When I was about six years old, my grandparents went on a cruise ship from Perth to Bali, Indonesia. That was back in the day when you were allowed to go on board the ship and visit when it was in port. Which is what my family planned to do. Except I was terrified of going on board. I had a story in my head that the ship would sink in port, and everyone would drown. I have no idea where I got that story from, but I absolutely believed it to be true, and there was no way I was going on board that boat. So, I waited on shore with my poor Mum, while my Dad and brother went aboard for an adventure. Clearly, they didn’t have the same story in their heads about cruise ships that I did.
Have you ever looked back at a time in your life like that? One where you now say “I can’t believe I thought like that!” Cool. You’ve since upgraded your story about how the world works to a more sophisticated one.
We all have stories about ‘the way things are’. The way things get done around here. The way that if I do X, then Y will happen. What it’s like in that foreign country. What is OK and is not OK to do around a certain person. That a ship will sink while in port if I step on board.
Stories about ‘the way things are’ can be useful. They help us short-circuit our thinking process. They provide metaphorical channels for the water of our minds to be directed along. With stories about the way things are, it can make our decision-making process easier. Robert Cialdini, in his book Influence, describes them as ‘psychological shortcuts’:
“We simply must [use psychological shortcuts], because the world is a complex place where it’s impossible for us to ponder the details of every decision we make. Thus, we use quick shortcuts, and most of the time they serve us well.”
Stories about ‘the way things are’ are a framework to help us make sense of the world. And frames, by their very nature, have limitations. Sometimes the frames we put around stories are too small to represent the real picture within it. Sometimes the story is just plain wrong. It needs some scrutiny to see if it holds water.
Here are some of the common stories about the way things are:
- “We need more certainty before we can act. Otherwise, we’ll get in trouble if we get it wrong.” (Alternate story: there’ll never be enough certainty. Let’s experiment and see what we can learn.)
- “I can’t be honest with my people about how I feel about this issue. They’ll think I’m weak.” (Alternate story: people warm to authenticity.)
- “When things get back to normal it will all be OK” (Alternate story: there is no ‘back to normal. Let’s learn to adapt.)
Whenever we’re faced with a confronting situation, often what we need to overcome is an old story about the way things are. Otherwise we limit ourselves from taking the step that will best serve the situation. If we are to continue to grow as leaders, as change makers, it’s useful to stop, examine the myth, and perhaps upgrade the story behind it.
What stories are you telling yourself about the way things are?
This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book “Change Makers. Make your mark with more impact and less drama”. For pre-orders, please contact Belinda.
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