Friday, April 04, 2014

Updating the Story You Tell Yourself

Writing always came naturally to me.

It was the only thing I can’t remember not doing.

But when it came time to switch gears from words to images, when teachers or parents asked me to start designing and illustrating and sketching, I froze like a bag of peas. My standard excuse was, I couldn’t draw a straight line if my life depended on it.

At least, that was the story I told myself.

Fast forward a few decades, and I landed a job that would require me to do a substantial amount of drawing. Nothing overly technical, and nothing that required a fine arts degree, but I was working at a design and innovation company, and our bread and butter was thinking and communicating visually.

I was terrified. All those childhood fears of drawing came floating up to the surface. And whether or not I thought I could draw, didn’t matter anymore. Whether or not I feared the process of creating images instead of words, was irrelevant. This was my job now, and I had no choice.

So I just started moving the pen.

And after a few weeks of noodling around, the result evolved into something really interesting. I called it a thinkmap. This was a large scale, illustrated whiteboard mural that combined research, storytelling and insight. I created it for our team to use during client workshops as a strategic framework for sharing ideas and observations. Also, what we learned was, from a professional services standpoint, a thinkmap was a powerful act of generosity, thoughtfulness and personalization.

But what surprised me was, once clients and coworkers and friends started seeing these thinkmaps in person and online, there was an immediate reaction. They started asking questions and giving compliments and telling their friends and even taking pictures of the murals on the wall. And I thought to myself, huh, maybe I’m not as bad at drawing as I thought.

I was no longer terrified.

Because life rewards the actions we take, not the assumptions we make.

So whatever preexisting beliefs I had about my drawing abilities, or lack thereof, vanished. I read the writing on the wall, quite literally, and it said that I no longer sucked at drawing. And now, instead of proclaiming that I was just a writer, deflecting people’s comments with the justification that I couldn’t draw a straight line if my life depended on it, I just said, I’m good at thinking and communicating visually.

I updated the story I told myself.

This reminds me of a classic episode of Justice League, in which Flash and Batman are captured, thrown into a prison cell and locked to metal gurneys. But just when you think all hope is lost, Flash uses his superhuman reflexes to speed up his pulse so the heart monitor reports him as flatlining. This fools the guard into unlocking the door to come and check on him, which gives him the perfect opportunity to escape. Once he punches out the guard and frees up his companion, Batman says, “I didn’t know you could do that,” to which Flash admits, “Neither did I.”

It’s an incredible moment. And it happens to all of us.

You spontaneously do something you didn’t realize you could do, and that experience illuminates what’s possible. It inspires you to expand to your full capacity. It allows you to live larger than you labels. And that initiates an internal revolution.

The word revolution, after all, comes from the term revolvere, which literally means to roll back. And so, this moment, where you do something you didn’t realize you could do, triggers the rolling back of old skin. The shedding of an outdated way of speaking about your identity. And that inspires you to employ new language to describe who you are.

You update the story you tell about yourself.

There's a great scene in the movie Life of Pi, in which Patel finds himself shipwrecked, out of supplies and forced to break his lifelong habit of vegetarianism in order to survive. Worse yet, he has to do so while fighting for his food with a four hundred pound tiger.

But in his moment of triumph, Patel wrestles his dinner away from the beast and sates his appetite. Then, with a mouth full of fish he admits, “Hunger can change everything you ever thought you knew about yourself.”

It’s that same moment.

You discover pieces of yourself that, until to this point, went undernurtured. And all it took was that one experience, that one word of encouragement, or that one flash of inspiration, to make you forget the story you told yourself, unlock a latent ability and do something you never thought you could.

And the great human irony is, you’re often the last one to recognize your own value. You're simply too close to yourself. You don't have the eyes to see your highest abilities. And you need people in your life to be mirrors and witnesses and encouragers. The ones who make sure your potential doesn't go to waste.

Recently a friend of mine spontaneously and nonchalantly demonstrated a skill he'd been practicing his whole life, but didn't realize it was a superpower. Psychologists would call this his unconscious competence, since he had so much practice with that skill that it became second nature and could be performed easily.

So I started asking him about it: 

Wait, what did you just do? Where did you learn that? Is that something you do all the time? Can you teach me how to do that? 

Johnny chuckled a bit, but only because he was just being himself. Doing what he does. And he had no idea how valuable that really was. Turns out, he just needed somebody to see him for those gifts. To help him update the story he told about himself.

The point is, people can talk themselves in and out of any identity.

But to find our highest selves, it’s better to let our actions have the final word.