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What's your Story?

First, a quote. In the words of psychologist, author, and Harvard professor Dr. Howard Gardner, “Stories constitute the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal.” 

Stories, both in telling and listening, are a fundamental way humans process data and make decisions. Our earliest ancestors, unburdened by choices on the best way to communicate information, relied solely on telling stories to educate and (presumably) entertain the rest of the group. These stories were passed along across generations, and from an evolutionary standpoint, we remain hardwired to make sense of our environment by putting it into the context of stories and patterns.

Quick example: Green, bagel, firefighter, pug.

In reading those four random words, your brain was likely already trying to assemble them into some association to identify the pattern and ‘the story.’ Of course, your rapid version of the story taking shape was unique to you. It’s our default factory setting.

 While the medium of storytelling changes, our fundamental need, and desire for stories in 2024 is still just as strong as when our primitive relatives were sitting around cave-side fires listening to our elders. It’s easy enough for most of us to find lifelong examples of stories in action. Books are being read to us as kids, teachers giving lectures in school, hanging out with our friends and hearing about their recent events, watching Netflix, listening to audiobooks, and advertising. Some of the largest companies in the world have marketing roles that come with titles like ‘Chief Storyteller.’

Stories are the coin of the realm in how we process information in the world around us and, more importantly, how we perceive ourselves.

This part of how our own internal story, or narrative, shapes our present and future self is a fascinating area of study that I’d like to shed some light on. Building on the foundation knowledge that we are continuously constructing a plot and storyline from information and input of daily life, let’s apply that to how we process our personal experiences. One way to look at it is that we continuously write our life stories. Each new day is a blank page where our daily choices define where the story goes next. Those choices we make are closely linked to how we identify ourselves. That identity we form about ourselves is primarily based on how we perceive outcomes of previous experiences.   As author Craig Groeschel puts it, “You do what you do because of what you think of you.”

Jonathan Adler, clinical psychologist, scholar, and expert in the fascinating field of ‘Narrative Identity’, has written extensively on the connection between our interpretation of previous experiences and how we handle future challenges. In very broad terms, we lump our memories of significant life experiences into two sequences: redemption and contamination. With the redemption version, the positive aspects leave you with a final takeaway of everything working out for the best. Conversely, in a contamination sequence, the negative elements overwhelm the positive, and the end-result memory is negative. 

A thing to note about memories is that they are not carved in stone. Every time we retrieve them, we put them away a little differently. This dynamic aspect means it’s not too late to change our perspective on contaminated memories to identify the positive aspects, which can reshape our self-perspective.

That said, the topic of narrative identity goes beyond seeing the glass as half full and thinking positively.

Our identity, how we truly see and think about ourselves, is a guiding force in our conscious and subconscious mind and forms the plotline of our life’s narrative. If we use the metaphor of writing our own life story every day, consider the fact that you are the main character. How we perceive our identity largely influences what choices and decisions the main character makes next in the script.

Let’s say you’ve had an epic run of bad luck in the past year. You were hospitalized with a rare illness, you lost your job, your house burned to the ground, and your car was stolen. At the end of all of that, there are a couple of different mindsets that could take hold. Let’s look at the version most of us would aspire to: “I had a chance to be reminded how health should never be taken for granted, the universe nudged me away from an unfulfilling career, homeowners’ insurance came in handy, and no one was hurt, and without a car, I bike everywhere and have never been healthier.” 

While that’s an extreme example, in the redemptive line of thinking, the person comes away identifying as someone who can handle anything that life throws their way and comes away stronger, as opposed to the opposite reaction of “I give up, I can’t handle anymore.”  Like a diamond, the greater the pressure, the brighter the shine.

Often, we cannot change the things that happen to us in life, but what we can certainly do is develop the habit of being mindful of the identity we create through our narrative interpretation of past and present events. In turn, this can help create a self-fulfilling prophecy where we act in accordance with the identity we aspire to. Be the hero in your own story, and your future self will thank you with increased confidence, perseverance, adaptability, and overall love of life.

If you’re interested in hearing more about the topic of narrative identity, check out Jonathan Adler on the Hidden Brain podcast for a great listen and deeper dive into how to develop this superpower in your own life.



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