The Stories We Tell Ourselves

I find it interesting how very small things we overlook have a huge impact on our performance. One small thing that has a huge impact on my world are the stories I tell. My stories define my world.

The stories I tell myself affect the way I interpret the events around me. I tell myself how my day went, why we won or lost deals, or why I love or hate my job. Every situation is a story I retell myself, my wife or my friends.

The interesting thing is understanding the power of the stories we tell ourselves. Especially when you think about being internally or externally oriented.

Psychologists call the concept a person’s locus of control. Do you ascribe things to be your fault or an external problem? People with an internal focus believe they control their environment. People with an external focus think their environment controls them. Each orientation has an advantage and disadvantage. An internal orientation leads to feeling in control but can lead to lower emotional awareness. People with an external orientation are very aware of other people’s feelings but often feel powerless over situations.

I’ve found the internal/external question fascinating. In particular, how I explain what has happened in my life changes how much agency I have to affect it.

Awhile back I lost a deal to a competitor. At first, I used a self-serving story to tell myself I couldn’t have won the deal. We got to the deal too late, the salesperson didn’t do his job, or the company didn’t pick us for a reason outside of my control. Those are the easy stories to tell. It externalizes the failure and allows me to move on without much emotional distress. But it also doesn’t help me much. It doesn’t give me a way forward or help me win similar deals in the future.

The exact inverse doesn’t help much either. We didn’t lose because I’m bad at my job, messed up the deal or that I lose every deal. Those stories aren’t true and would only serve to make me unsure of myself.

The reality is somewhere in the middle.

It’s true that we got to the deal late and may not have had a shot anyway. But there were things we could have done better. The deal wasn’t out of my control. And losing deals like this in the future didn’t have to be the story we have every time.

After I told myself the self-serving stories, I stepped back and reconsidered. I thought the conversation with the customer wasn’t set up right. It was my fault that I didn’t lock down the talking points and framing with the rep before we walked in the door. It was my fault we didn’t nail the presentation and the follow up afterwards. We could have pushed the odds of winning much further in our direction.

Even more importantly, the problem wasn’t isolated this deal. The real reason we lost was because everything was haphazard. We didn’t have a consistent system driving a process across the organization. The solution was actually to fix the company’s sales process. But knowing a solution and complaining that it wasn’t done right doesn’t solve the problem. It only gives me a story to make myself feel better. My college lacrosse coach always used to say “excuses only satisfy the person making them.”

If the story I told myself was that my job is to focus only on my deals, I don’t have much control. Every new deal with a different rep would likely end similarly. If instead I tell myself the story that it’s my job to make the company better every day then I had a lot of work to do. I could change a lot in the wider context of how our team approaches deals.

Over the last year and a half, I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time training my team to get better. I’ve worked with sales managers, salespeople and the people on my team to lock down processes that work. And it’s working. We’re on target to hit our goals for the year. It’s not all my work, but by widening my scope and my story I’ve been able to have a bigger impact that I would have if I told myself a different story.

The lesson is simple – be very careful about the stories you’re telling yourself. Be careful about how you define wins and losses. It’s very easy to shape the world to feel like everything good is your fault and everything bad has an explanation. If you step back and reframe your story does it change?

How can you widen your view? What could you be taking responsibility to fix?

The Difference Between Ambition and Desire

One of the things that I see people mess up a lot, especially around their careers, is the difference between ambition and desire. We all have desire, but few people have ambition.

I’m reminded of the difference every time I ask people where they want to be 5 or 10 years from now. It’s the same question that gets asked in pretty much every interview – and yes, I’m the weird guy who asks people that in real life. I ask it because it helps me understand how people prioritize their decisions and think about their lives.

Desire is simple. It’s the easy answer to where someone wants to be in 5 years. It’s saying “I just want a good job with a better commute” or “ someday I want to be a manager” or, like one of my friends told me recently, “I just want to make a ton of money, I don’t care how.” Everyone has desires. Desire is all about consuming. It’s the money you need to buy a better couch or live in a better neighborhood or go out more often. It’s the job promotion you want because it will stroke your ego and make you feel like you’re doing well in your career. It’s winning the Powerball. It’s short term happiness.

Ambition is a lot different. Ambition is about creating something. It’s about having a point of view and an understanding of the future version of yourself. It’s about understanding where you want to be eventually. I love it when I ask someone where they want to be in 5 years and they talk through their vision of how they’re going to impact the world. One of my colleagues runs a non-profit on the side and wants to be able to turn it into something that has a huge impact in her local area. She realizes that she doesn’t yet have the skills she needs to have that impact, so she’s focused on finding her way there. Everything for her is either a stepping stone or an obstacle towards her true goal. Ambition is focusing on long term happiness.

Or, in simpler terms, desire is looking at the mountain and dreaming about what it would feel like to be on top. Ambition is making a plan to get to the top and then taking the steps to get yourself there. A few years ago, Auren Hoffman, wrote a wonderful piece about the difference between creating and consuming that had a huge impact on how I’ve thought about ambition. His main point is that any time we’re consuming, we don’t have time to create. But value comes from the people who create and we’re all happier when we’re being creators. Watch little kids – they love to make things and they’re super happy. Ambition is treating your career as a creation, as something you’re building. It’s about shifting your career from asking “how can I get more money so I can consume things” or “how do I get a better job to stroke my ego” into a question of “which sets of options will help me towards what I’m building” or “who do I need to be to accomplish the great thing I want to accomplish?” Creating can be hard though. It takes work and energy. It takes hustle. It takes the time to decide what you’re going to build.

In my experience, ambition requires three things:

  • An understanding of the world around you – in particular the niche where your career is focused
  • Deciding where you can create true, long term value in that world
  • Understanding what you need in order to be the person who can offer that value

I’m not saying that being ambitious is easy. It’s not. And it can take awhile to really figure out what you’re going to build.

Through most of my 20s I struggled to both understand which part of the world I wanted to impact and how I could add value. I jumped between jobs a bunch while I searched for the place where I was incredibly valuable. However, I kept searching and eventually found a niche where I can have an incredible impact. Having a solid view of how I’m going to be impacting that part of the world over the next 15-20 years has made my decision making a lot easier. Everything I’m doing now is a stepping stone to get to the world I’m creating.

What are you creating? What do you want to build with your career?

Waiting for Your Boss to Give You Responsibility is a Mistake

“…whatever you’ve done, whatever you’ve been, is all, totally, one hundred percent, your own fault. All.”

Dr. Richard Colin Campbell Ames, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls By Robert Heinlein

The quote isn’t actually true, entirely. There is a lot of argument for luck in everyone’s career. But thinking that everything is your fault gives you a more agency in how you think about your career. In fact, I’d argue it’s the secret to getting ahead.

Lately, I’ve been having a lot of conversations about careers. It seems to be trending with the people around me. This weekend, I read both You’re Only 23. Stop Rushing Life. and a fantastic response Do Your Job First. Both articles talk a lot about career progress and the manager/employee relationship. In both, a young employee was looking to the boss to give them responsibility.

That thinking is exactly the wrong way around. If you want more responsibility, it’s your job to take it.

Here’s the secret no one tells you: Your boss is busy. They’re dealing with the needs of 3 or 6 or 10 or 50 other people. They’re trying to hit their targets for the quarter. They’re dealing with their own boss. And often they’re fighting internal political battles to get the resources they need to make you successful. They aren’t watching your every move. They don’t have that much time.

Lesson 1: Be fantastically good at something.

Before you do anything else, focus on your job. The one you got hired to do. Your boss has to trust that when they give you a job, you’ll get it done at least as well as they expect. If you can’t do that, nothing else matters. Focus on being exceptional at your job. Odds are, no matter how fast of a learner you are, you can get better. A lot better.

An unfortunate truth is that it’s unlikely your boss is one of the best in the country at your chosen skill. Maybe he or she is, maybe not. But even if your boss is, it’s unlikely they have the time to teach you everything you need. There are, however, dozens of experts out there you can read about, follow and mimic. I bet you can start learning on your own, without needing your boss to tell you want to do next. By looking at how other people do your job, you’ll get new ideas. Combining those new ideas with what you’re learning from your current job is where the magic happens.

Let’s say your job is to write a daily blog post for your company. Start reading about how other people do the job and your performance will get better. If you go the path of getting good at SEO, say by watching Whiteboard Fridays by Moz, you’re likely to get better traffic to your posts. If instead you spent time reading The Art of the Interview, you’ll get ideas about who to interview in your industry and what to ask them.

Bringing your new skills to work will make you more valuable to your boss. Keep doing that and pretty soon you’ll be so good that your boss won’t be able to ignore you.

Lesson 2: Take responsibility. Don’t wait for it.

I guarantee, no matter how big your company is, there is always something else to do. There are problems to solve. There are processes to optimize. There are things you could be doing if you just looked around. The secret is simple: make things better around you.

If you want more responsibility, you have to take the initiative to find the problems and fix them. Too many people believe that the can only start doing a particular job if they’re given a title for that job. It rarely works that way. Inside of companies, it almost always works the other way around. Your boss doesn’t want to tell you what to do all the time. They want people who do what needs to be done before they’re told to do it.

Titles are a lagging indicator inside of companies – they’re given to people who have already proven they can do the job.

Let’s say you want to be a manager in the future. Great, so does everyone else. So how does your boss figure out who is the best candidate to promote? They look for who the “natural leaders” are. That’s secret code for “who is already leading people.” The boss notices the people fixing problems around them or training other people. The people who act like they own the place and make it better.

Most people hear that they need experience managing before they can get a particular job. Maybe they are only willing to hire someone to write a particular set of code who has written that code before. Or they only want writers who have written before. How do you get that experience?

You just do it. A little bit at a time. Sometimes at night or on the weekend or in the spaces everyone else wastes on Friday afternoons.

If you want to manage people in the future, start by mentoring the next new hire who comes to your company. Start by taking responsibility for a new project. Or start by learning a new skill and then start teaching other people how to do it. Work on open source projects. Get management experience at a volunteer organization like Taproot or Catchafire.

Don’t wait for someone else to tell you it’s okay to do what you want to do. Find a way to just do it.

How it Works in Real Life

At one of the companies I worked at while back, I watched one of my coworkers ace these two steps. He started off as a regular, run of the mill hire. Nothing special about him. In fact, he was pretty young. While we thought he would be good, he didn’t come with a lot of experience or accolades.

The first thing he did was identify the best person at his role in the company and became his best friend. He mimicked his process, took him out to lunch or coffee whenever he could, and generally tried to figure out why it worked. Within a couple of months, my colleague was the second best person at the company in his role.

At that point, he turned his focus. He kept getting better at his individual job but started thinking about other people. He started taking every new hire under his wing. He would teach them what he knew, give them feedback on how to get better, and take them to coffee or lunch. He started helping them through the process he went through.

No one gave him this responsibility. There wasn’t an HR meeting or some committee that anointed him the onboarding specialist. His boss didn’t tell him to do it. He just did it. He made the world around him better without asking for it. When a position came up for a manager, he got the position. Everyone wanted to work for him. He’d made them all better at their jobs. And, because he’d continued getting better, he was the best at the company.

Today he manages more than 50 people and has accelerated his career. Within 5 years, he will have gone from a no-name hire to a VP at his pick of companies. Follow his lead.

Become fantastic at your job, make the people around you better, and take responsibility before it’s given to you.

As one of my previous bosses, the brilliant Sam Jacobs, aptly put a couple weeks ago:

Your career is your biggest investment. Don’t leave the investment to other people. It’s not their fault or responsibility. It’s not up to your boss to give you direction.

This is all you. What are you going to do?