you were to ask him, he’ll tell you he can’t actually do accounting. Why? Because he doesn’t have his CPA. Or Sara. Sara who has years of community organizing and activism experience and a strong desire to run for office but can’t. Why? You guessed it. Because she’s never run for office before. Try to tell her that every elected official had to run for office the first time and she still won’t believe that she can.
The first place to start installing better stories is anytime you find yourself telling a story of why you can’t. This is the low hanging fruit and it helps to approach it with a sense of humor because let’s face it, the stories we tell ourselves, which turn into the reasons we give ourselves, can be downright ridiculous. Swapping out these stories for ones that serve you is the first step in moving to the next level.
The Story You Tell Yourself About What You Have and Haven’t Achieved
I sometimes think about Ryan Lochte, the American competitive swimmer. He made international headlines after a scandal in Brazil following the 2016 Olympics. The charges were later dropped, but not before a significant suspension and millions in lost sponsorships and respect. Lochte has messed up in some pretty significant ways and while there is no excuse for his behavior, I can’t help but wonder if he is perhaps the ultimate example of what happens when we only tell ourselves the story of our professional success in the context of someone else’s.
For all of his many, major missteps, Lochte is otherworldly in the water. Specializing in the individual medley, one of the toughest to train for because it requires excellence in not one but all four strokes, he is almost unbeatable. Ryan has earned twelve Olympic medals, six of them gold, and has held multiple world records. He is the “second-most decorated swimmer in Olympic history measured by total number of medals.”
Second only to Michael Phelps.
Yes. Michael Phelps. You knew I couldn’t talk about American swimming without mentioning his name—to do so would be sacrilege.
But think about that for a moment, from Lochte’s perspective. Imagine if Phelps had been born a decade after Lochte instead of a year. Imagine if Michael Phelps had been a track star or a figure skater instead.
Ryan Lochte would be the phenom.
Ryan Lochte would be the face of Olympic greatness.
Ryan Lochte would be considered the GOAT of swimming and maybe beyond.
We can argue all day about which comes first—the chicken of skill or the egg of attitude. And certainly the absence of Phelps doesn’t automatically equate to Lochte, King of the Pool, but I would venture to guess a part of his pattern of self-destruction is the result of the stories Lochte tells himself while in the broad-shouldered shadow of his teammate.
Can you blame him? And if you have ever struggled with accepting and enjoying your own professional success, are you really that different from him? Perhaps you’ve set a goal and reached it, but instead of celebrating, you immediately remembered the bigger goal a colleague or competitor achieved. Have a friend or family member congratulate you on a promotion but you brush it off, thinking about how much longer it took you than someone else.
One of the women in the self-storytelling group shared with me her struggle with her former partner. They had separated on fully amicable terms; her partner was moving across the country and it didn’t make sense to keep working together. The woman was sad to see her partner go, but also excited about what was possible on her own. She did some great work, made great progress, secured great clients and was feeling pretty great about it all. And then she heard about that former partner who had decided to go into a different field completely, struck gold and was making in a month what she had set as a goal to make in a year. All the things that seemed so great, suddenly, by comparison, weren’t so great anymore.
“By comparison” is the operative phrase, here.
If ever you are struggling with what you’ve achieved vs. what you haven’t, take a moment to put your achievements in a vacuum. Separate them from the story of anyone else’s success. Look at them all on their own, tell them, retell them if only to yourself and see if they feel different to you. Sometimes we need the reminder to focus just on the glitter of your own gold and let that be enough.
The Story You Tell Yourself about Change and the Unknown
Payal Kadakia is the founder and creator of ClassPass, a company that started as a way to conglomerate all of the various fitness and dance studios in any given area into one place for easy access to class times. In January of 2020, ClassPass was valued at over a billion dollars in its latest round of funding. Of course, for a company built almost entirely around in-person fitness, 2020 quickly turned from the year the unicorn spent dancing on rainbows to the year the unicorn faced the impending collapse of its entire world into a fiery pit of destruction and despair. Things were changing rapidly— spiraling, really—it would be enough to shake any founder to her core. Fortunately for Kadakia, she had a story. One of the key stories any entrepreneur, though they’re valuable for intrapreneurs as well, needs to have. The story about change and the unknown.
Payal remembers it like yesterday. She’d been long living a double life. Successful businesswoman with an extremely prestigious role at a top New York City firm by day, woman with a revolutionary tech-idea to solve a pain point by night. After struggling with the decision for herself and the added pressure of what her parents would say, she couldn’t keep her desire to leave her job to herself anymore.
“I remember that Thanksgiving. I was home and I told my parents that, you know, I just didn’t want to go back to work on Monday.” Even when she said it, Kadakia wasn’t fully committed to building a company. But then her mother looked at her—her mother who had immigrated to the United States and had always wished for her daughter a stable career. “She looked at me and told me to quit.” There was still disbelief in her voice as Payal told me the story. “‘I think you should quit,’ she told me. She said she believed in me, that I’d proven myself, checked every single box that was out there: I had gone to a good school. I had gotten a great career and she basically said, this is the time. If you’re going to do it, go bet on yourself and build something.” Kadakia thought about her mother’s words for a while and eventually mustered up the courage to quit her job, which is a very hard thing for anyone to do.
“I always think back to that day,” she said with a quiet knowing in her voice. “I remember walking through the big glass doors of the skyscraper office, afraid. I knew I was going to quit, and I had no idea what was on the other side.”
She arrived at her office, turned in her resignation, and sent an email to the entire company explaining that she was leaving and why. Shortly after, she received a call from one of the vice chairman of the entire company. “He asked that I come to his office,” she said, admitting she was a little anxious. “When I got there, he asked to know more about what I was starting and when I told him, he wrote me a check on the spot. He wanted to invest in the company I hadn’t even started yet.”
That story became Payal’s default mentality. Now, whenever she is faced with the fear of the unknown, she remembers the fear she felt walking through the doors and into the unknown and the even greater excitement she had as she walked out. She tells herself the story of that day as a reminder that you never know the greatness that is waiting just on the other side of fear.