Ever realize that you’ve been telling yourself a story for years that’s not actually true?
There are stories about your actions:
- “I’ll go through that box of old notebooks someday”
- “I’ll get around to learning Chinese when I have a bit more free time”
Those hurt, but there’s a deeper type of story we tell ourselves: Stories about who we are. Things like:
- “I’m such an intellectual that most people are boring to talk to”
- “I’m a shy person who can’t be around groups for too long”
- “I’m the type of person who could do anything if I really cared, but most things just aren’t important enough”
Breaking the pattern
These stories are at the heart of how we see ourselves in the world. They set your expectations, and they help you rationalize when things don’t go your way.
Our brains are so good at forming patterns that we get trapped in negative loops. We think the same set of thoughts for so long that they get ingrained.
The only way to break out is to question your assumptions:
- “Am I really that much shyer than everyone else? Is that really why I don’t like to be around people for very long?”
- “Am I really so much smarter? Do I really find conversations boring because other people are simply less interesting than I am?”
Let’s explore that in more detail.
(And by the way, I’m Michael, nice to meet you! This is my first ever blog post, but I put up a quick About Me page if you’d like to know a bit more before continuing. Thanks for reading.)
Lessons from Forefront 2017
Ramit has written a lot about “invisible scripts” (some people call these “limiting beliefs” or “false narratives”) — they’re the little voices in your head that hold you back. In his keynote this year, Ramit took that concept to the next level: rewriting the story of your life.
He talked about four ways to experience a football game:
- Read about it afterward in the paper
- Watch it live on TV
- Watch it in person from the field
- Be an actual player in the game
The question is: What’s keeping you on the couch and preventing you from joining the game?
Rewriting your story
Think about something big that you’ve always wanted to do. Now, why haven’t you done it yet? What story do you tell yourself that’s been holding you back? Is it that you’re not qualified? Too lazy? No free time?
Once you’ve figured out your old story, think about how you can rewrite it.
After the conference, I wrote down every story I could think of that’s been holding me back. Once I got going, I found myself coming up with things that rarely even cross my conscious mind. But I was able to find them by brainstorming what I want in life and then ruthlessly asking myself why I haven’t achieved those goals yet.
What’s keeping you on the couch and preventing you from joining the game?
In a second, I’ll share the stories I came up with (I’ve already made good progress on some of them over the past year, and others I’m just beginning to work on). As you read through them, notice how I don’t hold any punches — the only way this will be valuable is if you’re honest with yourself. If you feel like a story is only surface-level, ask yourself “why” a few more times. For example:
- I often feel lonely and low-energy
- Because I sit around at home more often than I should, and I start to feel bad when I’m alone too long
- One reason is that after a stressful day at work, I feel like I deserve a break, so I should just take it easy at home
Bam — that became the first story on my list.
My top 10 stories to change
1. When I’m feeling stressed, it’s best for me to relax alone at home
Old Story (the false one I’ve been telling myself):
Technically, I’m an extrovert, meaning I recharge energy by being around people.
But as far as extroverts go, I’m a very “introverted” one, so I need a lot of alone time too. That’s why it’s perfectly reasonable for me to relax alone at home after a long day at work.
After all, I don’t want to stress myself out even more by having to make plans.
New Story (the more accurate one I need to internalize):
I’m an ambivert (introvert + extrovert), but I lean extrovert most of the time. Being around people is a huge part of how I recharge.
More importantly, I need to be around people even when it doesn’t consciously feel like that’s what I want.
I might feel like I should just stay at home alone, but most of the time that feeling is borne out of laziness or fear, not what I really need. The truth is: the times when I’m feeling stressed and low energy are when I most need to get out there and be around people.
(Side note: I used the word “ambivert” up there, and you might think that sounds a bit like a “woo-woo” word, especially if you’re a believer in Myers-Briggs and its strict definition of introversion/extroversion. I used to feel that way too, so at some point I’ll write about why I changed my mind. The short answer is that it’s a question of precision—I want to use the right word to differentiate my mild extroversion from the much stronger kind I’ve seen in some other extroverts.)
I’d been a loner for a long time, so that’s what my unconscious brain was used to. It was trying to be helpful by telling me that staying home would be relaxing.
But it was confused, and that’s been a key lesson for me: that my brain can be wrong.
It seems obvious since our brains sabotage us all the time — you want to get in shape, but your brain makes you feel like the gym is too much work.
This felt different though. It felt logical that staying home was safer. One reason is because of another story I’d always told myself: “Most people are boring, and I’ll have more fun at home reading a book I know I like or exploring a stimulating discussion on Reddit or Quora.”
That in itself is a big topic that deserves its own post in the future. But one simple truth is that I just wasn’t putting enough effort into most conversations. It’s up to both people to make a conversation interesting, and more often than not I wasn’t asking good enough questions.
That meant the conversation turned out boring, I resigned myself to not having fun, and I had yet another piece of “proof” that I should just stay home in the future.
A key lesson for me was that my brain can be wrong. It tells me what it’s used to, not necessarily what’s best for me.
Bottom line: If you’ve been telling yourself the same false story for years, it’s going to take a while to retrain your brain.
Along the way, it’s up to your conscious mind to keep correcting the more primitive, unconscious part that’s following old patterns behind the scenes. Over time, you’ll ingrain your new preferences and train it to give you more accurate advice.
But this isn’t a perfect science. Sometimes our primitive brains just want to do what’s easiest, not necessarily best for us. And that’s when it’s up to our conscious minds to stay vigilant and issue an override when necessary.
2. Thinking is better than feeling
I respect logical, rational thought. Big “feelers” and “hippie-dippie” people are inferior since they make decisions based on emotions and “gut feelings,” which can be easily influenced by a range of cognitive biases (e.g., the confirmation bias, the gambler’s fallacy, the bandwagon effect).
Yes, I usually prefer to make decisions using logic, but my gut is often right too (and it’s gotten even more reliable as I’ve given it more of a chance lately).
Making decisions based on your values or feelings isn’t inferior — it’s just not something I’m as used to. In fact, I never would have guessed, but some of the “hippie-dippie” people I’ve met over the past few months have made me feel amazingly at home with their authenticity and positive energy. I just had to give them a chance. (This was much harder than it sounds, so I’ll write more about that in the future.)
Ever find yourself thinking that you’re better than another type of person? Stop yourself right there and dive deep into that belief.
Examine it in detail. Can you look at it from several points of view? Could there be other explanations for the “evidence” you see to support your claim?
For example, I got caught up in the “woo woo” words that some people use like “chakras” and “third eye.” I automatically passed judgment on someone who would talk about those things with a straight face. But when I asked one of those people to explain exactly what he meant by that, it turned out to be a lot more reasonable than I would have thought — more like a metaphor.
We all see the world through our own frames. For some people, it’s just more natural to label phenomena with different words than you’re used to.
But that doesn’t make it worse (unless you have solid proof that it consistently leads them to make poor decisions that make them unhappy).
3. Being an entrepreneur is too dangerous
I need to stick with a stable, safe career.
Two big reasons:
- Entrepreneurs have to work crazy hours. I don’t want to lose the work-life balance that I’ve carefully built at my corporate job over the last few years.
- I’m an extrovert, so I’d get lonely if I had to work alone at home instead of being around a team at work.
Following a traditional path is not who I am.
That’s one reason I haven’t been as happy as I’d like over the past few years.
As for my two reasons:
- The truth is, I’ve been able to keep such a good work-life balance in part because I’m not driven to stay late at work. I want to go home because I’d prefer to spend time on my side projects. (This gets complicated though, because balance is important even if you love what you’re doing, so I’ll aim to do a whole post on this topic at some point. The important thing for now is to keep an eye on your direction of growth. It’s natural for different aspects of your life to attract your attention over time. So where do you feel your energy leaning lately?)
- Entrepreneurs are my tribe—people with a similar worldview who I feel connected to and at home with. I won’t be as lonely if I work in co-working spaces and see those kinds of people regularly at meetups and other events. I’ve been working hard the past year on connecting to a community of people, so now’s the time to put that to use and try a different workstyle. In any case, I won’t know if it works for me until I give it a try.
There’s always a middle path. Sure, I don’t want to become an entrepreneur workaholic that gives up health and sleep. But I also shouldn’t be terrified of trying a potentially more exciting and fulfilling lifestyle simply because balance and health are important to me too.
4. Other coaches seem much more legit than me
I can’t really be a top coach.
- I haven’t gone through an extensive training program. The lack of official certification doesn’t bother me at all. But I worry that without learning formal techniques I might stumble or freeze up and not know what to say during a coaching session.
- I’m too analytical, and I’m not empathetic enough. Other coaches seem so warm and in touch with feelings.
- I don’t have the powerful social charisma I’ve felt from other coaches (I’ve met “real” coaches who exude positive energy and a caring attitude. Like they so badly want to help you with your problems. In contrast, I’m more chill and distant and don’t care like they do).
- Most of coaching is actually just listening, asking good questions, and knowing where to push and challenge someone. All of which I can do well. Plus, I may not have received any kind of formal certification, but I’ve been coaching in the high-stakes corporate world for years, and I’ve been coaching my friends and family for my entire adult life. As for training, I’ve been self-taught for virtually every job I’ve ever had, yet I’ve been lucky enough to have quite a successful career.
- I’ve actually succeeded in becoming a lot more empathetic since I started working on it a few years ago. I’ve been getting more in touch with my feelings in general, and one concrete example is how much more often I’ve cried during emotional movies lately.
- I don’t want to be like every other coach anyway. And my ideal type of client will appreciate my unique “laid back, logical thinker” style of coaching. I might have been less confident socially in the past with lack of practice, but I’ve worked hard on that skill and improved substantially. In fact, people have frequently complimented me lately on my charisma and told me that I’m very approachable. I used to feel like I had to force positive social interactions by preparing questions and techniques in advance, but it just comes naturally to me now (though I still have a lot more room for improvement!).
Talk about your fears to someone who’s actually done what you want to do. After explaining my worries to successful coaches at a few conferences now, they’ve assured me that I have nothing to worry about — they would never have thought twice about my social charisma if I hadn’t brought it up, and my corporate experience is more than enough “training” for being a great personal coach.
5. I need the perfect idea before I can start
I don’t have a good enough idea for a business.
Or, I have too many vague ideas but nothing specific enough.
I have indeed struggled with finding the right idea in the past, so that story has become ingrained in my mind.
But I’ve been making a lot of progress over the past few months, and I actually have several solid ideas now to explore further.
One trick was reframing it for myself from “finding my big idea that I’ll be known for” to “finding a few ideas to test and see what works.”
Sometimes it’s just a matter of asking the same questions over and over again in different contexts. Despite the endless “find your passion” exercises I went through, I’d been struggling for years to land on something that felt right.
I kept at it though, and I started to realize that it was less about which brainstorming techniques I used and more about where I did the brainstorming.
Context is critical. You’re going to get very different results if you brainstorm at home, or from a tent in the mountains, or at a conference with hundreds of like-minded people right after an inspiring speech.
At Forefront earlier this month, it felt like puzzle pieces that had been drifting around in my mind finally connected.
Boom, I had three ideas.
But don’t get me wrong: it wasn’t miraculous. The pieces had been there before, just more softly defined. And that day they finally came into focus.
It was during Paula Rizzo and Terri Trespicio’s session on how to sell yourself to a producer for a TV appearance. TV isn’t something I’m particularly interested in at the moment, but I was taken in by their advice around personal branding. They talked about narrowing yourself down from “person who can do A and also B, C, and D” to “the X person.”
I’ve always defined myself as a multidisciplinary generalist, but they’re right: at the end of the day, most people are going to be coming to you for one area of expertise, not all of them. And it was by following that line of questioning that I reached my ideas.
Context is critical. You’re going to get very different results if you brainstorm at home, or from a tent in the mountains, or at a conference with hundreds of like-minded people right after an inspiring speech.
Sometimes you can’t force it. For something as major as deciding on a career or business, you might have to try a variety of techniques over months or years before things really click into place.
The trick is to try it again and again in different situations and in different moods. You might just need the right combination of variables before the answer will hit you.
6. My mission now is to do good in the world, not to make money
In the past, I was very focused on achievement: I wanted to be promoted at work. To be given important projects to lead. To make more money than my friends.
But I’ve matured since then.
I’m perfectly fine with my current lifestyle — I make good money and I’ve been lucky enough to travel all over. I have a different focus now: I want to do good in the world. To make a real difference.
I’m focused on helping people, not on reaching for even more success in the business world.
(To be clear, I have nothing at all against becoming wealthier. My internal story is not “I don’t deserve to make more money” or “Being rich is inherently wrong.” Instead, it’s “Wealth was more of a driving force for me earlier in life, but now I’m more concerned with helping other people and improving the world.”)
Why not aim high in all senses, both in terms of wealth and impact? If I did well enough, I could have a condo in Portland as my home base but then travel around and work from anywhere. Many of Ramit’s students and Tim Ferriss’ followers have done it, so why couldn’t I?
Passive income and location independence would open more doors for me and allow me to help people in different ways. Being able to forego a day job would allow me to focus my energy on improving the world in the ways I feel are most important.
The other thing is that I’ve always strongly identified with entrepreneurs, and this would be an exciting journey and a great learning opportunity. It just feels like the right thing to move toward right now.
Simply making a lot of money shouldn’t be your driving force, but it can be a perfectly fine side benefit as you move toward your real goal.
The truth is that this is a dangerous juncture for me. Because I’ve achieved so many of my goals in the corporate world, I’ve been able to move on to more existential goals like defining my purpose in life and trying to figure out how I can make a positive difference in the world.
But now, as I’m beginning to take steps along an alternative business path, I need to be very careful not to regress and obsess over money, status, and a desire to beat other entrepreneurs. I worked hard over the past few years to achieve a more existentially mature mindset, and I have to make sure that the new lifestyle I work toward remains in line with that.
7. Thinking about a difficult goal is fine, but actually starting is overwhelming
Taking action on starting a business is just too intimidating — I don’t know where to begin.
I heard at Forefront how Paula Rizzo and many others were able to achieve great success by exactly following Ramit’s ZTL (Zero to Launch) program, so why wouldn’t it work for me too? (note: I have no affiliation with Ramit. I’m simply mentioning him a lot because I just came back from his conference and I’m describing the stories that have been on my mind.)
Plus, I’ve been lucky enough to meet a lot of awesome entrepreneurs over the past year, and I’m hoping they’ll be able to help me if I get stuck.
It’s one of the most nefarious excuses that appears after I’ve dealt with so many other roadblocks along the way: I finally come up with a good idea, I finally find the inspiration to energize myself to action… and then it all comes crashing down when I don’t know the right action step to take.
The truth is that I just had to start. No more overthinking everything. I can fix the color scheme later. SEO doesn’t have to be perfect on day one.
To start this blog, my usual approach would have been to open 50 tabs and read a dozen articles comparing all the popular blogging platforms (not to mention themes and plugins).
Instead, I just picked WordPress since it’s common, easy, and good enough to get started.
Because the real action step was to start writing.
8. I’m already focusing on some important goals; I can’t add even more
I’ve been very intentional over the past year about setting some core non-business goals for myself — things like building real community, getting enough sleep, and finding fulfillment.
I don’t want to get overwhelmed, so I can’t add even more right now. If I seriously try to get into entrepreneurship, it will detract from the important goals I’ve been working on.
Those other goals are very important. And I’ve been working on them long enough now that they probably won’t fall apart if I explore something new at the same time. (That piece is a nuanced topic, so I’ll aim to write a full post on it at some point.)
The bottom line is that this is something I’ve been thinking about for years, and one thing I know about myself is this: My excitement for a topic tends to move up and down like a wave.
I was inspired by the conference and this feels important to me. While I’m still energized, I need to seize the opportunity and take some concrete steps.
Like creating this blog.
I believe there’s a way to work on all those goals at once. Going down the entrepreneurial path should also help me build community and find fulfillment. And the type of person who runs a successful business also tends to have good systems in place for other aspects of their life. So spending more time with the entrepreneur community might actually inspire me to make progress on my other goals too.
Stop to examine your excuses.
Instead of thinking about your goals in terms of “either/or,” is there any way to do a “both/and” to take on the new challenge without ruining the existing habits you’ve built up? Can you keep up the foundational elements of your existing system and take some baby steps along another path?
9. I’m just going to run out of motivation anyway
It’s always the same: I attend an awesome conference, I feel inspired for a while, then I lose motivation fast. It feels predictable but unstoppable. My energy for that topic just fades away, then it doesn’t seem important or approachable anymore.
It doesn’t matter how inspired I feel now because I know that I’ll be losing interest over the next week or so. Then I’ll have to wait until the next conference to power up again.
Four responses to that:
- That’s why I changed my approach for this conference. Instead of coming home with a huge list of todos, I narrowed it down to a much smaller list that felt more manageable. (I’ve found that this is key, so I’ll aim to write a full post on this topic.)
- I’m in the process of scheduling a mastermind group for accountability — to keep me on track even when my energy begins to fade.
- I’m actually starting this time. Even if it’s only a first step, I’ve already done something concrete by creating this blog. Hopefully seeing real people read this will add more inspiration to keep me going.
- Like I said earlier, as much as my brain gets confused here, I’m an extrovert. I need to keep putting myself out there at conferences, events, meetups, and video chats to help me recharge more regularly.
The critical first step is to identify where things fall apart for you. Do you keep having the same problem over and over again? Figure out what’s causing it. In my case, one thing I noticed was that I’d always come back from conferences with huge todo lists. They made me feel overwhelmed and stuck.
Once you see your problem, put new systems in place to get ahead of it before it happens again. In my case, I ruthlessly cut down that todo list on the plane home.
It might be impossible for me to fix my energy issue entirely. But each time I have an opportunity like this conference, I aim to learn more, adjust my systems, and start from an even more solid place next time.
10. I don’t want it as much as “real” entrepreneurs do
I’m not like those successful entrepreneurs I meet at conferences like Forefront.
For me, entrepreneurship is just another interest I’m dabbling in. But I change hobbies and projects all the time when I get bored.
Not them. They’re laser-focused on what they’re doing. They want it badly and they’ll do whatever it takes to achieve their goals. They don’t get bored because they’re truly passionate about the business they’re building.
I am an entrepreneur at heart, and I always have been. I’ve been unhappy because I haven’t truly acknowledged that fact, and I’ve tried to stick with a corporate career for too long. At every company I’ve ever worked for, I’ve tried to upset the status quo and move beyond the way things have always been done. I’ve been the one to ask for forgiveness rather than permission and to design hacks and systems to be more efficient.
I do want it as much as the “real” entrepreneurs do, and I know this because of how unfulfilled I’ve felt for the past few years. I thought of it first as a “quarter-life crisis,” then as mild depression. But it’s just been a feeling deep down that I haven’t been on the right path.
Now’s my chance to correct that.
All those other entrepreneurs who seem so perfect tested a lot of ideas before finding their winners. I can’t compare my struggles at the beginning of the path to where they are much farther down it.
In the past, I’d heard that quote, “the master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.” But it never really sunk in with me until I started hearing that message time and time again from real entrepreneurs in person.
Last point: It’s easy for me to casually make the excuse that my interests change all the time, but that’s not entirely true. Sure, I really like learning new things, and it’s important for me to change up my routines so I don’t get bored and feel stuck.
But the truth is that I’ve been passionate about things like self-improvement, personality typing, and authentic communication for many years, so I’m unlikely to lose interest in those topics anytime soon.
One of the most persistent problems I’ve identified in myself is that I keep comparing my inner world to the outer projections of other people.
It’s what led to my FOMO (fear of missing out) on Facebook, and it’s what makes me feel like I’m not as happy as other people. Even though I’ve read endless articles about this phenomenon and I logically know that it’s happening, it’s a very, very hard habit to shake.
But it’s so important to get right, so I have to keep practicing. I need to stop at every opportunity to truly check my assumptions — is this person really happier than I am? Are they really as in control as they seem? Do they really have it all together?
I have to remind myself that even I put on a happy face sometimes when I’m hurting inside. That experts make it look easy because they’ve practiced and failed over and over again. That I’m only seeing the final product, not all the drafts and pivots it took to get there.
That I’m doing just fine.
Thanks so much for reading!
Now that I’ve broken down all these stories for myself, I’d be interested in diving into each one in more detail in the future. This first blog post was an experiment, but if it turns out well then you can expect more from me on these kinds of topics!
I’d love to hear from you in the comments. What resonated with you most? What’s your #1 story you’d like to change?