I recently had an experience that reminded me how the choices we make in our relationships can have an impact on the stories others tell – and even the lives they live – for years, decades, even lifetimes…
When I was in eighth grade, I had one of those math teachers one might remember 25 years later. She believed that children who didn’t perform needed to be publicly humiliated. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a great performer.
One day, after my third straight D on a math test, this teacher ordered me to the front of the class. There, in front of all the students, she announced my grade, questioned my commitment, and hit me on the butt with a plastic toy sword.
The students had a good laugh.
I ran from the classroom in tears.
For the rest of my schooling, I hated math. As I slogged my way through geometry, trigonometry, calculus, and more advanced calculus, I resented how much easier the classes seemed for everyone else. I wondered why my brain was so much slower.
There was a self-deprecating story in my head that told me I was helpless with numbers.
The other day, more than two decades removed from eighth-grade math, I was calculating some numbers in my head to help with some quick business projections. One of our directors shared, “I wish I could do math like you. The numbers just roll out of your head!”
Reflexively, I thought to myself: “I’m terrible at math.”
Then I held that thought.
Perhaps this wasn’t the first time somebody had told me I was good at math in the last few decades. If they had, I’d been unable to hear their words over the self-deprecating story in my head that told me I was helpless with numbers.
But for whatever reason, on this recent day, the words got through.
“The numbers just roll out of your head!”
I didn’t know what to make of it at the time, so I carried on with our work. But now I’ve had some time to think. Maybe the numbers have been rolling out of my head for decades… and because I bought into a simple story, I just haven’t noticed it?
For me, the lesson in this story has nothing to do with math. Instead, it’s about my leadership: I need to always be aware that my actions as a leader have an impact both on the stories people tell themselves today… and the stories they tell years into the future.
I’m sure my eighth-grade math teacher truly believed that a little humiliation would motivate me to perform better in school. Instead, I started telling myself a story that, for decades, kept me from recognizing my own capabilities.
Leaders have a responsibility to help the people they lead tell empowering stories about themselves.
Unfortunately, my teacher never noticed or corrected for her impact. But as leaders, parents, colleagues, friends… we have a responsibility to observe, ask, and listen for the effects we’re having on the stories of the people around us.
When we recognize inadvertently harmful impacts, we have a responsibility to help the people around us tell more empowering stories about themselves – stories that can make the math of our lives much more enjoyable!
—Daniel Jacobs, Avanoo CEO & Co-founder
Daniel Jacobs is a husband, father, inventor, and storyteller. His work has been featured on Fortune, Inc. Magazine, Business Insider, Apple News, HuffPost, and most major news publications in the United States. He is CEO and co-founder of Avanoo, which uses the power of stories to drive connection, belonging, and performance in the workplace.
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