“You tell the story first and then you live your way into it.

Jonathon Adler

FIERCELY ALIVE: Who Are You?: 2.1.1

What’s Your Story?

Would you notice if a gorilla walked in the room? Of course you would. But, what if you were asked to watch a video of six people passing a ball back and forth and were told to count the number of passes you saw. Do you think you would notice if a gorilla appeared, faced the camera, beat its chest, and left? We all swear we would. So it is surprising, that in one of the best-known studies in psychology, researchers at Harvard University found that half of us don’t see the gorilla.

We continuously select what we see, and we continuously select the stories we tell about what we see. When faced with any set of “facts,” we can choose to tell any number of stories. In The World Café, social entrepreneur Lynn Twist, is quoted as saying, “We don’t live in the world, we live in conversation with the world.” Given the fact we have about 50,000 thoughts a day, that’s a lot of conversation and choices to make.



Moment to moment, we assess the performance of ourselves and others. While the situational facts might be determined, the associated story is malleable, and we have the freedom to select the story we will adopt. I might consider two alternative stories to explain why my daughter left her clothes all over her bedroom floor. Is it that she wanted to drive me crazy or that she valued being on time to meet her grandparents more than tidiness? The latter interpretation clearly works better for both of us.

I love the way Carol Dweck describes the potential for evaluating students, replacing the notion of failing with “not yet.” Her version of the story leaves the next chapter open, allowing room for continued action toward a successful outcome. Or consider the way co-founder of the VIA Institute on Character, Neal Mayerson, describes an interaction he had with a client in his former therapy practice. The patient told her story as one filled with multiple broken relationships. Conversely, Neal told the story as one of hope, bravery, and perseverance. With this version, she now had something on which to build her life and successful future relationships. Her version of the story held no such potential. For each of us, the stories we choose to tell determine our experience with life.

The way we craft the stories around the facts of our lives has been shown to have a profound impact on anxiety, depression, workplace performance and satisfaction, relationships, experience of challenge, and innovation. 

Telling the whole story of who we are requires incorporating four abilities – awareness, suspension, discipline, and knowledge.

    1. Awareness – acknowledging that you are selecting among 50,000 daily thoughts to create a story.
    2. Suspension – pausing and determining if the crafted story is actually helpful.
    3. Discipline – committing to a daily practice of unpacking stories as choices of mental construction.
    4. Knowledge – expanding your language to include who you are at your best and including that knowledge within the story.

Most of us aren’t prepared for number four. We have plenty of language about our shortcomings, but typically are limited when it comes to recognizing and describing the best within ourselves. Think about how to expand your vocabulary and understanding here.