Be Careful the Stories you Tell

We are storytellers. That’s the nature of being human. From the beginning of humanity, we have told stories about everything — from how we got here to how we’re going to get somewhere else. We tell stories of our vacations and stories of our childhood. We tell stories of our career and stories of our relationships.

Stories are entertaining. But they are rarely true.

Stories reflect more about us and how we see the world than how it actually is. When I coach attorneys and other professionals, they come to me because they want something beyond what they have. I often work with busy attorneys; often they are busier than they think they can manage. A large percentage of the attorneys who I coach want to market more and bring in more business. This is true of sole practitioners, often associates, and certainly partners. For most of them, marketing and bringing in new business means going above and beyond their daily work requirements. Often they are working so many hours, they believe they are already doing all they can. And yet they have the courage to come to me and to say, “Help me figure out how to do something more or something different.” “Help me figure out how to bring in business above and beyond the work I am already doing.” As the coaching relationship progresses, these clients, again courageously, make promises to me and to themselves. They say things like, “By next week I will have brought in new business” or “By next week, I will have written a newsletter designed to bring in new business” or “By next week I will have a lead on a speaking engagement designed to bring in new business” or at the very least, “By next week, I will have placed one phone call designed to start a process of bringing in new business.”

We get on the phone next week and I say, “How did that go?” and they say, “Are you kidding me? I was slammed this week. I was so busy. There was a motion for summary judgment that came out of nowhere. There was an ex parte hearing. My children were sick. My mother came in from out of town.” As I listen, I hear the story of why they couldn’t and why they didn’t. And as you read this you may think, “That is very reasonable, very logical. He was just too busy.” scary story

But you will not get where you want to go by telling these stories. The stories of your circumstances are true. Yes, your mother came into town. Yes your children got sick. Yes, you got a project you were not prepared for. The part of the story that is not true is the implicit part. The part that says, “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do what I said I would do because of these circumstances.”

One of the most freeing things you can do is decide to tell a different story. Don’t let your circumstances be the justification for not following through on your dreams. I like to read “Success” magazine, a magazine by and for entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are the most dedicated and inspired people you can be around. To be successful, small and large business owners have to be self-starters and they have to be truly committed to doing the work that needs to be done. Rarely from these people will you hear a story of why it couldn’t be done.

(The story about “why it couldn’t be done,” by the way, I call “arguing for your limitations” because we can be very reasonable and logical about why we can’t do something. And our arguments are so persuasive that we convince ourselves and everyone around us.)

When I read Success magazine, I see stories of people who overcame great odds, stories of people with the cards stacked against them, with great handicaps, stories of people who made great efforts to get somewhere and failed and failed and failed and never stopped trying. These are stories of people who became successful, though not easily and through great effort on their part. These are the stories that inspire me. These people talk about the same circumstances that others use to create a story about why they couldn’t meet their goal. The successful people have the same (and often more daunting) circumstances and they tell a story about how they didn’t let it keep them down. What’s the difference? It’s not the circumstances. It’s just the story.

I recently read the book Unbroken about Louis Zamperini who was imprisoned in a Japanese concentration camp during WWII. The circumstances were so dire that his could easily have been a story of giving up and losing. Indeed for many of the people imprisoned with him it was a story of losing and understandably so. But his was not. He decided what his story would be, notwithstanding the harrowing experiences he had. It’s a choice he made.

It’s a choice you have.

Notice the stories you’re telling. Notice what stories you are buying into. Notice if the people around you tell similar stories. Notice where you argue for your limitations.

Start to craft a different story. You can start to do this by refusing to ever happy storypoint at your circumstances for your failure to meet a goal, dream or objective. When you stop blaming your circumstances, it allows you to take ownership for your failures, mistakes and missteps. And then you will start to tell a different story, a story of empowerment and ownership.

Eventually you will learn to argue for your success.