Ramit’s 2018 manifesto: Rewriting your story
I don’t want to brag, but I’m really good at sleeping. I close my eyes and fall asleep in about 45 seconds. I wake up eight hours later, no interruptions. Once, I read a Reddit thread about how sleeping on your back is better, so I switched from sleeping on my stomach and changed a lifetime of habits overnight. That’s right. You’re reading Ramit Sethi, professional back sleeper.
But last year, for the first time in my life, I started having trouble sleeping. It started taking me 10 minutes to fall asleep, then 30, then more than an hour. The worst part is, when I finally fell asleep, I would wake up gasping for air 10+ times every night.
Now I was in a terrible cycle of being tired, dreading going to sleep because I knew I’d wake up suffocating…then, yes, having my fear come true 10 times a night. THIS, MY FRIENDS, IS HELL.
I took NyQuil. I tried no caffeine. Finally, I went to go see an ear, nose, and throat doctor who ran some tests and even put a tube down my throat to check for any blockages.
She finally spun around on her stool and said, “Physiologically, you’re fine. Are you under any stress?”
And that’s when I laughed.
For my whole life, I’ve known certain things about myself: I can write. I’m a good speller. And when it comes to stress, I’m cool under pressure.
In fact, it became part of my identity:
“I’m cool under pressure.”
I never really get fazed. I’m calm, in control. I get it from my dad. All things I told myself, and my friends, for 30+ years.
Which was true…until it wasn’t.
Try to imagine you’ve built your entire identity on something, and suddenly, you realize it’s not true. Suddenly Mr. Hot Shit ain’t so hot.
When the doctor told me that I was gasping for breath every night because of stress, I just stared at her. Stress? That doesn’t affect me. I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t stress out.
Writing this here sounds stupid, like one of those comical things that happen to “other” people. But don’t laugh. If you’d told yourself a story for 35 years and suddenly discovered it wasn’t true, how would you react?
2017 was a tough year in our business. We took a big hit on traffic. We had to let some valuable team members go. And we had to reorient how we do business in several big ways.
It turns out, I’m not some omnipotent CEO. “I’m cool under pressure” doesn’t apply all the time. I react the same way everyone else does to extreme stress — only I’d never been put in the position to discover that before. Now I was being told that, actually, the story I’d believed for 35 years wasn’t true?
It was one of the most surprising moments of my life. My identity, the one I’d believed, the one I’d created and cultivated, wasn’t actually what I thought. Maybe I had been wrong about who I was all along.
Here’s a tough question for you:
What’s the story you tell yourself?
That you’re not a morning person?
That you’re an introvert?
That you have bad genetics?
(By the way, what about the positive stories you tell yourself? Are you really good with kids? Good at traveling? A great writer?)
What would happen if you discovered one of those stories wasn’t true?
I know, this isn’t the usual easy reading that’s going around. It’s not a Happy New Year post about making resolutions that finally stick. But I think this is more important than any resolution you’ll ever make.
I believe that our lives are made up of stories. And I believe there are three kinds of stories that matter:
- The stories we’re told.
- The stories we believe.
- And the stories we change.
And I would be willing to bet you $10,000 that you currently believe a story about yourself that’s not true. Here’s why.
What stories have you been told?
We’re told stories by everyone around us. Some of them are true. Some of the stories used to be true, but not anymore: “You should work at the same company for 30 years, then retire with a pension.” (When I was 21, a family friend told me I should go work at Procter & Gamble for 30 years, then I’d retire with a million dollars. I wanted to say, “That’s it? 30 years in a cubicle for a million bucks?” But he was an Uncle, so I said, “Thank you for the advice” while secretly thinking, “Are you insane?”)
But some of the stories are plainly false: “Real estate is always the best investment.” Every time I say this, people get really mad, because in America, real estate is religion.
Can you think about other myths you’ve been taught about money, relationships, business, and productivity?
Now think about the stories you believe.
When you think of a superhero, who comes to mind? Superman? Batman?
What if you’re an Indian kid growing up in California, your dad wears a turban, and all the superheroes you know don’t look like him…or you?
What if the only exception — the one area where Indian people unquestionably dominate — is in SPELLING BEES??
Well, then you become a spelling bee champion, which I did. A P-R-O-D-I-G-I-O-U-S champion.
But I simply had no idea that an Indian guy could be huge and ripped. That was for “those” guys who looked like superheroes, not me. And why wouldn’t I believe that story? Until I was in my mid-20s, I had never seen someone who looked like me — a skinny, bookish Indian guy — put on tons of muscle.
Believing that story (a story so subtle, I didn’t even realize I had absorbed it) stopped me from getting into shape until I was almost 30.
The people we see around us influence us. Imagine growing up with parents who eat junk food. It’s around you every single day, that you believe it’s normal to eat a bag of chips while watching TV. Why wouldn’t you? It’s all you’ve known.
That’s why it’s such a relief to see someone who looks like you. Imagine you’re a recent immigrant to NYC. Or a little girl who dreams of being a superhero.
LEFT: The headline of the subway poster says “NYC Public Schools speak your language,” but the sign is about more than just language. It symbolically communicates, “We’re here for you —
your culture, your heritage.”
RIGHT: Same thing for the pic of Wonder Woman, speaking to a generation of little girls who dream about being a superhero.
Have you ever seen someone who looks like you, doing the thing you want to do? If not, it makes a lot of sense that it’s hard to imagine you doing it (this is also called Imposter Syndrome).
I had a friend who, at 34, wasn’t sure about having kids. Why? She had no positive role models for parenting (in fact, she’d never met a parent who actually spoke positively about having kids — it’s way easier to complain about kids).
If you’ve never met someone like you who started a business, it’s no surprise that it’s hard to imagine actually becoming an entrepreneur. I can show you 10,000 success stories, but if it’s not someone who relates to you — could be someone who lives in your city, or looks like you, or has a similar background — it’s hard to imagine you doing it.
Now we start to understand why we believe the stories we do, sometimes without even realizing it.
Think about all the stories you might believe:
- Money: “I need to cut back on lattes to get my finances right.”
- Relationships: “Just wait, and be yourself…the right person will come around when you’re not looking.”
- Business: “I need to do FB ads to grow my business” or “I’m not ready to be an entrepreneur yet.”
- Fitness: (Basically everything from the fucking nutrition and fitness market. I hate you.)
You and I like to believe that we make reasoned, rational decisions to do the things we do. In reality, lots of the things we do are driven by the stories we tell ourselves — the stories we may have never even thought about…and which might not even be real. This is extremely uncomfortable to contemplate.
In fact, one of the most startling things in the world is realizing you’ve been believing a story about yourself…that might not be true.
The cost of believing the wrong story
One of my dreams is to hold a conference where I sit around and scream at everyone in the audience about all the things they’re doing wrong.
YOU WORRY ABOUT FINDING THE PERFECT BLOG THEME. WORRY ABOUT FINDING AN IDEA PEOPLE WILL REALLY PAY FOR.
YOU WORRY ABOUT A TERROR ATTACK. YOU’RE MORE LIKELY TO DIE FROM A TODDLER…OR A PEANUT.
YOU’RE WORRIED ABOUT WHICH STUPID DIET TO USE. WORRY ABOUT EATING LESS, WORKING OUT, AND HAVING A STRONG SOCIAL CIRCLE.
However, decades of life experience suggests people don’t really like being told all the ways they’re wrong. Also, I have enough trouble selling tickets to a real conference, much less one where the primary promise is to crush dreams.
Anyway, I love thinking about risk. Like any CEO, I’m obsessed with thinking about unlikely risks, how to contain them, and when to go all in and bet the farm.
It’s interesting that a lot of us think about risk as one big calamity that can suddenly hit us: a car accident, a home invasion, a death in the family.
But risk comes in more subtle ways, too — like believing the wrong story, day by day.
You believe the wrong story, you make certain choices…and eventually, you wake up, confused about why life has turned out the way it has.
America’s classic middle-aged conundrum: “Why did I wake up at 52 with a suburban house with a white-picket fence…2.5 kids…a convertible car…and I hate all of it?”
That’s why it’s important to remember that there’s a third kind of story: the kind we change.
Think of your own life: What if you really weren’t a “shy person”? What if you’d been telling yourself a story that was holding you back — and you recognized it, then changed it?
Man, this is uncomfortable to contemplate. In fact, when I shared this idea with a few people and asked them to think of a story they’d been telling themselves that they could change…
…they were stumped.
Changing the story you tell yourself is viscerally uncomfortable because it means that (1) you might have to do the very thing you’ve created an identity around not doing, and (2) you might have been wrong about yourself for your entire life. It’s not just hard. It’s psychologically devastating.
Easier to go back to eating chips and scrolling email newsletters! Happy New Year guys!! Let’s talk about 56,375 productivity tips that nobody’s going to do, but it helps sell ads!
Here, watch. This is how easy it is for people to give up on re-examining their internal stories:
Reader: “Hmm, this Ramit guy might be onto something. Lemme think about the stories I tell myself.”
Reader (12 seconds later): “Wait, I’m shy. I don’t like going to parties. Now you’re telling me I have to go to 50 parties and waste my time on small talk?”
BOOM. 12 seconds and this person is done.
What’s happening here is the most common example of how your mind will trick you into avoiding seriously re-examining your internal stories. It’s called an “Extreme-Reach Barrier”: Your mind, which loves psychological comfort, will come up with the most outlandish example of what you “have” to do…then summarily dismiss it. Go to 50 parties?? LOL!
Ahhh, relief. You’ve gone through the exhausting process of carefully considering your options, then you’ve consciously decided not to pursue it. At least, that’s what your mind tells you. In reality, you haven’t done the hard work at all.
We see this all the time in our business. I can show you 10,000+ examples of people who have used our material to start a profitable business, or negotiate a $25,000 raise. Shit, we taught people to cook amazing eggs!
But I’ve also realized that we can’t force it. If someone isn’t ready to start a business, there is no amount of proof that will actually matter.
Maybe they’ve never seen someone like them who successfully started a business. Maybe they don’t believe they can do it. Maybe they just don’t care about being an entrepreneur! If someone isn’t open to changing their story, nothing else matters.
Interestingly, people will almost never explicitly say “I can’t start a business because I’ve never seen someone like me do it.” In 13+ years, I’ve never heard that.
Instead, they’ll say things like “I don’t have time” or “I don’t have an idea” or “Yeah, but can you help a left-handed albino who lives above the equator start a multi-channel business…”
Hey, if you don’t want to do something — that’s fine! I don’t want to meditate. No, I don’t care about your referral code to Headspace.
But there’s a fine balance between consciously deciding not to do something…and unconsciously following a story that someone else wrote for you.
If you’re lucky in life, you get an epiphany, a pivotal moment where you realize the story you believe isn’t actually true. (This happened at the doctor’s office for me when she told me I was reacting to a ridiculous amount of stress.)
But most of us don’t get that moment. We start the new year making the same resolutions as last year, telling ourselves the same stories.
“I’ll try harder this year. I want to get more productive. I should save more money. Blah blah blah, zzZzzzZzzzz…”
But it is possible to change our stories. How? By asking a simple question. Just two words:
What if I could actually look like those superheroes? (Here’s my before and after photo. Send me yours!)
What if I could actually be emotionally sensitive? (I’m working on this. It’s taken a long time but I’ve fundamentally changed my personality. By the way, you look amazing today.)
What if I wasn’t as impervious to business stress as I thought?
What If you took one of your core assumptions about yourself and flipped it on its head? Even just for a day, what would that look like?
Let me show you what I mean: One of my readers, Jen, posted this story about her daughter. It’s one of my favorite examples of changing a story ever.
Absolutely amazing. What did you notice?
I noticed her changing the story she’d created for herself:
- The Old Story: A mother-daughter experience, the frugalista myth.
- Conflict: Why should I spend more money on this?
- Choice: Why not? What If I decided to go for it?
- The lesson: Jen rewrote her story about a Rich Life. What did it take for her to change her story? She realized life isn’t just about price, it’s also about value.
You can see how deeply her Old Story (frugality) seeped into her life — and how difficult it was to change. But think about all the possibilities she now has in her New Story.
If you could change your story, you could open up entire possibilities that you’d never considered before.
My story changed once I realized that I was under an immense amount of stress. We made several big changes in our business, and overnight, my sleep problems disappeared. They’re gone, and I’m back to being The #1 Sleeper Ramit Sethi.
I gotta tell you…changing the stories I believed has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It was easier to avoid confronting the stories, to distract myself by reading 50 more Reddit threads, or to lie to myself and say, “Someday I’ll do that.”
But when I actively woke up, took control, and rewrote my story, everything changed.
If you remember nothing else from this, I want you to remember one thing: You can and must rewrite your story.
Forget about the symptoms of Imposter Syndrome, or “I don’t have an idea,” or “What do I really want to do?” Those are surface level. Go deeper and examine the stories you tell yourself.
Rewriting your story of a Rich Life takes these three ingredients:
What if: Start your story with two words. What if? What if you decided to become a morning person? What if you became the person who plans an annual family retreat? What if you decided to start a business this year?
You’re the hero: Make yourself the hero of your story by (1) having fun and (2) getting the help of other people around you. Ask for help and ask for ideas. People WANT to help you.
Look to the future: Don’t dwell on the past or just focus on the present. Imagine where you want to be.
If you can do this, you can change your life faster than you imagined possible. I’m going to show you how.
I want to hear from you. Leave a comment with one story in your life that you’d like to rewrite. Don’t worry about how — we’ll work through that later. I just want to hear about a story in your life that you want to rewrite.