Archive for identity

Stick or Slip: What’s Different When We Keep Our Promises to Ourselves?

What is it that makes us stick at something when the going gets tough, when at another time we may give up on exactly the same thing?  Think diets, smoking, exercise or a career goal.


I ask this questions because it is one I have been asking myself.  25 years ago working in a Business School, I could not have had better conditions for doing a PhD.  My fees were paid, I could study in work time, I had easy access to potential participants – but I gave up.  Roll forward and I have just finished a doctorate.  This time I paid my own fees, I did it whilst working fulltime, I gave up my weekends and holidays, and I had to find my own participants, and yet I got through.


The answer to my question is a simple one – I had purpose.

In my first attempt, I did not know why I was doing the doctorate – other than it was what my colleagues expected of me.  I was expected to approach it in a way which met with my boss’s approval, but which had little appeal to me.  I was uncertain of my focus, and as a consequence I was easily distracted into doing things which made a plausible case for not working on the research.

This time, I knew why I was doing it. I knew how I needed to do it in order for it to be motivating and valid for me.  I had a personal vision of what I wanted to do with the outcomes.  As a result my energy flowed easily towards the project.  There was no reason to procrastinate, every reason to keep going when the going got tough, and no difficulty in prioritising my activities.


So the learning is – if you want to move from I want to  . . . lose weight, get fitter, get promoted, change my career, be a better leader, then start by defining your purpose.  What is it you want by achieving your goal, because once you own that, the rest will follow.

Once you know why something is important to you, then you have started the process of succeeding.



Want to change your identity, change your story

Jo came to me with her story.  It was an engaging one.  She had given her all, had taken on jobs that no-one else wanted, had worked holidays as well as weekends and the outcome of the story was she felt exploited and overlooked.  While Jo wanted me to share in the unjustice of her experience, what I was listening for was different.  I was listening for the kind of story she was telling me, and from my position it was a Cinderella story.  She felt hard done by, she felt she was missing out and she was hoping that a Prince Charming – in the guise of a supportive manager would see her value and ensure she got the promotion she felt she deserved.


Cinderella stories are common, and it is not a gender issue. There are Cinderfellas out there too who feel that they are being badly treated, undervalued and overworked, and who hope for a rescuer who will see their true worth and make it OK for them.

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All of us create stories.  It is how we make meaning of our lives, but the danger is that we look to repeat the same story. We look for evidence in the situations we face that the same story is being played out, and over time it comes to shape our identity.  We become typecast, in the same way as Hollywood actors, but with less reward.  I have met many Cinderellas, but I have also met the solo warrior who is always fighting battles, the heroic rescuer who ensures that they take on the work of those they feel cannot cope, the maverick who always positions themselves outside the system, and the sacrificial parent who puts others needs before their own.  All of them feeling they have no other option.

The danger is that once we are caught by our own typecasting, it becomes difficult to see that there are behavioural choices: each identity traps the individual into believing that is how they have to be.

So, if you want to change your behaviour, start by changing your story.

Once Jo, decided she wanted to have control over her future rather than being a victim of it, she started negotiating about what she wanted in return for taking on work which she knew could help her build her career future.  Once she started acting as though she valued herself, others began to value her more.  Once she recognised that she could get what she wanted without hoping for a corporate Prince to provide it, the rewards started to flow towards her.


So ask yourself:

  • What story am I telling myself about my life?
  • What identity does that signal to others?
  • What behaviours does it lead me into?
  • What do I want to change in my story?
  • What would be a first behaviour that supported that new story?