The Story We Tell Ourselves

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Situational awareness is a skill of insight, anticipation, and respect for personal boundaries in social and organizational contexts.

It is the skill of perceiving reality as it is, not as we want it to be, or how others see it, but as it is.

Situational awareness is knowing how to be yourself regardless of the context you are in.

This series on situational awareness is principally about how we learn to relate to people in situations outside of our comfort zone.

To do this we need something more than tactics for making conversation. We need to be able to know who we are, what matters to us, and why.

What I've learn by working with a wide variety of people and groups, who are in the midst of change, is that we need a story that we tell ourselves. This story distinguishes us in every situation we are in. It is a story that enables us to know who we can trust, and who we can't. It is a story that tells us, don't go there, or, let's find out more.

Another way of understanding this story is as a foundation, a platform, upon which we stand, while everything whirls around us. It is the story of our inner strength and commitments in the context of the external world.

It is not necessarily a story that I will tell people. This story is private, not public. It isn't a branding or a promotional story. It is, rather, a story of the values that matter to us, that we are unwilling to negotiate away by our accommodation to others. It is the story that enables us to walk into any situation and not feel compromised.

In this post, I'm going to describe two ways to create this story. One way out of reflection on who we are and what we want. The other through a more analytical approach using the Circle of Impact. 

Let's start with the first method which creates the story by looking at a couple of  scenarios.

Seeing the Situation

For example, when you go on vacation, what do you want to gain from it. Are you like some of us who enjoy adventure and discovery, or, like others, seek to be quiet and still. What appeals to you here is a part of your story.

I know folks who love going to the beach. They love sitting in a chair at the beach, reading a book, watching the waves come ashore, and then going out for a seafood dinner at night. They don't enjoy a manic schedule of biking, card playing and trips to the outlet malls. They have come for peace and quiet.

In this instance, that is their story. As a result, they need to be honest with their family members who love an action oriented vacation. That is the story which they tell themselves.

As a result, both types of vacationers need to be honest and respectful of the other. Both have to give in a bit, let the other have their approach, and plan to join them for some of the time that they enjoy, whether quietly on the beach or riding a jet ski jumping waves.

Here's another scenario. You are invited to a business after hours networking social event by a friend in your industry. You've never been to one of these meet-n-greet things. You don't really know what to expect. You are meeting your friend there. As you walk in the door, he texts you to say that he is running late, and will be there in 15 minutes. What do you?

The story you tell yourself, about who you are and what matters to you, guides your response in this awkward situation. You can stand outside and wait for him. Or, you can go in, register at the door, get your name tag, get something to drink, and stand near the front waiting for your friend. Or, you can immediately begin to introduce yourself to people you do not know. If you are somewhat shy, this may take some effort. However, I believe, what you will find is that many of the people in the room are experiencing the same uncomfortableness.

If being uncomfortable in social settings is the story you tell yourself, then you will be. If, on the other hand, the story you tell yourself is

"I'm not here to impress people. I'm here to listen, and learn, and make one new contact with whom I'll schedule a follow up meeting."

In effect, the story is a plan of action which sets specific boundaries, and is focused on one goal. Once there, and the goal is met, then, a release of pressure will be felt, and our story changes.

This shyness thing used to be me. Those of you who know me personally may find that hard to believe. But it is true. The story I told myself in those days was

"What do I say? How do I start? What if I look weak and silly?"

It took time but the story I told myself changed. I began to walk into those situations looking for someone whom I could befriend. I would not go to a mingling of 3 or 4 people, but to the person who was standing by themselves. I'd introduce myself, and just start asking questions. Each question was not planned other than the initial one,

"So, what do you do? How do you spend your days?"

After they told, me, I'd ask a question about that thing. If they said,

"I sell insurance."

I'd respond with,

"What kind?"

Then they say, something, and then I asked, something like.

"How do your new customers find you?"

Or,

"What is generally the first question people ask you when they come to you for insurance?"

My story shifted from being about my fear to about my curiousity and interest in the other person. The rapport that comes from asking questions is the kind that builds trust, at least when the questions are kind and respectful. Now, I am not afraid to meet any person regardless of who they are.

Another Approach

The story we tell ourselves is not about what we do, but about who we are. If your sense of identity is murky, then the story you tell yourself will be too. As a result, it may then be helpful to take a more analytical approach to developing your story. My Circle of Impact model can be a help.

3dLeadership - Purpose-Vision-Values

To develop the story that we tell ourselves, we don't start with the Three Dimensions of Leadership - Ideas, Relationships and Structure. Instead, we work from the Four Connecting Ideas - Values, Purpose, Impact and Vision. Let's take them one at a time.

Think of this discovery process as a conversation between us right now over coffee or dinner. Just the two of us talking. We aren't looking for the perfect answer, but an honest, beginning point of understanding. We've just met, and I'm just asking questions because I'm curious, not nosey, just interested getting to know you.

Values:

I ask:

"If you didn't have to work for a living, and you had access to all the financial resources you would need, how would you spend your days, and why?"

"What do you think are the values that are important to you in doing those things? Do you think those values define you more than any other? Do they please you, make you smile, get you excited about the day ahead?"

In discovering the values that matter to us, we are identifying the foundation upon which we have built our lives. These values help us to establish the boundaries that guide us. If this is new to us, then we may have to live into this awareness. These values may not be evident, active or relevant at a particular moment, with some people, and then, some comment, triggers in us an awareness. This is how we grow into the values that matter. We try many, discard many, from our emotional investment in them, and then come to realize what is truly important to us.

These are the values that tell us who we are, and are the ones we want to have always present. I have five of these values, and I'm looking for them in every thing that I do. I, personally, have decided that if three of the five are not present in the opportunity before me, that I'll not participate. Knowing the values that guide and give meaning to our lives is a way of saying No to situations that are not supportive of the values that are important to us. This is why knowing what our core values are is so critical to being able to walk into any situation and function well.

Purpose:

I ask:

"How do you spend your days? How did you end up doing this kind of work? Does it give you a sense of purpose, a sense that you are making a contribution?"

The conventional thought is that we all have a singular purpose for our lives. I find that very limiting. Instead, I see purpose as an intentional focus on applying our values in a specific way in the situation that presents itself to us. Here's how this could work.

One of my values is integrity. It is so that I don't live with regret or fear, or, even the sense that I've compromised by values to accomodate some person or situation. The purpose of integrity beyond that is to provide me a basis of relating to every person from the same position of respect towards them. My purpose, then, in social situations is to act with respect, by listening, being honest and truthful, without being beligerent. The purpose of my integrity is to establish a basis of friendship that is open, mutual and filled with opportunity for shared work and contribution.

Purpose is a way of translating the values that matter to us into action. While our values may become clearer and more specific over time, they rarely change in any radical sense. Our purpose, however, can and should change. For purpose is the mechanism for focusing our values in the situation that is before us right now. Even if we are talking about our purpose as sort of a life mission, it still is subject to change. With our values as a foundation, we live out a purpose in an adaptive manner to fit the time and place in which we live.

While our purpose is about what we do in acting upon our values, it is also about the effect that we want to have.

Impact:

I ask:

"Tell me what difference you think your work makes? Why is it important? Who is impacted by what you do? What do they tell you?"

The way our world works is by an exchange of products or services by an agreed upon price. Money is the most tangible medium of measure we have. It is simple, straightforward, and for that reason obscures many of the signs of value that actually exist, yet we never really see.

To look at the difference a person makes, we have to look at what our expectations are, right now. This requires us, on both sides of a relationship, to have an idea of what we want, or, what our purpose is. If we can define our purpose, not as what I do, but rather the difference I want to make, then my story takes on a very different feel.

Let's return to our business after hours event. In that room, our purpose is what? Is it to meet people? Or, is it something more. Is it primarily about "my" interests or about the other person's?

My friend and colleague Meridith Elliott Powell told me years ago about her strategy for after-hours business events. Her focus was to go, meet people, and leave as soon as she had three follow-up meetings with new contacts. She would go to alot of these events, and built up a substantial client list through that focused approach to business relationship building. She's one of the best I know at this. I found her approach incredibly helpful, and focused on the purpose of the event, which is to initiate new business relationships. Then she works her "magic", she's really good, in the interaction she has with people within the context of their business.

When the story we tell ourselves is not about what we do, but what we create, the difference that we make, about the relationships that we form, then we approach everything with a different level of confidence. If we measure our lives by our activity level, then we never really see clearly the outcome of that activity.

Measuring by activity comes out of the old factory production model focus. The most tangible measure of that work was the paycheck. Measuring by impact is a change model focus. One is repetitive. Let's see how many events I can go to this month. The other is a creative relationship with people where together we learn to make a difference. How many relationships do you have right now that if asked they would say, "She makes a real difference in my work." And, then be able to describe precisely what that impact is.

The Four Connecting Ideas are not isolated from one another, but, are interconnected as a way to understand how things can fit together in our life and work. To be able to see the impact of our values and purpose in real life, then our perspective changes, and our story does too. It opens up possibilities that may have been present, but were hidden behind the production measure mindset.

Vision:

I ask:

"Where do you see yourself in a year? What's your plan for today?"

The vision we need is not some grand, epic adventure into the future. Instead, our vision is our story lived out in real time, right now. It is the story we tell ourselves every day that enables us to make decisions. In the context of the Circle of Impact, it is about people, and the organizational structures in which we live and work. Our vision emerges and is lived out every day through the story we tell ourselves.

A vision then is simply what I do and the decisions I make, based upon my values and my sense of purpose for this particular moment, all through a deep desire for impact, with the people that I work with and encounter everyday.

The story we tell ourselves is a guide in the unexplored land of today. It helps us to know the boundaries that will both protect us from the unwanted compromise of our values, as well as, opening us up to the possibilities in every human relationship and situation.

When we find the story we tell ourselves, and, we grow into it, it ceases to be a story "out-there" that we tell myself. We become the story. We become the living embodiment of the values, the purpose, the difference and the vision for being an authentic person regardless of where we are and with whom we are with.

The story that we tell ourselves is the secret to being situationally aware. If you are a person who finds him or herself overwhelmed by circumstances, people and change, then you need a story which helps you live in those moments that are threatening and uncomfortable. 

Where do you begin to write your story. Here are two suggestions.

1. Think of the situations where you are most comfortable. What are the values at work in those situations that you'd like to see in those uncomfortable situations.

2. Write a three sentence introduction of yourself that describes the person you believe you actually are. This is not what other people think of you, but you at your strongest, most impactful, most free and at peace self. Write it down, carry it with you, and edit it until you've found the story you really want to tell yourself. Then toss it away, and let your story unfold.

It all starts with personal initiative. One step. Then another. And another. If you need to share your story with someone outside of your world, send it to me. I'll not critique, but will ask questions to clarify, so you can be clear. Then you can go live the story you tell yourself.

Find other posts in this series on Situational Awareness:

Three Keys to Situational Awareness

The Speed of Change

The Social Space of Situational Awareness

Social Conformity and Situational Awareness

In the Moment of Situational Awareness

The Story We Tell Ourselves


The Path to the Real

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All that passes descends and ascends again unseen into the light: the river coming down from sky to hills, from hills to sea, and carving as it moves, to rise invisible, gathered to light to return again. ... Gravity is grace.

The Gift of Gravity (1982)

Wendell Berry

In my previous post - The Spectacle of the Real - I take us on a long excursion to show how in many areas of our lives, we live in an unreal world of hyper-reality, spectacle and simulacra. This last term - an unusual one - is the simulation of one reality as a mask for another. It isn't a replacement, an alternative perspective, but something different. It accomplishes this diversion from reality through the use of images and the presentation of spectacles as a means to grab our attention.

The effect of living in this unreality is that it ill-prepares us for a time when reality surfaces in the form of disaster, disease or disappointment.

The Liberating Limits of the Real

This is what happens for the victims of a house fire, or a cancer diagnosis or the sudden discovery that a trusted business partner has been embezzling funds. Reality in this sense, accompanied by some kind of pain, awakens our perception to a world that we've been ignoring.

I've seen this in people who have suffered through economic hardships and loss. One response is denial and diversion.  Another is anger followed by bitterness and cynicism.

Then, there are those who wake up, fight through the pain to recreate their lives. For these people, they embrace the reality of their pain and use it as a lever to change their lives. In the words of Fredrich Nietzsche, "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger."

Pain, suffering or failure confront us with the reality that there are genuine limitations to our existence. We discover a horizon to our lives when we discover we can't do it all "by my ownself", finding that we need help in completing a project or doing our best work requires collaboration with others or recovering from injury. Our limits are liberating as a result as they open us to possibilities that weren't present. Our limits are mainly time and space, the strength of our bodies, the capacity of our spirit, and our minds' imagination.

 The Embodiment of the Real in Time.

Without a grasp of reality, creating continuity in our work over time can be difficult. There is a transitional nature to life. Most of us speak of this, with teeth clinched, as change. Time and change are indelibly linked together as Aristotle writes,

Time is a measure of change and of being changed, and it measures change by defining some change which will exactly measure out the whole process of change ... .

We move through stages that flow enabling us to build upon both the good and the hard in life. Without a grasp of the real, we see life as random, intermittent, and disconnected from purpose and meaning. This perspective is the perfect platform for the spectacle to become the default culture of our time. It is embodiment of the irrationality of change.

As a result, we don't see the gaps, the in-between spaces, the transition points, the ways that creating openness or vacuum in processes lead to opportunities that can carry us beyond our horizons.  We don't discover the flow, where life flourishes. Without the real, sustainability is difficult to establish.

The problem of time in an age of hyper-reality and spectacle is that we believe that we can make time stop. Time is not a quantity. It is not really minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years or a lifetime. Rather, it is the way we recognize the embodiment of change as life. If all time is is a measure of an endless series of days, then we have a life of random spectacle. However, if time is a measure of change, then we can see meaning unfold in ways that help us to see how our lives can make a difference that matters. To do so requires that we recover the reality of time as change.

It is change that represents time better than the clock or the calendar. I take this thought from Albert Einstein to his life-long friend Michele Besso as an indicator of what this means.

For us who are convinced physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.

Change is what we experience in life. Some of it is welcomed, some of it not. But change, none-the-less, is what we live with each day. To face reality is to recognize that the boundary between the past and the future is a transitional one. What we call the present is just a way to identify the activity of change, those transition points, that we all experience. 

The border between past and future is porous, not defined. Some transitions are hard and fast, others slow and gradual, blending what was before into what will be. There is no static present that can be claimed and fixed in time. There is only the movement of time forward measured by change.

The illusion of time as something fixed is seen in our sense of having lost or wasted time. What we are really lamenting in those moments is the loss of opportunity or the failure to take advantage of a moment of change.

Along the path to the real, we recognized the importance and value of change in our lives. To resist change is to fail to understand life as it is. To embrace change is find the flow of life and time as synonymous. 

The Embodiment of the Real in Space.

Being able to distinguish the real from the fake or from the simulacrum of the virtual requires us to think differently about how we perceive the world we are in. Instead of taking statements and images at face value, we need to look at the wider context, which is always greater than the event or the presentation itself.

Almost seventy years ago, French writer Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote,

“We must not, therefore, wonder whether we really perceive a world, we must instead say: the world is what we perceive. In more general terms we must not wonder whether our self-evident truths are real truths, or whether, through some perversity inherent in relation to some truths, that which is self-evident for us might not be illusory in relation to some truth in itself. …  The world is not what I think, but what I live through. I am open to the world, I have no doubt that I am in communication with it, but I do not possess it; it is inexhaustible.” (emphasis mine)

We each inhabit a space. We move into and through other spaces to inhabit them along with others. The limitations and horizons of our lives are porous. We move into spaces and become a part of that space. There is a relational character to the way we move through spaces.

I sit in my favorite chair to read, but I do not become the chair. The chair and I do have a relationship that joins us together. It is not just momentary, but historic. It is my mother's chair from her childhood. I think of her as I sit. I remember other times, like the time I discovered a new way of looking at the world because of a passage in a book.

The same is true with other objects of which I am largely unaware yet within reach as I sit and read. The lamp behind me. The small table beside me. The pen and pad for taking notes. 

As I sit down, into my chair, for a brief moment, I feel the comfort of the cushion and tactile softness of the fabric. Then my awareness of the chair is gone, transferred to the book that is in my hands. Then to the words on the page, but not to the individual words but to the string of words that create a sentence, but not even the sentence or the paragraphs, but the meaning that the author's words suggest. Even then, I do not see the words, but the image or thoughts that the words conjure up in my mind, until I come across a word that I do not know. I stop, refocus to that word as the object of my awareness.

Our perception of things is whole, but our conscious awareness is always selective, governed by how and why we are moving through spaces.

I walk into a grocery store. I'm looking for things on my list. I ignore most of the things on the shelves that my eye catches. I don't see them. There is no conscious acknowledgement of those products. Yet, I am perceiving them because something triggers a recollection of a kind of cheese that I had a party last week. I go over to the cheese section, and find that special cheese that was not on my list, but is now in my cart.

We see more than we acknowledged. A part of these spaces are our memories, or recollections of things past. These are memories that are triggered by our senses. I've heard that smell is the sense most rooted to our memory. We remember things, not in our conscious awareness, but instead as an awareness of the wholeness of the spaces we enter.

We are watching a movie, and, we think, "I've seen this before." But where? We trace back through our memory. We are not thinking about the movie itself, but rather the context, the place in which we saw it. We try to remember the room, the people, the conversation afterward, the time of day, and other happenings in our daily lives at the time. Then our recollection of the space clicks into our awareness and we are there, in the past watching the same film. We relax, satisfied in our recollection, and settled back into watching the film in the present.

We move within physical spaces and encounter people and places that not only help form memories, but impact us as persons.

Educational programs that primarily focus on the development of intellectual knowledge are less effective in educating the whole person than those that create a range of behavioral responses to the situations we encounter. Aristotle wrote,  

"Anything that we have to learn to do we learn by the actual doing of it; people become builders by building and instrumentalists by playing instruments. Similarly we become just by performing just acts, temperate by performing temperate acts, brave by performing brave ones."

This learning does not take place only in our minds, but in our bodies within the places we live and move, work and play.

To see these spaces as they are means that we must get out of our heads and recognize that we are fully embodied persons moving in a world of fully embodied persons who, like me, inhabit a world of objects that also inhabit a space. In this sense, it can be said that in whatever space that I am in, that I have a relationship to those things, those physical objects, like chairs, lamps, cabinets, refrigerators and the like.

A wood worker becomes a master craftsperson by developing a relationship with the tools of her trade and the wood that is her canvas. That relation becomes less conscious and more second nature as she develops that relationship.

It is just like learning to ride a bike. Once learned, being conscious of maintaining balance is not necessary. That knowledge is now in our bones, and it was not learned solely in the mind, but in the bodies that we have.

When you go to a restaurant, do you care where you sit? Of course you do. If they put you in the kitchen, by the backdoor, near the dish washer, you would be offended and leave.  The spaces we inhabit matter to us because each part operates as a part of the whole context.

When we enter the restaurant, we look for a space that is a network of relationships between the chairs, the tables, the lighting, the placement within the room and its proximity to people. We do not identify each of those separately, but as a whole set of relationships.

This is how we interact with reality, as a relationship to a whole context of space and time.

The Path through Space and Time

The virtual, online world lacks this context. We have the surface of the screen in front of us. The view could be Antarctica, but we are in shorts and a T-shirt on a ninety degree day in Miami. In virtual space, our body is mostly disconnected from the context that our mind inhabits.The connection is more emotional as we find ourselves immersed in a narrative of virtual reality. It can be compelling because it does touch us, but is still incomplete, because the embodied experience is missing.

We are more than thinking machines. We are more than feeling response mechanisms. We are embodied, perceiving, relating persons moving in and the through the spaces that we inhabit.

To recover reality, we need to recover our awareness, our perception, of the physical spaces that we live in each day. We need to immerse ourselves in the processes of change that carry us forward. To do so is to seek to discover the fullness of human experience within the world as it exists.

Over the next few posts we'll look at how to recover the real in some specifics ways of living and understanding.

We'll consider how reclaiming a context of history helps us understand why, where and how our lives unfold.

We'll look at the nature of meaning or values as reflections and guides to the real.

We'll explore how our relationships with one another are the most the best and most beneficial context for recovering the real.

And finally, we look at the nature of personal leadership within the context of social, institutional and organizational life.

The recovery of the real follows a path. As a result, it is a journey of discovery that will bring both pain and joy, freedom and obligation. It is the journey of living.

Series Note: This post is one in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.