Shift Your Story
Buzz Aldrin was the Apollo Lunar Module pilot on the Apollo 11 mission. He stepped down onto the dusty surface of the moon just a few seconds after Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon and utter those historic words, “One small step for man.” But what should have been an incredible, positive experience for Aldrin nearly ruined his life. During the three-week quarantine then required of astronauts upon returning from space, Aldrin immediately began an alcohol bender that didn’t end for over nine years. His marriage of twentyone years quickly decayed and ended, and his prestigious military career concluded on bad terms. At his lowest point, he was working at a Cadillac dealership in Beverly Hills and didn’t make a single sale in six months. One night, Aldrin was drunk and his girlfriend locked him out of her house. In his rage, he pounded her door down and broke into her home. Terrified and in shock, she called the police. Aldrin was arrested. How did this all happen? How could someone as successful and brilliant as Buzz Aldrin experience such a negative shift? Aldrin himself gave the answer in his 2009 autobiography, Magnificent Desolation: “The transition from ‘astronaut preparing to accomplish the next big thing’ to ‘astronaut telling about the last big thing’ did not come easily to me. . . . What does a man do for an encore?” During the return flight from the moon, Aldrin became absorbed in negative thinking and emotions. Staring down at Earth, he lost his imagination. Nothing could top what he had just done. His future was over. I will never outlive this, he thought. He had peaked at thirty-nine years old. Such thinking terrified him, so he tried to drink away his pain. Compare Buzz Aldrin’s story with that of basketball player Giannis Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo grew up poor in Greece. He and his brother actually had to share the single pair of basketball shoes their family could afford. His brother would wear the shoes during the early game and Antetokounmpo would wear the same shoes during the late game. Antetokounmpo recently signed a major deal with Nike, and now his signature shoes are being worn by tens of thousands of kids throughout the world. During the 2018–2019 season, he was awarded the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award. In an interview, ESPN commentator Rachel Nichols asked Antetokounmpo if it had sunk in that he was the MVP. “I’m really happy about it, I’m not going to lie,” he said. “But I don’t ever want to hear about it again for the rest of my life. It’s a great accomplishment and great honor. But, you know, that’s in the past now.” “Wait, you mean you don’t ever want to hear the words ‘MVP’ again?” Nichols asked, surprised. “No, I think it’s gotten too much. Usually, when you share that, you tend to relax. If I keep thinking, ‘I’m the MVP of this league,’ then what’s going to happen? I’m just going to relax. And I do not want to do that. I’m proud of it. But let’s go for the next goal.” Antetokounmpo is defined by his goals, not his previous accomplishments or failures. He’s defined by what he’s going to do next. He’s chasing his future self, and that’s why he’s continually successful. According to Dan Sullivan, the founder of Strategic Coach, when your “status” becomes more important than your “growth,” you usually stop growing. However, when growth is your genuine motive, then you usually end up getting lots of status. But you won’t be attached to it. And you’ll definitely be willing to destroy a former status to create a new one. As Sullivan says, “Always make your future bigger than your past.” If you’re honest with yourself, you may find that you are primarily motivated by a particular status. Once you obtain that status — such as a particular job title, income level, or relationship — your motivation shifts from approach-oriented to avoid-oriented. Rather than approaching a new and expansive future self, your primary concern becomes to maintain or protect your current status or identity by avoiding failure. You’ll stop being courageous. You’ll plateau, and the energy and zest that was your growing personality fizzles out into something far less inspiring. Without a future self that has outgrown and outdone your current self, life starts to lose its meaning. Condoleezza Rice served as the sixty-sixth US secretary of state. She was also the first female African American secretary of state and the second female secretary of state. She has continually defied the odds throughout her life and career. One of the reasons she’s been so successful and innovative is due to a philosophy she holds. In her own words, “I firmly believe you should never spend any of your time being the ‘former’ anything.” The idea that you should “never be the ‘former’ anything” conveys in one phrase the entire premise of this book. Whether you were an astronaut or a drug addict, you should never be the former anything. Both trauma and achievement can have a powerful impact on your personality. But whichever you experience, you should never get stuck in the past, nor let your past define you. Your authentic self is your future self. Who you aspire to be. For so long, Buzz Aldrin’s “mission” was to stand on the moon. It was the purpose or goal he built his identity, choices, and environment around. But then he got stuck in his status after “fulfilling his purpose.” From his perspective, there was no way he was going to outdo his former self, so he threw in the towel on his future. Without a meaningful purpose, his life went into a tailspin. Aldrin, someone whose goals and imagination pushed him to the moon, went totally blank on his future self. Giannis Antetokounmpo took the opposite path. Within weeks of being named MVP, he emotionally detached from the status and put his focus on the next goal. This doesn’t mean he isn’t happy or grateful. What it means is that he hasn’t become emotionally attached to an outcome or an identity. His vision of himself remains in the future, not the past. And as a result, while others around him will plateau, he will not. He continues living, rather than existing. For the rest of this article, you’ll learn why we formulate narratives and stories to shape the meaning of our experiences. You’ll learn to reframe your narrative to be future-focused — on who you intend to be — as Giannis and others, like Elon Musk, do. This is a rare skill, and part of why they are so successful. With these new skills in place, you’ll be challenged to reframe your narrative so that your past isn’t keeping you stuck but pushing you forward. Your past is happening for you, not to you. After reading this article, you’ll be challenged to have your future self be the story you tell others in explaining yourself, not your former self. Who are you? Creating “Meaning” Through Stories Recently, my wife and oldest son, Kaleb, who is eleven, were out walking our two seven-month-old twin girls. Kaleb was manning the stroller. They were on a country road with lots of shrubbery and ditches on either side of the road. I needed to chat with Lauren before leaving for work, so I drove around to find them. I pulled up beside Lauren, and we began talking. Kaleb stood by listening. The rocky road we were on was slightly slanted downward on the edges. Within about twenty seconds of starting the conversation, I noticed the stroller beginning to drift toward a ditch. I yelled for Kaleb to grab it! He did his best, but the momentum was too much. He was getting pulled down into the ditch with the girls. Immediately, Zorah was crying, as she had fallen out of her stroller seat. She wasn’t strapped in. Phoebe was strapped in and stayed in her seat. Luckily, the fall wasn’t bad. Zorah was fine, just scared. But Kaleb was noticeably shaken by the experience. He was crying, staring at the ground, and not making eye contact even after a few prods. I could see that in the midst of his emotions, he was defining the meaning of this experience. And given that his emotions were negative, the meaning he was forming was also negative. I didn’t want this for Kaleb. I wanted to help him regulate his emotions and become psychologically flexible. I wanted him to proactively and healthily frame this experience, not for it to absorb him. Meaning is shaped during emotional experiences. According to the famed psychologist Dr. Roy Baumeister, meaning is a mental representation of relationships between events or things. “Meaning connects things,” Baumeister explains. Dr. Crystal Park, an expert on the psychology of meaning and meaning-making, argues that human beings create meaning from our experiences by connecting three things: First, we define the cause of the event or experience. (“What just happened?”) Second, we link that cause with our own identity. (“What does this experience say about me?”) Finally, we link that cause and our identity with the bigger picture of how the world and universe work. (“What does this experience and who I am say about the world?”) Creating meaning is fundamental to who we are and who we become. Our personality, in large part, is based on the meaning we’ve placed on former experiences. It’s based on the meaning we give to various goals or values. It’s based on what we focus on. Our personality is even based on the meaning we place on small things, like humor or music or style or interests. Creating meaning is something we do instinctively. But it has a dark side. If we are not intentional about the meanings we form, we can generate a premature cognitive commitment about ourselves. I’m a bad person. I’m an introvert. I’m never going to live my dreams. I’m not good with people. I don’t like people like her. Meaning-making can, if you’re not intentional, lead to a fixed mindset. Trauma, for instance, isn’t the event itself but a meaning you take or create from it. Something terrible happened, but what made it traumatic was in your interpretation. Take, for example, Sean Stephenson, a giant of a man born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a bone disorder that left him three feet tall and in a wheelchair from birth. Stephenson’s perspective was, and his last words before dying were, “This happened for me, not to me.” He had fallen out of his wheelchair, hit his head, and was in a great deal of pain. Moments before drifting to the other side, those were his words. That was his interpretation, not only of the incident that killed him but of his entire life, as potentially traumatic as it was or could have been. Trauma is the meaning you give to an event or experience, and how that meaning shapes your view of yourself, your future, and the world at large. The meaning you formed during former “traumas” is now driving your personality, your choices, and your goals. Until you change that meaning. Think about it for a second: Why do you define yourself the way you do? Why are you the way you are? Why do you like or dislike certain things? Why are your pursuing what you’re pursuing? It all comes down to the meaning you’ve shaped of your former experiences, as well as the identity you’ve formed as a result. The meaning we derive from our experiences and the information we gather shapes our worldview. It’s important to note that as people, we usually shape meaning first about ourselves, and then use our self-image as the lens through which we view the world. As Dr. Stephen Covey said, “We see the world, not as it is, but as we are.” If you have a negative view of yourself, then you probably have a negative view of the world. If you have a positive view of yourself, then you probably have a positive view of the world. The world is viewed through the lens of your identity. You only see, or selectively attend to, what is meaningful and relevant to you. This is why Andre Norman stopped seeing all the criminal behavior around him in prison after Harvard became his purpose and identity. It’s also why Aldrin stopped seeing opportunities for growth once he got trapped in the status of his former self. Your view of the world says more about you than it does about the world. Your view of the past says more about you than it does about the past. Consequently, you should formulate meaning based on your desired future self. This requires being intentional about your interpretation of your experiences, even your hard ones. How would my future self respond to this experience? What would they think about it? What would they do about it? How could they turn this to their benefit? This is happening for me, not to me. Kaleb, in the heat of his emotions, was formulating meaning to understand his experience of letting go of the stroller. Although nothing bad happened to the girls, it had the potential to be traumatic for Kaleb and leave lasting harm. As part of the meaningmaking process, Kaleb’s thoughts and feelings likely went through the three stages of meaning-making: (1) defining a cause, (2) shaping his own identity, and (3) shaping his view of the world through his identity. Examples of cause-effect thoughts could include: Was it my fault the stroller began rolling because I wasn’t holding on to it? Why wasn’t I holding on to it? Was this Dad’s fault because he stopped Mom’s and my walk? Why was Dad distracting us from our walk? Was this because we were walking on a country road? Why did Mom want us to walk so much? I just wanted to stay back at camp. Examples of identity-forming thoughts based on his cause-effect thinking include: I don’t like being with my parents. I’m not a good brother. I don’t like going on walks with Mom. I’m not going to do stuff like this anymore. My baby sisters are too fragile and not fun. After thinking about the event and himself, Kaleb creates “global meaning” about the bigger picture of life. Examples may include: Going on walks is dangerous. The world is dangerous. Life is horrible. Dad always ruins things. This meaning-making process all takes only a moment in the brain. More than thoughts, these cause-and-effect scenarios reflect Kaleb’s initial emotional reaction to the event. Without the skill of emotional regulation, which takes time and practice, and without the help of an empathetic witness to help him proactively and healthily frame his experiences, despite his initial reaction, he may reactively and negatively create meaning from this experience. Human beings are fundamentally meaning-making machines. We create meaning in order to comprehend our lives. When you understand this fact, you start to see it everywhere. We create meaning even in the smallest and most mundane of experiences, which have an impact on our identity and worldview. Every small experience counts. For example, I was on a long drive recently, and out of nowhere, I had to go to the bathroom really bad. It took about five minutes to find an exit. During those five minutes, I had several thoughts racing through my head. This is ridiculous. This sucks. Why is this happening to me? Then I began to notice my thinking and became intentional about it, which is a key technique of what psychologists call emotional regulation. As you become more intentional about your life, you start to see small moments like this as “practice,” or “reps,” for being who you want to be. If you can’t handle the small moments when the stakes are low, you won’t show up effectively in the big ones. Life is practice. When regulating challenging emotions, you can define the meaning of your experiences intentionally. This is the exact opposite of how people often handle their emotions and the meaning-making process. Most thoughts are governed by emotions, particularly in emotionally heated situations. Those thoughts are reactive and unintentional, but go on to become the long-term meaning and narrative held by the person. Instead, your thoughts, or, more specifically, your goals, should govern your emotions, even when the initial emotions triggered by the experience are difficult. The better you get at emotional regulation in both small and big experiences, the more psychologically flexible you become. As you become more psychologically flexible, your emotions and experiences stop defining you in a reactive way. You’re enabled to move forward in a goal-directed and value-centered way, holding your initial emotions and thoughts loosely and becoming better at directing your emotions and thoughts. The first step of emotional regulation is identifying and labeling your emotions as you’re experiencing them (the more descriptive the better). You can’t manage something you’re not aware of. The second step of emotional regulation is understanding the difference between primary emotions and secondary emotions. Primary emotions are your initial reactions to external events. You shouldn’t judge them. They are natural reactions to things around us. For example, being sad when a loved one dies, or being frustrated in traffic, are natural initial responses. A secondary emotion is when you feel something about the feeling itself. For example, you may feel anger about being hurt, or shame about your anxiety. Secondary emotions increase the intensity of your reactions and can push you into destructive behaviors. Hence, part of becoming psychologically flexible is holding your initial reaction loosely — not taking it too seriously or overly identifying with it, but acknowledging it, labeling it, and then deciding how you want to interpret and feel about the experience. The third step of emotional regulation is letting go of negative emotions. Accepting and acknowledging that you’re feeling negative is key to letting the feeling go, rather than pretending you’re not feeling it. You then want to step back from the emotion and consider the consequences of acting on it. Usually, the consequences aren’t in line with the values and goals of your future self. People often make stupid decisions because they act based on their emotions in the moment, rather than on the consequences that will come after. For example, binge-eating cookies while stressed may initially feel good but will ultimately create negative consequences. It is the consequences you want to think about, because they will determine your feelings in the long term. The consequences are what create your future self. Given that Kaleb is only eleven years old, he isn’t yet adept at emotional regulation. Lauren and I are trying to help him foster his ability to not bottle things up, but rather to safely and openly express himself. Expressing emotions openly and honestly is key to emotional regulation and becoming psychologically flexible. The better you get at expressing emotions, the better you’ll handle them and positively respond to them. Kaleb needed an empathetic witness. The last thing he needed in this moment of emotion was a lecture. We told him that he did his best to help the girls, and that everything was okay. We let him hold and comfort Zorah, and praised him for being a comfort to her. “Accidents happen,” we said. We helped him express his emotions, and we decided as a family what to do about the experience. We turned the meaning of the experience into something positive and constructive rather than negative. Fundamental to the meaning-making process is developing stories. We understand the meaning of our experiences through stories. We understand our identity through stories. We have stories for our lives, for specific events, even for a given day. The more intentional you get about your life, the more you become the author of the story. You shape the meaning of your past. You also shape the meaning of current and future experiences in order to have the story you want for your past. Rather than telling the story of Kaleb’s blunder, we chose to tell the story of his heroic rescue. As the wizard teaches in the musical Wicked, “Is one a crusader or ruthless invader? It’s all in which label is able to persist.” We moved past the primary emotions of fear and failure and took the narrative into our own hands. How much of your current narrative is based on primary emotions, your initial reaction to various events or experiences? What is the meaning you continue to give to previous events that no longer serve the story you wish to tell about yourself? What is the story of “you”? Who are you? Why are you the person you are? These are questions we will explore throughout the article. As you will find, you can and should be the one shaping this story.