Wired for Story
There’s a story about Steve Jobs from the 1990s, back before Pixar was a household name: he came storming into the break room one day, grabbed a bagel, and asked his team, “Who is the most powerful person in the world?!” The people in the break room, not sure whether it was a hypothetical question but not wanting to evade answering, shouted out a few ideas. Steve said, “No. The storyteller is the most powerful person in the world.”
At the time, Jobs was frustrated because Disney was telling better stories than he was.
He told his wide-eyed team, “I am going to be the next great storyteller!” Then he stormed out, bagel in hand. And while this account may be apocryphal, if this really was one of Jobs’s goals, it appears as though he figured it out. Jobs reinvented multiple industries with his storytelling ability. Innumerable business books and articles have dissected his marketing techniques and his “just one more thing” killer product launches. They’re all based on that spark of fire from nearly half a million years ago.
The storytellers, it seems, have inherited the earth.
The Double-Edged Story Sword
At its root, a self-story is a habit. It’s a pattern of automatic thinking that we’re often unaware of. That evolution has automated this storytelling skill in the brain and kept it around for so many millennia is a testament to how useful it must be. Yet, the power of self-story isn’t obvious. It makes sense that our ability to tell stories to each other was an advantage. But why would we tell them to ourselves?
As you can imagine, it’s hard to study an invisible and frequently unconscious story happening inside someone’s head. But that hasn’t stopped researchers from trying, and their work shows we use self-stories to solve problems, motivate ourselves, make plans, exercise self-control, and to reflect on ourselves.
Look through that list, and you realize that we evolved to use self-stories for the same reasons we evolved to tell stories out loud: they made us better humans. Our internal dialogue helped us stay safe, fit into the tribe, and make sense of the world. That, in turn, helped us live longer and have more offspring, which rewarded our odd little habit of talking to ourselves quietly, deep down inside. And the cycle continued.
Life Imitates Story
So, your brain loves stories. And at a neurological level, it can’t effectively tell the difference between fiction and nonfiction, between imagination and reality, and between present and future. In each case, a story can make real things happen in your brain and body.
But here’s the final piece in the puzzle. Not only are our minds entranced by the call of the seductive story-sirens, but stories change the way we behave as well.
It’s the science behind the oft-quoted saying attributed to Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”
This poses a problem.
If we’re such natural storytellers, and stories create our reality, and ultimately, we become them, you would think we’d have evolved into naturally positive storytellers. Unfortunately, that’s not how evolution rolled things out. Instead, we love ourselves a big, bad story.
It turns out that being just a little negative helped us survive. The more tuned in to danger and risk your ancestors were, the more likely they were to live longer. Assuming a noise in the brush was a bear, not a cool breeze, was a survival advantage.
The result is that we have what scientists call a negativity bias. Research shows we tend to remember traumatic incidents better and that we think more frequently about negative things. We also learn more from negative experiences and tend to make decisions based more on negative information than positive
There are two takeaways here. The first is that you don’t have to feel bad for your collection of negative stories and your tendency to beat yourself up or fear the worst. Not only is it normal, but your negative bias is what helped your long line of ancestors survive long enough to produce you. If the early cave-person versions of you had been diehard optimists, you wouldn’t be here!
The second takeaway is awareness. It’s important to be aware that while your stories are creating your life, those stories tend to be fearful. Cautious. Overly critical. As a result, your unconscious storyteller is leading you to stay safe in a world where physical safety isn’t your primary concern. Which explains why the bricks we’ve been laying, the stories we’ve been telling ourselves, aren’t leading us any closer to the Emerald City. They’re just leading us in circles, keeping us feeling safe, but stuck in places that, though they may not be excellent, at least they are familiar.
If It’s So Easy, Why Is It So Hard?
Based on what we know now, it’s time to take a closer look at the difference between the way we think the world works and how it really works. As you might have guessed, the two are not the same, and how we see events in our lives and make decisions is a little trickier than meets the untrained eye.
We have been taught that the way we operate in the world is clear—that our thoughts and actions are conscious and rational. We think that things happen, we respond to those things, and that’s how we get our results. It’s a tidy package that looks like this:
A thing happens. You respond to that thing. There is a result.
Pretty straightforward, right? This sequence of events happens all day, every day, in a hundred different ways across all areas of our life, and the linear nature makes it all appear so simple.
Let’s take a look at a few examples:
Your alarm goes off early in the morning. (Event.)
You hit snooze for the next hour. (Response.)
You sleep through your workout, and so don’t exercise that day. (Result.)
Someone reaches out, out of the blue, with a huge opportunity for you. (Event.)
You start sketching out ideas but never get around to submitting an idea. (Response.)
You miss the opportunity. (Result.)
Clearly, there is something going on here. If the path from point A to B is a straight line from event to response to result, then why aren’t we all dancing and tra-lah-lah-ing around our emerald cities right now?
There must be more to it. And there is.
Let’s take a moment here to review what we already know.
As humans, we are wired for stories. We crave them. We want to hear them. We find meaning in telling and sharing them. Stories are as much a part of us as the air that moves through our lungs and the blood that flows through our veins.
Not only do we share and take in stories with and from others, but there is also an entire storytelling world inside you that is taking your brain hostage and creating a reality of its own that either leads you toward or away from your desired destination.
What you likely suspect is that while on the surface it seems pretty easy to retrace the steps that got us those results, something else is happening. Something else happens between the event and the response that leads to undesirable results.
The truth is, there is an invisible step in the process that we’re barely aware of.
The Story Step
Between the event and the response, something happens within us. Something so quick that, like a magician dropping a black cloth and turning a dove into a bunny, it’s almost undetectable. Every event that happens in our life goes into an internal storytelling “black box” for processing. In that box, our stories mix with reality, and it is only after their combustion that we act.
That black box—the hidden world of storytelling inside us—holds the secret to closing the gap between you and anything you desire. If you’ve ever felt there is an invisible barrier to achieving whatever it is you seek, that’s because there is! And you need look no further than getting control over the stories you are telling yourself.
“All Ya Gotta Do Is . . .”
“All ya gotta do is write five thousand words a day for two weeks, and you’ll have a book,” when writing five thousand words period can be mentally excruciating.
“All ya gotta do is get the stomach flu for three days, and you’ll lose ten pounds,” when the stomach flu is the worst.
“All ya gotta do is grow your Instagram following to one million,” when that is a long process.
The same is true for taking control of the stories you tell yourself.
“All ya gotta do is tell yourself a better story.”
Sounds easy. But in reality, it’s really, really hard.
Which begs the question: Why? Why is controlling our self-stories so hard?
Invisible, Triggered, Repeating
Controlling your self-stories is so difficult because of a near-impossible set of characteristics stacked against you. By nature (and evolution), self-stories are subconscious, easily triggered, automatic, and habitual. Read that again:
- Essentially invisible to the human eye.
- Set off by an event, occurrence, or interaction.
- Automatic and repeating. A habit. A well-oiled machine. As seamless as breath.
If you’ve ever tried to gain control over a habit—like biting your nails, or clearing your throat when you’re nervous, or smoking, or saying “like,” every other word—then you know how challenging it can be. That little black box of stories that is affecting your results is no different.
There Is Always A Story
You can learn exactly how to reauthor your story from the inside out using a four-part process:
- Catching your self-storyteller in the act
- Analyzing a story for its truth and impact in your life
- Choosing the story to serve you better
- Installing that story in your brain and life for better results
There is no “no-story” plan. Your brain doesn’t work that way. There are stories there. And you are telling them to yourself whether you know it or not.
Now, if you are at that particular place in your life where you’re not facing any gaps, where you’ve achieved everything you desire, then perhaps yes, you already trained your inner narrator, in which case
This book becomes a confirmation of what exactly you did right. Regardless, self-actualization doesn’t mean the absence of stories, but rather the mastery of them, and that begins with acknowledging their existence.
The stories are there.
You can either take charge of your stories, or you can let them run.
Your Story, Your Choice Self
Within each of us are millions of stories. Small events, big tragedies, things we can barely remember, and others we’ll never forget. And yes, a lot of the stories aren’t great. There are times when we were betrayed, or we betrayed someone else. There are stories of injustice and outcomes that were unfair or consequences that were undeserved. There are stories of abandonment, of foolish mistakes, of arrogance. There are stories of people rejecting us or making fun of us or shaming us or treating us as though we were less than.
While you don’t get a choice in whether or not stories are being told—like it or not, the story is happening—the good news is that the choice of which stories you tell is entirely yours. Because while there are certainly stories that keep you stuck, that make you feel heavy, and cause you to wonder if you’ll ever cross the great divide, there are also stories that can set you free. There are stories that can propel you forward. There are stories that can lift you up and over the challenges, stories that can break through the barriers.
Because the science, research, and evidence from each of our own experiences in this difficult, wonderful, story-filled world point to one powerful thing:
If you can change your story, you can change your life.