When I was a kid, I was shy. At least, that’s the story I believed. I didn’t always know what to say to adults, so I would hear them say, “oh, he’s really shy.” And I bought it.
I was the shy kid, doing what shy kids do. I avoided times of talking in front of people and stayed away from being the center of attention.
Until one day, I was thrust into the spotlight of a school assembly in front of hundreds of kids. And I loved it.
Over the years, I realized that I loved performing and entertaining. Singing and making people laugh and telling stories. And it wasn’t just on stage, I loved meeting new people and expanding my social circle.
I was never shy. Yes, I am a deep thinker who lives in his head. I am an introvert who needs a lot of recharge time. But I am not shy at all.
But this is the narrative people constructed about me, and for a long time I lived out this story.
Stories Shape and Give Meaning
Stories are how humans interpret meaning. Why are we here? What does it mean to have character? Why is bravery important?
Stories also help us understand ourselves. This is why I do this. Why I behave this way.
The stories we believe about ourselves shape us and help us construct our personal narrative.
Here’s the problem with that.
The Stories We Tell Ourselves Are Garbage
I have this buddy who thinks he is exceptionally unlucky. Like the world has picked him out and chosen to make his life hard.
He calls himself, “Murphy.” As in — Murphy’s Law, which states that “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”
If he spills his coffee on the way to work, he says, “Murphy had a hard morning.” When his flight gets canceled, “Murphy strikes again.” If he gets an injury while playing frisbee at the park, “See, I should have known that Murphy can’t have a little fun…”
I guess it’s a funny bit. Perhaps he’s telling a comedic story, making light of his hard times.
But it’s not a true story. My buddy has a great life.
- He is a good husband and father, blessed with a cool wife and a cool kid. (How many people would love to have a healthy relationship or become pregnant?)
- He has a good, well-paying job. (How many people lost their job last year? Or will never have a career that pays the bills or allows for vacations?)
- He has friends and community.
- He is a hard-worker.
- He is physically healthy.
- He is alive.
He has proven Murphy’s Law to be false, repeatedly. Many things have gone right and beautiful in his life.
The incidents and accidents he is using to construct a narrative are just normal parts of being human.
- Flights get canceled at the worst times (and the person at the counter is not just being dismissive to you, they are dismissive to everyone! They are trained in dismissiveness.)
- People get injured randomly.
- Coffee spills on everyone’s commute. That’s what coffee do.
My buddy is doing what many of us do without knowing it. We tell a story that is unhelpful or not completely true and allows us to be the victim.
What Determines Our Story?
The author, Stephen Covey, talks about three social maps used to explain our behavior. These are areas used to construct a story about ourselves.
1. Genetic determinism
I am this way because of my genes. My blood. My DNA. I’m down with 23 And Me, and Myers-P, and the Ennea-G. Knowing DNA and using personality tools can help us paint a clearer picture of our complex makeups. That’s great, but the problem comes when we blame our actions and decisions on these things.
I am a lazy person because I’m a 9. I’m bad with people because I’m an introvert. I break beer bottles over people’s heads when I’m mad because I’m Irish.
Is this what determines your life story? Is the collection of molecules and atoms and DNA the reason you eat that? Or say that? Or keep doing that?
2. Psychic Determinism
My parents made me do it. This one is the “nurture” side of the nature vs. nurture debate. Does growing up with a “tiger mom” pushing you to learn the piano at 5 years old shape your view of the world? Of course. Does having a dad who tells you, “boys don’t cry” and to “suck it up” impact how you process emotions? Absolutely.
Like our genetics, our upbringing is a major part of our lives. Good therapy and good reflection can help us identify areas that continue to shape us today. I’m not denying the power of this.
But stories, good stories, are about change. Evolution. Progress. That’s why we keep going back to that book or that show. We want to see the characters grow and learn and change.
The point of reflecting on our childhood is to identify patterns and evolve past unhealthy habits.
Is your story stuck in the past? Do you tell a story that revolves around issues from years ago? Or is your story one of evolution and growth?
3. Environmental Determinism
On a day-to-day basis, we allow this area to shape our story the most. My boss won’t give me the freedom to do what I want. The place I live is holding me down. It’s too expensive or too rural or too crowded. This world. This government. This weather.
How many of us allow our external circumstances to shape our perspectives and our joy and our mindset? If you constantly tell yourself that these things are shaping you, they will shape you. You’ll become bitter and cynical.
You will look around at the world to see what is wrong instead of what is right. You won’t see this life as a gift but will see it as a burden.
The best stories are about people who transcend their circumstances and rise above them. The underdogs and the fighters and the over-comers. What if you told a story about this?
Telling A New Story
You are more than your genetics and your upbringing and your environment. They don’t define your path and your journey unless you allow them to. You can construct a new narrative based on your values and your principles and the inner vision you have.
I am a loser. I am an amateur. I am lazy. I am unbearable. I am weak. Names are powerful. They give us an identity. This is who I am.
Every person you respect or look up to has had failures or bad breakups or times of learning. The difference is that when we read a biography of them or see their life on a screen; we see that these failures or difficulties were a part of the process. I don’t see Johnny Cash as a druggy or failure.
Those moments were times he was wrestling with his trauma and his demons. He struggled through them to create a brilliant life and beautiful art.
What if you’re not a failure but a person learning a hard lesson that will change how you approach the future? What if you’re not an amateur, but you are in the first stages of mastering a craft?
There is power in how we name ourselves and our situations.
The past is the past. You can’t control it or change it. You can’t control your DNA and your body and your family and your bald spot. You can’t control the weather or the airlines or global pandemics. But you can redeem these things. You can allow them to mold you and shape you for the better.
My kids got a butterfly kit a couple of months ago. It was fascinating to watch these tiny caterpillars, in a tiny cup, use their bodies and their food and their instincts to transform into a new creation.
You can redeem and give meaning to the circumstances that you can’t control. They are things that can transform you into this vision that you see.
You can renew your vision. It doesn’t have to be what your boss or your parent or society wants for you. Your vision is your vision.
Fast forward to your funeral or your obituary. What do you want to be known for? How do you want to be remembered?
This is a vision and story for your life.
And you have the power to shape it and direct it in the way you choose. No, I’m not talking about manifesting a perfect and pain-free life. Things will not go according to plan. You will fail. Pain will come.
I’m talking about expecting all this and using these twists and turns of life to be a part of your story. Instead of crushing you, allowing them to be a part of the adventure and journey.
You have one chance. What story are you going to tell?
To hear more, listen to Episode 2 of my podcast Unseen Orbits: “Why Good Movies Have The Power To Change Our Lives.”