Tell Me, Who Are You?

iStock_000023596130Large“I woke up in a Soho doorway / A policeman knew my name…” ~ Pete Townshend ♫♬♪

If asked to give a clear statement of who you are, what would you say? Like most people, chances are what you say will depend on the circumstances. In a job interview, you’d draw on one set of details. On a date, you’ll choose others. No surprise, really. After all, we are complex beings with various abilities, beliefs, interests, values, passions, experiences, and more!

Chances are you have, and convey, various stories that express who you are. But it’s unlikely you consider yourself to be fictional. [Tweet this]

Yet, as a commenter on one of my LinkedIn posts, pointed out, Professor Bruce Hood, author of The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, argues that the self is essentially a fiction we create. Based on this, she asked, “…how do we be true to a self that’s fictional?”

She has a point.

Nonetheless, as a practical matter, I’d guess you don’t ordinarily think of your illusory self. Rather, like most people, you engage life with a sense of the essential being that separates you from others. When you think of being true to yourself, you typically mean staying aligned with your view of your unique character. [Tweet this]

Yet, based on my work on “personal brand,” I see story as critical to identity, and have long agreed with Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal, who says, “This story that I tell about myself is only based on a true story. I am in large part a figment of my own yearning imagination.”

While I believe that we can uncover, and be true to, a core sense of self, I do know that story does permeate our being.

We Live In Story

Any time you relate a personal experience, you’re telling a part of your story. [Tweet this] And even if not crafted with the skill of an expert storyteller, your story gives the listener a window into your life and a glimpse of who you are. And when those views reveal shared experiences, they foster a bond or emotional connection.

For most of us, this process is so natural as to be nearly imperceptible. We experience the benefits of stories without a whole lot of thought about the nature of story, and why stories are so deeply woven into our every day experience. In fact, the science of storytelling tells us that we are “hard-wired” for stories. So much so that they have emotional and cognitive effects that shape our beliefs and our choices.

Stories You Tell Yourself

Stories are as powerful as they are pervasive. On some level, I think virtually everyone believes this. Yet, if I were to say, “Your story is powerful,” you, like most people, might become a bit self-conscious and tend to downplay that power. But you shouldn’t.

In a compelling blog post, Seth Godin discusses the power of narrative to keep our lives consistent and predictable. He points out that making a life change that could lead to more effectiveness and success is often so risky that most people will choose to double down on their current story. In his words:

“If you went to bed as a loyal company man or an impatient entrepreneur or as the put-upon retiree or the lady who lunches, chances are you wake up that way as well. Which is certainly safe and easy and consistent and non-confusing. But is it helping?”

He goes on to say:

“The truth though, is that doing what you’ve been doing is going to get you what you’ve been getting. If the narrative is getting in the way, if the archetypes you’ve been modeling and the worldview you’ve been nursing no longer match the culture, the economy or your goals, something’s got to give.”

Put differently, your stories can fuel your success. [Tweet this]

Controlling Your Narrative

While Godin’s intent is to challenge you to change for the better, his view may seem stern. Yet, as the craft of screenwriting suggests, a narrative – any narrative – is driven by selecting, interpreting, and arranging events to lead to a specific conclusion.  Of course, not all narratives drive frustration. The stories that successful people tell themselves support behaviors that make them effective. Sometimes, following a narrative can be intuitive, and seemingly without effort. Yet, for most of us, navigating on autopilot is a choice we can ill afford. [Tweet this]

Today, in our social media driven conversational world, people seek to connect, partner, and do business with people who “get it” and therefore “get them.” And the way they determine this is via the life/career story others convey! So, controlling our narrative has become critical. It’s a process that requires both external feedback and introspection. As creative writing instructor Robert McKee points out, “Self Knowledge is key – life plus deep reflection on our reactions to life. [Italics his].”

Hey! It’s Neuroscience!

As Lisa Cron documents, in Wired for Story, there is solid brain science behind storytelling. While her book is aimed primarily at writers, it actually makes a great case for uncovering and telling your story.

Of course, referencing neuroscience brings us back to Bruce Hood, who in a Wired interview, says, we are “…a complex system of evolved functions.” I agree. Yet, he also makes points that seem to me to support a stable identity over time. He says,

Our consciousness of the self in the here and now is the “I” and most of the time, we experience this as being an integrated and coherent individual – a bit like the character in the story. The self which we tell others about, is autobiographical or the “me” which again is a coherent account of who we think we are based on past experiences, current events and aspirations for the future.

Ultimately, we are who we tell ourselves we are. And it’s fair to say our sense of identity arises in story. [Tweet this]

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