Our Unconscious Thoughts and Behavior Often Stand in the Way of Success
Kindra Hall vividly recalls the first moment in 1992 when she recognized the power of storytelling. She had a fifth-grade assignment to read a story to third-graders, but they were so unruly she decided to just tell it instead and see if she could capture their attention. It worked, and she continued to tell stories in her classes, on the speech team in high school, and at church.
She also began attending storytelling conferences, retreats, and workshops to improve her ability to make points illustrated with a narrative that would help the audience remember them.
Eventually, she began teaching leaders in keynote addresses and consulting about how to apply storytelling to business and individual success. Hall's clients have included Berkshire Hathaway, Hilton Hotels, Facebook, Target, and Harvard Medical School.
She revealed her pioneering approach to solving challenges in her first bestselling book in 2019, “Stories That Stick: How Storytelling Can Captivate Customers, Influence Audiences, and Transform Your Business.” Forbes called it "the most valuable business book you [may] read."
Then the pandemic hit, making all of us more aware of how much our success depends on our health, sanity, and the ability to collaborate better with other team members, as well as the importance of work-life balance. But our individual quirks and dysfunctional habits often get in the way of what we should be doing, in part because we tell ourselves comfortable lies about why we think and behave as we do.
That is the subject of her new book, “Choose Your Story, Change Your Life: Silence Your Inner Critic and Rewrite Your Life From the Inside Out.”
"No matter how skilled, experienced, intelligent, and successful you are, it is very hard to overcome your subconscious programming about not doing things that the mind perceives as risky because evolution wired us to stay safe," Hall told Startup Savant. "You might tell yourself to stay in a job you don't really enjoy and doesn't compensate you as much as you deserve because it is a 'good job.' Or you might save far more than you really need to, not enjoying life, or helping others in need, or potentially making better investments, since you 'never know when you might be fired or a disaster could occur.' Fortunately, you can teach yourself better stories that, with practice, can displace those that limit your options and potential."
Getting Onto the Yellow Brick Road
As a child, Hall was obsessed with "The Wizard of Oz." She had a stuffed dog she named Toto. She dressed like Dorothy, including black shoes to which her mother had glued red glitter. On Halloween, she convinced family members to join her as other characters as they went door-to-door.
"I knew the Yellow Brick Road would take me to the Emerald City, where I could be anything I wanted," she recalled.
But she bounced around trying to find the yellow bricks that would be the path to the right profession. She double-majored in organizational communications and Spanish, with a minor in theater. Still uncertain, she spent two years in grad school, while serving beverages from a cart at a golf course, and doing marketing for a title company, then becoming the director of marketing and eventually vice president of sales in the natural nutrition industry.
She was fully prepared to cut a deal in Spanish with any wizard manipulating the scenery along the way, trying to hit a hole in one, or who needed a diet upgrade. It took a dozen years after college before she started giving keynote presentations full-time, an evolving Emerald City that includes blocking weekends for her family and friends.
"Now I understand the Emerald City as a version of self-actualization, the place we all wish and work for in all areas of life, the manifestation of our success. But you may have tried meditation, written affirmations, setting goals, positive thinking, talking to an executive coach or therapist, or knowing your Myers-Brigg personality type. You get enough sleep, drink lots of water, try to eat wholesome foods, and exercise. You read books or listen to podcasts by the great thinkers, but you just can't seem to get to your Emerald City."
Hall cites the bestseller “Sapiens” by Yuval Harari to understand how our distant ancestors developed habits that were passed on through our DNA to help us survive in a dangerous world. But they have not adapted to the needs of the modern world and are often counterproductive for our long-term success and happiness. Over-reactive fears are easily triggered and we develop an automatic inner monologue that can hold us back.
Fortunately, another ancient habit has given us a tool to change those negative voices. Humans loved to tell stories around the fire, and the best ones were memorable.
"What happens in the brain when you hear a story is that it triggers cortisol, a hormone that grabs your awareness," she wrote. "Then dopamine steps in and gives the story an emotional charge that keeps you engaged and remembers the details later. Finally, oxytocin, the 'trust' or 'love' molecule, makes you empathetic so that you identify with the characters in the story."
Unfortunately, there is a negative bias in many of the stories that have become embedded in our brains. Hall says that some 80% of people admit to feeling stuck in their routines, less than 20% keep their resolutions, and more than half are unhappy at work. But the subconscious programming is not generally within our awareness: we just see the tip of the iceberg, and the rest that is keeping us from moving forward is unseen.
To change this, you need to "catch your self-stories at work," Hall said. They reveal themselves through verbal, physiological, behavioral, and emotional clues. After the first session with a group, she asks participants to write down negative things they tell themselves regularly, such as:
- I'm bad with money.
- I'm unlucky.
- I'm not successful outside my comfort zone.
- I'm too busy.
- I'm not a salesperson
Reaching the Emerald City
"The good news?" Hall wrote. "Becoming aware is the beginning of the end of self-sabotage and limiting beliefs."
Once acknowledged, they can be analyzed. Ask yourself where these stories came from, whether they are really true, why the story keeps being told, what the price you pay is for listening, and how it serves you in some way. Most importantly, look at any story as being in the middle, so you have the opportunity to change it.
The next step is changing the outcome that the old story predicted is to choose a new one. There are five ways to choose a new course:
- Replace. Hall was always very nervous right before she gave a presentation because she remembered all too clearly some prior troubles. But she caught herself and decided to always remind herself just before she walks on stage about times she managed to overcome difficult situations. Once, the electricity went out, so her slide presentation and the mic didn't work. She spoke louder and winged it, to great applause at the end.
- Reinterpret. There are always multiple sides to any story, so take a new angle to flip the negative to a positive
- Reroute. Let's say you don't have experience in sales, but you believe you would be good at it. Your subconscious says without prior success, you will fail, which is a circular argument to keep you from trying. But every task requires multiple traits and skills, and the odds are you can pull experiences from another part of your life that can be applied to this one: you are eager to learn new things, you are very persistent, or you have great empathy.
- Research. Ask others who have overcome similar challenges about how they did it and "borrow" their stories to tell yourself you are owning these strategies as your own way forward.
- Rewrite. Create a story about the “future you” and live it.
But old stories are resilient, and it takes continuous practice to get new self-stories installed so that they become automatic, Hall explains. She recommends writing out the new ones with details regularly, voicing them out loud to yourself or someone else, being prepared to respond to trigger moments, and starting each day by reminding yourself about all this.
Currently, Hall has self-guided digital courses on her site and says she will be expanding the offerings.
"I receive messages daily from people who benefit from their new stories, and I know organizations are training their teams using this approach."
Hopefully, business schools will not be far behind so that the leaders of tomorrow will be better prepared for the real road to success, based on better self-stories.
About the Author
Scott S. Smith has had over 2,000 articles and interviews published in nearly 200 media, including Los Angeles Magazine, American Airlines’ American Way, and Investor’s Business Daily. His interview subjects have included Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Meg Whitman, Reed Hastings, Howard Schultz, Larry Ellison, Kathy Ireland, and Quincy Jones.