Using stories to create a better life

I’ve been thinking a lot about storytelling recently. Stories have immense power. They are how we make sense of the world around us, and they shape how we see ourselves and others.

My dear friend and collaborator Alice Sachrajda and I have been exploring the value of storytelling in public places. Together we created Odyssey Stories: a community storytelling project that is sharing stories of identity and belonging in transport locations that people pass through every day, starting with a pilot in Oval tube station in south London. We’re launching this project in less than a fortnight, which is hugely exciting. More news on that soon.

I’m also interested in the way that we use stories to build a picture of ourselves. In my coaching practice, I frequently work with clients to explore and develop the stories they tell themselves about who they are and what they are capable of achieving.

“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.” -Patrick Rothfuss

This can be a useful practice. Yet it is also possible to get stuck as a result of stories or beliefs about ourselves that aren’t necessarily true or helpful.

I’ll give a personal example. For many years I told myself that I ‘just wasn’t creative’. I wove this story out of an art teacher at secondary school once telling me I was a ‘B grade student’, and the perception that my brother was the artistic and creative one in the family while I was more of a thinker and analyst. I didn’t stop to question this story, or wonder about the things it might be preventing me from doing.

When I was training with the Coaching School in 2017, I had a session with one of the brilliant women on my cohort. I said to her that I really wanted to become ‘a creative person’, and talked about different classes or courses I could take that would teach me how to do this. At the same time, I spoke about how much I love to dance, the ideas I had for my coaching business, and the fact that I’d started taking a little sketchbook with me when I travelled so that I could capture some of the scenes that inspired me.

I admire her self-restraint in not pointing out the total obvious – that I already had deep wells of creativity within me, and only needed to recognise and start expressing them. I didn’t need to go to art school to call myself an artist. I just needed to make art in whatever way brought me joy. Through our conversation I got to this realisation on my own, which was so liberating.

So, how can we use stories as a positive tool for personal and professional development? Here are four of the key lessons I have learned through my coaching, my research and my own journey over the past few years.

  1. Question the ‘absolute’ stories you tell about yourself. If you frequently find yourself saying things like, “I always”, “I never”, “I’m not” or “I can’t”, pause and ask yourself some questions. What are the reasons for feeling this way? Is it true that in every situation, you have always been like this or reacted in that way? Can you think of examples of a time when things were different or you saw yourself differently? Reflecting on these questions can help you to challenge assumptions that you didn’t realise you were holding about yourself, and identify whether they are helping you or holding you back. Moving from a ‘fixed mindset’ to a ‘growth mindset‘ is often the first step in unlocking change.
  2. Seek out stories that inspire you. Learning more about the people whose values and approach you admire can give insights into the changes you want to make in your own life. If you are considering making a big career or life change, who do you know who has gone through something similar and could share their story with you? I once worked with a client who was thinking about starting a family, but was concerned about how this would affect her career ambitions. In one session, she made a list of people she knew who were managing this balance in a thoughtful and inspiring way, and resolved to set up coffees with them to learn more about how they combined their professional and parental responsibilities.
  3. Imagine the story you want to be telling in the future. If there are beliefs, habits or behaviours that you would like to change, what can you do to create a different story? I sometimes ask coaching clients to imagine that they’ve time travelled a year or two into the future, and are telling me what happened to them in the period between now and then. What changes did they make? What challenges did they face? What surprised them, and what are they proud of having achieved? It’s not an easy exercise, but the act of telling the story frequently helps people to picture the future they would like to have.
  4. Commit to changing your story. There are many possible satisfying futures you could create for yourself. Our lives aren’t a predetermined straight line, and yet I work with so many clients who are worried about committing to one path or another for fear of making the ‘wrong’ choice. This can sometimes lead to feelings of overwhelm and paralysis. Yet it is possible to combat this by breaking down big fuzzy possible futures into a series of smaller and more manageable experiments. Once the first small step is taken, it enables us to gather evidence about whether this is a direction we want to be travelling in or not. Course corrections are always possible, but only if we start to move.

I went through a similar process a few years ago, and imagined a future where I was spending more time on professional and personal projects I cared about. The first action I took to make that happen was to go down to four days a week at my previously full time job, while using the other day to develop my coaching practice and Odyssey Stories. Telling that future story out loud to a coach helped me to turn it into a reality.

So, what are the stories you want to be telling in the future? And what actions can you take now to make sure they come true?