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Your Stories Don’t Define You, How You Tell Them Will

Dec 3, 2019

“Just to make sure I understand this: If I sign the lease before the other two women in the house, I have the option of bringing a small pet. If I don’t choose to have one, I still have one of only two leases with that clause, which means if I don’t bring a small pet, that will be one fewer pet in the house. Is that right?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Excellent. How much is the deposit again?”

It was the end of the spring semester and I was signing a lease to share a four bedroom house with three other women starting fall semester at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. A few minutes later, I was on my way home to my parent’s house in Colorado Springs to spend the summer working and saving money for the next school year.

It was a fun summer working in a fancy restaurant, mostly lunch service, with a ridiculously fun crew, and the weeks flew by quickly. Just a few days before I was scheduled to move into the house in Fort Collins, I got a phone call from the landlord.

Her father bought the big house for her to live in and manage for the time she was going to be in school. As a student in the pre-veterinary program, they knew she’d be spending at least 4-6 years there and made a very wise investment by buying a house for her instead of renting. If I have any regrets in life, it’s not finding a way to buy a small house there while I was in school. Just a few years later, Fort Collins became a bedroom community for the Denver area, and still retains its lovely, small-town feel, and the property values have sky-rocketed there.

I answered her call to hear an abrupt, challenging tone:

“I’ve decided you can’t have a small pet in the house after all.”

“But that was in the lease I signed, Jessica.”

“I know, but I changed my mind.”

“Um… that’s not legal. Besides, what changed your mind?”

“I was only going to bring one of my cats from home in Albuquerque but I decided I want to bring both, and my dad said we couldn’t have more than two cats in the house.”

I’m not normally unreasonable, and I certainly wasn’t a particularly spiteful 20 year old, but her challenging, abrupt, aggressive tone really put me off. If she had just explained the situation and apologized for trying to change a legal document, I’m sure I would have been fine with it. But she wasn’t. And I was, well, 20, and pretty impulsive.

“What if I already got a kitten?”

“Can you take it back?” Again in a challenging and aggressive tone.

“What? Take it BACK? Are you serious? No! I can’t just TAKE IT BACK.”

“Okay then. We’ll just have to hide him when my dad comes to visit.”

Seconds after hanging up the phone I grabbed the newspaper off the kitchen table and combed the classifieds for free kittens. Two hours later I was driving home with my sister, with a kitten on my lap in my ’74 gold VW Super Beetle, stopping to pick up a cat box, cat litter, cat food, and a couple of toys for a kitten I couldn’t afford, didn’t really want, and hadn’t considered naming yet.

I can’t even imagine what my parents were thinking when I brought that kitten home. We were a dog family, through & through, and hadn’t had a cat since I was five years old. I didn’t even like cats.

But Clawed became an important part of my life, the only stable, reliable thing I experienced for at least six years, until I met my husband. He was all the things a cat can be: Mischievous, snuggly (on his terms), playful, and loving. And he was mine, completely mine. He tolerated other people, but I was HIS. I loved that cat for 9 years through multiple moves, the final one from Washington DC to Montana, where he died just a few months later. He brought me comfort in times of uncertainty, and gave me memories that have become legendary stories in my family. He was a beautiful accident to come out of a spiteful, impulsive decision.

I’ve been describing myself as impulsive for as long as I can remember, and most people who know me well would agree. And while I can be impulsive sometimes, I realize now when I look back, that most of the time my behavior was not as spontaneous as it appeared at the time. 

It wasn’t until I started getting deeply into my StrengthsFinder results that I saw myself and those quick decisions as less impulsive and more strategic. As I mentioned in an earlier episode, my top strengths are Strategic and Activator, and it took me at least four months to see where strategic showed up in my daily life.

That’s one of the cool things about that particular assessment: It opens your eyes to the possibility that something you considered a weakness before can be shifted to be seen from a different perspective, even as a strength.

In that earlier episode, I mentioned that my strategic shows up in my hamster-brain thinking process as I’m getting ready to do something. The example I used was that in the seconds it took me to bundle up for a hike on the mountain behind my house, I had a plan for the route I would take that day, complete with an explanation for every part of my plan: I’d take a steep trail up to get my heart rate up and warm my core, I’d take the two-block route to the trail that would allow for the dog to poop where it could easily be picked up and disposed of, and I’d be sure not to take the steep trail back because my knees were a little achy.

It was that “ah ha” moment on the mountain that I could finally see that strategic showed up a LOT in my life, like when I am in the car, and before I even click my seatbelt on, I know exactly the route I will take to run errands, and the reasons for the route.

And in the time between that discovery and today, I’ve started to see how strategic was showing up in my past, impulsive-looking decisions.

Getting Clawed was absolutely impulsive, there’s no sugar-coating that decision, when my Activator went crazy and Strategic took a back seat.

But the time (seemingly out of nowhere) I asked my husband to marry me wasn’t nearly as impulsive as it seemed. And the time, two days after we moved from Washington DC to Montana, I drove our 218,000 mile Honda Accord into the Subaru dealer parking lot with a failing transmission and drove out two hours later in a Subaru Outback Sport. And the time I walked through an 1890 Victorian home for a few minutes, called Bob to come look at it, and made an offer at 4:00 that afternoon. And the time I talked to Neil Hughes in late October about maybe starting a podcast, and launching it on December 26, 2017 with a handful of episodes in the hopper for a weekly publication. Was I thinking long term about any of those things? Absolutely not.

And yet, here I am, married for more than 22 years (and still like him an awful lot, but that’s another story), driving our third Subaru since purchasing that first one in 1999, all from the same awesome dealership, living in a charming, “project house” for nearly 20 years with loads of extraordinary memories of raising two wonderful boys, hosting guests, parties, and music, and here we are at episode 101 of that crazy idea of a weekly podcast I had nearly two years ago.

So. This is what Strategic-Activator looks like in me. None of those decisions were actually impulsive in the sense that they were exclusively spontaneous. Now – to someone with Deliberative or Intellection in their top strengths (like my husband), they certainly look that way, but that’s because a) they’re not in my head with me, where a ridiculously detailed but very fast internal dialog has happened before I take a step, and b) I haven’t taken them along for that ride.

Before asking my husband to marry me, my hamster brain had spent considerable effort (but not time, necessarily) thinking about things like: I haven’t ever wanted to spend this much time with one person, especially a guy, he treats me like I matter, like I’m smart and insightful, beautiful and sexy, reliable and practical (mostly), he brings me an espresso in bed every morning we’re together, which looks a lot like “love” and “cherish” to me, he’s kind, challenges me, is crazy-smart, warm, and tolerates my crazy – and my family’s crazy, with patience and is even mildly entertained by it. Those all felt like real things to me at the time, they still do, and asking him to marry me just felt right.

Buying that first Subaru wasn’t an instant decision either. And I had seen enough houses in the area we wanted to live, that I knew the deal-breakers for me. Of course, I didn’t REALLY understand what he meant when Bob said: “You know this is a project house, right?” But we haven’t ever regretted either of those decisions, nearly 20 years later. They were both good, reasonable decisions.

And when I took on that podcast project? I knew I had the support and resources to make it work long before I recorded the first episode. So no, it wasn’t even part of my imagination to consider I’d still be doing this, 101 episodes later. But then, at 20 years old, I thought the only thing I’d ever do for more than 20 years was breathe… and have a cat for a while.

As a matter of fact, I even told a story at a live storytelling event a few years ago, explaining the thought process before getting my one and only tattoo at 44 years old. It’s called I’m Impulsive, Not Stupid.

I’ve been telling myself for most of my life that I’m impulsive, maybe somewhat smart, but definitely lucky for how most of those impulsive decisions turned out well. And yet, as I become more intentional with my strengths, I’m able to see those decisions from a completely different perspective. It has shifted my confidence in a big way, and as a communication coach, has offered me incredible insights into others, particularly those with similar - and opposite - strengths from mine.

Being more aware of how my strengths work has also improved my communication with my husband, family, and close friends. When I’m working through an important decision, I now take those involved for the ride on that hamster wheel in my brain, so they can hear the reasoning behind where I’m leaning in that decision. And even more important, they can see the flaws and/or beauty of the reasoning to help me make those decisions more thoughtful and reliable.

If I surrounded myself only with people who thought like me, I’d miss out on making better decisions, and on recognizing and demonstrating that I value the strengths in the people around me, which is always good for relationships.

What is one thing you’ve been saying about yourself for decades? What are the stories you share that give you and your listeners the perceptions that match that thing you’ve been saying about yourself, confirming those characteristics in a positive or negative way?

Consider where those characteristics might not be what you’ve been telling yourself all these years, and maybe, just maybe you’ll see yourself in a more true, positive light.