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The Problem With “Tell Your Story”

When we read Crime and Punishment in college, my professor spent a full month on the significance of the confession. Not Raskolnikov’s because I don’t want to tell you if he confesses or not if you haven’t read it. But the act of confession itself.

Like saying the truth out loud.

Apparently, St. Augustine was big on this and so we talked about him and Catholicism for a while, too, but the crux was this:

When you speak something out loud, you’re absolved of its power over you.

The Christians were onto something here. The woo-woo spiritual folks like this trope too, but their version is “your darkness can’t survive the light,” or some reference to a “shadow self.”

The psych literature has some nice data to support this claim, as well. When you hide stuff inside, it tends to bite you in the ass in other ways.

So, there’s something visceral about our need to say things about ourselves out loud. 

It cleanses us, absolves us. We can move on. Make peace. It’s why advice like “tell your story,” is so powerful. We whip it out EVERYWHERE. The solution to all your problems: Just. Tell. Your. Story.

Speak! Tell the truth! Tell your story!!

I dunno about y’all, but I’ve been looking for an excuse to talk about myself since I was two, and now you’re telling me it can absolve me from suffering? SIGN ME UP.


There’s one tiny problem with this advice.

The “for” part.

It’s great advice for making progress in therapy. For overcoming trauma and abuse. For finding happiness. For fixing your marriage. For ending your marriage. For managing anxiety and perfectionism. Great advice for personal development.

Not great advice for writing or starting businesses.

Which is how most of us have come across this advice: “Just tell the truth! Tell your story and the money will come!”

Don’t do that.

Do not, I repeat, do not do that.

St. Augustine was right about confession leading to absolution.

But confession does not lead to cash.

It leads to you being kind of a schmuck because when you do it for the wrong reasons, it doesn’t really work.

Like this headline, “Why I Almost Shut Down My $500k a Month Company.” That’s a real headline from a piece I read about a founder who discovers he made a shit product (I’m not going to link the article). He realizes his marketing is great so he keeps making money, but then customers discover his product is terrible. And now he’s writing a piece seeking absolution for his crime.

But he’s not actually seeking absolution.

He’s seeking sales. He wants the piece to go viral, so he can sell you more of the product he just told you was terrible. This is what is commonly referred to in online business circles as “failure porn.”

Failure porn is when someone is using their (alleged) pain and suffering as a tool for sales, likes, and shares. 

It’s often confused with its younger cousin, “sincere vulnerability.”

Sincere vulnerability has almost nothing in common with failure porn except that they both look a bit like disclosure. Disclosure is telling people stuff that is private. When you do it the appropriate way, it’s brave and difficult. Like when you find out your best friend has been cheated on, so you share that you have also been cheated on, but not in the way where you make it about you (that’s not brave). You do it in a way that conveys, “I know how you feel. It sucks. I’m here for you.” That’s brave.

Disclosure is when you share something private. It’s vulnerability when you do it appropriately. It’s failure porn when you do it indiscriminately for sales, likes, and attention.

The content marketing world has blended the personal and professional leading to some confusion on this point so I’d like to clear this up.

The reason a confession does not lead to cash is because it’s not a business technique, it’s a tool for personal growth. If you would like to be better at business, build something people want. If you would like to absolve yourself of suffering, tell someone who’s earned the right to hear it.

(If that language sounds familiar it’s because I stole it from her.)

Now, unless you’ve done a lot of self-work, I doubt you’re telling your story appropriately. Which brings me back to our failure porn bro making a $500k/month delivering terrible service.

Using his failure as a learning opportunity is not a bad idea. In fact, I did it here.

This guy’s piece fails because he left out the only good part of the story: HIS FEAR. Sure, yes, he’s uncertain if he can make payroll and he’s worried he can’t manage the business. That’s surface-level fear. A cover for his real fear.

A good rule of thumb is if your fear is socially acceptable, it’s probably not your real fear.

His real fear is, “What will people think when they discover I’m a fraud?”

That would have been a great piece to read.

Instead, he leads us to the mundane conclusion that (I shit you not, he actually wrote this): You need a product that works, not just great marketing.

I’m just gonna let that one stand on its own because I just can’t right now with this – and skip to what I want to talk about:

That was not his lesson.

His lesson was, “I know I’m perpetuating a fraud. I feel ashamed of this, but that shame wasn’t enough to stop me.”

Now there’s a story we want to read.

If you are going to share your story, ask yourself why, and answer honestly.

And I’ll save you some time because here’s the only good reason to share your story (publicly)(with people): to support your bigger point.

You gotta have a bigger point.

Or, to quote Steven Pressfield, what is this story about?

We gotta have a point. What was the point! Tell us the point of the story! When you share your story, if you choose to share it, there must be a reason.

Sharing your personal story is a technique, not an end.

Love Warrior wasn’t a memoir. Forward wasn’t a memoir. Born a Crime wasn’t a memoir. Educated wasn’t a memoir. They’re books about something MUCH bigger than themselves.

They’re using their personal stories as a tool. A vehicle through which to communicate a much bigger point.

That’s how you tell your story. And that’s WHY you share your story in public.

Use your story as a means of connecting what’s in your head to what’s in my head.

It’s not for absolution. It’s for connection.

To connect.

That’s it.


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