I carry a story around in my head. It’s not a true story. But it’s a story that’s hard to escape. It goes something like this:
I started a company with my Mom when I was in my early twenties. We made lots of mistakes and went deeply into debt. We didn’t tell my Dad about that debt, so we didn’t have the option to declare bankruptcy. So we kept dodging creditors, going until we managed to turn a profit and, years later, pay it off. Then we launched a software subscription. It did really well, so we raised venture capital and tried to make more and better software. Our new investors wanted me to be the CEO, so I had a hard talk with my Mom and took over the role.
The company grew for a long time and did well. We raised more money. After 6 years of things going right, we got cocky and overambitious. We spent forever building what turned out to be a poor product. I got very depressed about the delays and the challenges of being bigger and the failure of the launch. I stepped down as CEO. Many things at the company got better, but it’s still not growing like it used to. If it weren’t for my foolhardy mistakes, we wouldn’t have struggled so much. Maybe we’d have kept doubling every year and we’ve have the best product in the industry, and we’d only be a year or two from an IPO. But instead, the people I work with are probably ashamed of me and dissapointed in me and some of them resent me. I let them down and I let down all the SEOs of the world because I didn’t know what I was doing.
That’s the story I have to listen to sometimes. I have to listen because the narrator’s in my head. And even though a smarter, more logical, more mature version of me can poke that story full of holes, when I’m not at my sharpest, or when my stress is high, or when I haven’t slept well in a few nights, the voice creeps out to re-tell that story.
I’m not sharing this for sympathy or because I want anyone to convince me the story isn’t true (I know it isn’t). I’m sharing it because I think we all carry these false narratives with us. I think we all have fraudulent storytellers in our heads that rewrite incomplete histories, assume intentions or emotions that were never real, create fantasies of what people around us were thinking when they acted, and engage in all sorts of manipulative variations on reality. And, what’s worse, those authors of a made-up journey have an unsettling power to affect our behavior in the here and now.
I know I’m not the only one because I’ve had so many conversations about the past with people who’ve shared in Moz’s journey, and so often, some false narrative emerges through our discussion. Sometimes it’s silly stuff – I recall a breakfast where an ex-Mozzer and I were chatting about office romances and I remarked how surprised I was that we hadn’t had them in Moz’s early years. He laughed, and told me I just didn’t know about them, and, of course, he was right. Sometimes it’s more serious – like a conversation where an ex-team-member assumed that the board of directors fired me as CEO because of a slower growth rate, or one in which a Mozzer assumed that, because I hadn’t mentioned a particular project when I’d said something nice about another one, I must carry bad feelings toward that unmentioned team/product.
While in San Diego over the holidays (where my wife has lots of family), we went to go see the movie Birdman, which I loved. You should watch the trailer:
In the trailer (and the film too, of course), there’s a deep, Batman-like voice in Michael Keaton’s character’s head that he struggles to keep out. That voice perpetually interrupts him when he struggles with a false narrative of the past that haunts him, and, as a viewer, makes you wonder whether each scene is really happening, or just part of his dark imagination. I felt great resonance with Keaton’s attempts to escape his own mind so he could focus on his work, and I loved the film as a whole, too.
I’d wager for most of us, the voice isn’t that blatant (if it is, you should go here), but it’s there. And the problem, especially for those of us who have responsibilities to other people (i.e. nearly everyone), is that the false narrative can bias our actions in deeply problematic ways.
A falsely rewritten past makes us:
- Think we’ve learned lessons we haven’t
- See patterns where there aren’t any
- Ascribe behaviors, emotions, and/or motivations that never existed
- Overly simplify complex events and complex people
- Unfairly blame ourselves for situations that were out of our control
- Or, conversely, unfairly portray our actions as heroic and uniquely exceptional when luck, circumstance, and the help of others played a huge role
Mythical versions of the past exist for a reason. Sometimes they’re how we cover up our failings and make our actions seem right and sensible to ourselves and to those with whom we share. Sometimes, like with me, they’re how we absolve circumstances and other people of blame so we can heap it all on ourselves and believe the dangerous lie that we’re totally in control. And sometimes they’re just the unfortunate results of having a bad memory, and filling in the missing gaps.
I believe breaking through these false narratives can be a superpower. Doing so can free us of emotional burdens we might carry. It can enable us to be wiser about future decisions. It can spur dialogue, and force us to ask questions of those who shared our experiences instead of making assumptions.
But it’s really hard to do, and it’s hardest when the lies are buried so deep and told so often, we can’t even recognize them as anything but the plainest truth.
Try this excercise – write down, in a few sentences, the arc of your recent career history (maybe the last job or two you’ve had) and why things happened the way they did. Now go try to poke holes in it. Find the places where the story you’ve told yourself might not be accurate – where you’re projecting feelings or motivations onto other people or yourself in ways that could be a stretch. Does that change the lessons you’ve learned? Does it change the future decisions you should make? How much of the story, and the reasons behind each plot point in the narrative can you verify to be 100% true?
To be better in the future, we have to learn from the past. But, to learn from the past, we have to know the past, not just fill in the story’s gaps with the version that makes us most comfortable.
For me, the story is complicated, messy, full of unknowns, and the past changes as it gets further way and I learn more about the true impact of a previous decision or event. I’d bet that’s true for almost all of us, but we rarely have the patience or self-awareness to recognize it. I’m going to keep hoping and trying for more of that clarity for myself, and for the courage to question my internal narrative.