126 - The Stories We Tell Ourselves



Recording of last weekend’s session on decision frames

We can’t control what happens to us but we can control what sense we make of the events in our lives. The stories we tell ourselves are, at the heart of it, about framing.

Here are two short stories from a young adult’s life:


Jonathan Adler is a good student in college in Maine, USA. But he’s struggling socially. He is gay and he hasn’t come out yet. His tight knot of high school friends has long dissolved.

Hoping high, he hops on to an exchange program all the way across the world to Perth, Australia. For a semester, he imagines, he would be free of the burdens of his identity and his milieu. He would be free of his own brooding self.

But Perth has different plans for him. Searching for friends, he lands himself the lead role in the theater department’s play. Being part of a play would normally be a jumping-off point into a thriving social life but this one is different. It is a post-modern adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. The titular character is a cavalier—wait, I’ll let you hear from Jonathan himself.

Having to carry this play in this role that was deeply unsuited to my natural tendencies was all consuming…. What I had envisioned as a time for freedom and for exploration actually became this burdened lonely time and I think it set me back in my process of coming out.

Halfway across the world, Jonathan spends most of his time getting a grip on this unnatural character instead of living it up. He ends up lonelier than he was back in Maine and spends the final days of the sojourn counting down the time left before he returns home to his muddled life.


After the Perth debacle, Jonathan throws out the last of his hopes for a meaningful social and personal connection in college, and buries himself in studies. Nearing the end of college, Jonathan is lonely but top of his class. He applies to ten top-of-the-heap graduate schools and expects to be courted by a bunch of them. Life has something else in store. He is rejected by all, but one. It is a slap across the face.

He goes to the only campus that invites him for an interview. He stumbles upon the LGBT student group office and, on a lark, emails the id on one of the brochures.

A few days later, he gets a thorough and, except for some humor, a generic email from a senior undergrad telling him about what it is like to go to school there, live in the town, et cetera.

When it is time, a few months later, Jonathan commits himself to the only option he has. He writes back to the student group email, looking for accommodation, and reconnects with the same senior from the LGBT student group.

Within a year, he is flourishing intellectually and personally. Twenty years later, the emailing senior and Jonathan are married with two kids and a dog.

What is Jonathan Adler’s life story?

❓Gay man; struggling to come out at a time when homophobia is rife; with a much-hoped-for Australia trip in college turning out to be setback instead of liberation; is rejected by all the universities he applies to but one despite being a top student in college; is forced to go to the only place that’ll take him; starts a new life in the unknown midwest; and, desperate, makes a connection with the first person who acknowledges him.


❓Young gay man has a bunch of bad things happen to him over a period of time followed by some good things, which is not much of a story at all and carries little meaning.


❓[in Jonathan’s own words] This is a story that is about a shift from loneliness and compartmentalization to professional and personal fulfillment and identity integration.

The objective facts of our lives being what they are, we can focus on the negative and feed a virus that grows and eats us from the inside.

We could convey that we’re at the mercy of randomness and simply point out the good and bad things that have happened to us.

Or we would make connections and draw boundaries in a way that lends a redemptive arc to our stories.

Where we start and stop Jonathan’s story completely changes its meaning. It is easy to make a connection ‘between his unhappiness in college, his setbacks in Australia, and the fact that he got into only one graduate school after working so hard in college.’ That is a grim table read of A Series of Unfortunate Events.

But if we tell the story of a ‘lonely closeted gay kid who just happens to get into the one school where he’s gonna be professionally successful and personally happy, then it looks like the heavens have parted and a star is pointing the way forward’ for Jonathan.

Much like the stories we tell ourselves about our lives have a deep impact on our well-being, the frames we use to make choices in our lives deeply affect the outcomes.

I don’t share any more life stories in it but the video in the link below is a recording of last week’s session on decision frames. Taking a famous story from business—Pepsi’s turnaround from a distant second to a fierce competitor to Coca Cola—I pick apart for you the #1 problem with our decision-making process and suggest ways to beat it.

Here’s the session recording.

PS: For a deeper dive into narrative psychology and the stories we tell ourselves, here’s Jonathan’s episode on The Hidden Brain.

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