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?