Several months ago I attended a benefit for a nonprofit organization devoted to storytelling. The Moth holds events around the country where brave souls stand at the mic—without notes—and share true stories about their lives. No matter the size of their tale, each person gets only 12 minutes, max, to speak. Storytellers must carefully select which details to share and which to shed, creating a narrative with the most impact.
We do this in everyday life, too, building a dramatic arc for ourselves based on the elements of our lives we choose to focus on and the ones we gloss over. This doesn’t just influence the story we present to the world; it shapes how we feel about ourselves.
It’s crucial to concentrate on the elements of our story that summon the emotions we want to feel. Data shows that ruminating (repeatedly dwelling on negative, painful experiences) exacerbates a negative mood, making it more difficult to take action to turn things around, and resulting in the very thing you don’t want—more negative, painful experiences!
See also: It's Your Story, So Tell It
Case in point: Several years back I had an initial consult with a woman who wanted to figure out how to reinvent her career. Every time I suggested an action she could take, I was met with a litany of misfortunes—a job loss five years ago where she had been unfairly treated, financial problems that limited her access to career advice (never mind that she was on the phone, for free, with a high-priced expert), a downed tree in her yard that was taking all her attention. She was so focused on telling her woe-is-me story, she completely missed an opportunity for help in getting her life back on track.
Don’t let this be you! If you’ve noticed that you’re telling too many sad stories, here’s a quick three-point plan to turn things around.
Quit complaining. As I explain in Law Three of my book, The 10 Laws of Career Reinvention, complaining is a form of denying personal control. Though we may not be able to impact circumstances outside ourselves—having gone through a hurricane or two here in Miami, I know there’s not much you can do when Mother Nature decides to toss a few trees around—two things we can influence are how much mental energy we expend on a situation, and the actions we take as a result. Recognize that you always have a choice, even though it may involve difficult decisions and significant effort. Once you own that power, your future is transformed.
Write a new script. At The Moth, the audience can move from tears to hysterical laughter, to shock, all within 30 minutes. Stories evoke feelings, and it is important to tell stories that make us happy. This is because our mood affects our results; studies have found that happier people are more likely to get a second job interview; happy salespeople sell more insurance; happy people are sick less often and miss less work; and happy people are less likely to lose their jobs. A great book that can help you craft a more positive script is What To Say When You Talk About Yourself by Shad Helmstetter.
See also: Building Your Own House: A Love Story
Match your actions to your words. As the Chinese proverb says: Talk doesn’t cook rice. Changing your story won’t change your life if you don’t get up from the armchair and step into the game. To test yourself, examine your actions in light of your new story and ask yourself the following: What does my mouth say I want? And when I shut my mouth, what do my actions say I want? If there’s a disconnect, you know it’s time to make a shift in your behavior.
To create those magical performances on stage, the Moth’s directors have worked with each performer to find and shape his or her story. The tips above can help you become the creative director of your own story and shape a personal narrative that will deliver your dreams.
Pamela Mitchell is founder and CEO of The Reinvention Institute and author of The Ten Laws of Career Reinvention
Photo Credits:Woman Jumping with Umbrella: Blend/Getty, Woman Jumping near Wall: Tara Moore/Stone/Getty