The Stories We Tell Ourselves About Work

I have a reputation in my immediate family as a “good story teller.” When my husband and younger son describe me that way they really mean that they think I have exaggerated the tale beyond all recognition and am bordering on being an out and out liar!  My older son shares this particular skill with me and, like me, sees it as a means to keep a conversation from lagging.  But, make no mistake;  the stories I tell are absolutely true and reflect the way I look at the world.  And there lies the rub: the way I look at the world is, by definition, unique and my creation.   Mary Catherine Bateson, noted anthropologist and daughter of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, talks about how we are all “Composing a Life” or engaged in creating the narratives that give our lives coherence and definition.

Psychologist Dan McAdams, professor and Chair of the Psychology Department at Northwestern, has written extensively about “narrative identity,” a way that individuals integrate their remembered past, the present and their imagined future into a story that gives life unity and a sense of purpose.  And, like a real story, it has characters, plots, themes and a beginning, middle and an end.

Obviously our stories are personal and idiosyncratic but themes emerge as a function of our “narrative choices.”  People who believe their lives are meaningful tend to tell stories that emphasize growth, communication and their own agency.  Others tell what McAdams calls “contamination” stories, where their lives go from good to bad.

A few years ago a friend of mine went for a job interview for a very senior position and was a finalist.  The last round interview was with the CEO and he told her to be prepared to come in and talk about herself – starting with her earliest memory!  I was fascinated and asked if I could follow up with him, which he graciously allowed me to do after the job was filled.  He explained that candidates who got to him were clearly qualified.  They had already been through behavioral interviews and skills testing and had their backgrounds checked.  He was looking for that indescribable “fit” and the only real way to get at that was to induce people to be their true selves, to tell their story.

What do these concepts mean for work?  For me, the most significant aspect is that these are, indeed, stories.  We, the creator and the teller of the story, make the meaning.  When I started working at The Times the head of my department was a woman who was the same age as I was.  I really liked her and I was envious.  The story I told myself was that I came to my work life with many disadvantages that I would never overcome.  I came from a family where no one went to college, no one thought I should go to graduate school, I had problems at home, blah, blah, blah.  I told myself that, if I didn’t have those problems, I could be as good as she was.  My experiences forced me to look at the stories I was telling myself about who I was and what I could do.  My narrative changed. Instead of seeing those early experiences as my albatross I started seeing them as challenges that helped me develop discipline, focus and direction.

Our stories help us define ourselves and give shape to our trajectory.  We are better leaders when we know ourselves and that includes our values, feelings, strengths and weaknesses.  By bringing our stories into our awareness and examining the labels we use we can change the story and sometimes change the way we live our lives.

How would work be different if you changed your story?


“We tell ourselves stories in order to live. … We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely… by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria — which is our actual experience.”  Joan Didion

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Jay A. Mattlin says:

    Wise and true. A corollary to these observations is that events in one’s life that don’t fit into one’s ongoing narrative are especially disturbing and disorienting. But I suppose a measure of success is how well one can adapt one’s narrative to fit those events into it?

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