Marlon Brando’s (Terry Malloy’s) impassioned conversation with his brother in the 1954 movie On The Waterfront tells the whole story.
Malloy’s narrative on his own life at that point set his limits. He’d been a prizefighter, managed by his brother and some shady boxing impresarios to throw fights for quick money. While actually a fairly talented athlete, the quick money was always what he was expected to win… by losing.
Malloy’s Knower/Judger understanding of himself and his life (what I’ve termed his “narrative”) guided his every move, predicted his every reaction, and restricted his growth beyond the limits it set.
Our place of birth, our family structure, and various socioeconomic factors like where we live, play a huge role in writing our “narratives.” By the time our K/J rules are scripted, I believe many parts of our lives are rather predictable. We know the pecking order in our family. We know how our families will form. We know how to get what we want and even if we can get what we want. We have a structured picture of acceptable and unacceptable, of right and wrong.
Malloy, for example, saw himself as subordinating to his older brother Charley, who ran his boxing career. He obviously wanted more. After all, in retrospect he clearly felt he “coulda been a contender.” But at critical moments he stayed within the narrative written for him… and lost his opportunity.
I’ve wrapped myself in narratives that I can see have held me back from doing or accomplishing things I wanted to in my limited time on this planet. For example, my narrative placed me firmly in the category of fat—usually 45 to 60 pounds over what our national health standards suggest I should weigh (although I may have been just too short for my weight). It was “just who I am,” and for 40 to 50 years, even with repeated efforts to change things, I was never a contender for healthiest weight.
Then getting older started to look me in the face. “Now or never” I heard myself lecture. And, to be honest, I tend to rebel against my own lecturing! But somehow by looking at decreasing days on my calendar, I thought about data that told me rationally that I could live more days if I was lighter, more flexible, more aerobically fit.
Some of you may remember six to seven years ago when I ran my first 5K and face-planted in the middle of Market Avenue in St. Louis, trying to keep up with a guy 40 years my junior and 7 inches taller with legs to match. The lesson there was “run your own race.”
Four years ago my St. Louis son-in-law threw out a challenge to me to join him in a half marathon. Yeah, that’s 13½ miles. So I started running… and running… and running… 5 miles… then 7… then 10… and, weeks before the big day, 11 and 12.
And I was still fat—way over 200 pounds. Could I be a contender? (—for simply finding the finish line before the sag wagon picked me up?)
Every fiber of my narrative was telling me, “Kim, this isn’t you. You’re an intellectual. You sit and write blogs. You coach other people. You’re not a long-distance runner.
Do you ever hear speeches like that from your narrative?
Well, I finished the freakin’ half marathon. And then rationally surmised how much easier it would be if I weighed 40 pounds less. Could I be a contender with that, too?
A year and a half ago I committed to reducing carbohydrates to under 30 grams per day, ran another half last October, took a minute per mile off my time, and I’m under 170 pounds: the lowest I’ve weighed since high school.
My blood pressure is down. My cholesterol is down. My resting pulse is down.
Am I going to live longer? I don’t know. I could die in a rally car. But I am a contender for living longer.
I coach people whose narratives are actively resisting their ability to contend… in leadership, entrepreneurialism, career paths, relationships, and all sorts of dreams and aspirations.
I don’t consider myself a “motivational” coach. I can’t make anybody “want” to accomplish anything. It’s my considered opinion, though, that without clarifying what one WANTS (purposely uppercase) to contend for, the narrative always wins.
I urge all of you to address your narrative and challenge it rationally… and move on.
Don’t get to the end like Malloy and be telling yourself you coulda been a contender.