What is Story?

Over the next few posts I’m going to break down the basic ideas that represent the foundation of my philosophy on personal development. To start us off, let me explain what I mean by ‘story’.

When I say ‘Story’, I’m using that word to encompass several ideas. As I define them:

Patterns of Thought – The regular meditations of a person’s conscious thoughts and, in particular, how our mind responds to changes/signals in our environment. (Or, ‘mindset’)

Perspective – Our beliefs on what is and is not possible, based on direct experience. Also, influenced by the experiences of others. ( I think Perspective comes from three places – Society, Family of Origin, and Our Individual Design)

Paradigm – Our general model of how the totality of life works. (Here we might think about questions like ‘What makes a good life?’, ‘What’s my purpose?’, ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ etc.)

Theses things come together to create a story of how life is supposed to work. Our Story influences how we look at and interact with people. places, ideas… everything.

If we think about it, information that is passed on in story-form is much more interesting than information passed on as a set of individual facts. Watching a movie based on real events in WWII is probably going to be more engaging than a series of historical facts about WWII. However, the movie has to take some creative license in order to weave the facts together in a coherent narrative. Some of the movie won’t be accurate but the narrative arc helps us to remember at least some of the facts about the event. In life, I believe we create these narratives in both large and small ways. We weave together facts (observed patterns) and make assumptions about the future based on our story:

  1. Making 6-Figures a year will allow me to buy certain things that I want. Having the things I want will make me happy. (The first part is more factual and the second is more of an assumption.)
  2. My romantic partner has always been supportive and loyal. When we get married I’m sure this will continue. (This reads as a very naive statement but I think many of us make these types of assumptions all the time with romance. Romance is intoxicating and our society is filled with idealized narratives around romantic relationships. Why do we hit politicians so hard for infidelity? I think it’s because our narratives as a society say that they should be paragon’s of morality, loyalty, and family commitment.)
  3. I was an athlete in high school/college and I was so strong. I’ve been out of the gym for several years but I’m sure I’ll be able to get back on track with no problem. (Former athletes were some of the hardest people to help when I was a Personal Trainer. They often couldn’t come to grips with the fact that they were starting from square one after a long lay off. They’re story didn’t allow for it.)

In each of the previous examples I hope you can see that there are relatively concrete facts and then there are some assumptions about what can happen in the future based on those facts. These examples could be perceived as blind optimism. The opposite perspective (pessimism) might look at the same examples like this:

  1. I’ll be able to get a few nice things with a 6-Figure salary but I’ll never be on the level of my boss that owns the company. He has his own private jet. Sometimes I find myself distracted at work because I can’t help but think about how futile all my effort is when I’ll never be as successful as my boss. (Clearly, 6-figures is a great financial existence for most people but the inability to appreciate it clouds this persons ability to do the things that could make them even more money.)
  2. My partner has always been supportive and loyal but I’ve seen so many marriages end with infidelity so I never see myself getting legally married and I’m not sure of how long I want to commit to the person I’m with now.
  3. I was such a strong athlete in high school and college but I’ve been out of the gym for so many years that I can’t fathom the amount of effort it will take for me to get back in that kind of physical shape.

My theory is that both the blind optimist and the persistent pessimist have an idealized view of the future. However, they sit on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of their ability to see that future happening. I think both get blinded to a third way of looking at these situations which deals more in the truth of what actually ‘is’ and recognizes that the best we can do is make logical assumptions while recognizing that some of those assumptions will be wrong:

  1. I am appreciative of the lifestyle that my 6-figure salary allows me but there is a measure of envy that creeps in when I look at my boss’s lifestyle. I think I could use more time thinking about the value of my current status and being introspective about what actually fills me up in life. Maybe I’ll ask my boss how he feels about these issues or if he’s ever run into them.
  2. My partner has been amazing and supportive but I am hesitant about long term commitment because of the negative outcomes I’ve seen in long term monogamous relationships. I think I’ll talk to my girlfriend about how she’s feeling and share my own challenges. We’ll see where the conversation leads.
  3. I was a great athlete growing up but I’ve got a family and a full time job that take much of my time now. I need to spend some time thinking about what I actually want in my health and why. The context that I live in today requires me to implement the fitness principles that I learned as a kid in my current reality as an adult.

Hopefully (if I’ve done a half way decent job communicating) you can see how in the third version of these scenarios there is an acknowledgment of facts, some introspection, and some action that needs to be taken. Here is were our ideas about freedom come in. In my TEDx Talk I broke this down into 4 categories:

  • Health – We want the freedom of a healthy body.
  • Money – We want financial freedom.
  • Relationships – We want the freedom to be our true selves around others. We also want the freedom to change our true selves around others.
  • Work – We want the freedom to pour our energy into endeavors we find meaningful and fulfilling.

My theory is that executing these changes requires solving two problems: External and Internal –

  1. External Problems – These are the tangible things I have to do to get to my version of freedom.
    • Do well on projects at work to get raises and a promotion.
    • Practice consistent and open dialogue in order have a sense of authentic connection in my relationships.
    • Exercise daily to claim better physical health.
  2. Internal Problems – These are the intangible mental and emotional challenges that arise when sustained behavior change challenges our current paradigm:
    • Maybe I’m not willing to do the things required to get a promotion and I’m struggling because my identity was tied up in more money and a better title. Or maybe I am willing to do the work but the task is much more intensive than I realized and that means massive sacrifices in other areas of my life.
    • Maybe consistent and open dialogue leads me to some extremely hard conversations with loved ones that draws some of those relationships closer, while dissolving some of the others. (What if authenticity means the end of a marriage or long term relationship?)
    • Daily exercise has brought me face to face with the chaos of my life because I can’t seem to find even 15 minutes a day to do something good for my body. I have to have some serious and scary talks with my family about how I need their support in changing this. (What if they’re not willing to support you? What if the challenge you to stretch your comfort zone more than you want to?)

Our goals (visions of freedom or an ideal future) compel us to long term behavior change (the external problem). Sustaining behavior change for the long term requires looking at who we are on the inside (the internal problem). I believe that internal problem is what causes us to inspect our stories about life. Our stories may help us understand the motives that drive our actions. Maybe something needs to change. Maybe nothing needs to change. Maybe an uncontrollable event flips our whole narrative on it’s head.

I think this leads to a few questions:

  1. Am I aware of my own story and it’s limitations?
  2. Do I have the courage and humility to look at the facts objectively and acknowledge what is true about my situation? (This is the Character/Personal Development that I talk about so often.)
  3. Am I willing to hold my story with an open hand, allowing my thoughts, beliefs, perspective, and paradigms to expand as life presents me with facts that supersede my current story? Again, this takes courage and humility (and many other traits we would consider desirable in one another).
  4. Most stories that we create for fiction have at least one character if not many. If the story is fixed, so are they characters. How does this relate to the idea of story in this post?
  5. Most stories we create for fiction have a beginning and an end. If our stories evolve with time, then how does that change our understanding of an ‘ending’ to the story?

In the next post we’ll talk about ownership as a tool for updating our stories and personal development.


Check out these Podcasts that I have been interviewed on recently:

Silverline Behind The Frame w/ Micah Ness

Growing Your Successful Business w/ Brian Harding

Solve Problems. Build Resilience.

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