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Leading Life: Story problems

Updated: Mar 25, 2023

Welcome back to the Leading Life series! Whether you’re a higher-ed leader trying to maintain some sense of balance or someone who simply wants to spend a bit more time focusing on things that matter, I’m grateful that you’ve decided to pause here for a few moments.

Leadership roles, like so many things in our lives, can become all consuming and overwhelming. I’ve spoken before about the strong link between the stories we tell ourselves and the emotions we experience, and I continue to become more and more aware of the power of this connection.

My mind’s ability to jump to conclusions is remarkable. In the past 2 days alone, I’ve convinced myself that a visiting family member’s car had been stolen (nope, he’d just snuck out briefly without my knowledge), that the 2 hives on my torso stemmed from some dread disease (doubtful, as they’re already healing), and that I was certain to be sucked up by a tornado (I’m typing this, so you can pretty safely guess how that turned out).

Could each of these stories have been true? Certainly. There were in fact several tornados in the area and the damage was extensive. But were the stories true? No. Yet in each case, the mere thought caused my heart to pound and turned my stomach into a battlezone. The reality hadn’t changed a bit. The hives had been there 5 minutes before and were still there as I considered their cause. The only thing that had changed was the story in my head, my interpretation of the situation.

This kind of inner storytelling also happens regularly in our interactions with others. We glance over at a colleague during a high-stakes meeting and notice the frown on his face. Immediately, our mind gets to work… "He hates this idea. He’s going to do everything possible to kill my proposal..." blah, blah, blah. And maybe that’s all true. Or maybe he had just checked his email and was thinking about an infuriating message he’d received that had nothing to do with the meeting. Or a million other explanations. The point is that we merely know that we looked at him and noticed that the edges of his mouth were turned down. Nothing more.

It’s an interesting and worthwhile exercise to try going through your day simply noticing and describing things that happen without assigning them meaning. Obviously it would be impractical to describe every single thing you encounter in a constant play by play, so you might try to catch yourself in the act of creating stories. Alternatively, you could set a timer to remind yourself to check in throughout the day. In either case, simply:

  • Note any interpretations or judgments since your last check-in ("She’s so rude!")

  • Replace those judgments with observable facts, gathered using your senses ("When I was speaking to her, she turned her back on me, grabbed her phone, and started texting.")

  • Double check for any judgments or interpretations hidden in your description ("She demonstrated that she isn’t interested in what I have to say" may seem factual at first, but it is actually an interpretation as we can’t directly observe her level of interest.)

Afterwards, notice how observing and describing rather than creating stories feels. How does it change your experience or perspective? (As always, remember that the goal here is to learn, not to judge the judging!)

Well, that’s all for now. We're at the 3-minute mark... and I feel a strange pain in my knee that warrants immediate interpretation. ;) I hope you’ll come by again soon. Until then, take good care.

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