For years, I’ve asked those in my audiences if they tell stories. Predictably most hands go up. Then I ask, “How many of you tell stories that get better every time you tell them?” That gets a sure-fire laugh. Sadly, however, I would argue that many, if not most, of those stories are about a bad experience. Have you ever heard someone tell an airline story where the plane was on time, the service superb and the fare reasonable? How about one where the insurance claim was paid with a smile? Those tales are few and far between.
So what does this do to our daily decision making? Well, you get what you expect, at least to some degree. Some might accuse me of going “woo-woo” by saying that. But many times, the real reason is that we don’t take time to clarify what outcome we are seeking in the first place. Then we‘re at mercy of whatever happens when we act.
Let’s take the two examples I just mentioned. First, air travel stories. Since I fly quite often, I have learned to prepare for the unexpected. Delays, cancellations, lost luggage, forgotten passports – you know the drill. Do I still have some unpleasant experiences in spite of preparation? Sure. But I rarely tell those stories since I don’t consider them significant. I keep my focus on the outcome, which is to get to the speaking engagement on time, even if I have to charter a private jet. (Been there. Done that.) When I keep my eye on the contingencies, I’m more likely to get the outcome I desire.
Then there’s insurance claims. Have I had to fight the bureaucracy? Of course. But it sure helps to prepare in advance for the potential obstacles. Do I write down my questions ahead of time? Yes. Do I consider how the person I will be speaking with might respond? Absolutely. Do I brace myself for the frustration I might feel? Always. I work to maintain the level-headed persistence required to navigate a system that is understaffed, overburdened and adversarial. Do I achieve my desired outcome each time? No, but I do see results, even if it is simply clarification I can leverage in the next step.
Developing the habits of mind to define your desired outcome before acting saves time, treasure and heartburn. No, it won’t leave you with stories to tell. But which would you rather have? Peace of mind or another sad tale to share over cocktails?