Guest post by James Mapes

The founder of Quantum Leap Thinking, creator of The Transformational Coach, and an expert on the psychology of applied imagination, James Mapes is a highly acclaimed business speaker and personal excellence coach.


Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.

—Salman Rushdie


At the age of 51, I discovered, quite by accident, that my father adopted me when I was three.

Here’s how the story unfolded:  My younger brother Dave and his two sons were helping my parents move out of our family home in Zion, Illinois.  As my nephews were carrying a chest of drawers down the front porch steps, they lost their grip and the chest tumbled down.

A drawer slid out. Under an old, tattered piece of cardboard, my nephews spotted a photo of my mother in what appeared to be a wedding ceremony with a stranger.  Thinking that it was some kind of a Halloween joke, my nephews discarded the picture.  Dave, passing by, picked it up.  He immediately sought out my father.

Confronting dad, a calm and peaceful soul, Dave held up the photo and demanded, “What does this mean?”  My father nonchalantly replied, “I adopted Jim when he was three years old.”

Dumbfounded, my brother asked, “Does he know?”  “No,” my father replied.  “Neither of you were ever supposed find this out.”  My brother shot back, “Well, you have to tell him.  “I don’t want to tell him, you tell him,” retorted my father.   They worked out a plan.

Following a presentation in Milwaukee, I met my father and brother in my hotel room.  I sat in a large overstuffed chair, my father and brother stood.  They were staring at me in an odd way.  My brother suddenly exclaimed, “There are skeletons in our closet.”

Knowing my brother’s extraordinary sense of humor and seeking a punch line, I asked, “How many?”  “Just one,” he replied.

There was an awkward silence as I looked quizzically from one to the other.  Suddenly my father, a man of few words and terribly uncomfortable with intimacy, quietly said, “I adopted you when you were three years old.”

I felt my reality tilt.  A wave of conflicting emotions churned through me.  It was then that my father did something he has never done before.  He lovingly put his hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eyes and said, “I hope this doesn’t change anything between us.”  That was the closest he had ever come to saying, “I love you.”  And, that’s exactly what I heard.

In that millisecond, I realized I had two choices.  One was to be angry and resentful; the other to feel honored and loved.  I felt tears well up.  I chose to forgive – instantly.  Since then, our relationship has soared.  The lie that had been an unspoken barrier no longer existed.   For me, it was the ultimate lesson of love, forgiveness and understanding, since lies always separate us.


Did you relate to this story?  Did it prompt you to reflect or analyze?  Where you amused?  Did you feel emotion or judge the story through your own personal belief system?

I suspect you did, because it is always the story that makes the difference.  Stories captivate; Metaphor illuminates.  Stories with lessons shift our thinking because they draw upon the power of the imagination and touch us.

 You have the potential to be an awesome story teller.  That’s a very good thing because, storytelling is monumentally important to living an exceptional life.  Storytelling is the elegance of the creative imagination in action.  Storytelling activates your brain.  When it comes to human communication, the narrative you tell is a reflection of your reality, your life and of the beliefs and values you hold to be true.

Whether the story inspires action, selling, leading, managing, teaching or preaching, the power of story is the power of change.  We are governed not only by the stories we hear but also by the stories we tell others about ourselves and the stories we tell ourselves.

Leo Widrich, co-founder and COO of Buffer, writes in The Science of Storytelling: Why Telling a Story is the Most Powerful Way to Activate Our Brains, “For over 27,000 years, since the first cave paintings were discovered, telling stories has been one of our most fundamental communication methods.”

Storytelling is the ideal way to teach lessons.  The story I related happens to be about love and forgiveness.  But there are limitless stories that can illuminate, scare, entertain, teach and move others to positive or negative action in every area of life – personal and business.


Storytelling and can help us make better decisions every day:

Northwestern University psychology professor Dan McAdams, Ph.D. has spent the past decade systematically and quantitatively studying stories.  He writes, “Stories allow us to make sense out of otherwise puzzling or random events.  Stories help us smooth out some of the decisions we have made and create something that is meaningful and sensible out of the chaos of our lives.”   He continues, “Life stories do not simply reflect personality. They are personality, or more accurately, they are important parts of personality…”

Researchers have also discovered the stories we create in our imagination can shape our future.   Telling stories of struggle that turn out well may give people the hope they need to overcome obstacles and live productive lives.  And stories that vividly describe turbulence seem to help people grow wiser in the aftershock of major life challenges.


Taken together, psychologists’ narrative research makes one unquestionable point: We don’t just tell stories, stories tell us. They mold and shape our thoughts and memories, and they impact how we live our lives.

As a parent, friend, lover, spouse, business person, community organizer, you have limitless opportunities to tell a story that ignites people’s imagination and influence their perceptions to make a positive difference in the world.  In fact, your success in life, both personally and professionally – mentally, spiritually, emotionally or socially – depends on your ability to move, motivate, inspire, and drive others to action with story.

Think about all the stories you tell yourself and others and hear throughout the day.  They may be stories of complaint, success, horror or healing. The stories that influence are the stories that are vivid in detail and charged with emotional impact.

When you complain or gossip, you are affecting other people’s perceptions in negative manner.  When you tell stories that are positive and moving, you shape perceptions in a meaningful way.  You can make a major difference in the world by both your intention and your ability to tell a story.

Lock this this fact in your mind: Evolution has wired your brain for storytelling.  Use it wisely!

The power of storytelling is being rediscovered because of brain research and the elegance of the imagination.  Brain science shows that – without a doubt – the stories we tell ourselves and others have a powerful impact on our perceptions and the choices we make. It is a key to education, training, selling, innovation and managing communication.

We make up short stories, narratives, all day long.  We project in the future and write out our “to do” list or think about chores that have to be done or projects to be completed.  We create stories about our partners, spouses, children or the world situation.

Science and tech journalist Jeremy Hsu writes in the September 18, 2008 issue of Scientific American Mind, “The Secrets of Storytelling: Why We Love a Good Yarn” that “personal stories and gossip make up 65% of our conversations.”

If you want to move others to action and/or teach a lesson, help others shift their thinking and gain insight, take the time to craft your story.


1. Study the art of storytelling. Join the National Storytelling Network, attend local MOTH programs and watch TED talks on storytelling. Read Aesop’s Fables. If you are ambitious, read Socrates, Dale Carnegie or Ben Franklin: all master storytellers.

2. Choose the lesson you want to teach, the wisdom you want to impart and be clear on the point you want to make.

3. If possible, make your story authentic, one that comes from your experience.

4. Make your story “sticky.” Create a story that is vivid, rich in color and detail and is super- charged with emotion. Tell a story so it appeals to the heart as well as the intellect.

5. Write your story to help you clarify it.

In a world of quick sound bites, our hyper-connected world, there is still no faster or effective way to make a major difference in your communication than by telling a good story.  If you want to live an exceptional life, learn to become an exceptional storyteller.