Storytelling for Career Success

How changing the narratives you tell yourself can help you take control of your professional path.

(Photo: Getty Images)


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.





  • Tom Asacker

    I appreciate the sentiment behind the words, but stories themselves ARE the problem:

  • b4christopher

    Tom, you are not on the wavelength of Kasanoff. Perhaps stories can be a problem if we are inventing stories that are not true. Is that what you mean? Or perhaps you mean that people can be too caught up in themselves and their own life stories — grossly egocentric. If so, I agree with you that this is a horrific epidemic in America and largely responsible for sexual confusion in our youth. But Bruce’s thesis is tried and true. It has been said many times, such as in “The Power of Positive Thinking” by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. Toastmasters taught me early this positive talk before speaking — and it works. Actually, I personally used this method way back in the 4th grade to bolster my confidence in a new school. Stories can even be more powerful when we share them with others by focusing on what is good, what is possible, in ourselves and especially in others. As the bible says in Philippians 4:8, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about these things.”

  • properthwacking

    I think you’re completely mincing words and mixing up the message. The author here talks about building a narrative of positivity and possibility, and it is a great message, that only can be undermined if one is a self doubter and throws up more roadblocks. This is a constant struggle with people I’ve worked with in the past, and breaking them out of the damaging cycle of “I can’t” and “nobody told us” and preaching self-empowerment is the key to their success.

    Nowhere is it ever implied that we should lie to ourselves or others, as you are insinuating he said.

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