Rewrite Your Story to Change Your Path
How the story you tell about yourself affects your career and life
Picture this: You are fired from a job when a new leader comes in and brings their own team with them. This is an objective fact. The decision has been made, and there’s no reversing it. The next sentence you say to yourself determines the next decade of your life. That sentence might be:
“Being fired is making me question my worth and want to find a job that proves my old company made a mistake.”
“Being fired has freed me up to explore new opportunities untethered to my commitment to my old company.”
These are both natural reactions to the event. The question is which story you choose to tell yourself.
You get to be the victim or beneficiary of your own history. How you look at your experiences matters as much as, if not more than, the experience itself. When you look back at your life and your history, do you look back with anger? Indifference? Grace? While the facts of your story are the same, the way you frame them can change everything about how you live moving forward.
What story are you telling yourself?
I spent my childhood being bullied for being different. Growing up as one of the few Asian American kids in a small southern town meant constantly being told I didn't belong. People on the streets called us slurs and told us to go back to where we came from. Classmates taunted me for eating weird foods. People prank called us constantly, egged our house, and even broke our car windows.
Having to grow up feeling so “othered” in my own community fostered anger, frustration, and resentment in me. I let that become the story of my life. I used that anger and alienation as the motivation to fuel my success.
One day over a decade ago, a married couple from Bible Study prayed for us, and they drew what they saw in us. Inside of a card they gave us was a crude image of me pushing people away, saying “I will show you.” It was a reflection of the hurt and anger I had carried with me for so long.
I didn’t take their message to heart immediately; rather, I let it sit for years in the back of my mind. The thing was that the anger was hard to leave behind. It was how I pushed myself to succeed. To “show them” was my way of proving—to myself and to others—that I was more than that scared little girl being bullied for being different. What I didn’t realize was that, in doing so, I was allowing that to be the dominant narrative of my life. Frustration turned into my impetus to achieve, but paradoxically, it was holding me back even as it propelled me forward. Rather than coming to terms with my past, I was letting it define my future.
The negative experiences of my past could have broken me. But one day I realized that they were what made me who I am today—both the good and the bad. I had turned the bad into a positive force, but there came a point when that force was starting to become destructive on its own. It had outlived its usefulness, but I continued to hold onto it.
What are you allowing yourself to believe?
The stories we tell ourselves internally manifest as the stories we tell about ourselves to others through our actions. I saw power in turning victimhood into vindication, so I took it and ran with it. I believed that I had overcome my past and triumphed over my feelings of anger, when actually I had just transformed the same anger into something different, something that was both powerful and corrosive. I allowed myself to believe that I was on a journey to proving my worth through success. I was defensive and closed off. I struggled to connect with people. The narrative I had built around myself had turned me into a difficult person to get to know and work with. I was constantly trying to prove something to everyone, and in the end, it only ended up hurting me more.
No matter how hard you try to hide it, your inner dialog has a way of showing up in your actions and the ways you interact with those around you. We each tell ourselves stories about who we are, and what we say about ourselves says a lot about the ways we appear to those around us. If you were fired from a job, allowing yourself to feel free afterward gives you a sense of opportunity and optimism. On the other hand, feeling that you need to prove something can make you combative and abrasive. Each of these narratives shows up in how you connect with other people and with your job. You carry with you the scars and experiences of your past, and only you can decide what they mean. They will show through your actions, whether you intend for them to or not.
How do you rewrite your story?
It occurred to me that I have written this newsletter for over a year, but I have not yet shared why I named this blog - Perspectives. The reason is that I have spent my life trying to put my experiences into perspective. I’ve realized that even though there is an objective truth about what happened, the way we look at the past affects us: both how we feel about it and how we carry it into the future. Your story is not fixed, and neither are the ways it reflects in your actions. You don’t get to change the events of your past, but you do get to craft the narrative of how you experience them.
Sheryl once pulled me aside after a meeting to tell me, “You can stop fighting now. You’ve won.” I was taken aback. That was the moment I saw that the thing that had once given me so much purpose had become a hindrance to my success. I had spent years trying to defy my past, not understanding that in so many ways, I am who I am today because of all the things that happened, not in spite of them. I realized I needed to come to terms with those negative experiences to continue to grow.
During an interview with CNBC, I talked about how profound those words were in changing my career.
If you ever find yourself being weighed down by a past event or time in your life, try this exercise. It can be a useful tool to help you gain perspective and reframe the narrative to be constructive—not destructive. (I write because that is how I process the past and give context to my experience, but you can also think these questions through without writing them down if you prefer.)
Write out your narrative. What events or periods have made you who you are today?
What is the narrative you’ve created around these events? What story do you tell yourself about who you are, what you do, and what motivates you?
How does that narrative affect the way you present yourself? What about it impacts your day-to-day life?
If you could change how you perceive one thing in your story to improve your life going forward, what would it be? How might you reframe the narrative you’ve created?
There are things in our past that we all get stuck on, such as experiences growing up, complicated family relationships, failure at work, or personal traumas. These things make us who we are. Learning to accept that they happened and deciding to change how we incorporate them in our lives can make a huge difference in how we see the world—and how the world sees us.
It took Sheryl's admonition to show me that the story I was telling myself was also the story I was telling about myself to everyone else. I was projecting anger and bitterness over my past experiences, and I needed to grow beyond that. Although it was a tough lesson to learn, it has changed my attitude completely.
By reframing the stories we tell ourselves, we can stop allowing the past to drag us down. Instead, we can honor it, learn from it, and look upon it with grace.