Our Hidden Stories Drive Our Lives

Children of the Hamer Tribe

For many clients, understanding their own stories is the source of most breakthroughs.  We all carry limiting stories around with us every day.  Once my clients understand them, they can assess how well the stories are serving them, what other stories may be relevant and whether they wish to adopt a different one.

Each day our lives are filled with experiences

When I first use the word story, I have to explain what I mean.  These are the interpretations we make every moment of the day about the world around us.  Millions of things happen to us each day and the unconscious part of our brain is constantly processing what is going on and making sense of it.  Some things capture our conscious attention, typically things that we assess as important.  I ask my clients to imagine what it would be like if we didn’t have our stories to rely on.  Every moment of the day would be chaotic because we wouldn’t know what was going to happen and what we should do.

Experiencing a different world

I experienced this first hand on a trip to the tribal lands in Ethiopia a few years ago.  We left Addis Ababa and after two days driving South, we arrived in the Omo Valley region.  Our vehicle pulled into a small market town in the area occupied by The Hamer tribe.  The Hamer are a beautiful people, who wear colorful beads in their hair and animal skins.  As we entered the market area, our vehicle was surrounded by Hamer women and children.  This was a most unfamiliar scene.  I had never been face to face with so many totally unfamiliar people.

One of my colleagues asked if I wanted to get out of the vehicle and take some photographs.  I remember pausing and saying something like, “I think I’ll stay in the vehicle a while”.  I had travelled for days to be here and yet I didn’t want to get out.  What was going on?

At that time, I didn’t have a good story to interpret the scene around me.  Without it, I was hesitant, unconfident to act.  My brain felt fuzzy, uncertain about what to make of everything.  Was I in danger?  How should I react?  Should I leave the vehicle?  It was only when my friend offered to partner up, did my senses start to return to a semblance of normal.  I had a story I could trust my friend and if I followed them I would be safe and enjoy the experience.

Our hidden stories drive our lives

This was a powerful learning experience, highlighting how much I rely on and take my own stories and interpretations for granted.  Since then, I have uncovered many of my previously hidden stories.  At Intel, one particular story held a lot of influence over me.

Intel’s work environment is very dynamic and fast moving.  There was usually much more work to be done than I had time or capacity to complete.  This was stressful and yet my story was this was normal.  With the help of my coach, I noticed I had a related story that when my day at Intel wasn’t so stressful and pressure filled, something bad was about to happen.  Perhaps I had missed something.  As a result I would try to work harder and in the mistaken belief I was not doing enough, that I was slacking off.

My coach helped me create a new interpretation that I was becoming a better manager.  I had more time and was less stressed.  It took me a while to believe this, including fighting my desire to do more, and instead focus on healthy activities like planning and being a better manager to my staff.  Once I experienced this new normal, I could start creating a new story, one that was much more satisfying and successful.

Another story held me back from pursuing future career opportunities.  I believed my skills were specific and somewhat unique to Intel.  If I left, I would not be able to put them to good use and get paid well for them.  This is a story of the uncertain future and our default thinking to more seriously consider the downsides.  Now I have made the step to start my own company, I see there are as many upsides as downsides.

How are your stories driving you?

What stories do you have?  How well are they serving you and what are the alternatives?  These are very difficulty assessments to make on your own.  After all, we have become our stories.  Employing a professional and experienced coach is a great way to explore this territory and start to invent the sort of life you are seeking.