Last winter I paid a visit to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where I underwent the most intense medical exam of my life. Blood work, balance exercises, strength and acceleration tests, a full body scan--no stone was left unturned in an effort to assess and address the ravages of 42 hard-driving years.
I owed this pilgrimage to the frozen midwest to my company's board of directors, who'd been pushing me to get a major tuneup ever since I reached my fourth decade. I'd made plenty of resolutions to do so, each more sincere than the last, but somehow or other business and family always took priority.
I had a great experience. My daily routines were held up to a microscope, and the amazing staff taught me as much about bad mental habits as they did physical ones.
I was particularly struck by how quickly they exposed the truth regarding an episode in my life I had come to see as unambiguously good, when in fact the story was more complicated. I knew about the danger of false narratives--the stories we tell about ourselves that don't quite hold up under scrutiny--but I hadn't realized the extent to which I was guilty of it.
False narratives lull us into a sense of security and well-being that is dangerous for being inaccurate. We fool ourselves that we're strong where we're actually vulnerable. There are three basic ways to fight this tendency, which will save us a lot of hassle and heartache in our careers and lives in general:
1. Be vigilant against false narratives in your personal life.
Many of the stories we tell about ourselves are true enough as thumbnail sketches. It's what's omitted from these narratives that trips us up--the little, less-than-heroic details we consciously or unconsciously ignore until it's as if they never occurred.
For example, have I told you about the time I heroically quit sugar? I was addicted; it had obsessed me from a young age. As I started seeing success in my career, and could afford to eat whatever I wanted, I lost control. I ballooned to an unhealthy weight and courted an early heart attack.
One day, I'd had enough. I looked at a row of candy bars at a gas station and literally told them to go to hell. I then quit candy and treats cold turkey, a resolution which has lasted over five years.
I've shared this feat many times, and I'm usually gratified by people's congratulations. But the doctors at the Mayo Clinic weren't so impressed. They said I'd simply replaced my beloved desserts with booze and bread.
This hit me hard. I'd stopped killing myself with one kind of poison only to continue with another. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living; I've learned for myself it can be hard on your cholesterol, too.
2. Do the same for your professional life.
This habit of false narratives creeps out of our personal lives and into our businesses. Plaudits are rolling in, our product is popular, and we tell ourselves we're killing it--but our cash flow statement and credit scores tell a completely different tale.
We have a favorite employee with a long history of failure. We like them so much we convince ourselves that they'll pull out of it--in spite of all evidence to the contrary and in spite of the harm they do to morale.
We have an abusive customer who's always always prompt with his payments. He's a toxic influence on our business, otherwise--but we convince ourselves that we can't survive without his money.
And so forth. The longer we keep our heads in the sand, the faster a problem that began as a kitten turns into a tiger and launches an all-out attack on our unsuspecting posteriors.
3. Counter false narratives with small daily habits that add up.
The first step in the fight against false narratives is acknowledging them. It's also the most difficult. For some, whose narratives are so ingrained that any change would represent a loss of identity, it may be impossible.
Sit down and write the story of your life in a paragraph--the details you'd choose to share if you had five minutes to explain to a stranger who you are and how you came to be.
Then, on a daily basis, for a few minutes at a time, go deeper in the narrative. Find the stories of seeming heroism that sound wonderful when told over drinks in a bar but fizzle out after the anecdotal stage because nothing meaningful ever came from them.
Now turn to your business. What success stories feel glorious when you share them with sympathetic friends, but fade in significance when those friends head home and your real concerns rear their ugly heads?
It's the ugly heads that need airing out, not the feel-good stories with no substance. The latter, unless they're identified and discarded, threaten everything else.