There is life changing magic in a productive story.
Are you going to get that promotion? Is your marriage going to make it through a rough patch? Is your company going to hit its projections for the year? The single biggest predictor for all these events is not the facts of your situation, but the story you tell. The bad news is that there is an epidemic of rotten storytelling going on in our culture right now.
The good news is that we can fix that. And the best news is that it is not as hard as you might believe. Small shifts in mindset can trigger a cascade of changes so profound that they test the limits of what seems possible.
The secret is to identify the ideas that trigger a narrative reset, that get your brain out of a negative spiral, and into a productive mindset. Here are five strategies, grounded in science, to help you reset your own narrative.
- Stop consuming junk stories.
People take in average of 14 newspapers worth of information every day, and most of it is junk. This epidemic of junk storytelling is killing our minds just as surely as junk food is destroying our bodies. The single best thing you can do to reset your narrative is simple: do not take in too much junk.
How can you tell if you have a lot of junk in your storytelling diet?
Junk stories are any kind of story that is designed primarily to rile up your emotions: cable news, most of twitter, lots of clickbait. It is designed to trigger an emotional response. It is addictive, destructive and dangerous. Junk stories tend to create junk thinking, and it is literally bad for our brains.
- See the river, not the rocks.
When I was first learning to kayak, I kept banging my boat into rocks. I said to my instructor in frustration, “I am hitting every rock on this river!” He said, “Well then, stop looking at them!” This is exactly what I was doing: I was going down the river, staring straight at the things I was most afraid of, and therefore, heading right for them.
We all tend to obsess over the things we are afraid of. The problem is that in life, as on the river, our boat goes where our eyes go. When we read lots of stories, and tell lots of stories, about how bad things are likely to be, we literally make these bad things more likely to happen.
But therein lies the secret to changing this pattern: see the river, not the rocks. Instead of obsessing over all the things that could go wrong, focus on all the things that could go right. Tell stories to your team, your family and in your own head, about everything beautiful that could happen in life.
- Expect setbacks.
There is a critical corollary to a good mindset: the story you are telling must be true. You cannot deceive yourself with false optimism when the world is falling apart.
To say that you feel positive about the culture in America right now, or to try to convince yourself that everything is going great when your business is faltering, is to deny reality. It creates a form of narrative dissonance: a disconnect between reality and the story we are telling. And it will ultimately break down.
The trick is not to deny suffering, or setbacks, but to accept the setback and the suffering and know that it will pass. Do not tell yourself a story about how easy things are, or how good they are. Tell yourself a story that says: this is all part of the story line. After all, every single success story in history or in literature or in business shares one quality: that moment when the hero needs to decide, against all odds, whether, or not, to keep going.
Teaching low performing people about the growth mindset, the fact that we are all bad at everything before we are good at I, helps improve their performance. Giving new employees students pep talks before they start at their new job, letting them know that struggling during the first year is normal, reduces dropout rates. Telling employees at the start of a project that failure is both inevitable and temporary, will increase the team’s likelihood of success.
- Tell good stories about the people around you.
Spend some time thinking about the stories you tell about other people because those stories are incredibly important, too. Always look for the best in people. People are not performing the way you want! Meet with every member of your team, asked what they needed from you, and tell them that you believe in them. If their performance is not improving, then, and only then, get rid of them.
For better and for worse, the stories we tell about people tend to become true. When team leaders are cued to think good things about their team members, those team members do better. When people are told, “you are the kind of person who performs well under pressure” before doing a high-stress task, their performance goes up by 33%. Stories change brains, and behaviors.
The lesson here is this: practice telling good stories, even just in your own head, about your spouse and your boss and your colleagues and your clients. You will find that when you change the story you are telling about them, they will change too.
- Do not plan, just do one thing.
You are overwhelmed with the size and the scope of a problem, and you believe that if you can just write all down, think it all through, you can get a handle on it. But weirdly, the more you think about it, the more stressed out you get. And how often do you find yourself at the end of a long meeting feeling frustrated that nothing has changed? That way of thinking can easily turn into a negative story spiral.
What you need to do is to reset that narrative. When you are feeling overwhelmed, do not plan, do not make, or write down a plan, just do one thing. It literally does not matter what you do. Whenever you act, take any action, it resets the chemicals in your brain from overwhelmed to empowered. Think of the brain as a binary system: you are either frozen in fear or empowered by action. So, if you have a huge to-do list, check off the smallest thing first. Talk to one person, make one call. The chemicals in your brain will change, and so will your story.
Yes indeed, this is your choice.
J. Michael Dennis, ll.l., ll.m.
FREE SPEECH ABSOLUTIST / PERSONAL & CORPORATE FIXER
Systemic Strategic Planning; Regulatory Compliance; Crisis & Reputation Management