Conversations at the Crossroads.

Beware the Cautionary Tale

Consider this scenario:

You contemplate making a change in some area of your life. It might be a significant change, or a small one, but it is ultimately a change that you believe would result in a greater sense of satisfaction, fulfillment or joy.

You think through the options and potential consequences from every angle, and then you commit yourself to taking the next step.

Your foot is raised. You are poised to step forward, and then…

Suddenly, everyone you know has a cautionary tale to share about his or her own experience with a change similar to yours. These are tales of

uphill battles




As you listen, it’s as if the stories you hear become your own. You are no longer in a state of anticipation. Instead, you are viewing in a crystal ball how it will all play out. You can see how it will end, and you can see how you will fail, too.

And so your foot comes down, the step forward not taken.

How familiar is this scenario?

For most of us, it is quite familiar. At the exact moment we find ourselves ready to make a shift, finding confidence in our decision, it seems like cautionary tales emerge from the woodwork. Some of them have the power to paralyze us.

The tricky thing about cautionary tales is that they are presumably shared with good intentions. Let me tell you what happened to me in order to spare you a similar outcome. So why it is that beyond the assertion of good intentions this feels more like a judgment that you are making a bad decision?

It helps to remember that the main character in a cautionary tale is the storyteller, not you. The judgment you are sensing likely derives from the storyteller judging that he or she made a bad decision. When we reconcile the events of our lives and believe that all of our experiences—even the challenging and painful ones—grow us in some way, we reframe our perspectives and ditch our story lines of regret and failure. And so it makes sense to infer that tellers of cautionary tales are struggling with their own regret, and that ultimately that’s what is driving the telling of the story.

Yet, because the cautionary tale comes up in the face of your decision to make a change, the storyteller effectively projects the story and the judgment onto your situation, such that you begin integrating those details with your own.

In these moments, stepping back to acknowledge that you are hearing someone else’s story can help you refocus on the truth of your own story, as well as the thoughtful path that brought you to your decision in the first place.

When you think about it, how likely is it that someone else’s story could really be predictive of what will happen to you anyway? To some degree (if not a very large degree), the characters, time, place and exact circumstances will vary. However similar the other story may sound, your story will inevitably be unique.

That is not to say that cautionary tales are never helpful. Outside perspectives can actually be very helpful. However, recognizing that those perspectives offer additional data points with no true predictive ability can help you keep the balance, keep your head straight, and keep on moving.

With support and encouragement for your journey,

Founder, The Crossroads Coach

Published February 8, 2015