Begin with a Story

There is a story that was told to me a long time ago:

A man came upon a construction site where three people were working. He asked the first, “What are you doing?” and the man answered, “I’m laying bricks.” He asked the second, “what are you doing?” and the man answered, “I am building a wall.” He walked up to the third man, who was humming a tune as he worked and asked, “What are you doing?” and the man stood up and smiled and said, “I am building a cathedral. ”

This is a story about the power of vision. It shows how a vision can turn nameless work into the great endeavor, and meaningless frustration into happy purpose. If you want to inspire others, you need to give them a vision that would become their cathedral. If you want to motivate or empower yourself, you need to find a vision that is your own cathedral.

The best way to create a vision is through a good story. A real vision story connects with people in a way that shrinks today’s frustrations in light of the promise of tomorrow. It is the antidote to meaningless frustration. To live in this world with purpose we must tell ourselves a story of vision that gives our daily struggles a meaning.

In a conversation he had with writer Marilynn Robinson in September 2015, Obama said: “When I think about how I understand my role as a citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.”

What Obama said about the importance of novel bespeaks the power of story. The story is not external information we process using the brain. It is fundamental to who we think and speak. As individuals, we live according to the stories we tell ourselves. We even think of our lives as stories, with beginnings, middles, and ends. What we learned about survival, love, family, and happiness are remembered as stories. Our core beliefs derive from these stories. They are the experiential data in our brain that define not only who we are, but also why we do what we do. Each of us has what I call defining stories that function as the ultimate truth for us. They provide us direction and purpose in this complicated world that is full of grays. It offers us meaning so we can tolerate the daily struggle and frustration of living.

When you look inside to find your defining story, you may encounter the voice of a critic. This voice may reprimand you constantly, making you feel bad about ourselves, holding you back when we are able to make the big leap. It tells you that you are limited in your ability and potential. It crushes your spirit and confidence. It makes you feel weak and doubtful.

This voice also comes from certain dark stories that live deeply in us. These dark stories might stem from something our parents told us when we were young and susceptible to their influence. “You are disappointing.”  “You are bad at this.” “You are not as good as the other kids.” Our parents might have said these things without much thinking. They might have been told so by their parents. But the truth is we have a choice. We have the choice to find our own vision story and refute that voice of critic. We can create a story that makes us feel empowered and confident. We don’t have to be held back by limiting stories imposed on us by others.

Think about the last time you heard a good story that made you feel empowered. Perhaps it is a novel that stayed with you, a film that gave you a new perspective, a play that spoke to your heart, or a family history that has become part of your identity.

The second you figure out what this story is the moment you have no other option but to step into that story and create your own truth. That is the most important step toward becoming who you really are.

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