What’s my story?

Without a story compelling enough to make you stop, remark upon it & pass that remark on to somebody else, you’ll get nowhere.

Whether you’re building a product or building a personal brand, at some point you’ll realise that people just don’t care. There are 7 billion of you milling about the world, all thinking their lives are the most important thing that’s ever happened.

Fuck the Industrial Revolution, the World Wars, the invention of TV, the Twin Towers, the internet.

What about that fucking guy at the checkout aisle last week that pushed past me? Why can other people not understand how big a deal that was?

Because, as I said, there are 7 billion of you. No-one does — nor should they — give a shit.

 

So, to become noticed — to deserve to be noticed even — you must tell a compelling story that resonates with them.

You must tell a story that aligns with the stories they tell themselves.

Let’s take an example:

Imagine you write a quality blog about how to recycle better. You send it to a group of environmentalists. They’ll read it & they will listen.

Send that article to a right-wing, oil industry lobby group, however, and it’s going straight in their junk mail.

That’s because the stories you tell, your ideas, align with the stories the environmentalists tell themselves. A story of preserving the planet, of limited resources.

The oil industry lobby group, on the other hand, tell themselves a different story. A story of infinite resources, of the supremacy of financial gain, of protecting their vested interests.

Back to the drawing board

So when I sat down to write, thinking about what story I wanted to convey to the world, I realised I must tell one that clicks with my audience.

It could not be one that was self-indulgent, ego-driven & irrelevant for an outsider.

It would be a story of injustice. Of getting fired. Of having principled that would not be swayed. Of standing up to a fraudster.

I don’t know in which theatre that story will be played out, how each act will unfold, where it will take me even.

I just know that I stand by one primary belief:

That life is too short to not seize every opportunity, to go on the attack, to pursue your dreams.

That you have 4,000 weeks in your life to do something you love with. Something that gets you out of bed in the morning. Something that makes you look forward to each day.

That you can make all the excuses you want, but you’ve got the same 4,000 weeks as everyone else, so don’t go & waste them.

Is this success?

A never-ending ascent

We tend to accept a definition of success loosely based around financial gain & social status. Being a wealthy finance executive, or a partner at a law firm, or a business magnate.

‘Success’ is narrowly defined for simplicity. There is one definition that we as a society have accepted & therefore follow.

But can such a broad definition be applied to the diverse needs, interests & goals of each individual? Is it even accurate to say that one definition exists?

Firstly, no, we can’t fit all of humanity’s diverse goals, interests & goals into one narrow definition. We are just too eclectic. Too diverse.

Secondly, even if we base the underlying assumptions that define success on social status & the accumulation of wealth, then it falls up short.

Because both these assumptions have no clear outcome, no clear goal. They are entirely subjective & malleable. You cannot say, for example, ‘I have $1 million & should therefore be viewed as a successful person’.

Wealth is relative. Social status is relative. Both are also relative to your own perception & expectations.

A millionaire will think he is poor & inadequate in a room full of billionaires.

 

Climbing up the corporate ladder, always in the pursuit of more, never seems to have an end point.

Because where’s the point that you’ve ‘made’ it? Is it when you’re highest up in the ladder? Or you’re earning over $500,000 per year? Or you’ve got a nicer car than your neighbour? Or you’re head of the company? Or you’re head of the biggest, wealthiest company in the world? Or you’re head of your own company?

It’s impossible to quantify, or when to say ‘stop’. There’s no clear peak to summit. There’s no way of benchmarking yourself & saying, ‘OK, I’ve now made it. I am a success.’

There’s always someone else with more money, or with more social status. It’s a never ending struggle to the top. Once you start playing that game, there’s no end in sight.

 

Define success yourself

It seems to me that we need to re-frame the question.

We currently look at success based on outward metrics. Based on arbitrary concepts that society says we should follow.

But this is backwards. We can’t just define success as a singular concept. Each person must define success for themselves. If my priority in life is a balanced family life, for example, then being a wealthy business leader with three estranged kids is, in fact, a hugely unsuccessful life.

Instead, we should look at success inwardly. What is it that we want to achieve as an individual? Why? How can we quantify it?

Is it based on a metric, like wealth? Or on a journey?

Are you only focused on an outcome, or are you interested in seeing how things unfold along the way?

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.” — Bilbo Baggins

In my experience, outcomes can be a risky business. They can be arbitrary, they can change over time, based on new information or experience, & they can be outside of your control, particularly in a fast-changing world.

Psychological studies support this, suggesting we should focus on process rather than outcomes in goal-achievement.

So, what is success then?

I can’t give you an answer. I’m neither qualified, nor do I believe that anyone else can give you an answer.

You must go, experience things, learn along the way, enjoy it, & start finding your own answer to that question.

 

The Lies & Stories That Determine Our Lives

Lies. Lies. Lies.

Lies are all around us.

We tell ourselves lies all the time. They form the beliefs we internalise & therefore guide our decisions & actions.

Others tell us lies. They want us to believe a certain story about their product, or about their lives.

We lie to ourselves. We get lied to.

 

This is because we need these lies, these stories we tell ourselves, to operate as a collective in a complex world. As Yuval Noah Harari points out in Sapiens, without Homo Sapiens’ unique ability to form communities based around certain stories, such as religion, we would never have been successful:

“Sapiens rule the world, because we are the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. We can create mass cooperation networks, in which thousands and millions of complete strangers work together towards common goals. One-on-one, even ten-on-ten, we humans are embarrassingly similar to chimpanzees. Any attempt to understand our unique role in the world by studying our brains, our bodies, or our family relations, is doomed to failure. The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mysterious glue that enables millions of humans to cooperate effectively.

This mysterious glue is made of stories, not genes. We cooperate effectively with strangers because we believe in things like gods, nations, money and human rights. Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money and no human rights—except in the common imagination of human beings. You can never convince a chimpanzee to give you a banana by promising him that after he dies, he will get limitless bananas in chimpanzee Heaven. Only Sapiens can believe such stories. This is why we rule the world, and chimpanzees are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.”

 

Let’s use the example of money:

People believe that little bits of green paper are worth something. They trust them because they believe the government will guarantee them. They trust the government because they believe it has legitimate authority. If people started to stop believing in money, modern society would break down & cease to function.

Money is just a story we tell ourselves. It is a lie. It is not necessary a bad thing, but it is just important to be aware that we collectively tell ourselves a story about money that doesn’t have any inherent truth to it.

 

We Need Lies

We need these lies. Without them society wouldn’t function. I need you to believe what I tell you. You need someone to believe what you tell them. We need to believe what society tells us, or government, or our neighbour.

None of it’s true. We can never know what is really true. Every belief we have stems from our specific socio-political context.

We think slavery was barbaric. In two centuries time, they’ll think that eating meat was barbaric.

But don’t worry. You don’t need to go into a spiral of self-doubt, nor question your very existence. We have to believe something, or we can’t really operate.

 

Simplicity from Complexity

We live in an ever-more complex world. As a result, it’s become easier for us to tell ourselves bad lies.

Good lies would be those that are, to the best of our knowledge, help pursue your own, as well as society’s, interests. A good lie would be to recycle, because you want to protect the environment & feel good about it.

A bad lie are those where you are un-informed or mis-informed. Where you think you are pursuing only your own interest, or where somebody else has manipulated you into thinking something despite the facts. A bad lie would be buying an expensive cleaning product that is supported by fake scientific data, for example.

There are so many things. So many decisions. So many ridiculously complex things we need to do ever day that we simplify to cope.

We can’t read up the relative pros & cons of one shampoo, spending weeks reading into the scientific data, testing it ourselves, running peer-reviewed trials & studies, etc. We just want to buy some shampoo. Ideally in under a minute.

So we tell ourselves a bad lie. We make a snap decision based on appearance, based on first impression, on what someone said last week about it.

We follow the company’s lie: We believe the story they told us about their rigorous testing method, the fruity-ness of the ingredients, the foamy-ness of their foam.

 

The Pursuit of Better Lies

You can’t always tell yourselves good lies. But you can tell yourself better lies.

The world is complex. It’s only likely to get more so. You can’t inform yourself about everything. You can’t question everything.

But you can pursue the truth in things that matter. Maybe don’t worry about the shampoo, or the toothpaste brand.

But do worry about the big things:

Is the career path you’ve chosen based on bad lies?
What about that relationship?
The people you hang out with?
Your rampant consumerism?
That new car?

 

(Most of the lies I’ve written here come courtesy of the lies Seth Godin passed on to me in his thought-provoking book All Marketers are Liars.)

Focus on the foundations

We tend to focus on the small things & ignore the big things.

When building a product, we skip over the problem in our excitement to build a solution – any solution.

When building a team, we skip over the principles that we must share to keep us together on the journey.

When building a company, we skip over building a clear, long-term vision.

It stems from impatience. Everyone rushes ahead, worrying about the little things, willing things to move fast. Busying themselves because they lack the patience, to stop, to observe. They allocate time & resources in a flash, rather than approaching it as methodically as a chess grandmaster would.

Fear also plays a major part in this. It’s hard to face the big issues. The structural problems in your company. The toxic culture. The lack of leadership you have provided.

It takes some deep self-examination. It takes questioning your ego. It takes making hard decisions that are going to upset a lot of people.

It also means confronting the possibility that things might not work out. That the underlying problems have become too big.

But it’s got to be done. Those problems will rear their head at some point. And you’ll be unprepared for it. You’ll act surprised, shocked even, but you always knew they were there. You just tried to ignore them.

So be patient & build your foundations properly. Without strong foundations, it doesn’t matter how big you may get, at some point that first storm is going to head your way.

And it’s going to blow your company right over.

What’s your story?

Anyone starting a company knows — or at least should know — the power of story-telling.

A product — let’s say an ice cream brand — could focus on marketing the ten scientific reasons why it is better than any of its competition.

These clear facts may even be understood & accepted as true by the potential customer.

The customer may even like their fancy packaging, the drool-inducing images & the warm, welcoming branding.

But they don’t give quite enough of a shit. They still buy the more expensive, objectively less healthy version on the next shelf.

Why? Because our first product has no soul. It has no narrative to match the brand. Where did it come from? Who worked their arses off to get the milk churned, to hand-pick the fruit, to send it off to you with love, care & dedication?

I don’t even particularly like ice-cream, but if I buy it, I’ll buy Ben & Jerry’s.

The names are fun, true. But I buy it because I remember reading the back of the pack fifteen years ago & it resonated with me. Two guys, on an organic farm, raising a couple of cows, coming up with crazy recipes. What is not to love?

And what’s more? I don’t even know whether it’s organic, nor how many cows they have, nor how they come up with the recipes. It’s probably all just done in a factory by a team of guys in lab coats.

But my ten-year old self created that image in my head & it’s still the same one my twenty-five year-old self envisions.

 

So start telling your story

So any entrepreneur or marketer knows the value of story-telling. Yet we still don’t f**king do it!

And that’s OK. I have ignored it myself. And that’s because it’s a really hard art.

 

Find something remarkable

You need to find something that is compelling enough for people to go & tell their friends. This can happen with luck, but generally happens with a decent understanding of psychology or with the experience of trying one hundred ideas & seeing if one sticks.

We live in a crowded world. It must be remarkable, something worth remarking upon, in order for people to stop & notice.

 

Remove your ego

In order to stumble across an idea that is clear & compelling though, you must remove your subjective opinion as much as possible.

What you assume is interesting about your own story is unlikely to interest others. That life-changing trip? Those years in that shitty job? Unless it really clicks with the audience & comes across as incredibly humble, you are just going to put people off.

Again, we live in a crowded world. People have heard all the sob stories. Someone somewhere has probably had the same experiences. Your audience have already been there, done that.

 

Go out there & tell people

And don’t expect to hit the ball out the park in your first go. Just start telling people what you do, what your story is. See how they react. And I don’t mean their nod of approval or supporting words. They are bullshit. They are just being nice to you.

Really see what their true reaction is. Do they tell other people? Do they visit your website? Do they get in contact with you after?

If 10 people react indifferently, go back to the drawing board.

 

I’m not a marketing guru. You’ve probably heard this advice before. Yet you didn’t actually go & follow it. Find a story, test it on a few friends, go back to the drawing board, test it on as many people as you can find.

Because if you hit that one idea, that one thing that resonates, it does all the work for you.

Avoiding Graduate Herd Mentality

Everyone seems to just end up going through graduate programmes. A large amount of students end up going to the one or two firms that starting making their pitch the earliest. Maybe whilst you were still in first or second year.

So we all just assume that we should probably do a graduate programme. I mean, if everyone else is doing it, then it’s probably right, right?

Nope. It is actually absurd when you think about it.

We end up determining the entire course of our lives by just following the herd. We just look around us & assume someone is in control. No-one ever stops to think who started heading in that direction in the first place.

No-one ever stops to think that everyone else is equally scared, clueless & over-awed by the prospect of adult life. So they just at whatever comes their way. At any sign that ‘this is what you should do with your life’.

And the corporates gladly welcome them in with a warm embrace, deliberately saving the cold, lifeless reality of grey offices with grey people, living grey lives, for a year or two in.

And everyone just ends up scared, confused & over-awed, copying other scared, confused & over-awed students.

 

Yet this is not just your responsibility. It is also caused by the deliberate, concerted effort of corporate law, finance & consultancy corporates.

They know how the psychology works.

They deliberately recruit early to create a social norm around doing a graduate programme. Everyone seems to be joining a graduate because the availability heuristic that biases our thinking tends to focus on recent examples. Because some of your friends or acquaintances recently applied for a programme, you think everyone has been applying for programmes since forever.

You see the recruitment posters, you hear about John’s £5k sign-on bonus, about the networking drinks that law firm ran last week.

It becomes public knowledge. A norm. And everyone follows norms.

So the big corporate firms invest heavily early on. They stifle competition by becoming ubiquitous. By dominating the job market in students’ heads so that they see alternative. That doing anything other than a graduate programme would be socially abnormal – weird even.

That they are the only path to a ‘successful’ life after graduation.

Which is complete bullshit.

There are a thousand more exciting things than a corporate graduate programme. Things that won’t suck the life out of you by age 25.

So you better start looking.

 

 

Taken advantage of in a foreign country

My belief in the start-up model has been on the rocks for a while. ‘The Mission‘ convinces us to dedicate ourselves in the interest of investors & being a ‘family’ makes us feel part of something greater than just a corporation. Yet this week has been the final nail in the coffin.

If I ever wanted evidence that founders & investors do not usually give a shit about employees, then the violation of my employment contract is a clear-cut example.

In short, I was fired on Friday via email, with no explanation of the cause.

Dismissal without explanation is not only a cowardly move, but one that, under German law, is illegal. You must provide 4 weeks notice in all cases other than exceptional circumstances. I’ve done nothing ‘exceptional’ recently, so can only interpret this immediate termination as an attempt to avoid paying earnings they are contractually obliged to pay.

Maybe it’s because I’m new to Germany & they think I am naïve enough to not have looked into German law?

Whatever the reason, any violation of the bedrock of workers’ rights, an employment contract, is legally & morally abhorrent. It is the one thing that protects us, the little people, from the superior power of a corporation.

Yet it doesn’t surprise me one bit. Neither the way it was enacted – just a short email – nor the violation of my contract.

Part of the reason I had been deciding to leave had been a previous violation of my contract: an attempt to short-change me on the number of holiday days allocated in my contract. I derided the claim that I had, in fact, signed an ‘old contract’ & was therefore not entitled to my full, contractual holiday quota. I was unaware that was how contracts worked.

So it would even be expected – rather than a surprise – that a contract violation would occur again.

 

The lesson I take away with me is this:

One action reveals a company’s true nature. Don’t allow yourself to excuse that behaviour as the exception. Be aware that it is probably the rule.

Trampling over my employment contract has happened twice to me, so it is likely to have happened to others. Yet no-one speaks out or knows what to do about it.

True, I was taking action to extricate myself by setting up a new business, but I should have cut ties immediately, rather than allow myself to be dragged along for another few months.

There is never a perfect time to start a business or quit your job, so when you know it’s time, you must take action.

Rather than a clean-break, I find myself caught up in legal worries & with a sense of disgust at my whole experience with the company.

 

 

 

Seeing things for what they are

It’s easy to be naïve; to accept what is said to you at face value, rather than probing the ulterior motives.

It makes it easier to deal with a complex world with complex people. So we trust people we probably shouldn’t trust. We are naïve even though somewhere inside of us is a voice telling us to get our guard up.

Trust is great. Society is founded upon & maintained by trust. But it’s wrong to trust when you know somebody’s true character.

When you know somebody is untrustworthy, do you naïvely think that this one seemingly kind act reveals their true character? That all the other unkind acts were exceptions & this is the rule?

Yet one act is enough sometimes. It sows the seeds of self-doubt. It stops you in your tracks. You start to think, /“Maybe they are a kind person. Maybe their actions are actions of pure generosity. Maybe I was wrong all along…”/

They know that. They know that because untrustworthy people are not as naïve. They know what the darker side of humanity looks like & imagine deception at every turn. They imagine every person is always ready to seize on opportunity, so they seize on any opportunity themselves.

So don’t turn around one day, surprised that you have been deceived.

There is an ulterior motive. There always is with some people.

Lying Creates a Toxic Work Culture

Yesterday I realised for the first time that my manager had lied to me. Coincidentally, I had just finished listening to Sam Harris’ short book on the subject, Lying, & armed with my new approach to the subject, I decided that the lie did not sit well with me. It also had far-reaching implications.

The lie was not a clear statement that could be disproven. It was an idea calculated to deceive; an idea designed to intentionally deceive me & others where honesty was expected.

We were sold ‘the mission’, which was that we would revolutionise an industry & reduce the ecological footprint of millions through our work. This is just not the case. The case is that ‘the mission’ is to pursue lucrative funding contracts. The purpose of our work is, in essence, to unlock each stage of funding.

This deception has consequences that do not permit it to be considered in isolation. The knowledge that I have been lied to makes me also think it highly likely that I have been lied to more than once.

It suddenly brought into question everything. Every decision & interaction. If somebody can lie to you once, then what else is a lie?

 

Why honesty is important

Without honesty, trust breaks down. When trust breaks down co-operation breaks down. Without co-operation, human relationships break down. Without strong human relationships & trust, society breaks down.

It seems pretty obvious, yet we rarely adhere to honesty, despite it being in our collective interest.

When was the last time you lied? Almost definitely within the last few hours. It was probably so small & imperceptible that you didn’t even notice it.

“Sorry, I’m busy this evening.”

“Sorry, I don’t have any change for you.”

“I think I’ve got a sore throat coming, so I’m going to have to cancel.”

 

In a company, the habit of lying is toxic. It starts small, but insidiously works it’s way into every aspect of our human relationships.

If you know – or even just suspect – that somebody has lied to you, then by extension everyone is capable of lying to you.

If lying is known within your company culture, then every activity becomes suspicious; that doctor’s appointment, that day off you took when you were ill, that afternoon you worked from home.

Mistrust does not tend to manifest itself overtly. It is, however, very much implicit in many practices you may find in your workplace. Some examples from my current company:

  • Refusal to allow employees to work remotely
  • Adherence to set working hours (you may have ‘flexible working hours’, as we do, but culturally this is essentially false & it is implicitly signalled by management that the expectation is to work from 9.30am-7pm)
  • A scepticism towards new initiatives from employees
  • A need to always be online on our communication channel, Slack

 

In your personal relationships, it is also toxic. If you lie to somebody successfully, Sam Harris suggests show you will then trust them less. If a friend hears you lying to somebody else, they will expect the same.

By lying you are not only bringing into question the trust of those closest to you, but in many cases you are preventing yourself & those you lie to from confronting a difficult truth.

If, for example, I say that I am busy to avoid hanging out with someone, the only moral option is to tell them why I am avoiding them. This is a difficult conversation to have. However, it may lead both of you to address whatever issue you might have had with them, rather than leaving them left in the dark & confused by your excuses.

 

But what about…

The knock-on effect of lying can be drastic, as Sam Harris convincingly argues. Therefore each small lie must be considered within a broader context. It must be understood that lying ‘just that once’ can have drastic consequences for your own personal relationships & for society as a whole.

I now see it as inexcusable in the vast majority of cases & struggle when attempting to justify such behaviour.

I don’t like this behaviour in myself & think that my excuses are almost always borne from a desire to avoid confronting a difficult conversation or a difficult reality.

I do not expect my lying to stop completely & to live a life of saintly virtue, however.

I’m just trying to be more aware of it & to justify it more consciously. Lying for most is such an ingrained habit that it is not something you can change overnight.

 

My biggest lie

Ironically, despite my changed beliefs on lying, I have consistently lied for over 2 months & still see it as justifiable in this case, on the grounds that I would likely lose my job for being honest (which says something in itself about our work culture).

I decided to quit my job 2 months ago & will be resigning in a month’s time. I think many people at the company must suspect something is up.

I am clearly not happy, I am clearly apathetic towards whatever task I am given & am trying to avoid any extra work so I don’t need to stay late.

My boss, who I would also consider a friend, pulled me over last week & asked if everything was OK.

“Oh yeah, everything is fine. I was just a bit ill last week, so not feeling myself.”

 

This was very slightly true (I had been ill for a few days), but was a poorly veiled attempt to justify 3-4 weeks of unusual behaviour. In essence, it was a lie.

Theoretically, I could have said the following:

“No, everything is not fine. I hate my job. I am depressed most of the week. I am waking up at 6am to spend 3 hours working on a new business plan so I can get out of this place. I will resign as soon as it’s financially viable.”

 

This would make sense if I thought there was something I could change at the company, but it’s too far gone. It has just become a case of making sure I am not fired before I have saved up enough & prepared my new business enough to be ready to leave.

I justify lying on the pretext that I am protecting my job &, more importantly, that I will be 100% truthful once I’ve handed in my resignation. My short-term lies, which do not sit well with me, will be absolved by my future honesty.

 

Takeaway

So next time you lie, stop yourself & think: What are the implications of this lie now? In the future? For my future relationships? For the person I am lying to? For my company culture? For myself?

I hope that, as I have found, you find it pretty hard to justify.

 

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