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Personal Narratives and the value of skills based messaging

The Happiness Advantage and value of personal narratives

A few years back, I was very lucky to have had the opportunity to work on the leadership team at a summer camp outside of Marble Falls, Texas. A man by the name of Shawn Achor came and spoke at one of our orientation trainings and he radically changed the way that I had always viewed development. Shawn Achor is a PhD psychologist from Harvard, coming out with research that is helping to shape the field of positive psychology. We spent quite a while discussing the idea of a personal narrative and the impacts that our personal narrative has in our daily lives.

So, what is a personal narrative?

In short, it is the story that our subconscious brain tells ourselves about who we are. Our personal narrative is a collection of all the past information that has been provided to us about our successes and failures that help us to build an image of self within our minds. It is the collection of every time that we have been told we were intelligent or ignorant, hard-working or lazy, and all other information about who we are. The personal narrative is interesting though. If you’ve ever heard of the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy, then you’ve considered the personal narrative. People who have built up a personal narrative that they are hard-working, adaptable, charismatic people, are significantly more likely to behave in manners that align with this view of themselves. The inverse is also true though. If a person views themselves as lazy, unlucky, or set in their ways, they will continually seek out situations that are consistent with that view of themselves.

Why do we care about personal narratives?

Personal narratives and the influence that they have on our day-to-day actions give us an opportunity to begin taking advantage of the messaging we provide to our young people early on. If we are capable of sending triggers to our youth that are along the lines of developing the skills necessary to be successful today, then we will be establishing more personal narratives that align with those skills, and more young adults that hold those skills.

How do we take advantage of the personal narrative to develop valuable skills?

It is all in the messaging we provide during teachable moments. Every day, there are thousands of messages we hear, both verbally and non-verbally. These messages positively and negatively reinforce ideas about our personal narrative on a micro level, and over time, these messages can have a substantial influence on the person that we believe ourselves to be. Take for example the following scenario:

You are the parent of a child who is consistently receiving grades around the 70-75 range in a difficult subject, say calculus. About halfway through the semester, your child receives a 79 on an exceptionally difficult quiz. There are three typical messages that the you could provide this student, each having a vastly different impact on the personal narrative and in turn this student’s ability to develop valuable skills.

  1. “Well, another C… You know you need to work harder if you ever want to be successful.”

  2. “Hey, 79, that’s better than the 70’s we’re used to getting from you, way to go!”

  3. “Wow, a 79! I know this subject is very difficult for you, we’re so proud that you are working very hard to improve your score. I’m so proud that you work so hard in everything you do. No matter what happens, it’s comforting to know that you will persevere and try your best.”

What are the implications of each message?

In the first message, this parent is very negatively reinforcing their child. This message reinforces the idea that their child not only is not succeeding in this specific subject consistently, but also tells that student that they are not hard working and that they will never be successful. This student will grow up, looking for stimuli that is consistent with their new personal narrative as someone who is lazy and not capable of success.

In the second message, there isn’t much harm. This parent is reinforcing that they are getting better. However, there is no validation put on why the student is getting better, this parent missed a valuable opportunity to reinforce their child’s personal narrative.

It gets very interesting with the third message though. This child has been nervous about upsetting their parents and is still getting a C. Instead of getting scolded about their lack of success already, they are praised and positively reinforced about the fact that they haven’t given up. This student is provided messaging that alludes to their child’s perseverance, and willingness to see things through to the end. This third message builds a personal narrative in their child that this child is capable of taking on difficult things and improving at them over time as long as they keep trying.

The personal narrative is a powerful guiding mechanism in our lives. How we see ourselves has a direct impact in the way that we interact with our environment and the skills that we perceive ourselves as having. Every time our students struggle, instead of seeing failures, if we began to see opportunities to use skills-based messaging to develop positive personal narratives, we would begin to see these students gain confidence in themselves and their abilities to succeed.

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