Why Everything Hinges on the Narrative of Your Work
It is human nature to tell stories. From Hamlet to The Hunger Games, narrative is the lifeblood of the human condition. To this end, knowing what you do professionally and how you do it is important, but knowing the story you tell yourself about what you do is even more meaningful.
For example, whenever I submit an essay there are prerequisites that need to be filled in such as pre-header text, meta description, and subject lines. For a long time I viewed it as a task that needed to be done rather than an art that gives my essays a fighting chance to be read.
Because of the narrative -- “This is just a boring task that needs to get done” -- the work was mediocre and, in turn, essays would get pushed back to me, wasting everyone’s time.
Once I began to appreciate the value of these elements, the narrative changed from “boring task” to “a necessary art.” I was motivated to do that particular section with the same attitude that I approach the entire essay.
What story are you telling yourself about the work you do?
Your internal narrative
In The Art of Possibility, authors Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander share an example of internal narrative and how it molds perception:
A shoe factory sends two marketing scouts to a region of Africa to study the prospects for expanding business. One sends back a telegram saying,
SITUATION HOPELESS STOP NO ONE WEARS SHOES
The other writes back triumphantly,
GLORIOUS BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY STOP THEY HAVE NO SHOES
To the marketing expert who sees no shoes, all the evidence points to hopelessness. To his colleague, the same conditions point to abundance and possibility. Each scout comes to the scene with his own perspective; each returns telling a different tale. Indeed, all of life comes to us in narrative form; it’s a story we tell.
On a primal level, we seek narrative because our minds are hardwired to sort chaos into order. We seek and desire stability of behavior, and it’s difficult for us to look at something and not immediately wrap a story around it. We create stories to give meaning.
How does this apply to work and what you do?
Changing the story
A person who is managing a customer-support team can tell herself that she’s overseeing people who answer customer questions. That’s one story.
Another story is that she manages people who genuinely love helping others; a group that exudes empathy and enjoys solving problems like detectives. This narrative drives her intentions and behaviors. When this is the story she believes about her work, it speaks to her identity and sharpens her work.
While there are environmental forces—such as leadership and workplace culture—that influence what we believe about ourselves, ultimately we are the stewards of our own stories.
To change your story, it’s worth looking at two important questions:
1. What do you do?
Like the example above, how you describe what you do is the essence of the story you tell yourself. When people ask me what I do for Help Scout, I feel I am doing an injustice to myself when I say, “I’m a writer”—which is my short, simple answer during small-talk—or, “I do marketing.”
My full story is that I craft thoughtful essays about customer support, remote work, and affinity business topics that aim to educate and inspire. I cross-pollinate ideas to come up with creative insights to teach others.
While it’s not your job to communicate this to the world at all times, it is your job to communicate it to yourself.
2. Who are you?
Stories not only shape our identities, they are our identities. We can only change if the story changes.
“I just do what I am told” is an identity with a predetermined set of behaviors and values. It’s safe to say this to yourself, but probably not helpful for your career.
“I take risks, I initiate projects, and I ship them,” is an entirely different identity with a new set of behaviors and values.
Both stories have an impact on the way you lead your life, for good or for ill.
We can see the effects when an organization gives its employees an identity worth embracing. The manufacturing firm Brasilata championed innovation when they gave their employees a new name—inventors—and not only the permission to contribute ideas, but also an identity—a set of practices, values, and beliefs.
The results were impressive. The workers didn’t start wearing white coats or thick-rimmed glasses; the story simply changed in their minds and redirected them from simply being employees to innovators.
Choose a story that matters
Stories are difficult to change because of the parameters, or frames, we put around them; often it’s difficult to imagine what could be when all you know is what has been.
The greatest challenge is choosing a story that matters, a story that facilitates who you want to become and the kind of life you desire to lead.
Another insight from The Art of Possibility is about changing the frames in order to change the story—to realize that the power to change your story is in your own mind, not outside.
The Zanders write,
The frames our minds create define—and confine—what we perceive to be possible. Every problem, every dilemma, every dead end we find ourselves facing in life, only appears unsolvable inside a particular frame or point of view. Enlarge the box, or create another frame around the data, and problems vanish, while new opportunities appear.
It’s natural for you to subscribe to a story that has served you well thus far. But to grow, to explore the edges of possibility, the story must change.
“I’m a customer service rep and I answer emails all day to customers who have product issues” is merely a weak frame for the work you do.
“I’m a customer champion and I empower our customers with answers, help them solve their pains, and facilitate communication with our engineers, designers, and marketers to make our product the best” is a totally different set of frames, and with it comes a totally different set of behaviors.
And that’s the crux: You can’t just tell the story—you have to live it, too.