On Having the Courage to be Everything You Could Be Now
We often reflect on the choices we’ve made in our lives with regret for the path we didn’t take: “if only I’d taken the MSc in Marketing, then I wouldn’t have become an accountant”. Or wonder at the randomness of the path we did: “if I hadn’t met that person at the event I wasn’t even intending to be at, then I wouldn’t be doing the work I am now”.
Often we sense that there might have been parallel possibilities in the paths we followed. We might see our footprints on these parallel paths through the side projects we develop, or in the friendships we make with people who are utterly different from our friendship set, or in our tentative efforts to do something very different with our lives.
In his short story “The Garden of Forking Paths” Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges explores the concept that we take many paths simultaneously. Borges spy story plays with the idea of infinite possibilities; that everything that has happened and could possibly happen exists in our universe and ones parallel to it. In this world view of forking paths, we are not trapped in the dilemma of choosing one path and eliminating others; we may choose to create many diverse futures – diverse times in a labyrinth of paths.
Borges had an interest in mathematical concepts and the contemporary debates on the foundations of mathematics, and The Garden of Forking Paths, written in 1941 incorporates these interests and foreshadows later develops in physics and cosmology. The principle of the quantum vacuum from quantum field theory is the ground energy state of all existence, which is a vacuum, not because it is an empty void, but because it contains fleeting electromagnetic waves and particles that pop in and out of existence. It is a sea of potentiality that contains everything that ever was, is, or will be and exists in all of us.
This potentiality manifests in the stories we tell about ourselves – “who am I?” and “why am I here?” In “Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins” Annette Simmons urges us to pay deeper attention to the stories we tell about ourselves such that we can be more mindful about the perceptions we build and sustain. Most of the time we don’t even realise we’re telling a story, and Simmons argues few of us appreciate how powerfully our stories impact our lives.
Through our conversations, we tell stories about how stressed we are, about how depressed we are, about how ill we are. We tell stories about how stupid people are, how thoughtless people are and how ridiculous people are. We tell stories about how no one has ever had quite as bad an experience of ordering online / hotel food / being stuck in traffic as we have. We vent our frustrations through telling stories and these stories suggest to listeners that we are stressed-out, misunderstood victims of bureaucracy and stupid decisions.
Through being intentional about the stories we tell we can create the results we want to see at work, in our families and in our communities. Our stories shape the dent we make on the universe.
The most important stories we tell are the “who am I” ones – our lives are the long versions of that story. Everything we have been, done, haven’t done, dreamed of, will do, will be, won’t be….is our story. Our ability to influence people is directly related to what those people know (or believe) about who we are.
Our attempt to influence others is filtered through people’s judgments about us: our trustworthiness, values, ambitions and integrity. Simmons argues that people would prefer NOT to trust us; if people can treat us as untrustworthy, then they don’t have to listen to us. Listening to our story, really listening, might force others to question their current beliefs, change direction or risk failure.
Our attempt to influence others is also hampered by the fact that we can’t share everything about ourselves in our stories, but people hate incompleteness. Incomplete stories are automatically untrustworthy. We naturally treat incomplete stories with wariness and tend to fill in the blanks with a worst-case scenario. When your boss calls to say “come to my office in 10 minutes”, do you automatically think “yay a raise!” or “shit what have I done this time?” Incomplete information is almost always filled in with negative stories.
Of course, if we were rational we’d wait for more information before jumping to conclusions, but we’re not rational. So we need to get better at telling true stories that talk to our good intentions, right actions and positive intentions, not ones that vent our frustrations and define us as victims.
We don’t want yet more information – we crave connection through personal experiences, so we want to hear true stories that feel like personal experiences. True stories build faith in ourselves, in our leadership and our future. So, our job, in telling our stories is to break through people’s natural instincts to not trust us and to fill in the blanks with worst-case scenarios. To do this we need to be seen, we need to connect at a deeper level and reveal who we really are, through the story of our forking paths.
True stories that reveal the source of who we are, that reveal how our values were formed, how we arrived at our life’s purpose, how we shifted our life to write a new chapter – how our soul was generated – influence hearts and create a multiplicity of potential paths.