Know your story, and edit regularly

Yesterday I wrote that the notion of “staying true to yourself” is overrated, but you didn’t think I’d really leave it at that, did you? The point I’m really driving at is this: knowing your story, and being open to editing it, is the most important personal skill to develop. Being able to communicate it to others is a close second. This has been weighing on my mind a lot lately because it’s an idea that I see surfacing in so many different areas. Lately I’ve been reading texts in social entrepreneurship, marketing, and various psychological fields, and the same questions repeatedly arise: What is your story? How did you get to where you are right now? Why do you do what you do?

The skill entails being able to integrate the significant elements of your life and personality into a meaningful and compelling narrative. Not only can you appeal to others more powerfully through the magic of storytelling, but you can live your life more authentically and freely when you know what drives you (to positive and negative behaviors), what has shaped your fundamental outlook, what you believe and cherish most deeply, and so on. You can see how this would be immensely useful not only in defining and marketing your enterprise, but defining and marketing yourself professionally and socially.

But that is only part of the exercise. The second half is being able to recognize when the story you’ve been telling about yourself (both to yourself and others) no longer fits or needs to change. We can’t alter the facts of our past, but we can always reinterpret them through a new lens. A slight shift in the present can bring into view possible selves that we had never been able to imagine.

Behavioral psychologist Susan Weinschenk shares in her new book two personal anecdotes of how she was able to change her view of herself in ways that ended up surprising and benefitting her personally. One is relatively trivial (the story of how she went from being a dedicated PC user to owning an entire suite of Apple products), and the other was nothing short of life-changing. The first story is interesting from a marketing perspective, but Weinschenk’s more significant anecdote recounts how she was able to recognize that the story she had been telling herself was no longer serving her well. Having survived a particularly difficult period in her twenties, she arrived at the conclusion that she was a “strong person” who “could handle any crisis.” At thirty years old, however, she found herself making one decision after another that led to another series of crises. Weinschenk recalls the a-ha moment she had during a spectacularly bad day, when she realized that

the persona and the story around it had outlived its usefulness. The story and persona had become problems. I realized that I needed to change the story so I could change my persona. I knew that if I could change both my story and my persona, then I would start to make different decisions. And, in turn, those decisions would result in an easier life with fewer obstacles. I would find myself making decisions that resulted in easier and more pleasant outcomes. (How to Get People to Do Stuff, 54-5)

She resolved to write a new story that went like this: “My life is easy and graceful.” This wasn’t a magic formula that ended up solving all her problems instantly, but it was the first step she needed to take in order to develop a new persona that could make the story a reality. She found that instead of “bravely” keeping her troubles to herself, she reached out for support more often, and because of that was able to resolve several problems.

The ability to grapple insistently with one’s identity is a skill that is vital to teach youth in care. And believe it or not, those who are best positioned to model that skill are the youth themselves. In fact, the most powerful examples of this level of self-knowledge arrived in my mailbox this week in the form of essays written by youth in foster care. This year I’m honored to be one of the judges in Youth Communication’s annual Awards for Youth in Foster Care, so I had the privilege of reading stories of how young people were able to overcome very grave challenges in foster care, and have furthermore been able to draw on their strength to help others. I devoured them all in the span of a day, and was stunned by the wisdom that emerged from the pages. These writers—most of them still in their teens—have managed to arrive at insights that some of us only grasp well into adulthood, if at all. Youth Communication is to be commended for provoking this sort of self-reflection and bringing these stories to light.

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