Storytelling for Career Success
- by Bruce Kasanoff
How changing the narratives you tell yourself can help you take control of your professional path.
One of the key lessons I learned at Wharton is that nearly all of us underestimate the control we have over our careers. At times, nearly everyone feels stuck in the middle—even CEOs, who perceive they must answer to investors, their board, regulators, the media, and others in the face of employees pushing back and often not performing as expected.
I’d like to suggest that the first step towards taking greater control of your future is to pay more attention to the stories you tell yourself.
In case you are wondering, “What stories?,” let’s start at the beginning.
You have a stream of stories running through your head, and they reveal your beliefs, perceptions, self-perceptions, and biases. Some of these stories are so ingrained that you don’t even realize they exist, and you won’t notice them unless you take the time to step away from daily distractions and look inside your own mind.
For example, you may profess to be both confident and capable, while deep inside you may think you are good, but not as good as your rival for that next big promotion. Or maybe you believe that your boss consistently seeks to undermine you. That’s what one of my friends believed for years, until her coach suggested she take a week and write down any moments she witnessed her boss being supportive of her. At the end of the week, she had numerous examples and realized she had been so busy telling herself he was unsupportive that she became incapable of recognizing that, in fact, the opposite was true.
Amy Blaschka and I recently published a short book called “I Am,” comprised of dozens of prompts that all start with “I am…” The idea is that you pick a prompt and run with it, unleashing your imagination for a few moments, or longer. Our goal isn’t to convince you to be positive or confident or imaginative or creative, although those are all possible results. Instead, we simply want you to experiment a bit and gain some insight regarding what’s spinning around in your head.
Early reader feedback has been incredible, but one response was especially insightful. Jared Karol wrote, “As I jotted down notes on every page [of your book], I realized how much the theme of possibility permeated my deeply held values––empathy, vulnerability, equanimity, inclusion, connection––so much so that a thought occurred to me: possibility, itself, is a value.”
Consider those last five words carefully: Possibility, itself, is a value.
Is it among your values to tell yourself stories that bring out your best, and that do the same for others? Or do you all but ignore the programming that runs in your head, not really paying attention to whether it discourages you, frustrates others, or generally causes you to miss opportunities?
The possibility of achievement, success, abundance, and improvement surrounds you, but none of these may be obvious. In fact, many may be disguised as “problems” or “intractable roadblocks.”
I can’t prove this—yet—but my perception is that the people who accomplish the most are consistently telling themselves stories rich with positive possibilities. When times get tough and obstacles loom large, their instinct is to pump up the volume on these stories until they surmount the challenges that confront them.
Two professionals, armed with similar skills and faced with similar challenges, can produce dramatically different results. Many argue this is the product of different levels of effort or grit. But if you peer beneath the surface, I suspect you’ll discover that the stories you tell yourself largely determine whether you have grit, tenacity, or the power to persevere.
Stories have power, and nowhere do they have greater power than when you play them inside your head. Choose wisely.