That's Your Story?
An uglier two-word phrase it's hard to find. But if you're at all like the people I see in our workshops, then I'm afraid you understand the phrase all too well.
How did it come to this?
What am I doing?
Where am I going?
What do I want?
Is my life working on any meaningful level? Why doesn't it work better?
Am I right now dying, slowly, for something I'm not willing to die for?
WHY AM I WORKING SO HARD, MOVING SO FAST, FEELING SO LOUSY?
One man I heard about was quite literally going through slow death. A senior executive at a big firm, he was home the last few weeks of his life, in the final stage of cancer, in and out of lucidity, medicated so heavily that his tongue loosened and he regularly spewed his unfiltered, apparently truest thoughts. He cursed at his wife as never before, using vile, demeaning language all while she was caring for him day and night, knowing these were his last days on earth, the final days of their long marriage. He did the same to his kids when they visited, making an already difficult situation for them nearly intolerable, and certainly bringing them nothing remotely like peaceful closure. Mostly, though, the man's most shocking, blistering commentary was reserved, in absentia, for his boss: vicious, intermittently coherent paroxysms of resentment and contempt for the president of his firm who, it was painfully obvious now, the dying executive blamed for most of the anger, frustration, and general rottenness he'd felt the past two decades.
Slow death. It comes in different forms. Two years ago a heart surgeon came to our institute. The first morning he had his blood work done and took a turn in the BodPod (a chamber inside which one's lean body mass can be measured with exceptional accuracy, through the displacement of air rather than water). His results were borderline alarming extremely elevated levels of cholesterol, glucose, blood lipids, triglycerides, C-reactive protein. He was given a copy of the results.
When his turn came to discuss the meaning of the numbers and how to approach them, the surgeon said, "I don't want to talk about it."
"You know what these numbers mean," said Raquel Malo, our director of nutrition and executive training.
"Of course I do," he snapped. "I'm a doctor!"
"What if I was your patient and I got these numbers?"
"I'd be all over you."
"Yet you're telling me "
"I said I don't want to talk about it."
"Change the subject or I'm on the next plane home," he said. "Don't bring it up again while I'm here."
Two days later the doctor left, having done nothing to address his perilous health, or even to acknowledge there was anything to address. He returned to his thriving medical practice, where he would continue to caution patients to reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease. (Of all the demographics we see, health care providers as a group hover near the bottom in fitness and physical well-being.)
Slow death: what a harsh phrase. Is that really what's happening to all those people, the ones who start out contented by what is good and pure in life a simple cup of coffee, a few seemingly reasonable life goals (a nice salary, say, and one's own home) and who, once they've achieved those goals, can't even be satisfied because they've already moved on to life's next-sized latte (six-figure salary, second home, three cars), only to move on to something double-extra grande when that's achieved, a continual supersizing that guarantees one can't ever be fulfilled?
Okay. Not everyone I see or hear about is dying slowly. But to judge from the responses we get, workshop after workshop, year after year and each year it gets worse whatever it is they're doing sure doesn't sound fun. It doesn't even sound like getting by. I read the frustration and disappointment in their self-evaluations and hear it in their own voices, if and when they're comfortable enough to read aloud from their current dysfunctional story, the autobiographical narrative they attempt to write the first day at HPI, but usually don't finish until the night before our last day together.
"Life is hard and getting harder," read one senior VP, with a very big house, a very big salary, and dozens of direct reports. "My current life story is stagnant...On a scale of 1 [worst] to 5 [best], I'd give my health and family each a 2...My biggest feeling about myself is complete disappointment...I have virtually no energy...I'm completely addicted to cell phones and PDAs."
"The tone of my story is cynical, sarcastic, and ironic," read a forty-three-year-old woman who runs a successful telecom business in the Southwest. "I'm driven to achieve solely for the purpose of being able to point to the accomplishment, and the recognition I receive...I need a more positive view of my future...I do NOT embrace the idea that the story I tell about what happens is more important than what actually happens...My current life story is sad and depressing...My health is a 2, work a 3, happiness and friendship each a 2..."
"I'm deeply disappointed in myself and always extremely self-critical," wrote a managing director in a financial services firm. "My happiness is a 1; I'm as unhappy as can be. I'm getting divorced after thirty-three years of marriage...My greatest weakness is that I don't trust anyone anymore. The dominant theme in my life is distrust."
I hardly think it's overstating to call these tragic stories.
As the workshop progresses and people's defenses start to melt away, we hear more and more of these stories. By almost any reasonable standard, these stories exemplify failure; in many cases, disaster. There is no joy to be found in them, and even precious little forward movement. In every workshop, nearly everyone has a dysfunctional story that is not working in at least one important part of his or her life: stories about how they do not interact often or well with their families; about how unfulfilling the other significant relationships in their lives are; about how despite all that extracurricular failure they're not even performing particularly well at work (!), or, if they are, about how little pleasure they gain from it; about how they don't feel very good physically and their energy is depleted.
On top of all that (isn't that enough?), they feel guilty about their predicaments. They know, on some almost buried level, that their life is in crisis and that the crisis will not simply go away. Their company is not going to make it go away. The government is not going to make it go away. God is not going to make it go away.
And so they wake up one morning to the realization that the bad story they for so long only feared has become finally their life, their story. Not that this development is their fault. No. Nor is there a heck of a lot to be done about it.
It's a competitive, cutthroat world out there.
God knows, I want to change but I simply can't. I'll get eaten up and beaten by someone who's willing to sacrifice everything.
The world moves faster today than it did a generation ago.
Hey, at least I see my family some weekends. At least we've got a roof over our heads. At least I exercise twice a week.
What am I supposed to do quit my job?
These are the facts of my life. There's nothing I can do about them.
My life is a known quantity, so why mess with it even if it's killing me?
Let me repeat that one:...even if it's killing me.
As corporate consultant Annette Simmons says in her book, The Story Factor, "People don't need new facts they need a new story."
Recently I conducted a seminar with thirty-two engineers from a profitable company who'd been sent to us not of their own desire if it was up to them, it soon enough became obvious, they'd have preferred to undergo a colonoscopy and root canal simultaneously but because the head of their division, a recent and enthusiastic attendee of the program, felt it would be useful for them and thus for the company. I could tell that the brainpower in the room, judged on sheer intellectual payload, was staggering. Each engineer had a position of considerable authority, each had several direct reports, each was veteran enough at the company to feel part of the fabric that made it what it was. Early in the session, I asked what might be done to improve their situations at work. Not a single hand went up. When I asked what they thought about their latest job evaluations, the few who spoke expressed the same general idea: They were doing about as well as they expected; there wasn't much that would make things worse or better. It was what it was.
Over the next half hour, though, I was able to start eliciting some details. Many of them said they couldn't pay much attention to their health because, well, there was obviously no time to exercise before or after work, and to exercise in the middle of the afternoon would feel, as one said, "almost like you're irresponsible."
"Is there an actual rule against it?" I asked.
"It's unwritten," he said. "Everyone can feel it."
So there it was. The corporate culture was at fault. Nothing to be done about it. It was what it was.
I asked for a new show of hands: How many did get regular exercise? Four engineers out of thirty-two responded.
"They're single," said one of the others. Everyone laughed.
"Really?" I said. I turned to the Exercising Four. "How many of you have spouses and children?"
Three of the four raised their hands.
"You're married with kids, yet you work out," I said to them. "How is this possible?" I asked the three if they thought that the time they spent exercising was jeopardizing their careers, in the long term, or making it more difficult to get work done, in the short.
No, said each. "It makes me more productive," said one.
I then asked the whole group of thirty-two how many had dinner with their family at least three nights a week. Only five did...and what do we have here? three of the five were the Exercisers Married with Children.
Some people just figure it out. Why them and not others?
As we continued to talk, it became apparent gradually (engineers and scientists are tough nuts) that almost everyone in this room full of high-achievers and leaders felt as if they were caught in a brutal culture, one which allowed them no breathing room, which compromised their health. Many of them said outright it was the company's fault. But among the three who exercised and ate dinner regularly with their families, the prevailing attitude was, in the words of one, "If you have to blame the damn institution, then get out." Another said, "Don't be a victim. Your boss is not going to change."
Finally, I asked a question I thought might get a robust response. "How many of you think there's a lot of brilliance in this room?"
Every arm shot up.
"Suppose," I said, "that your boss walked in here and said, 'Okay, I want to use all the intelligence in this room to reverse-engineer a culture that would allow our people to take better care of themselves, to actually feel great enthusiasm and initiative about work, and to spend meaningful time with their family.'" I looked around the room. "What's the chance you could come up with that?"
Again, every arm went up.
"But wait," I said. "This new culture you're all going to create, this one that helps you feel healthier and more connected remember: It must continue to drive the bottom line. Is that really possible?"
"Absolutely," said one excitedly, and I saw heads nod in agreement all around the room. "I'm certain we can do it. But no one's ever made that proposition."
Is Your Company Even Trying to Tell a Story?
We've examined the corporate story the worker hears. Let's see what story the company is typically telling.
First: They need you and you need them. (Ideally, they also want you and you also want them, but that may not be part of your company's story.) The typical company, circa early twenty-first century, is saying that the fast-paced business world being what it is what with globalization and outsourcing and downsizing and automation and synergies and streamlining and broadband and maybe Wall Street breathing down its neck, etc. it must make increasing demands on your life. Keep swimming or die. Which means longer hours for you, ergo less time for your family and yourself. It means holding meetings during lunch or before or after the workday proper, which essentially kills your chance to exercise and stay in shape. (And let's just order in any food that's fast during meetings to maximize efficiency.) Oh, right: And while all this is going on, the company continually stressing its imperative to move forward if it is to survive at all also demands that you frequently change directions, reinvent the very way you operate, completely alter how you conduct business.
Everyone who likes that story, raise your hand.
Older workers, in particular those who've "seen it all before" are likely to undermine the story for such a company. So, too, anyone else who fears that he or she may be relatively easy to eliminate, or may have a diminished role in the transformed company. To these employees, the story their company is telling may be exciting in the abstract, or exciting to Wall Street, but it's potentially humiliating for them. Among these workers, suspicion, cynicism, and distrust run rampant. While the defiant worker publicly may appear vested in the change process, privately he tells himself: New thinking be damned. He works subversively to undermine the new directive. He knows that, for the new initiatives to take, everyone must embrace them. Not him. He will go through the motions but he is not going to make any real course corrections.
And so, like a dinosaur, he moves closer and closer to extinction.
The employee loses and the company loses as well. Entire organizations have been undermined by storytelling that excludes a significant portion of their workforce. Failure to align the evolving corporate story with the aspirations of the individual employees, up and down the workforce the very ones who have been enjoined to help write that new, improved story has systemic implications. Athletes routinely give up on playing hard for coaches they deem excessively punitive or inconsistent; the bond of their mutually aligned stories to win a championship is undermined because the coach's story does not seem to allow for the inevitable particularities of any individual athlete's story. Mutiny is not just what happens when ship captains indefensibly change or robotically stick to the rules but also when kings, CEOs, and schoolteachers do it. Organizations have been undermined by refusing to alter their story when it clearly wasn't working. In the mid-1980s, IBM, despite growing evidence to the contrary, thought major course corrections were unnecessary. For a time, they seemed to forget that customers were part of the story, too. When there is no story alignment among the company, its workers, and whatever other forces need to be considered for the company to be profitable, the company eventually fails; its story has failed. Revenues and market share had to dwindle sufficiently before IBM finally had the painful evidence that its story was an unrealistic one. Eventually it recovered, and recovered well, but only after a long overhaul.
If alignment of stories, yours and your company's, is to be achieved and I believe it's neither as lofty nor as complicated a task as it may sound then it's ideally generated both from top down (the company side) and bottom up (the worker's side). But let's not get carried away. For our purposes, we'll presume zero input from the company.* It is, after all, corporate culture.
That means the burden to change stories is on you.
There is a story that business leaders have perpetuated for generations, a story still largely being told today, a story that is, frankly, insane. This story says that the worker's physical body is not business-relevant.
When it comes to physical health and well-being, our clients are for the most part broken. Top-level managers, mid-level, everyone. Regardless of what they may say, most companies don't consider it significant that their workers are physical wrecks, or that this might impact their profitability. Amazingly, only one business school I know of the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, which has done physical/health assessments of every one of its MBA candidates (blood work, lean body mass measurements, etc.) and designed research projects to evaluate the influence of physical condition on performance is bothering to test this proposition.
Yet if we go by the bottom line, then the biggest single crisis facing American business today is inarguably related to health care; more pointedly, it's stress-related or, as I prefer to call it, disengagement-related. According to a USA Today survey, one in six U.S. employees is so overworked that his or her annual vacation time doesn't get used up despite the fact that Americans already get the most meager vacation time in the industrialized world half as much as Sweden, and considerably less even than Japan and Korea. Thirty-four percent of workers reported that their jobs were so pressing they had zero downtime at work; 32% ate lunch while working; 32% never left the building once they arrived; 14% felt company management promoted only those who regularly worked late; 19% felt pressure to work when sick or injured; 17% said it was hard to leave work or take time off in an emergency; 8% thought they would be fired or demoted if they became seriously ill. In another survey, work-related stress is cited for inspiring these behaviors: yelling at co-workers (29%), sleep problems (34%), being driven to alcohol (11%), to smoke excessively (16%), and to eat chocolate (26%). Many workers said they were "a physical wreck"; 62% complained of work-related neck or back pain, 44% said they suffered from stressed-out eyes, 38% complained of hand pain. One study implicated stress in 60% to 90% of all work-related medical problems. Another said that 75% of employees believe on-the-job stress is greater now than a generation ago. Another established a link between stress and heart disease. Another concluded that "workplace health and productivity are inextricably linked." Another found a relationship between physical inactivity and cognitive decline "across every group." Obesity is everywhere, as is hypertension, diabetes, alcoholism, divorce. One senior manager confessed to me that he smoked pot in his office just to get through the day. In the last decade the number of workers who call in sick due to stress has tripled, accounting now for one-in-five last-minute no-shows. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employees who take time off from work because of stress, anxiety, or a related disorder are out an average of twenty business days. It is estimated that 20% to 40% of American workers quit their jobs because of stress.
Then there's the vast numbers of workers who show up for work are present rather than absent but do so in a fog. In fact, "presenteeism" impaired performance on the job because of a medical or psychological condition appears to be a much costlier problem than its productivity-reducing counterpart, absenteeism, and potentially more lethal to the organization because it's not as obvious.
How much does all this cost?
Dow Chemical, which employs 43,000 people, estimates its annual employee health-related costs at $635 million, more than half of which can be attributed to the indirect costs associated with presenteeism. The Harvard Business Review estimates that presenteeism can cut individual productivity by one-third or more; "many companies' greatest health-related expense," they say, "is the almost invisible decline in productivity resulting from employee health problems, including common ailments such as allergies and headaches." Some employers have estimated that performance loss leads to costs three, five, or ten times more than the direct cost of health treatment. In 2000, the estimated cost to corporate America due to illness related to poor nutrition and obesity was $47 billion. Kent Peterson, past president of the American College of Occupational Medicine, put the annual cost that American business pays because of poor health at $1 trillion, which includes the direct cost of medical benefits as well as ill health's impact on productivity. Other studies have shown that stress adds to the cost of doing business not just because of absenteeism and halfhearted work but also because of increased workers compensation claims, litigation (the company ignores stress-related problems at its peril), grievances, higher turnover rate, on-the-job accidents, poor time management, resistance to change, errors in judgment and action, conflict and interpersonal problems, and an increase in customer complaints. (Stressed-out employees virtually guarantee a profitability crisis: According to a study by Reichheld and Sasser of over one hundred companies, a 5% reduction in customer defection translates into anywhere from 30% to 85% increase in profitability.)
How's that for a bottom line?
Some companies, of course, understand perfectly the profound cost of health care and have dealt with it by...taking their businesses offshore, where their responsibility to contribute to employee well-being is far less than what it is in this country. Yet there's no real running away from the problem, which is, at its core, cultural.
For years, with relatively few exceptions across many industries, business considered the physical health and well-being of its employees a personal, private issue. At work, employees are generally reluctant to take care of themselves; to do so is largely counterculture. Even on-site wellness centers and corporate fitness initiatives often go massively underused because workers fear that to avail themselves of the facilities suggests a lack of commitment to the company; from the company side, the wellness center is, cynically, viewed not as an investment (in its people and thus in itself) but an expense. Even a write-off.
And the individual can exercise after work, right? Well, not really. To do so suggests you're a bad family man or woman. And if you take a break midmorning or midafternoon, when everyone's circadian rhythms make them less productive anyway? Slacker. And if heaven forbid you leave early on Wednesdays to see your child's soccer game? Irresponsible.
Yet if extraordinary physical energy which directly influences emotional, mental, and even spiritual energy is the very thing needed for extraordinary productivity, then how can business ignore the demands that the human body makes every day? If you asked a hundred CEOs, "Are happier, healthier employees more productive employees?" I doubt you'd find one to disagree. "Absolutely," they'd say. "A no-brainer." Yet as Michael O'Donnell, editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Health Promotion, says, "most companies spend more on carpet than they do on [employee health and well-being]."
I've worked for years in a field where the participant's physical well-being is never underemphasized: world-class athletics. When dealing with top athletes, it would be unthinkable, of course, to remove the body from the overall equation. Every athlete develops a reverence for his or her body because it is perceived to be indispensable to achieving success (telling a successful story). It would be absurd for me to say to one of my clients from the NBA or the PGA or the WTA, "Hey, ninety percent of success is mental anyway, so let's skip the physical conditioning." Or if we said to one of the FBI anti-terrorist teams or physicians or air-traffic controllers we've worked with, "It's not important how much you sleep or what you eat or if you ever take recovery breaks. Just focus, assess, and react with maximum precision. And thanks for fighting the war on terror / saving lives / helping to land jets."
It makes no sense, right? Then does it really make sense to expect people in other fields to perform at their best if the body is largely ignored, even abused?
The cost of this "story" I've just outlined is profound and widespread and shouldered by both the company and its individuals; for the individual, the cost is often tragic. The problem is not simply going to go away. Organizations thrive when their people are energized, engaged, nimble, and responsive, yet few organizations, sad to say, can possibly thrive when the energy reserves of their workforce become chronically depleted. When workers are focused on basic physical survival, then excellence, innovation, speed, and productivity become secondary concerns.
Since I've been kicking the corporate world in the teeth for several pages now, it's time to turn our attention to ourselves. If you're one of those workers with just enough energy to claw to survive, perhaps it's time to look at the story you've created and the direction it's taking you in the only life you have.
With relatively few variations, people tell stories about basically five major subjects.
By asking yourself basic questions about how you feel about what you do and how you conduct yourself and by trying honestly to answer them, of course you begin to identify the dynamics of your story.
Your Story Around Work
Work is not a choice for most of us, yet while we may have little to say about having to work we often have lots to say about its meaning. And because more than half our waking life is consumed by work, how we frame this story is critical to our chance for overall fulfillment and happiness.
How do you characterize your relationship to work? Is it a burden or a joy? Clock-in/clock-out, deep fulfillment, or addiction? What compels you to get up every day and go to work? The money? Is the driving force increased prestige, power, social status? A sense of intrinsic fulfillment? The contribution you're making? Is it an end in itself or a means to something else? Do you feel forced to work or called to work? Are you completely engaged at work? How much of your talent and skill are fully ignited? What's the dominant tone inspired? challenged? disappointed? trapped? overwhelmed? Does the story you currently tell about work take you where you want to go in life? If your story about work isn't working, what story do you tell yourself to justify it, especially given the tens of thousands of hours it consumes?
Suppose you didn't need the money: Would you continue to go to work every day? In the space below (or on a pad or one of the blank pages at the back of this book), write down five things about your job that, if money were no issue, you would like to continue (the camaraderie, specific responsibilities/tasks, your relationship to a colleague or mentor, having a corner office, etc.): 1. 2. 3. 4. 5.
Your Story Around Family
What's your story about your family life? In the grand scheme, how important is family to you? To hear my clients tell it and to read their responses on our questionnaires, family is, far and away, the most oft-cited number one element in the average person's life. It's why I work so hard...Nothing is more important to me...Everything I do, I do for them. Most readers will recognize these sentiments, I suspect.
So...is your current story about family working? Is the relationship with your husband, wife, or significant other where you want it to be? Is it even close to where you want it to be? Or is there an unbridgeable gap between the level of intimacy, connection, and intensity you feel with him or her and the level you'd like to experience?
Is your story with your children working? How about your parents? Your siblings? Other family members?
If you continue on your same path, what is the relationship you're likely to have, years from now, with each of your family members? If your story isn't working with one or more key individuals, then what's the story you tell yourself to allow this pattern to persist? To what extent do you blame your job for keeping you from fully engaging with your family? (Really? Your job is the reason you're disengaged from the most important thing in your life, the people who matter most to you? How does that happen?) According to your current story, is it even possible to be fully engaged at work and also with your family?
Your Story Around Health
What's your story about your health? What kind of job have you done taking care of yourself? What value do you place on your health, and why? If you continue on your same path, then what will be the likely health consequences? If you're not fully engaged with your health, then what's the story you tell yourself and others particularly your spouse, your kids, your doctor, your colleagues, and anyone who might look up to you that allows you to persist in this way? If suddenly you awoke to the reality that your health was gone, what would be the consequences for you and all those you care about? How would you feel if the end of your story was dominated by one fact that you had needlessly died young?
Do you consider your health just one of several important stories about yourself but hardly toward the top? Does it crack the top three? How about the top five? If you have been overweight, or consistently putting on weight the last several years; if you smoke; if you eat poorly; if you rest infrequently and never deeply; if you rarely, if ever, exercise; if you regularly take loads of medication or other types of drugs; if you have a family medical condition whose occurrence or severity might reasonably be diminished, perhaps even avoided altogether, by taking better care of yourself...what is the story you tell yourself that explains how you deal, or don't deal, with these issues? Is it a story with any rhyme or reason? Do you believe that spending time exercising or otherwise taking care of yourself, particularly during the workday, sets a negative example for others (it's selfish, lazy, unprofessional, shows misaligned priorities)? Do you hope your children will emulate the story you're telling about health?
Given your physical being and the way you present yourself, do you think the story you're telling is the same one that others are hearing? Could it be vastly different, when seen through their eyes?
Think to a time when you were very ill, so sapped of energy that you didn't even feel like reading a book in bed. Do you remember any promises you made to yourself while lying in bed? As in, "I don't ever want to feel this way again. If and when I regain my health, I'm going to..."? Write down three promises you made: 1. 2. 3.
Your Story Around Happiness
What's your story about your happiness? How would you rate your happiness over the last six months? Is your answer acceptable to you? According to your story, how important is happiness and how do you go about achieving it? Are you clear about where or how happiness might be realized for you? If there is something out there some activity, some person that dependably brings you happiness, how long has it been since you encountered it or her or him? What do you think is the connection, if any, between engagement and happiness? If your level of happiness is not where you want it to be, then what's the story you tell yourself that explains why it's not happening at this point in your life? If you continue on the same trajectory, then what kind of happiness do you expect is likely in your future, short-term and long?
Do you consider your own happiness an afterthought? An indulgence? A form of selfishness? Have you removed joy joy, as opposed to contentment from the spectrum of emotions you expect and wish to experience during the remainder of your life?
Jot down ten moments/occasions during the last thirty days where you experienced joy. 1. ______________________ 2. ______________________ 3. ______________________ 4. ______________________ 5. ______________________ 6. ______________________ 7. ______________________ 8. ______________________ 9. ______________________ 10. ______________________
Your Story Around Friends
What's your story about friendship? According to your story, how important are friends? How fully engaged are you with them? (That is, don't calculate in your mind simply how often you see them but what you do and how you are when you're together.) If close friendships are important to you, yet they are clearly not happening in your life, what is the story you tell yourself that obstructs this from happening?
In what way, if any, might friendships be connected to health and happiness for you? To what extent are friendships important to your realizing what you need and want from life? If you have few or no friends, why is that? Is this a relatively recent development that is, something that's happened since you got married, for example, or had a family, or got more consumed by work, or got promoted, or got divorced, or experienced a significant loss, or moved away from your hometown?
When you think of your closest friendships over the last five years, can you say any of them has grown and deepened? According to a Gallup poll, people who have a best friend at work are seven times more likely to be engaged in their job, get more done in less time, have fewer accidents and are more likely to innovate and share new ideas. An employee's satisfaction jumps by almost 50% when he or she has a close relationship at the workplace. (And if your best friend has a healthy diet, you are five times more likely to eat healthy yourself.)
Suppose you had no friends what would that be like? This may seem like a morbid exercise but write down three ways in which being completely friendless might make your life poorer (no one to turn to in times of crisis and celebration, no one to mourn your passing, etc.). 1. 2. 3.
Write Your Current Story
(or Try to)
The following are the first steps in a process we've devised and refined over the years, from feedback our clients have provided. It starts with you writing your current story a first draft. Eventually, after some hard and honest work and several drafts you'll have produced a story that accurately reflects the way things have been going in your life. Then you'll discard this current story, recasting it now as your "old story," and replace it with your new, forward-moving story.
But that's getting ahead of ourselves especially considering that the majority of those I've worked with have not quite "gotten" their current story on the first attempt.
STEP 1: Identify the important areas of your life where the stories you tell yourself or others are clearly not working. They simply do not take you where you ultimately want to go for example, with personal relationships, work, financial health, physical health; with your boss, your daughter, your morning routine. Ask yourself: In what areas is it clear I can't get to where I want to go with the story I've got? 1. 2. 3. 4. 5.
Keep going, if you have more.
STEP 2: Articulate as clearly as possible the story you currently have that isn't working. Put it down on paper. Eventually we'll refer to this as your Old Story.
Here are five examples from clients. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that all five have experienced enormous professional success.
Greg: I have an overwhelming, all-consuming drive for results, holding myself totally accountable for my company's performance, especially poor performance. And this is how it's supposed to be for a leader. It comes with the territory. I am ultimately doing all that I do to provide the best for my family, which they don't understand. They don't understand, especially my wife (!), that I need the time at home to work through the issues I have in my job. At work, when we are having tough results, I need to jump into the business to understand the issues and direct our course of action to turn things around. I will be the one that ultimately gets asked what we are doing to fix the situation. I need to have the answers, which means I don't have time to let the team find their way.
Janine: My life the way that it is does not allow me any time for me, and I'm okay with that. Exercise time is time I need to spend with my family or get work done. I don't have the luxury of time to focus on something so selfish. Also, eating right is too difficult so why even bother? The main thing is that I eat something, anything. The right food is not readily accessible anyway. I have a pretty high metabolism, so it's not a big deal when I don't eat right and sometimes it just feels good to eat a lot of unhealthy things it's a huge stress reliever for me.
Paul: I am an impostor sneaking by under the radar. I've gotten to where I am out of pure luck. I don't know what I'm doing and am petrified that people will discover the truth. I work hard and fear leaving the office because I am certain, if found out, I will be fired. I have considered personal executive coaching but deep inside don't believe it will help. I've also broken my pact with my wife to share in childcare responsibilities, so I've failed there as well. I blame all my misery and feelings of failure on my job rather than creating the opportunities that I really want in my life.
Tricia: My "great" job has changed drastically. The company has created an organization that makes no sense and is operationally set up for failure. I have huge increases in responsibility, including businesses and people over which I have no authority. The company looks to me for answers when, in fact, they should be solving these issues at a structural or strategic level. My job has significantly increased in demand and volume and I simply don't have sufficient staff to cover what is expected. I'm frustrated, I'm angry, I'm resentful.
Ken: I'm a 35-year-old African-American, senior executive for one of the biggest, most challenging companies in the world. I rose very quickly and now the pressure is on me. No one can understand or appreciate what I face on a daily basis. I have so many expectations to live up to, both at work and at home. My family should try to understand how hard I work and how much I do for them. They don't know how this terrifying fear of failure burdens me every single day. My voice inside keeps saying, "You cannot fail, you cannot let people down." But my voice also says, "I don't have time for me, I don't feel in control and someday soon, my flaws will be discovered." My work expectations are beyond my level of competence. My world at home has a similar theme. I love my wife but I know she's going to attack me for something I have not done right and she's probably right. Eventually, I just shut down, mentally and emotionally. I have no time for friends or community. Inside I'm a complete wreck and I have no clue what to do about it.
Before you begin writing your own Old Story:
Really bring it to life. Express your logic, your rationale, your thinking process about why you've been living the way you have. By getting it down on paper, you can see it, study it, break it down, judge how it flows (or stumbles) as a story. Write in the voice you typically use privately with yourself. Don't hold back. If it's a rationalizing, scapegoating voice, then use that. If it's bitter or prideful, use it. This story initially, anyway is for your eyes, no one else's, so don't write your story scared; no need to be diplomatic or politically correct. At some point you may wish to share it with others, as many people do in our workshops.
Some tricks to a more authentic story:
- Exaggerating your voice often makes it easier to recognize how destructive and illogical the story you've been telling yourself actually is. For example, if you feel used and taken for granted, listen to the voice and capture both the message and the emotion in your writing. Instead of writing the more muted, slightly dishonest, "When I get home I can't give my kids the time they want because I still have work calls to make" as one client wrote in the first draft of his Old Story get down and dirty, as he did when he nailed his whiniest, most immature, but honest inner voice by his final draft: "My kids don't appreciate what I do, it's insensitive of them to keep hounding me, and I'm actually angry at them because they want me to play Monopoly with them the instant I walk through the door." If that's the way you think no matter how ugly it sounds capture it.
- Just as novelists and screenwriters go through dozens of drafts before they get it right, prepare to go through several rewrites before you can effectively capture the voice, content, and essence of your faulty Old Story. Clients tell me they go through three, eight, fifteen drafts. When it's right, you'll know it.
- Just as writers emphasize detail, you, too, should get as specific and concrete as you can with your Old Story. Capture the nuances of how you talk to yourself and the logic of your thinking. The elements of a story that make it persuasive or not theme, tone, major characters, pace provide color and texture to life, so try to capture them on paper.
Okay. Now take a stab at your Old Story.
Note your feelings as you're reading and writing your old story. Clients often experience shock, embarrassment, even self-loathing when they write and read their Old Stories as they genuinely face their rationale for the first time. "This story is making me sick as I write it," one client wrote as part of his story.
You can only really write your New Story eventually if you've isolated what it is about your Old Story that's faulty. (If there's nothing faulty in it, then there's no reason to write a new one, right?) How do you do that?
STEP 3: Identity the faulty elements of your old story by asking yourself three questions, about both the total story and each of the individual points it makes:
- Will this story take me where I want to go in life (while at the same time remaining true to my deepest values and beliefs)?
- Does the story reflect the truth as much as possible?
- Does this story stimulate me to take action?
These three questions are the foundations for the three rules of good storytelling, which we will cover in detail. Your Old Story usually flouts one or more of these rules, often all three. I refer to them shorthandedly as Purpose, Truth, and Hope-Filled Action. It's the lack of one or more of these criteria that makes your Old Story flawed and ultimately unworkable. In your New Story, on the other hand, all three rules will be addressed and conformed to. You simply cannot tell a good story without satisfying each and every one of these three elements.
So: Does your Old Story work for you?
The answer will be found by holding it up, first, against your purpose in life. Is this story you wrote above, the one you're right now living and have been for some time, moving you toward fulfilling and remaining true to that great purpose? Copyright © 2007 Jim Loehr