What We Tell Ourselves

What We Tell Ourselves

Looking back to high school, the first time I took the SATs was on a crisp fall Saturday morning before the biggest game of the football season. The high school team I played on was vying for the playoffs. The game was against a cross-town rival team that had won the High School Division I State Championship the previous year. We didn’t know it then, but there were two future NFL players on that team. They were a big, bruising team and we needed to win to make the playoffs. As I struggled through the SAT test I had a difficult time focusing on anything but the game ahead.   

Long story, short. We lost that game. Badly. And I did equally poorly on my SATs. A double-failure in one day. 

Even before that test on that fateful day, I had told myself I was not a good “tester.” My math grades were ample evidence. Or maybe, I had convinced myself that I was never going to be good at math thanks to my dyslexia. Regardless, I bought my own story. 

The stories we tell ourselves, or that others tell us that we believe, shapes our identity. What we learn young, is hard to unlearn.These stories, be they about perceptual limitations or special abilities, can make or unmake our potential. If we believe in our limitations we can freeze with fear in the face of our desires and ambitions. If we believe in our unique genius and special abilities, it can free us to realize our larger potential.

“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.”

― James Clear, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad One

When we boil down what’s in our control we arrive at two things: what we think and do.

How we feel is created by what we think (AKA the stories we hear or tell ourselves that we believe).

It’s our responsibility to think about and do what we can to improve the state of ourselves and our business. For those leaders with a wider viewpoint, there is the opportunity to look beyond the walls of our business. From here, we can not only improve ourselves and our businesses but also the world and people that we’re inextricably connected to.

We have the power to make a difference with what we think and do. This begins with a reclamation of our previously shaped identity by choosing to believe in the stories that create our aspirational future-self. I’m not talking about magical thinking here. I’m talking about stepping into a future self that we earn both through the stories that we buy into and to do the work, mostly on ourselves, that create that future. How we see ourselves plays a large role in defining our future.

As the old adage goes “whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right.” (often attributed to Henry Ford).  

The wise inside.

Our current self knows what our past self didn’t: That are more capable than we once realized. We prove this every day by pressing beyond our current abilities, which is where all growth comes from. Right now, there’s a wise future-self that we can tap into to shed insight, support, and guidance to benefit where we stand now.

We all get doses of both limiting and freeing stories told to us, by others or ourselves. Which have you given your attention to? Which of the ones you’ve given attention to do you still believe? Which of those stories are serving you, and which are not?

Continuing the story.

Of course, my story that started this article didn’t end there. While a career in football, luckily, was not in the cards for me, I did retake the SATs, and I got into a college that I loved. And I thrived. My testing (aka outcomes) got better because the stories I told myself (and believed) changed. I graduated college in four years with magna cum laude honors and earned a scholarship to my master’s program at Temple University. Where I thrived again.

All of this was possible because I worked hard and believed in the right stories that propelled me forward. All of your imagined future-self is there in your right stories, too.

The confidence that propels us to achieve good or great things comes from believing in the right stories. This is true for leaders, teams, cultures, and even societies.

“Last night as I was sleeping,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that I had a beehive

here inside my heart.

And the golden bees

were making white combs

and sweet honey

― Antonio Machado

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