Are You Using The Right Tools?

“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” 

— Abraham Maslow

This quote (and its variants) has been attributed to many wits and sages, most commonly to the renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow. It expresses a cognitive bias sometimes known as Maslow’s Hammer, or, if you prefer fancy talk, the Law of the Instrument. It simply means that we tend to rely a lot more on the tools, processes, and approaches we are most familiar with, often overlooking lesser known but possibly more appropriate ones.

Professionals use the tools they learned, and they operate within the systems they know. Doctors are taught to prescribe pills and perform surgery, and that’s what they do. It’s no surprise when you consider they are visited by pharma reps who send them to medical conferences in Hawaii, Las Vegas, and Paris. This arrangement seems suspect, so Big Pharma has another approach: they saturate the airwaves with TV commercials for all kinds of pills, and they always end with the words “Ask your doctor about [insert your drug here].” It’s hard to say no when their patients come to them asking them about that pill. The truth is good nutrition could prevent many of these ills, but doctors don’t study nutrition. There’s no money in saying “Eat more vegetables and get some exercise,” and that doesn’t give them a chance to show off their medical chops. 

Money managers learn all kinds of theories about beta, volatility, portfolio management, ratios, technical analysis, and other areas of financial minutia. Yet 96% of the professionals fail to beat the S&P index. They would be better off indexing, but they feel the need to put their hard-earned knowledge to use. Besides, they wouldn’t make any money putting all of their clients into index funds.

Lawyers learn to be adversarial, writing threatening letters, intimidating people to show their clients how tough they are, mastering the intricacies of evidence and procedure, and racking up huge bills. Mediation is a lot more effective, but there isn’t much money or glory in trying to solve a problem quickly and collaboratively. 

Psychologists learn a lot of theories about personality, mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. They do psychotherapy, which may take years and often doesn’t do much good. Psychiatrists often get the best results by prescribing medication, but it doesn’t address the root of the problem. These professionals do understand that a lot of damage is caused by childhood events—they come so close—but they tease it out rather than help rewrite the inner story.

People stay in therapy for years. Obviously it isn’t working! Reopening a wound every week and sharing your pain becomes the norm. This is not a transformation from the ground up, it is just a palliative—it may relieve some of the pain, but not the cause.

So what should you do if you lack confidence, feel stuck in the same pattern of unsatisfying roles and relationships, or feel your life can be so much better but you don’t know where to start? 

A shrink would advise you to get therapy and resolve your issues. Lots of people do just that. The process is expensive, often takes years, and your results are uncertain. I have seen research that suggests most of the benefit comes from just talking to someone (and it could be anyone) about your issues.

A motivational speaker would tell you to join his seminar and he will be your coach and help you unleash your inner potential. (It always cracks me up how someone can be your “coach” while you’re in a room with hundreds of other people!) And there are plenty of self-improvement junkies attending one big seminar after another. I have seen many of these seekers go from program to program—even getting certified in NLP or XYZ—and they come out the same as they were before they started!

A personal coach also has a set of tools, mostly in the form of listening, questioning, and other communication skills. In some ways the process looks like psychotherapy. If the chemistry is right, it can produce good results. And the coaching business is booming, so a lot of people must be getting good results.

I like to use a special tool: story. I believe storytelling is the oldest art. It predates written language, and even spoken language if you consider that cave drawings told simple stories. Our stories tell us who we are, transmit our values and deepest beliefs, uphold our traditions, explain why things are the way they are, and so much more. Story is our most powerful tool.

I often say the most important story you will ever tell is the one you tell yourself. You have an inner story you wrote when you were a child and have been telling yourself all your life. 

Your inner story is foundational. It tells you who you are, how the world works, and what you can expect from life. Because you wrote this story as a child, it will undoubtedly be wrong. Your child self didn’t understand life, people, relationships, or the ways of the world well enough to write this script for your life, but you did your best with what you had. As an experienced and enlightened adult, you can do better. You can rewrite your inner story.

It begins with a journey of discovery, a trip back in time to your story’s origins. Once you uncover your inner story, you analyze the misunderstandings that went into making it, the faulty assumptions and inferences you drew from it, and the maladaptive beliefs that formed as a result. Then comes the serious work of rewriting the story and designing challenges to reinforce it. Your old story has quite a hold on you, and it will not let go without a fight.

It isn’t enough to rewrite your inner story; you must also internalize it. If your inner story does not support the changes you wish to make, no amount of seminars, self-help books, affirmations, or other techniques will work! If you want real and lasting change, you must first change your inner story.

As a story guide—a coach who understands how to use the power of story—I can lead you through the process. Contact me to discuss how we can work together.

Five Things You Need To Know About Change

“Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world.                                                               I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.”                                                                                                                                               — Mark Twain

How long does it take to change? Various studies have found that it takes three days, three weeks, or 30 days. I never understood how they measured that—it sounds like they’re just pulling numbers out of a hat. A more recent study says it takes 18-254 days. That’s quite a range! So what’s the real answer? As long as it takes. 

I know, that’s not much of an answer. As in so many areas of real life problems, the real answer is: It depends. It depends on a variety of factors, such as:

Your nature. Are you determined and focused, or are you easily distracted and prone to quitting? Obviously you will do better if you are determined and persistent. 

The type of change. Some habits are relatively easy to adopt, for example, drinking a glass of water every morning. Others, such as adopting an exercise regimen or diet, are more challenging. Changing your mindset or beliefs can be extremely difficult.  

How badly you want to change. For this one, let me tell you a story, as told to me by my grandfather. 

My Grandpa Sam was a dashing fellow (so he told me), and smoked according to the fashion of the day. Cigars, pipes, cigarettes, whatever was handy—he’d fire it up and contentedly puff away.

Sam had three young daughters. Nothing brought him more joy than to walk into his house after work and have them run to greet him at the door, smothering him with hugs and kisses. 

One evening he came home and braced himself to receive the onslaught of affection. The three girls charged at him. My Aunt Irma, the oldest and fastest, reached him first. As she threw her arms around his neck she noticed the strong scent of tobacco. She drew back instinctively and said, “Eww, Daddy, you stink!” The two younger ones followed their big sister’s lead and refused to come near him. He tried to coax them over but they were having none of it. The rejection pierced him like a knife to the heart. He never smoked again. 

Are you hoping things will change by magic, or are you committed to doing whatever it takes?

Do you have a plan? It isn’t enough to just want to change, it takes work to make it happen. A wish is not a goal, and hope is not commitment. 

One of the best plans is a set of rules. Instead of saying “I will drink more water,” adopt a rule such as “I will drink a glass of water every morning when I brush my teeth and before every meal.” No exceptions. Instead of deciding to exercise more, make a rule that “I will exercise four times a week, and do 20 pushups before bed.” You must also define what you mean by “exercise,” for example, a 5K run, an hour in the gym, or 30 laps in the pool. 

When it comes to rewriting your inner story, your plan may take the form of a series of challenges. For example, suppose your old foundational story says you are low on confidence and socially inept. Years of living by that script written by your child-self has reinforced your behaviors. After you disprove the old story and rewrite it to reflect your new reality, you will need to test and reinforce the new story by designing a program of challenges. These challenges must be relevant to your objective, and they should be increasingly difficult or complex. A simple set of challenges might look like this:

Ask a service representative for help

Ask a stranger for directions

Strike up a conversation with the concierge at a hotel

Make small talk with someone you don’t know at a party  

Offer your opinion on a matter in conversation with someone you don’t know

Try to persuade someone to change their point of view

You would attempt each challenge a number of times until you feel comfortable and confident, and then move on to the next one.

Whether you have support or some system of reinforcement. Anyone can quit smoking for an hour, or maybe a day. Anyone can go to the gym once, or order a diet meal. But permanent change is not easy to do on your own. It helps to have a loved one to encourage you, an accountability partner, or a coach.    

Change happens all the time, whether you like it or not. Why let change simply happen to you, when you can choose to change purposefully for your desired result?

You Can Create Your Own Reality

Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Lady Gaga are known for constantly “reinventing” themselves. Their fans applaud them for it. I believe one reason we admire them for their ability to transform themselves is because we wish we could do the same. Let me tell you a secret: We can!

Your inner story is the one you’ve been telling yourself about who you are, how you relate to others, and the way life is supposed to be.

This story is not accurate because you wrote it when you were five or six years old. What did your child self know about life, people, relationships, or the way things work? Nothing! Yet despite its flaws, this story became the script for your life. But do you know you can rewrite your inner story and make it better, like a good editor can take a sloppy manuscript and turn it into a bestseller?

You may be wondering “How far can I take this rewriting my inner story thing? Can I invent a completely new persona for myself—like Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Lady Gaga—or am I limited to uncovering my ‘true’ self?” 

This is up to you. What is your true self anyway? It’s whatever you decide it is. You are not making up alternative facts. You cannot say you lived with the dinosaurs, went to Mars, or scored a last-minute touchdown to win the Super Bowl. But you can reinterpret and reframe your story. The distinction between reinterpreting and making stuff up is a fine one. Besides, it’s all in your head anyway.

Remember, the story your child self wrote was not accurate, yet you accepted it as true and it governed your life for many years. The new story you write to replace it with will also be imperfect, even if you strive to get it completely accurate. You have the power to control these inaccuracies and make them go in your favor. By what margin? That’s your call—whatever you are comfortable with.

Other people exaggerate, embellish, indulge in a bit of harmless literary license, and otherwise contrive to present themselves in the most favorable light, so why should you limit the way you see yourself by imposing a stricter standard? Seeing yourself in an unfavorable light or holding yourself to a higher standard may be a big part of your challenge in the first place!

My mother used to say we lived in a zoo. It’s true that we had a lot of pets (including some she never even knew about, heh heh!). But we didn’t literally live in a zoo. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if my brothers and I “remember” having a few more pets than might have appeared in an official census.

How many middle-aged men reflect on their youth and “remember” themselves as a star athlete and chick magnet? Guilty of a little (or a lot of) exaggeration maybe?

Have you ever looked back on an event from your distant past and felt unsure about whether it actually happened or it was just a dream? Or talked to a friend about something you experienced together years before, only to find that you have completely different recollections?

Have you ever read a historical account that was completely different than your own accepted account?

We distort things all the time, whether deliberately or by accident. The thing is, your brain doesn’t care! It makes its own truth. 

“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.”

— John Lennon

It is important to understand that you are not inventing a new story for yourself. And you are not denying the old story. The same events that happened in your old story remain in your new one. You are reinterpreting those events in a more positive way. You are drawing new inferences and deriving new beliefs and principles for living from them.

Your old story may have scripted you as a timid schlub, stumbling from one disaster to the next. In your new story you may be a confident, assertive dynamo, going boldly where you never dared to go before.   

Reality isn’t real. It isn’t carved in stone. It is created. You are surrounded by people, events, colors, sounds, and influences, and you interpret and make sense of them as best you can. Someone else in your position—with their own filters, biases, and perceptions—would create a different reality. There is no single reality, there are countless possibilities. You create your own reality. If the one you’ve been living isn’t working for you, you can create one that does. And it all begins with rewriting your inner story. 

My Journey To My Inner Story

When I first started teaching organizational storytelling almost fifteen years ago, I was interested in the various stories people tell in business and the purposes they tell them for: teaching lessons, branding, transmitting personal and organizational values, sharing your vision, influencing and persuading others, driving change, and so on. It was great!

I soon realized that the personal branding story was especially important. That’s the story you tell that establishes your credibility to tell all of the other stories. That was even better!

A few years ago I realized there was an even more important story: the one you tell yourself. I dove back into my old pool of psychology, exploring identity, confidence and self-esteem, locus of control, and other topics. That was best of all!

Your inner story is where it all begin. It’s the story you wrote for yourself as a child about who you are, what the world is like, and how everything in life works. Your child self didn’t understand anything well enough to create this blueprint for your life, but here you are—still operating under that false narrative.

Most people are not even aware that they wrote this story, they just think “It’s who I am.” Of those who are aware, very few know that they can rewrite it.

It begins with a journey of discovery, a trip back in time to your story’s origins. Once you uncover your inner story, you analyze the misunderstandings that went into making it, the faulty assumptions and inferences you drew from it, and the maladaptive beliefs that formed as a result. Then comes the serious work of rewriting the story and designing challenges to reinforce it. Your old story has quite a hold on you, and it will not just go away so easily.

You can go through this process yourself, but it helps to have a coach or story guide to lead you through the process. Your new story will be transformational. Your new life will be sensational!

And it doesn’t get any better than that!    

Who Do You Think You Are? You’re Probably Wrong!

Personal change is never easy. In fact, most people who embark on a self-improvement challenge make only modest progress, if any. We start an exercise routine and give up. We go on a diet, lose a few pounds, and then regain it all. We vow to become more enthusiastic and sociable, only to fall flat. Does any of this sound familiar?

Perhaps the most difficult thing to change is the voice in your head repeating negative messages. I’m not good enough. What if I fail? I’ll just embarrass myself. What if people form a negative perception of me? People don’t find me interesting or attractive. I never get the good opportunities. The voice drones on and on, and you can’t turn it off.

Where did this voice come from? This voice was shaped by your inner story—the set of fundamental beliefs about who you are and how you relate to others, your place in the world, and how life treats you.


Imagine you’re five years old. It’s the holiday season, and you have been visiting friends and relatives with your family. Your mother asks you to greet someone you don’t know, but you’re reluctant. Maybe you’re hungry, or tired, or overwhelmed by the parade of strange faces, or just uncomfortable in an unfamiliar place. You take evasive action and hide behind your mother’s dress. After some unsuccessful coaxing, your mother gives up and says, “Don’t mind him/her, he’s/she’s just shy.”

Shy, you think to yourself. Mother says I’m shy. Mother is so smart, she knows everything, and she would never lie to me. I must be shy. I wonder what shy means? I think it means I don’t like to meet people, or I’m afraid they won’t like me, or I don’t feel important or worthy or interesting. I’m shy.

This incident may seem insignificant, but to your five-year-old self it takes on a very real meaning. You may have misunderstood what happened, didn’t place it in the right context, or made an incorrect inference. None of this matters! Five-year-olds aren’t very good with nuance. They don’t understand words, themselves, people, relationships, or the ways of the world. Your child self does what it can to make sense of what’s happening and records it as a rule for living, along with other incidents that reinforce your beliefs. These rules, beliefs, assumptions, and expectations become part of your inner story. Meeting people is uncomfortable and threatening. They won’t like me. I’m not important or worthy or interesting. I’m shy.

As you grow up you try to make sense of the world and your experiences. Your inner story becomes a script for your life. When things don’t go well for you, you use your inner story to explain why. I knew they would ignore me—I’m not important. Another job application rejected—I’m not worthy. Of course she broke up with me—I’m not interesting.

If you follow the same patterns, enter into the same type of unsatisfying relationships, and experience the same outcomes, it’s because your inner story is leading you there.

However, this inner story is not accurate. How could it be? You wrote it when you were five years old!

As you got older, this false narrative tightened its grip on you. You have been living by this false inner story for so long you may not even recognize it as a story, you think it is simply who you are. You may not be aware that your script was written by your child self, and that it can be rewritten by your more experienced and enlightened present self. 

Repeating affirmations, trying to change your mindset, practicing new behaviors, and other self-help techniques will not work if they only scratch the surface. If your inner story is not aligned with your new beliefs and behaviors they will not take hold. To truly develop you must get to the root of the problem and rebuild your life on a solid foundation with a new inner story.

How can you replace your old, inaccurate story with a new, empowering one? The process looks like this:

  1. Uncover your inner story

You will have to think back to some of your earliest memories. The fact that you can remember one or a few incidents from a period where almost everything has been forgotten is revealing: you remember those few events because they were formative. What assumptions, expectations, beliefs, and rules did you develop as a result of these incidents? 

In the above example, being called shy may have created a belief that you don’t deserve to succeed or to get what you want. You don’t expect to have good things come your way, and when they don’t you explain the outcome by thinking I knew it, I never get what I want! This belief comforts you in your disappointment by explaining that it wasn’t you, it’s just the way things are.       

  1. What’s wrong with it?

Try to understand how and why the false narrative came into being, the purpose it has served, and that you can change it. What does it mean? How did you misinterpret it? How has it affected you? Was it ever true? If so, is it still true now? Have you evolved? 

Reexamine your story critically. Instead of trying to keep proving it to protect yourself (and prove you’re right), play the angel’s advocate (the positive alter-ego of the devil’s advocate) and try to prove you’re wrong. In other words, that imaginary little devil on your shoulder has been whispering words of comfort—lies—to make you feel better: it isn’t your fault, it’s just the way the world is. You want an angel on your other shoulder that will tell you the truth: It isn’t you, and it isn’t them. I’ll show you, see, the devil was wrong, your interpretation was wrong, and we’re going to fix it.

In our example, you might conclude that when you were small you felt intimidated by older or more powerful individuals, which deterred you from expressing or  asserting yourself. While this may have continued for many years, you have since  grown and matured. As an adult, you are no longer small and weak. You are not a pushover. You are often able to influence and positively impact others. 

The fact that you may have been labeled shy as a child does not define you now. You don’t always get what you want, and neither does anyone else. But you often do, and as an intelligent, empathetic, accomplished professional you are able to achieve excellent results at least part of the time. With focus, effort, and skill, you are capable of accomplishing even more going forward.

  1. Rewrite your inner story

Can you reinterpret the situation, relationship, or another person’s intentions in a positive way? Change or eliminate the disempowering parts, and build up and enhance the empowering parts. Draw on your strengths, talents, and positive qualities. 

Returning to our example, you might reframe or change your story to reflect new truths that you have discovered that just don’t align with your old story. I used to believe that I was shy, weak, and unable to stand up for myself. As a result I found it difficult to trust others and have confidence in myself. I played it safe and missed out on many opportunities. I now understand that my inner story was not accurate. I have much to offer and I want to contribute. I see that most people mean well and I can build positive relationships. If sometimes things do not work out it is not a reflection of me.   

  1. Internalize your new narrative

This is the most challenging part. Your old story was lying to you for so long it will be difficult to replace. You will have to test your new story until it drowns out the old voice and becomes real to you. You might set up simple encounters designed to be easy wins, progress to more challenging situations, devise an affirmation, adjust your expectations of others, etc. There are many challenges you can set, and they should be matched to your needs. Some people are able to do this on their own, though most would do better with coaching.

This process of setting challenges and proving your new story takes time. It becomes easier as you progress through your program and see the results. You will feel like a new person—the person you were meant to be, with the life you deserve.