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The Flip Side

Framing Your Story to Maximize Your Potential

Telling stories is one of the most important ways that we as human beings connect and make sense of the world around us. Consequently, how we frame our own personal stories has a profound affect on the impressions that we make on others and how we see ourselves. 

Dr. Timothy Wilson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, offers a technique called “story editing” as a way to view our own experiences with the most constructive lens. In the latest edition of Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By, Dr. Wilson explores how changing the stories that we tell ourselves to be more optimistic empowers people to create and make the best of new opportunities. In one study, Dr. Wilson provided a group of struggling college freshmen with the information that many students improve after settling into the college routine. With this valuable perspective, many students came to see 
their personal challenges as part of the road toward success, rather than concluding that they were not “college material.” In the next semester, this student group had better grades and was less likely to drop out than a control group of students who had not received the information. 

I regularly see the impact of “story-editing” in my work with candidates. If a student fails a test, for example, it can be easy to tell himself that he just isn’t good at chemistry. That becomes a self-defeating story, related to the fixed mindset that I’ve written about in the past. Or a student can tell herself that this poor grade is a wake up call to ask a teacher for help and study more. This optimism—believing that a goal can eventually be reached—fuels a growth mindset

The stories we tell about ourselves to others are also important and can have a significant impact on how we are perceived. A candidate makes a very different impression on an admission officer with the following two statements: a)“I’m interested in your school because I learn best in an environment that includes…” vs. b) “I want to leave my current school because I don’t like my teachers and think they are not very good at teaching.” With the first statement, a candidate comes across as taking personal responsibility for knowing how he or she learns best and in proactively seeking that situation. With the second statement, a candidate comes across as lacking self-awareness and focusing blame on others. When they sit across the desk from an interviewee, admission officers are imagining how this candidate will fit into their school community. They want students who are resilient problem-solvers and are ready to contribute positively to a school community contribute positively.

It is critical to understand that this “story-editing” strategy is not about telling ourselves or others untruths. The exact same story can be authentically told from different viewpoints. I encourage students to consider which viewpoint gives them the most insight and ownership in a situation. This approach brings our stories to a more universal truth because we all have tremendous potential. In general the students who succeeded in Dr. Wilson’s study, for example, did not have significant differences of ability than those who dropped out. Those who succeeded believed more in the truth of their own potential.

This form of personal storytelling occurs on a daily basis as part of how we manage the world around us. Thus it can apply to any goal that we have—whether overcoming a challenge or setting our sights on an aspirational goal like running a marathon. We are the masters of our own stories. Framing those stories with both self-awareness and optimism opens doors and expands our opportunities.

Holly McGlennon Treat specializes in helping families interested in independent junior and secondary boarding schools. She can be reached at holly@thebertramgroup.com