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Why the stories you tell yourself decide your success

I’m just as obsessed with “leverage” as the next entrepreneur.

We all want to work smart, not hard. Pareto principal and all that. You get it.

My job is to apply leverage principals to therapy and personal development. If there are high leverage business actions that yield disproportionately huge and awesome results, then what are the magic switches of the mind?

I spend my time answering such questions, so you don’t have to.

Imagine a single psychological lever you can hit that’ll result in a rapid and radical transformation. One thing that causes everything to change.

It doesn’t matter if it’s Productivity, Sales Activity, Marketing know-how, Leadership or Financial habits. It could be your health, your relationships… anything!

This article will give you the single psychotherapeutic concept that I believe comes closest to being a magic bullet. You can use it to transform any part of yourself, to dramatically optimize your behavioral habits – and results – as a business owner.

It’s a 1800 word, 9 minute (average) read, so buckle up. It’s gonna be worth it.

The magical Jedi powers of Narrative

Stories. They’re super important. In fact, they’re the ultimate levers of the brain and the key to unlocking fast and lasting behavior change. Here’s why:

The collaborative works of Robert Dilts and Gregory Bateson suggest an elegant model for understanding what drives real behavior change in humans. The former is a renowned author and leader in the NLP world, the later a renowned linguist, social scientist and cyberneticist. These cats know what’s up.

The 20% you need to know to get 80% of the results? These gentlemen figured out that if you want to create real growth in humans – not just the cathartic illusion of it – then you have to make change happen at the right level of this psychological hierarchy:

Environment -> Behavior -> Capabilities -> Beliefs -> Identity

If you want to change something in your life, you must to go to the level above the place you’re having a problem.

Meditate on that a second.

Transformation happens when you figure out how to move the mental levers further up the hierarchy than where your problems are.

Let me respectfully spoon feed you – here-comes-the-airplane style – some insights right here:

  1. Changing things in your external environment is basically never going to do much. 
  2. Changing things at the level of your identity is going to change everything. 

 Your identity is the magic bullet you’ve been looking for

If you want to understand how identity works, who better to turn to than Mr Joseph Campbell – Mythologist genius and all-round psychology/philosophy/literature hero.

Campbell’s contribution to psychology is legendary. Not only was he massively influenced by Freud, Jung and Maslow – his “Function of Myth” model is now a lens through which all serious therapists view their work.

The 20% you need to know is this: The stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves and our place in (and relationship with) the world, are the psychological “stuff” our identity is made out of.

Campbell suggests that the narrative arc a person faces as they go through life – consisting of overcoming many challenges – can have both it’s trajectory improved and it’s progression accelerated.

The secret is improving both the narratives (stories) you tell yourself internally and those you relate to externally.

Your identity story is your own epic saga. Quite literally the tale of who you are and where you are going. It’s the way you make meaning out of the ocean of chaos we call life.

Stories are the subatomic particles of the self. They are the keys to changing everything.

How to instantly identify toxic narratives 

First, as with most self development and therapy, radical honesty is a huge shortcut.

Start getting very real with yourself, about the stories you’re telling yourself. Here’s a huge hint: They are also the stories you tell others to explain yourself.

Especially pay attention to when, regardless of topic, you receive a gratifying rush of positive emotion when your audience empathizes with your story. Narratives that evoke positive feelings when others “get it” represent the absolute bleeding edge of story-based identity creation.

When you tell someone a tale about who you are, why you’re doing X or why X is happening to you and they really get it, you’re unconsciously seeking validation. You’re testing out a new component of identity you’d like to adopt and your listener is giving you a big ol’ thumbs up.

The problem with this? Even if that particular narrative is a limiting explanation for why you can’t achieve what you want. Toxic stories will still elicit positive emotions when people “get” you.

The classic example is the entrepreneur “busyness” story. We sit down with friends over coffee/dinner to spin tales of our epic busyness – winning empathetic oooh’s and ahhh’s. Even though busyness isn’t a very useful story to be building around your identity, it feels GREAT when people *get* it right?

Don’t worry, figuring this out is perfect. There is zero shame in this sharing of busted narrative – you are a social animal and the construction of your psychological stories is a social process by design.

You’re in the right place.

How to transform your identity narratives to revolutionize your life

Step 1: Pick out a goal you really desire but you’ve struggled to attain. 

By definition, this will be a goal that your psychological narrative simply isn’t supporting the achievement of. Your identity doesn’t include being the person who makes this thing happen.

That’s about to change.

Step 2: Get Objective about your terrible story. 

Your mission is to identify the story you’re telling yourself around this goal. If you’ve picked an area where you’re well and truly stuck, your story will undoubtably revolve around a detailed rationalization – your reasoning for struggling, delaying and failing to achieve results.

Finding the story is easy – you’re already telling it all the time. Once you’ve got it, take a step back and look at your past experiences as objectively as possible. Separate the story from what actually happened.

Narrative Therapists (yes, it’s a thing) suggest roleplaying the “investigative reporter” – making it your job to seek objective truths about your “character’s” past.

Step 3: Pick a totally new story that presupposes you’ll soon achieve your goal. 

You don’t need to change anything about your past. You only need to change your perception of it – the things you’ve learned, the way you see it.

The idea here is to reframe your past experiences – the real ones that objectively “happened”, NOT your BS interpretation of them – as contributing towards a new and improved narrative.

Transmute past challenges into valuable “training experiences” for your central character. Transfer present obstacles into heroic trials – or “creative constraints” – designed to test and hone the capabilities the hero possesses. Identify trigger points in your recent past that could serve as “realization” moments – causing your perception to shift. Hell, use this article as one of them!

Create a story of challenge overcome in the face of adversity. Make this day, today, precisely where a hero of old would be in the middle of the tale. 

Confused? Let me tell you a story that’ll create some clarity… 

Here’s a very personal example to give this all context. It’s health (not business) related, and I use it because of it universally relate-able.

For the last two years, I’ve been telling myself (and others) a story about how moving to the United States has messed with my health. The story has had quite a lot of practice, to get polished and compelling: 

I moved to New York, arguably the culinary capital of the world, and spent months with the mentality of a tourist. I drank deeply of the opportunities surrounding me. A lot of them included eating delicious and unhealthy food. 

The story shifts from being a tourist to being a busy entrepreneur. Networking, meetings and late night work sessions resulted in bars, restaurants and ordering delivery. 

And of course, it’s the US-of-A… so it’s partly the COUNTRY’S fault for making such unhealthy food so delicious and accessible.  

Long story short, I put on 21 pounds in a totally understandable and – this is essential – relatable way. People who I told my story to nodded and oooh’ed with empathy. 

Then I decided to shift my story

With the goal of being in incredible shape and seriously athletic, I decided to place myself squarely in the middle of a new narrative. It goes something like this:

“Slighty nerdy kid who never had to worry about what he eats… realizes the hard way that age changes things… and that the only person responsible for his body is him… grows up and discovers a newfound passion for health and athleticism. Combines physical performance with entrepreneurial values for ultimate results in life and business.”

Like I said, I placed myself squarely in the middle of this narrative. I’m not even close to the end of the story yet. This happened a month ago. So far I’m down 10 pounds. I’ve exercised 25 days out of the last 30. I’ve made serious commitments (some financial) to getting to the happy end of this story.

What is the biggest, most sudden behavior change I’ve literally ever implemented… really hasn’t been that difficult.

Because when narrative shifts, everything flows.  

The key here is that I transmuted things that actually happened in the past into essential learning experiences. I allowed my character (me) a “pivotal realization moment” which turns all the mistakes of the past into useful intelligence that’ll inform the future. I turned the very real obstacles I face today into creative constraints to be overcome for fun.

Now it’s your turn…

The first thing you’re going to notice after reading this article is the stories other people tell you. You’ll hear some huge, seriously toxic tales that enable folks to continue their destructive behaviors.

Ignore it. Don’t get self righteous. You can’t change them, but you can work on you.

Pick a goal you’re struggling with. Identify your (shitty) story and get objective about what really happened. Then design a new narrative.

Your new story will redefine your sense of self – quite literally who you are. When this happens, your beliefs – about what is possible, for example – will transform. Your capabilities will rapidly improve. Your behavior will permanently shift. Your environment itself will start to change.

Make yourself the hero in the story we all know in our bones. The one we all admire and aspire to – where the hero (you) overcomes adversity and supersedes past challenges in the quest for constant improvement.

Wealth, health and growth – whatever you want – can be yours, far easier than you’ve ever thought possible. You just need to be the main character in a story where that good stuff happens.


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  1. I think you nailed the reason why behavior changes actually stick. In Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit he calls the 20% ‘keystone habits’. These are actually habits like working out that change our identity and not simply our top layer behavior. It needs to be an identity change or it won’t stick, there just isn’t enough motivation.

    Another, way behavior actually changes is through finding the why. Like you pointed out in the post it becomes attached with your identity and not just a process change. ‘Why’ I am doing something is basing it on your identity as opposed to simply changing a behavior.

    Thanks and great post!

    1. Hey Tony!

      Exactly. This is one reason why, for example, successful smoking cessation tends to happen when the ex-smoker becomes seriously self righteous about the habit. They’re building a new identity around being a “violent non smoker” and while it’s unpleasant for their old friends… it just works.

      Obviously this principal works everywhere else too.

  2. This is just what I needed to read today. There are several areas in which I have been trying to move forward in… thus, several stories that I tell myself. Perhaps that’s part of my difficulty. Perhaps I need to create one story that supports multiple endeavors.

    Sounds like I have some work to do! Thank you.

    1. Hey Dora,

      Glad the article hit the spot! I definitely think that we’re playing with the “big guns” of psychological change now … so it makes sense to attempt one identity-centric change at a time.

  3. After a few years of struggling along with my business, I took a j.o.b. After the 90 day probationary period, I found myself back at home, realizing that running my own (successful) business is really what I want.

    So, I took a hard look at my story. The one I was telling myself, and the one I share with other people. It has some big, ugly holes in it. I’ve been thinking about how to mend those holes, but your story telling approach is much better. I’m going to rewrite the whole story, right now, complete with a happy ending.

    You were right – it was well worth the time it took to read this post!

    1. Hello Dava, I’d love to hear your new story after you’ve written it, if you feel comfortable sharing it.

      I think it is a conflict many of us experience, “own business vs job — or should-I-do-both?”

    2. Hey Dava!

      Let me know how it goes. This definitely sounds like it’s an appropriate place to use this technique. A happy ending is great, but make sure you craft a narrative where the journey itself is a happy, rewarding (but of course challenging) place. BEcause you’re right now in the middle of it. You just don’t know it yet 😉

  4. Outstanding… made me sad/scared for a moment, and also remember writing my eulogy of what my wife/children/friends would say about me when I die. That’s another way that compliments this reframe when I really want to get real with who I want to be and how I want to live my life. My eulogy/reframe for my life path is nothing like the stories I hear running in my head.

    Amazing to see how much time and energy goes into the shitty stories vs my eulogy of spine and heart. My eulogy script of being a lover touches/moves me, whereas my “shitty stories” want to tear me down and hurt me and are based in shame and punishment.

    Thanks for a great article Peter!

    1. Hey Brian!

      This comment is my favorite. You so eloquently expressed something I was struggling to get at:
      “My eulogy/reframe for my life path is nothing like the stories I hear running in my head.” <----- THIS. THIS RIGHT HERE. Nailed it.

  5. Wow, this is life changing stuff. Makes me think about the limiting stories I tell myself all the time. Here’s my question, once we have our new story, what should we do with it? Read it to ourselves daily? Tell others? Or is just the fact that we’ve reframed it in our own mind enough? Thank you Peter for your thought-provoking work.

    1. Hey Dori!

      Welcome to the community btw! Great question.

      I think that reframing it and acting “as if” .. it’s true… is important. There has to be action. By all means tell others, but also realize that that’s not the point. Nor is writing it btw – KNOWING it is. And having your day to day actions reflect that knowledge.

      Most importantly of all: Starting looking for evidence that your new story is TRUE. You’ll quickly find it.

  6. This is GREAT!

    This explains the importance of reframing in a convincing light.

    I’ve always been amazed by some friends ability to turn anything that happens to them in a negative light (e.g. a quiet room is full of people who are ignoring them)

    Not only that, but they draw back from any potential situation that *might* have a negative effect.

    Hell, I’m fine with going through difficult (but necessary) situations, because I know that they make me stronger at the end.

    1. Hey Daryl! Thank you! Glad you dig it.

      Reframing. Exactly.

      I remember hearing a great story: A pair of twins go to a party together – one has the night of their life and the other is miserable. Same party, different frame.

      Sounds like you have a certain spartan endurance quality baked into your personality. It’ll serve you well.

  7. Been thinking that my whole life, call it a third-party-self-perspective…. time for a Part II…… get rid of the negative people in your life, especially the closer ones, they can be downright parasitic to your self-progression.

    1. Hmmm…. this is interesting. I don’t actually believe in cathartically stripping away everyone the moment you perceive them as “negative”. At the idealistic extreme – which is where I’m inclined to take any idea, to test it – that’s a pretty horrible way to live .

      Still, you have an interesting point.

      1. A random thought came to me this morning, valid or not, that there are three reasons people fail at their entrepreneurial endeavors. The first is the stories we tell to ourselves and others (as you mention above). They’re designed to protect the ego. The second is beating up of one’s self (also an ego problem). So, there we have two ego problems. and for what its worth, I’ve struggled with both. And finally, not everyone is capable of or qualified to do whatever they want. That last one is at the bottom of the list, but I think it needs to be there.

        How does that quote go?… “Peter, you’ve made me think. And for a Q, that is a very special gift indeed.” (just kidding)

  8. Yes, I have been wondering about my story. Often my story is negative and it elicits many ahs. But it is time to make a new story since I am pretty much at the bottom. How do you go about making a positive affirmation such as yours? It seemed like it got to the root of the problem and then has been successful. Just yesterday, I said I was going to walk everyday and I walked yesterday and not today. Why do I do that? In the meantime, I will work on a new story. Can you give more guidelines?

    1. Hey Diana,

      You’re headed in the right direction – a new story is a great method you can use to self-help-ify yourself out of this situation. Make sure you have clear outcomes in mind, besides just practices (like the walking) you want to commit to. Have a WHY – know your purpose.

      Let me know how it goes.

  9. Ack. I think I have stories within stories. Is it possible to have nesting stories? Like nesting dolls? Peel off one and find another?

    This is really helpful. I just discovered an obvious story I didn’t even know I was carrying around. Time to change that one.

  10. What is a good story for moving away from feeling very burdened by making sales/cold calls to making it something you feel great about, becoming a sales rock star, and reaching your goals of acquiring more customers …

    I’ve had a broken process for months now that has put me in a depressed stagnant state.

  11. Peter,

    I just discovered you and your site today and I’ve been browsing through some of your articles. I absolutely love this one. It resonates deeply with me as an aspiring writer who is currently working on developing the application of narrative and storytelling into nonfiction writing.

    I was also already familiar with the concept of personal narratives going into reading. However, this post really dialed me in as to how big of a role they play in every aspect of our lives. Beyond that, the big takeaway for me here is the perspective that we are the author of our own stories, and as such we are allowed to rewrite them as we see fit. I’ve always viewed inner narratives as something that are so deeply conditioned that they could only be changed by arduous reconditioning. I am extremely excited to play with the idea of being able to consciously rewrite my narratives.

    The author side of me is already toying with the idea of writing short stories with a caricature of myself as the main character in order to explicitly illustrate my narratives and then rewrite them!

    Thanks for sharing this!

  12. Thank you for this great post. It is an area that I have been personally exploring. Our stories are the mythopoiesis of the soul, and you make this point with reference to Joseph Campbell, My Hero in this area.
    Change at the level of your identity are the levers we need to discover for change to take place, and stay. We first need to be ready to change and have the objectivity of self-discovery an make the internal change. You are now on my feedly detector.
    I discovered your post via and posted with comment:
    I wish you a Happy 2014, full of self-discovery and valuable content on your site.

  13. Good read. I kind of figured this out myself just recently and therefor I googled if someone had had similar thoughts, then found this.

    I’ve been struggling with lack of motivation, energy and self discipline, even though I’ve known what I should do and that I could do it if I just could keep my energy up and have my emotions working with me. Every now and then it seemed I had energy for a few days, weeks or maybe a month and a half, but then again and again I’ve lost my ways, turned lethargic and almost ruined my whole life plans because of it. And it all seems to be psychical.

    I started meditating on it and figured it might have something to do with ego/self identity. Emotions are what push us to action and our ego or self identity adjusts our emotional state based on our interactions with our environment. When people meditate; observe their internal dialogue and emotions like they’re above them and just let them pass, they don’t feel need to act upon them. That’s detachment from our egos. I’ve often read all kinds of philosophy of mind things about how ego is our enemy and how we should try to destroy it to feel happy, but I don’t see how just feeling happy ourselves would be some kind of cure it all.

    If emotions are what push us forwards, and living in the moment disregarding our egos bypasses our emotions, doesn’t destroying our ego take our ambitions and drive to achieve and be productive away too. By such meditation we can get rid of feeling fear and anxiety, pretty much anything but feel of content. But then we also get nothing done in real life. I don’t see how it differs from doing drugs to make you feel happy yourself, but let everything around you fall apart yourself included.

    I figured that instead of killing ego I’d try to rebuild it to make me the kind of person I want to be. I started working with my self identity and the stories I tell to myself about who I am.

    I try to be careful in the way I build my ego, because it can go badly too. If f.e. you want to be a great lover or intelligent and just tell yourself that you are those things even when you’re not, you’re overinflating your ego and end up interacting badly with your environment.

    Instead you should try to be objective about what you already are and can do, and then growth mindset to it to truly become what you want to be. If you want to be fit it’s probably safe to tell yourself that you’re kind of person who likes to and enjoys exercise, takes care of his health and always wants to keep improving. When that becomes part of your identity that leads to you becoming healthy and fit.

    At this stage I’m still figuring out what kind of things to tell myself. From your article I gathered that whole stories are probably more effective than just facts. Instead of just saying to yourself that you’re punctual or you’re the kind of person who always tries to be punctual and values people who are never late, it probably even more effective if you tell yourself a whole story why you’re like that or try to be like that, and why you value it.

    So far I’m in very early stages of rebuilding my self identity, but for me too it has started with getting physically in shape, getting hold of my diet, exercises, emotions, some toxic social relationship etc. Making things part of my identity so far seems to give me all the energy and determination I need. Hopefully for good this time.

  14. Peter – I happened upon your site by chance today and have so far read about 20 of your blog posts while taking notes on all of them in EverNote (I have another 13 posts queued up still). I just wanted to say that your perspective strikes me as EXTREMELY unique, highly actionable, and has provoked more thoughts in me today than any other author I’ve come across this year. THANK YOU so much for this website – it is a truly golden resource and I’m so grateful to be able to learn from you.

  15. You answered my questions perfectly, almost as if I had asked you in person.

    This was just the blog post I needed to read.

    Over the past few days, I’ve noticed that I need to start telling myself better stories, but I was not sure where to start, so I did a Google search and found your website.

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