We all have a story. It’s what we tell ourselves that gives us our identity, our place in the world. It summarizes who we are and what our capabilities and limitations are. We start writing this story when we’re very young, and it becomes an ingrained part of our self-talk. But when you peel away the layers, most of our stories involve at least as much fancy as fact—whether they’re about ourselves or the world around us.
I had lunch with a friend last week to discuss a strategic five-year plan for his business. He announced to me that business was going so well that he didn’t see any sense in making more money. Not exactly a viewpoint conducive to the purpose of our meeting.
What, I wondered, could his story be telling him about money? Why wasn’t he interested in financial success? I asked him to tell me more, and the building blocks of the story came pouring out:
• His dad was blue-collar. His dad couldn’t break out, and he’s just like him.
• His mom called him the laziest person she ever knew, and lazy people can’t make a lot of money.
• People like him don’t get the breaks.
• He doesn’t need it anyway. House payments are covered, and the car’s running fine.
• He’s in his 40s, so it’s a long time to retirement.
• Rich people cheat to get their money.
So it was a combination of things. First, he was comfortable at this level, felt he belonged there, and didn’t believe that he deserved anything more. And second, he felt that money, and people who made too much of it, were in some way immoral. (That’s a good Knower/Judger rule.) Understand that these were concepts that my friend believed and told himself all the time, to feel safe.
Once we’d put these ideas on paper, I asked him to doubt his story, just for a moment—to put a chink in that armor of belief he had, to see opportunities and reasons to exercise them.
Did he know anybody similar to himself who was a financial success? Why, yes he did. As a matter of fact, his cousin was raised in a far less functional family than his with no possibility of furthering his education and was now the most successful auto dealer in his hometown.
And what did that cousin do with his success? He funded medical missions in Guatemala.
Could my friend think of a similar cause that might be a good use of additional income? Actually, his sister ran a non-profit with the mission of seeing at-risk kids get through high school.
Until he exercised some healthy skepticism about his story, he wasn’t in the right frame of mind to plan, much less execute, an effective strategy for his business. Doubting his internal list of limitations started him on a journey of thinking about what he could do rather than what he couldn’t. And as Henry Ford said, “If you think you can or you can’t, you’re probably right.”
On a broader stage, the recent conflagration in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson lends itself to this exercise as well. Everybody’s got a story about Ferguson.
“Mike Brown (the 18-year-old shot dead by a Ferguson police officer) was a 300-pounder and unruly.”
“The cop was trigger-happy.”
The only straight fact—unfiltered by the media, social and otherwise—that we have at the time of this writing is that an 18-year-old was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer. Everything else is a story we have built about how this happened. We can tell ourselves we know what happened. That’s like telling ourselves that “money is the root of all evil.” At best, it’s a belief based on inadequate data. At worst, it will drive us to violence and further mayhem.
When a person in K/J mode enters a debate with someone else in K/J mode, resolution is almost impossible unless one party acknowledges doubt and opens his or her mind and heart to some new data. In extreme cases, the situation can escalate until violence occurs and eventually someone dies. The Ferguson scenario consists of platoons of K/Js challenging mobs of K/Js. It ain’t pretty. A little doubt from all sides about what we know right now might be productive.
So what’s your story? And is it time to stop sticking to it?