The Stories We Tell Ourselves


I can’t get enough of The Games. I find myself switching between swimming, diving, beach volleyball, know the list. Some of you might be expecting a blog about the high performance element of the Olympics and how that relates to the professional world. I’m happy to report that those of you who continue reading will hopefully be surprised. (Every old dog has to have a new trick now and then.)

 Actually, this message is for the other 99.9% of us who have not qualified this year for the Olympics; did not get the call back or promotion they thought they deserved; or worse yet, have lost the job that they had invested so much of their lives in. This is for us, who at one time or another, despite all of the self-help books, self-confidence and grit in our minds and hearts, have fallen short. There’s a moment after you’ve been hit with the reality of not meeting your goal or being rejected when we end up swirling--not knowing what to do--or asking the question, “Now what?”

Responses to that question creep into our minds and can sometimes set us in a downward spiral of self-defeating thoughts and behaviors. Often times, the reaction to falling short of our goal is anger, denial, blaming--wanting to ‘pick up our ball and go home.

We have to weather that initial, reflexive reaction and be intentional in what we do next. 

I’m often approached by people with questions like: “I’ve just lost my job, can you help me regain my confidence?” or “I’ve been trying to reach my goal for five years, what do I now? I don’t believe I’m good enough.” In the last  couple of weeks, I’ve been approached by several people raw from rejections. This is an excerpt from an email:

"Now I find myself unemployed and starting to question if I was ever worth the salary that I was paid and if I was actually any good at what I did for a living. I'm no longer sure if all the books I've read about culture, people centric leadership, emotional intelligence along with the management philosophy that I had been developing over the course of my career mean anything?”

Losing a job can be devastating. This person’s whole world was turned upside down. These folks that reached out to me over the past month were high achievers, VP in their organizations, NCAA coaches, pillars in their community, making big, fat, six-figure paychecks. They had never known anything but excellence.

I took a moment to remind them that a job is not your identity. Organizational choices aren’t always about you. But, sometimes we pursue a goal so hard, with so much might and muster, its’ fulfillment becomes consuming--all we know and track. Along the line, we don’t realize that chasing this particular dream could actually be negative to us. We can be met with failure after failure after failure, and the continued pursuit of it ends up being detrimental to our health and wellbeing. So, we have to think here:

How do we balance confidence, grit, and resilience with what is good for us AND good to us?

Ask yourself: ‘Are they rejecting me?’ More often than not, it’s about values alignment. When I was speaking with one VP who was shaken at being packaged out at the peak of his career, there was a realization that he actually wasn’t happy. The more we delved into his experience, it became clear that somewhere along the way he started doing a job for money and his values weren’t in alignment. It’s no wonder it ‘wasn’t a fit.’ The organization and the individual approached problems from different sets of values. We all know if there isn’t alignment of purpose, even hard work and lots of resources will not achieve excellence. And, that frustration from fruitless endeavours and butting heads is felt by the individuals and the organization as a whole.

How do we know when to pivot and let go of one goal in order to pursue a new dream or opportunity?

This message may seem counter-intuitive to my common key messages around confidence and grit. Shouldn’t we find a way, keep practicing, and tell ourselves we can? I’m here to tell you that there come times in our lives when stepping away from a course is actually a critical part of adopting a growth mindset. At these moments, we have to recognize that somethings just weren’t meant to be. Our talent and this task are just not in alignment. This doesn’t mean we have to give up on our goals completely. Instead, we might need to shift. Over the course of my own career, I moved from trying to be a professional athlete to being a professional soccer coach, to being a professor to being an athletic director. A colleague of mine who was rejected in her workplace, moved to a different workplace.

There comes a time when we have to make a decision. If you think you may be beating your head against a brick wall between you and a goal, ask yourself these key questions:

  1. At what cost do we continue pursuing this goal?
  2. Is this goal truly worth the sacrifice?
  3. Are there key ingredients of this dream that you could still get elsewhere?
  4. Is there another way to achieve the same outcome?
  5. Is the continued pursuit of this goal good for my health and wellbeing?

It’s easier to get to this stage if we are really careful about how we react to the rejection or failure. Here’s part of the response I wrote to the email I shared earlier:

“Give yourself some time to grieve. It is normal to question all of what you have known and accomplished. Life is shitty sometimes and unpleasant things happen to good people. This setback does not define you unless you give into your feelings of sadness, anger and shame.  Those are reasonable emotions and you need to experience them but then you need to move forward.   

When you are done grieving, it’s time to reframe your perspective to think of the opportunity you have been provided.  Remember…  


Turn your attention to your strengths and what has helped you achieve so much in life. The days ahead will be filled with ups and downs but another opportunity is out there waiting for you. You just need to go find it.”

As I shared with that individual, it’s okay to be angry, experience some denial and have an immediate vociferous reaction. That is grief. How long we stay there, though, is critical. That’s what we have to be careful of. High performers react to rejection or failure through strong messaging to themselves. Here are some key messages that can help you come out of a difficult time well and strong. Be thinking about these questions the next time you are faced with a hard NO:

  1. What am I here to learn?
  2. How has this experience prepared me for my next opportunity?
  3. Is this really what I want and does it align with who I am?

In psychology, this comes from the narrative therapy framework.

The stories we tell ourselves and others about failure helps build resilience and move us more quickly towards our next goal.

So, for all the Olympians out there who were so close, but didn’t get the chance and all the prospective VPs and Directors out there who are just not making the jump or those of you that are facing a big fork in the road--recognize that in every failure there is an opportunity for you to craft a powerful narrative.

Defining moments are born from failure.

You can control your thoughts and choose how you explain your experience to others; and more importantly, how you explain this loss to yourself. Choose a story that is about a temporary situation in your life rather than one that characterizes this moment as permanent and integral to who you are. By owning a narrative that reflects your strengths and a growth mindset, you will change the way you move forward in your personal and professional life that can actually elevate you.

To all those would-be Olympians, up-and-coming leaders and high achievers, remember, You Got This!


Want actionable tips sent right to your inbox?

(With a NO FLUFF Guarantee)