I had dinner with an actor friend last week who told me he'd just blown a big audition because he psyched himself out. Before the audition, he saw another actor walk confidently into the waiting room and carry himself like he already had the part, and my friend immediately felt demoralized. We talked about his experience over Indian food, then went to a pre-holiday screening of Into the Woods. And the line in the film -- "Careful the tale you tell, that is the spell, children will listen" -- jumped off the screen and right into our laps. Because that's exactly what my friend did to himself: He told himself a tale that created a spell that he listened to. This tale was about how the other actor was more suited for the role, which put him on the wrong mental track that he allowed to affect his performance. I see this in business all the time: People have an important presentation or interview or something that calls for them to perform, they tell themselves a tale of doom, and it affects the outcome.
I'm interested in outcomes. But more than that, I'm interested in the choices we make that affect those outcomes. A new year is dawning, and we have the opportunity to seed outcomes with the tales we tell. What tale will you tell yourself in 2015?
Here are four ideas for telling yourself better tales in 2015, whether it's the macro tale of your life, or the many smaller tales you tell yourself that contribute to that larger story:
- Identify the tales you told yourself in 2014 that you want to leave behind: These typically revolve around your not being able to accomplish what you want in your career, relationships, or another important aspect of your life. These tales often present themselves as judgments about you and what you're capable of: "I'm not good with numbers," "I'll never be able to lose weight," "There's no way I can start my own business." Make a decision to not take these tales with you into 2015. Easier said than done? Maybe. But remember this: most of the tales we tell ourselves are just habitual ways of thinking. They're not as grounded in "truth" as we think they are. It may help to identify where the tales came from. Maybe it was the spelling bee you didn't win in fifth grade. Or the comment your algebra teacher made. Or the family history of negativity. Or your tendency to compare yourself to others. Whatever the origin, it may be time to question how relevant or useful they are to you today, and to change the habit.
- Identify the tales you've been telling yourself that you want to keep telling: Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. You're probably telling yourself some good tales that have been helpful on your journey and will continue to be. Take these tales with you into 2015.
- Identify the new tales you want to tell yourself in 2015: What new tales will help you on your journey this year? Go with whatever is most important to you in your life right now. Consider tales about who you are, what you're capable of, and what's possible in your career, relationships, health, and any other area that comes to mind. So, "I'm not good with numbers" can become, "More and more, I'm learning how to manage my personal (or professional) finances." Look at Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck's work around "fixed vs. growth mindset" to help spur your thinking.
- Come up with a simple plan revolving around thinking or actions or both. Here are some ideas: Keep it simple -- elaborate plans are hard to perpetuate. Write it down -- on New Year's Eve, as my niece and nephew shared what they're looking forward to in 2015, my brother encouraged them to write it on a 3x5 card and look at it every day. Put it on the calendar -- if you said, "I'm learning how to manage my finances," then put something concrete on the calendar starting this month, whether a class, a book, a conversation with a financial expert, etc. -- linking the new tale to reality. Get an accountability partner and commit to checking in with each other on some kind of regular basis. Take 30 minutes and write a new macro tale for yourself -- a picture of your life in 2015 that you read and revise as you like on a monthly basis.
How do we change? There are a lot of ways -- these are simply a few ideas. It's your tale, so the ways you choose are up to you. As you begin a new year, consider starting with the power of better tales.
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