When We Stop Believing the Stories We Tell

A few years ago, I found myself at a personal impasse. Working for a nonprofit, my job was to help people tell their stories about how they were changing the world. There was only one problem: I didn’t believe any of it.

Photo of Man Reading
Photo credit: David Goehring (Creative Commons)

Telling all these stories and promoting all these causes, I began to experience some serious cognitive dissonance. I no longer bought into the message I was preaching.

Why? Because life happened. And at some point I had grown cynical. What was a thrill for some had become a desk job for me. What was a life-changing adventure in the lives of others was nothing more than a series of spreadsheets in mine.

Stuck at a computer for eight hours a day while others had the time of their lives, I finally gave up. I complained to my wife, telling her it wasn’t fair. Not one to be patient with whiners, she said, “Well, go do something!” So I did.

The plight of storytellers

This is a common occurrence among marketers and mobilizers, people whose roles are more “behind the scenes” tend to struggle with their work at some point.

It’s hard to serve someone else’s vision for so long without having one of your own. It feels like you’re unappreciated. The reality, though, is much harder to swallow.

For me, the irony of working for a mission organization but rarely getting to travel outside the country was too much to bear. I was telling an amazing story but living a mediocre one. Something had to change.

The temptation here is to blame your boss or your job or the entire organization — for not caring, not paying attention, not knowing. But the truth is it’s no one’s fault but your own.

I was the one to blame for being boring. I was the one holding me back. And I was the one who had to do something about it.

The cure for disillusionment

Living vicariously through the adventures of others is what we scribes, writers, and bards do. Frankly, it’s your job, and somebody’s gotta do it. But sometimes you just gotta get out there and live your own story.

That’s what I did, and it changed everything. Here are three ways I learned to live the stories I used to only talk about  (and how you can, too):

  1. Embrace the extraordinary nature of ordinary life. Look around you — you’re living a miracle. Every day is a gift; treat is as such, even when it feels like a discipline. Remember: Without the people in the dark, the person in the spotlight doesn’t shine.
  2. Find ways to be remarkable, wherever you are. Mother Teresa said, “We can do no big things, only small things with love.” Take out your neighbor’s trash; go for a walk. Don’t just sulk; seek ways to make today amazing.
  3. Live a better story. Ditch your excuses and find a way to travel, even if it’s only across town. Serve the less-fortunate through a service project, even if it’s in your own back yard. Do something unexpected, like skydiving or planning a surprise date for your spouse. You have opportunities; use them.

If you feel like the work you do is taken for granted, you’re probably right, but that’s what you signed up for. That’s what it means to serve, to tell somebody else’s story. Deal with it, or be done with it.

Make no mistake, though; you do have a choice. You can find ways to make your work incredible — like my friend Jeremy, a doctor, a dad, and a blogger who finds a way to take trips to Africa in his free time — or you can do something else.

What isn’t an option is for you to sit around and whine about it. That was never an option.

Have you stopped believing the stories you tell? What are you doing about it? Share in the comments.