Randomly Accessing Your Memories: How Your Stories of the Past Influence Your Future


Last week you had a difficult interaction with people you care about. Remember it? They were your clients or your colleagues or maybe they were your kids. There was tension in the room, and your behavior affected the situation.

How did the story play out?

According to a study by Northwestern University, you might actually have the story wrong. And your version of events might plot the trajectory of your life.

I work with a lot of CEOs, and as part of my process, I’ll interview others to get a clearer picture of that person as well as individual and team performance. In a recent interview, a VP of Engineering called his CEO a “RAM Rewriter.” Something will happen, he said, and then a week later the CEO will recall the interpersonal dynamics and communication details completely differently from what “really” happened according to the engineering leader. It’s not as if the CEO changes obvious facts, he explained; instead he alters the nuances to support his own situational framework.

He does it to survive.

This CEO started the company in his basement and has grown it tenfold in ten years. Imagine the stress and fatigue of growing a business from $6M to $60M. Imagine the personnel issues, quality issues, customer issues, supplier issues, legal issues, family issues. History becomes less about facts and more about the platform for the future.

Or as Joel Voss, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Northwestern, put it, “Memory is not intended to allow you to remember what you did last week, or remember your childhood. The point is to help you make good choices now.”

In other words, we’re all like that CEO. We’re all rewriting our memories.

The question is, how are your stories influencing your future? It comes down to the kind of RAM Rewriting you are doing:

  1. Accusatory. In a meeting recently, I was having trouble expressing my thoughts on a sensitive subject. People reacted the wrong way, and I felt myself getting frustrated. Later as I drove away, I replayed the exchange over and over. Each time I played the tape I sounded more emotional, and the people in the meeting seemed more judgmental and irritated with me.Do you ever leave a meeting telling yourself stories that darken your self-perception or the trust and connection you have with other people? Maybe your performance or their intentions get worse with every retelling.
  2. Vulnerable. Joseph Grenny and his colleagues at VitalSmarts suggest that we “master our stories” so we won’t make false assumptions about each other’s intentions. When you share your story and listen to others’ stories, you’ll find mutual truth and understanding.Do you ever leave a particularly contentious conversation committed to articulating the story of your experience and asking other people to share theirs? Perhaps your performance or their intentions become clearer in the light of communication.
  3. Positive. One way many entrepreneurs and professional athletes stay resilient is by perceiving facts in their most favorable or optimistic light. By conforming their memory of situations to their vision of themselves and others, they develop a sense of self-assured buoyancy.Do you leave interactions telling yourself stories that lighten the way you feel about yourself and other people? Perhaps the key players get better every time the story is retold.

The way you tell your stories might just define the trajectory of your life. What kind of RAM Rewriter will you be?

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