The stories we tell ourselves
The most important story you tell is between your own two ears
Looks like we’re going to smash through 50k World Builders before the end of January – thank you.
Today’s hook comes from a recent memoir. It’s the only book I remember making me cry. Hit me back with your best guess:
"I flipped through the CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious: the lungs were matted with innumerable tumors, the spine deformed, a full lobe of the liver obliterated. Cancer, widely disseminated. I was a neurosurgical resident entering my final year of training. Over the last six years, I’d examined scores of such scans, on the off chance that some procedure might benefit the patient. But this scan was different: it was my own."
Last newsletter’s answer: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
A young Steven Pressfield found himself with $20 in his pocket driving tractor-trailers in Durham, North Carolina. Steven says he was “trying not to screw up because self-sabotage was my thing.” Instead, he made a $300,000 mistake, and thought he’d lost that job too.
Pressfield wanted to be a writer. But he’d never finished anything. In his words, “I had already written one novel all the way through and then quit at the last minute.” That failure defined him for a few years.
His second novel never sold. But he finished it. And says: “I did finish it and for the rest of my life I’ve never had any trouble finishing anything.”
Pressfield published his first novel at the age of 52. Now, he’s sold over 5 million copies and published more than 10 books.
A lot of life seems to be unlocking potential we’ve convinced ourselves we lack.
Gerald Henderson was an NBA rookie for the Charlotte Bobcats. One night, he was playing the LA Lakers and Kobe Bryant. He got to the arena early. Kobe was the only person there, putting up shots hours before game time.
Something weird happened. Kobe kept missing. “There’s something wrong with the rim,” he told Henderson. “I was missing shots I don’t miss. I’m pretty sure it’s low, a quarter of an inch.”
Henderson remembers thinking along the lines of, “Right… or you’re just off today.”
Hours later, Henderson sees workers messing with the rim. He asks them what was up. They say: “Oh, someone notified us that it was a little lower than regulation, but don’t worry, we adjusted it to 10 feet.”
Kobe scored his usual 26 that night.
(Henderson told this story in The Players’ Tribune)
The most powerful story is the one between your own two ears. It can hinder you, convince you you’re a quitter. Or it can give you the confidence that it’s not your shooting, the rim at an NBA arena is simply a quarter of an inch too low.
So how do we re-shape the stories we tell ourselves?
Challenge yourself to think about the stories you tell yourself, specifically the ones that have become so hardened you think they’re unchangeable. What are those stories for you? Why did you start telling yourself them?
I guarantee you have some. They can be uncomfortable to unpack. Journals help (I can't recommend Leuchtturm1917 enough).
Growing up, I told myself tons of stories. Many stuck around. Molded me into who I am today.
I’m an introvert
I love to write
I learn quickly
Others are more negative.
I get lonely easily
I’m not a natural at sales
I don’t enjoy large groups
It’s a bit of a chicken and the egg problem. Which came first? Did your actions lead to the story, or did the story lead to the actions?
But once the story is ingrained, you have to change your actions to break the cycle.
Pressfield finished that second book, breaking the cycle. Kobe, on the other hand, believed his story so adamantly a few hundred missed shots couldn't shake his confidence.
Let's look at an example: Adults love to blame our adult-ness for being unable to learn languages.
If I wanted to flip that story on its head, here’s what I’d do. Let’s say I want to learn Japanese.
Establish the goal – become proficient in Japanese in six months
Agree to focus on Inputs, not Outputs
Break the goal into component pieces – vocabulary, grammar, conversation
Establish daily routines – study 50 flashcards on Mondays, speak to a person fluent in Japanese for 45 minutes on Tuesdays, practice 1 new verb tense on Wednesdays, etc
Flip the story in your head
Suddenly the story has gone from “I'm an adult, we can’t learn new languages” to “It may be tough, but these are the daily steps I’m taking to become proficient in Japanese in the next six months.”
Inputs > Outputs
You can’t just decide to change a story you’ve told yourself for years. You have to intentionally lay out the framework for how you are changing them, step by step.
Flipping the narrative doesn’t guarantee something good will happen. But if you let the negative story dominate, you guarantee nothing good will happen.
Cheers, have a great weekend.
What'd you think of today's newsletter?
A message from... Me!
The interest in this tweet blew me away...
One way to become a better storyteller:
Take your two favorite authors. I recommend one non-fiction and one fiction.
Copy, word for word, their best work. Do it by hand.
I chose Paul Kalanithi and Neil Gaiman.
It’s the single exercise that improved my writing the most.
— Nathan Baugh 🗺️ (@nathanbaugh27)
Jan 5, 2023
In my experience, there are two ways to get good at storytelling:
Study the greats (what this newsletter is for)
Practice, practice, practice
I do a lot of practice through StoryWork.
And so many of you liked, commented, and sent me DMs about the practice I decided to turn it into a guided course for you.
Check it out:
A few gems from the Holidays…
📜 On the individual’s ability to shape the world. “The most precious resource is agency.”
📜 Jack Butcher explores the power of names.
💎 Detailed prompts for ChatGPT.
📜 And my favorite… the miraculous turnaround of Barnes & Noble. The new CEO James Daunt’s superpower? “He loves books.”