This post originally appeared as an answer to a question on Quora.
Usually I tell a story from my life and offer some action tips, but in this case, I felt it pertinent to share something I’ve already written before.
What follows is a chapter from my latest book, if it interest you, perhaps learn more about it, because the entire book expands on the process.
Have you ever had a moment in your life where you paused and thought to yourself “How the hell did I end up here?”
The thought popped into my head when I was living in a dorm room with less than a hundred dollars to my name at the age of 24. And again, when I woke up in a jail cell awaiting a court appearance. Or when I looked in the mirror to discover that I had miraculously gained 20 pounds.
Each of these moments is a reminder of what happens when you “fall asleep at the wheel,” in terms of your own life. You end up in the ditch. You scratch your head because surely you shouldn’t have allowed yourself to get here.
It seems odd that we end up in ruts or situations we don’t want to be in, even though we have the power to change them. It seems like our own self-interest is overridden by something more powerful — something insidious.
You definitely weren’t born with the idea of pursuing work you don’t enjoy, chasing after materials that might be meaningless, and playing it safe.
These ideas come from somewhere. You cling to the idea of you so tightly, all the while failing to notice or remember that the idea of you is nothing more than a figment of your imagination.
Let me explain.
Why Your Personality Is Like a Quilt
My father was born in Nigeria, a country in West Africa. My mother was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but her parents were from the American Deep South.
My father came to America in his early 20s to go to school. He met my mom; they fell in love and got married.
Then they had my brother and me.
We grew up middle-class. My mom worked as an IT consultant and my dad owned a business. Each of my parents had their own values and idiosyncrasies.
My father has been an entrepreneur for most of his adult life. He never took a regular job. None of his businesses ever took off, but he still made enough to make ends meet, and for him, that was better than having to follow someone else’s rules.
My mom was the prototypical company woman. She earned two master’s degrees. The only class she ever got a C in was gym. She’s sharp as a tack and has always prided herself on her education.
Both stressed the need for education in my life. They wanted me to go to a prestigious university and attend graduate school. Even though my father never had a corporate job, he wanted me to have one because he loved me and wanted me to be secure.
I had my parents’ direction to guide me, but I had the entrepreneurial tendencies of my dad. Sure, he could tell me what I should do, but kids watch what their parents do more than they listen to what they say.
Deep down, I knew I wanted to have control over my own life, but I spent a lot of years “following the script.”
It wasn’t just my parents influencing me. It was my teachers, mainstream media, peers, and the zeitgeist in general.
Each little influence acts like a “patch” to the “quilt” that is you.
Believing in corporatism is a patch. Nationalism is a patch. Materialism, tendency to eat fast food, ambition, media addiction, and the list could go on forever; they’re all patches.
Let’s say instead of my parents being well educated, middle-class members of society, they were poor.
Let’s say instead of having a nice home we lived in the ghetto, surrounded by violence, drugs, and crime.
The patches would be different. Maybe they’d be of the belief that hope was worthless, and that reliance on self-sufficiency, anger, street smarts, or survival instincts were more important.
If my parents were billionaires and I lived in the South of France, my patches would be different.
Some people like their “quilt.” The experiences of your life can shape you into a person you’re fond of looking at in the mirror, but what if they don’t?
What if instead, your patchwork of stories and influences has led you to the “How the hell did I get here?” moment?
Chances are you feel this way to some degree, or else you wouldn’t be reading this book.
So, what do you do from here?
You decide what pieces of the puzzle don’t fit. You rebuild yourself up from the ground by using new pieces you discover on your own. That’s what reinventing yourself is all about. It isn’t about becoming someone else. You’re already someone else.
Unless you’ve experienced the type of awareness that leads you to understand how much of a stranger you can be to yourself, you haven’t begun the process yet.
I want to help you become a person who thinks for themselves. I don’t want you to be what I want you to be. I want you to be what you want you to be. But first, let’s figure out exactly who that is.
We’ll start by asking smart questions about who you are right now.
What’s Your Story?
Stories are powerful.
We use stories to share important information with each other. We learn best through stories.
The reality you’re experiencing right now is nothing more than a set of stories you’re telling yourself about the world.
When you’re born, you’re a blank slate. Had you been born in a different location, to different parents, and under different circumstances, you would be different.
These different factors play the storyteller role and help you form the script you now live by.
Some of the stories are helpful, but many of the stories you’ve learned about yourself and about the world are at best unhelpful and at worst causing harm.
What stories do you live by?
Look at the different types of stories below, and think about the impact they’ve had on your life.
First, let’s start with the stories told by our culture.
Entrepreneur and author Derek Sivers equates culture to telling a fish it lives in water.[i]
He says, “We’re so surrounded by people who think like us that it’s impossible to see that what we think are universal truths are just our local culture.”
What cultural stories have you been told?
These stories influence you because they’re subtle. You don’t hear them once, but hundreds of times in slightly different ways.
The American Nightmare
I live in America. Odds are you do, too. If not, keep reading anyway, because there’s a lesson to be learned from the story of the American dream.
The Industrial Revolution was a time of prosperity in our country. The postwar boom left an excess of work to be done and the need for compliant workers was high.
Contrary to popular belief, the school system was created not to educate our youth, but to prepare them to become obedient workers who could work in the factory for hours on end without moving.
Then, with the rise of corporatism, the idea of college being a safety net and guarantee of security rose up the ranks in the storytelling hierarchy.
After veterans came back from World War II and received their G.I. Bills, they bought nice homes, worked at safe and stable jobs for forty years, sent their kids to school to get good grades, and those kids went on to college and became corporate workers.
The story worked out well for a while. There was a time when job security was guaranteed. There was a time when having a college degree was a safe bet on your future.
Now, however, the economic landscape is different. Times have changed. The story doesn’t work for everybody anymore.
I can’t even begin to count how many of my friends and peers felt underwhelmed by their prospects after graduating college. While in school, they worked hard for their GPAs in the hopes that life would be smooth sailing after they walked across the stage.
Many of them have found the story didn’t live up to the hype, and now they’re stuck with a gigantic bill they’ll have to pay off. They’ve been rewarded with a cubicle and an earpiece to make sales calls.
I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t seem like much of a dream to me.
If you’d asked eighteen-years-old me why I was going to college, I wouldn’t have had a great answer for you. It’d be something along the lines of “because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”
A decision that cost me tens of thousands of dollars was made for no other reason than it being the norm.
Something isn’t right about that.
I’m not arguing whether college is good or not. I’m just noting the fact that college being a savior for your future isn’t an absolute truth. The story our culture tells us sure makes it seem like one, though, doesn’t it?
What’s worse is the fact that even when the stories we’re told don’t come true, we have a difficult time facing the truth of this situation. Humans have an amazing ability to rationalize their situation and confirm what they already believe to be true.
Once you commit to a certain decision, belief, or way of thinking, it’s hard to change, because humans don’t like being inconsistent with what they’ve already committed to.
This is called the “confirmation bias.”
Confirmation bias explains why we’re tied to our beliefs. It’s why two people can argue both sides of a debate and truly both believe they’re right — even though that’s impossible.
Confirmation bias causes us to search only for information that confirms our beliefs and filters out anything that seeks to disconfirm it.
Let’s say someone spent $100,000 on college and is in debt. Let’s also say they’ve been working for a handful of years starting with entry-level work and an incremental salary increase.
Mathematically, it may not have made sense for them to go to school — after you factor in the amount of money they could’ve made while in school, interest paid on their loan, and other opportunity costs.
If you ask them why college was a good choice, they’d likely respond with one of the following answers:
“Without an education, I’d be even worse off than I am now.”
“If you don’t get your degree, you end up flipping burgers.”
Neither of those of those statements is irrefutably true, but saying them feels better than admitting your choice may have been a bad one.
Years back, I would’ve said my goal was to find a great job and make a nice salary.
The idea of writing for a living never crossed my mind, because it didn’t fit the normal narrative. At eighteen, if I’d told my parents I wanted to try to become a full-time writer they would’ve just said, “No. You aren’t doing that.”
We don’t like what doesn’t fit the normal narrative — even if it’s something that might benefit us or make us happy.
Going against the narrative means being uncomfortable or facing embarrassment. But it also could mean a better future; a future where you get to live the life you want to live. By you, I mean the person you are deep inside who you lost sight of after hearing too many stories.
I’m not here to tell you what stories you should believe. I do, however, challenge you to question them.
The stories culture tells us impact us, but they pale in comparison to the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
The Two Most Powerful Words in the World
I listened to a speech by the motivational speaker, Joel Olstein, and he said something that stuck with me to this day.[ii] He said, “The words you put after ‘I am’ determine the quality of your life.”
It’s so simple and profound, yet many of us don’t realize how much of an impact our internal dialogue has on us.
Sometimes, even believing we have positive qualities can keep us from taking the action we need to build the type of life we want to live.
Growing up, my parents and teachers always complimented me on my intelligence.
“You have so much potential.”
Wow — I’m bright and gifted.
You’d think hearing those compliments repeatedly would motivate me and lead to a life filled with accomplishment.
Everyone around me thought I’d breeze through elementary and high school, go to one of the top universities in the country, and get some cushy six-figure job as a lawyer or an engineer.
Being told how smart I was all the time caused the opposite to happen. I was so tied to my identity of being “the smart kid,” I never wanted to do anything to challenge it.
When it came to a situation that required effort — a situation where I faced the possibility of failure and loss of my identity — I never stepped up to the plate.
It was better to be the smart kid with potential than to find out whether the things people said about me were true.
Psychologist Carol Dweck tackles this phenomenon in her book Mindset.[iii]
She found that when kids are praised for their intelligence it, “give[s] them a boost, a special glow — but only for the moment.”
She also notes that “The minute they hit a snag, their confidence goes out the window and their motivation hits rock bottom. If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb. That’s the fixed mindset.”
The fixed mindset permeates many of our minds. If you weren’t praised for your intelligence, you may have been told the opposite. Studies also found that students who believe they aren’t intelligent underperform in school.
The way you’re taught to view yourself during childhood is just one of the many ways you can form either negative or positive traits after the words “I am.”
If you think you’re an underachiever, you’ll always be able to find examples to confirm your belief. If you think you’re shy, you’ll subconsciously act in a way that repels people through your body language and behavior.
Once you put a trait behind the words “I am,” and believe it firmly, everything that happens in your life becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Before I was a productive writer who woke up at 6 a.m. every day to write, I was a stoner who didn’t do much but smoke weed and lay around to watch T.V.
During that time, the actions themselves weren’t the major problem; it was the idea that I was lazy.
See, there’s a big difference between saying you’re being lazy, and saying you’re lazy.
The latter weaves whatever negative trait you identify into the core of who you are as a person, and it feels more difficult to change something about who you are as a person than it is to change your behavior.
So, What Should You Do?
All this information is great, but you still don’t know what to do about any of this.
To let go of and reframe the stories you tell yourself about yourself and about the world, you can start with identifying them. It seems easy enough, but some of the harmful stories you tell yourself aren’t as apparent as others.
They hide in the dark. They’re almost invisible. They need to be dragged into the light.
So, drag yours into the light.
What are the stories you’ve been told about the way the world works? Here are some common ones:
Money is scarce/ the economy sucks
Only gifted people deserve success
Without an education, you’re screwed
The only way to make income is through a job
Entrepreneurship is risky
You can’t make money as an artist
Thin is beautiful
You must keep up with the Jones’s
All authority figures are trustworthy
The news is all true
Beg different is bad
Most of the stories you’re told by society are fear based. It has good reason to keep you believing the world is a scary place.
Next, let’s talk about the stories you tell yourself about yourself. These are stories you learned from other people and through your environment.
I’m not talented
I’m not artistic
I’m right/left brained only
I’m intelligent (fixed)
I’m stupid (fixed)
I’m not worthy of love
I’m a phony/fraud
I’m stuck/my position is cemented
I’d take a day, or two, or even a week to really think about these. Take a pen and paper or use your end of chapter worksheet to write these stories down, because we’ll perform an exercise to help you deal with them.
The philosopher Blaise Pascal once said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
It’s uncomfortable to be alone with yourself and think about what lies deep below the surface of your thinking.
You might find this process brings a rush of emotions, maybe even some unpleasant ones.
You might want to kick yourself — or kick someone else — because the influence of these stories is subtle, yet powerful enough to have led your life to the point you’re at now. But in the end, knowing these stories gives you the power to change them.
How do you change them? By questioning them.
When you think about these stories, ask yourself, “Are they really true?”
Is the economy so bad no one can succeed? In the connection economy we’re living in now, it’s possible to succeed in ways that aren’t tied to the economy like nine-to-five jobs are.
Are you lazy? I bet you can find examples where you’ve been highly motivated.
Things you’re interested in motivate you, and you’ve gone out of your way to satisfy at least one desire in your life. Finding that example disproves your theory.
Once you have all your stories identified on a sheet of paper or the provided end of chapter worksheet, I want you to find an example that disproves each statement.
After you’ve done that, we’ll move onto the final phase and flip these stories on their head.
How to Rewrite the Script of Your Life
What if I told you that a few subtle changes in phrases could completely change the way you feel about yourself?
As we discussed earlier, the phrase “I am,” wields a lot of power. We can change those “I am,” statements to “I’m working on,” statements.
When I think about the times where I made real changes, it always came down to the decision to begin to work on whatever I once believed was set in stone.
I changed my mindset from believing I was lazy to believing I could work on becoming more motivated. It’s subtle, but instead of my laziness being irrefutable, it became a challenge to overcome.
Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to take all the “I am,” statements you wrote earlier and change them to “I’m working on,” statements.
For example, if you said, “I’m not creative.” I’d like you to change it to something along the lines of “I’m working on finding creative outlets that suit me.”
I’m a big believer in the power of writing things down. Writing has a way of ingraining what’s on the paper into your mind.
Also, I’d like you to keep these notes somewhere prominent where you can look at them often.
You’ll need them for later when we talk about exploring new avenues in your life to help you find meaning and purpose.
I know what it feels like to have little hope for the future. I know what it feels like to look in the mirror and see nothing but a person who’s destined for nowhere.
If I didn’t experience such a change for myself, I wouldn’t believe it was possible for you.
I know your circumstances feel inescapably real. I know you feel the traits you have right now are set in stone, but they’re not.
“You” is just a concept — a patchwork of stories — that can be changed. Now, it’s time to become the “you” that you were supposed to be, instead of the one you thought you were supposed to be.
How to Become the Real You
What do we do when we try to improve?
We look to add. When we try to change our lives, we seek, because we think something is missing.
You’re told you need to find passion like it’s playing a game of hide and seek with you.
You’re told to get “x” and feel “y”. Get a new job and feel more accomplished. Get a new car and feel like you’re wealthy. Get in shape and feel sexy.
We’ve gone over ideas and stories, but I saved the most important hidden message for last.
The most subtle and insidious idea in existence is that you’re not enough.
We’ve all been led to believe that the key to a better life exists outside of us.
The process of reinventing yourself, building a better future, and starting over is realizing you already have everything you need.
Your gifts, your passion, and your genius are already in you.
Every human being has muscles to some degree, but some are just buried under layers of fat.
Just as getting healthy physically often deals with removal, getting healthy emotionally and spiritually is also about elimination.
There’s nothing wrong with you, but there’s something wrong with you; the you the world created; the you that was formed to serve everyone else except for you.
Just as a scientist succeeds by finding evidence on what doesn’t work before getting to the answer, you’ll examine the influences in your life and the decisions you’ve made that led you to a life you don’t want.
Soon, we’ll let go of the old you, but as Socrates said, “the unexamined life isn’t worth living.”
Let’s examine. We’ll open the wounds, clean them out, and patch them up for good so you can move on to the next phase in your life — the better one.