The Tales We Tell Ourselves (Part One)

A few weeks ago, I was getting ready for a trip to New York City. I wanted to travel light but still be able to work if I had to. I thought that maybe I could work entirely from my iPhone, and leave my laptop at home. I already owned a wireless keyboard I could use to type, and all of my important documents were already waiting for me in the cloud. The trouble was, I still had an iPhone 5S, and the screen was so tiny I got a headache every time I looked at it for any length of time. Just as I was pondering this dilemma, my wife’s phone died, so we went to the Verizon store to get her a new one. We both qualified for an upgrade to new iPhones, the sales clerk happily told us, so Laura got an iPhone 6S. I was all set to get one for myself, but they only had one in stock, and she clearly needed it more than I did, so I left that day with my little old 5S.

Back at home, I started thinking about our trip to NYC again. If I was going to be working and traveling, maybe what I needed was a 6S Plus! I read and researched the difference between the two devices and calculated the difference in monthly cost. But then I went a step further and imagined myself using my brand new 6S Plus in New York: I could see myself sitting in a cozy coffee shop in Greenwich Village, sipping a vegan latte, working away on my latest article with my big-screen iPhone and my wireless keyboard. Maybe people would think I was a famous New York writer! (End delusional dream sequence.)

Luckily, just the week before, I had come across an article or heard a news piece on NPR about how stories make people less likely to consider facts when making a decision. I took a step back and looked at the facts of my situation. Fact: I travel between zero and four weeks out of every year. Fact: I can’t remember the last time I got any appreciable work done on vacation, whether I had my laptop with me or not. Fact: Since the contract on my 5S was now paid up, I’d be saving around $40 per month if I just kept my old phone. Fact: I could still use the 5S to work on the road, if the situation was dire. Fact: I wasn’t sure I wanted to lug around a phone the size of a small tablet.

You’d think that, staring all of those facts in the face, I would have easily made the decision to keep my iPhone 5S, but that story I’d invented tugged at me over and over until I found myself standing in the same Verizon store a week later! I went over to the accessory wall and picked out a case for my new iPhone 6S Plus, then asked the sales clerk for a 64GB model. She disappeared for a few minutes, came back into the store room empty-handed and said that they didn’t have any in stock. I put the case on the wall rack, thanked the clerk for her time and left the store with mixed feelings: part of me was disappointed that I wasn’t able to get the new phone, but the other part of me felt like I’d just been karmically saved from making a really dumb mistake, all because of a story I’d invented.

The following week, we went to NYC. I brought my wireless keyboard just in case, but I only used it once to type a long email – not anything that remotely justified lugging it along. And that coffee shop in Greenwich Village? It doesn’t exist. In fact, there’s no place in Manhattan where you can sit down with enough room for you and your cup of coffee, never mind setting up a workstation – real estate there is too pricey for such luxuries.

So I learned (of course) that my story was just that, a figment I’d invented in order to sell myself on an idea. It taught me an important lesson – when we create stories (or swallow the stories others create), we run the risk of letting emotions hijack our decision-making process. But there’s another lesson to be learned here, too: Stories can be a powerful tool for positive change as well. By imagining some better future, we might be willing to dig in and work a little harder to reach those goals now. Stay tuned for Part Two, where I’ll talk about how you can use stories to create positive change in your life.

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