Photo by J.J. Pekar. All rights reserved.

4 Stories You Must be Telling Yourself

For years, I had a gratitude practice. In my first years of marriage, I told my husband, Tom, each evening before going to sleep how happy I was that we were married, and how he made me happy.

Later, while working in a challenging, drama-filled workplace, I would pause every evening on the bus ride home, prompted at a specific location offering a beautiful view of the Empire State Building, and silently list all the things for which I was grateful.

It was an empowering and mood-altering exercise. Patterns did emerge, and I could focus on repeating those experiences. But my gratitude practice alone was not enough.

Tom, my clients, my friends, surprising and meaningful conversations with strangers, business success — I remain grateful for all these things (and I have recommitted to my nightly expressions of gratitude!). But without an exploration of how they occurred, I was failing to recognize deep patterns in my own behavior. And now that I was running my own business, reflecting upon and learning from these patterns was crucial.

As my expertise in story developed, and I understand how the elements of a story — protagonist, setting, action, conflict, resolution — combine to equal a whole greater than the sum of its parts, I turned to story as a tool for entrepreneurial reflection.

Now, I have a reflective practice in which I ask myself, “What is the story of today?” I reflect on what happened, the agency I demonstrated (or was hindered from demonstrating), the people present, my successes and not-exactly-successes and my positive and not-so-positive reactions. I reflect on my emotions and how they showed up, or failed to authentically express themselves.

The great screenwriting coach Robert McKee said, “In real life we never get to experience the emotions of an event and its meaning in the same moment. The flow of time separates the two. Yet we have a great need to unify emotions and meaning, and good stories do this.”

By “storifying” our days, we can step back, reflect, and learn. For both successes and failures, we grow if we ask ourselves: how did the context, the setting, and the people who were present affect our emotions? How did our emotions affect our actions? What story are we telling ourselves about what happened? What story are we telling others? If those stories differ, why?

I also ask myself, “What is a story from today?” What is memorable, and worthy of repeating? What stories will benefit me as tools for my own insight and learning? What stories might I cull from the day, to share with friends, family, clients, and staff to inform or to entertain? How can I plan to share these stories, to gift them to others in the future, so that they can see themselves in the stories, and spark their own reflection?

And I ask, “What is this story not about?” What may I have committed to that is not being manifest? What have I chosen to limit, and might I be succeeding at reducing its occurrence?

One of my favorite questions for self-reflection is, “What was at the edge today?” Meaning, what experiences and encounters were new, different, or more taxing, because I pushed myself out of my comfort zone? What were the unexpected stories of the day? How am I expanding my experiences so that each day is more meaningful and insightful than the day before?

I often ask entrepreneurs how they reflect on their achievements. Too often, they respond with deep sighs of regret for their lack of reflection. They cite a lack of time, explaining that when success occurs, there may be a brief celebration, but then they must attend to the myriad of items that queued up while they were working on the successful one.

Sometimes, it has simply never occurred to an entrepreneur to have a reflective practice. No one ever suggested it, let alone modeled such a thing. Yet reflection is crucial to personal and professional growth and contentment.

Treat yourself, and those around you, to the stories of your day. Make it a habit to reflect on your stories. Reflect on the casual patterns and connections between the stories you share (patterns of both coherence and dissonance). Your stories will reward you with great insight and ultimately wisdom.

Thaler Pekar is the CEO of Thaler Pekar & Partners, advising smart leaders throughout the world on story, narrative, and motivation.

Join her in NYC on October 27 for Storytelling is Only Half the Story: A One-Day Exploration into Finding, Eliciting & Hearing Stories.