“There’s always room for a short story that can transport people to another time and place.”
? J.K. Rowling
Let me distract you for a moment…
It’s story time! 😉
I’ve told the following short stories to our students, readers, and conference attendees dozens of times over the past decade, and I usually get thanked for doing so. The people and circumstances differ slightly every time I tell them, but the core lessons and narratives are grounded in truth.
My challenge for you today is to read the first story below. Then come back tomorrow and read the next one. Give yourself a little extra perspective every day this week. See how doing so changes your thinking from day to day…
Story #1: What Life is All About
Once upon a time, there was a girl who could do anything in the world she wanted. All she had to do was choose something and focus. So, one day she sat down in front of a blank canvas and began to paint. Every stroke was more perfect than the next, slowly and gracefully converging to build a flawless masterpiece. And when she eventually finished painting, she stared proudly at her work and smiled.
It was obvious to the clouds and the stars, who were always watching over her, that she had a gift. She was an artist. And she knew it too. She felt it in every fiber of her being. But a few moments after she finished painting, she got anxious and quickly stood up. Because she realized that while she had the ability to do anything in the world she wanted to do, she was simply spending her time moving paint around on a piece of canvas.
She felt like there was so much more in the world to see and do—so many options. And if she ultimately decided to do something else with her life, then all the time she spent painting would be a waste. So she glanced at her masterpiece one last time, and walked out the door into the moonlight. And as she walked, she thought, and then she walked some more.
While she was walking, she didn’t notice the clouds and the stars in the sky who were trying to signal her, because she was preoccupied with an important decision she had to make. She had to choose one thing to do out of all the possibilities in the world. Should she practice medicine? Or design buildings? Or teach children? She was utterly stumped.
Twenty-five years later, the girl began to cry. Because she realized she had been walking for so long, and that over the years she had become so enamored by everything that she could do—the endless array of possibilities—that she hadn’t done anything meaningful at all. And she learned, at last, that life isn’t about possibility—anything is possible. Life is about making a decision—deciding to do something that moves you.
So the girl, who was no longer a girl, purchased some canvas and paint from a local craft store, drove to a nearby park, and began to paint. One stroke gracefully led into the next just as it had so many moons ago. And as she smiled, she continued painting through the day and into the night. Because she had finally made a decision. And there was still some time left to revel in the magic that life is all about.
Story #2: When Our Old Stories Hold Us Back
She rarely makes eye contact. Instead, she looks down at the ground. Because the ground is safer. Because unlike people, it expects nothing in return. She doesn’t have to feel ashamed about her past. The ground just accepts her for who she is right now.
As she sits at the bar next to me, she stares down at her vodka tonic, and then the ground, and then her vodka tonic. “Most people don’t get me,” she says. “They ask me questions like, ‘What’s your problem?’ or ‘Were you beaten as a child?’ But I never respond. Because I don’t feel like explaining myself. And I don’t think they really care anyway.”
Just then, a young man sits down at the bar on the opposite side of her. He’s a little drunk, and says, “You’re pretty. May I buy you a drink?” She stays silent and looks back down at the ground. After an awkward moment, he accepts the rejection, gets up, and walks away.
“Would you prefer that I leave too?” I ask. “No,” she says without glancing upward. “But I could use some fresh air. You don’t have to come, but you can if you want to.” I follow her outside and we sit on a street curb in front of the bar.
“Brrr… it’s a really chilly night!”
“Tell me about it,” she says while maintaining her usual downward gaze. The warm vapor from her breath cuts through the cold air and bounces off of the ground in front of her. “So why are you out here with me? I mean, wouldn’t you rather be inside in the warmth, talking to normal people about normal things?”
“I’m out here because I want to be. Because I’m not normal. And look, I can see my breath, and we’re in San Diego. That’s not normal either. Oh, and you’re wearing Airwalk sneakers, and so am I—which may have been normal in 1994, but not anymore.”
She glances up at me and smirks, this time exhaling her breath upward into the moonlight. “I see you’re wearing a ring. You’re married, right?”
“Yeah,” I reply. “My wife, Angel, is just getting off work now and heading here to meet me for dinner.”
She nods her head and then looks back at the ground. “Well, you’re off the market… and safe, I guess. So can I tell you a story?”
As she speaks, her emotional gaze shifts from the ground, to my eyes, to the moonlit sky, to the ground, and back to my eyes again. This rotation continues in a loop for the duration of her story. And every time her eyes meet mine she holds them there for a few seconds longer than she did on the previous rotation.
I don’t interject once. I listen to every word. And I assimilate the raw emotion present in the tone of her voice and in the depth of her eyes.
When she finishes, she says, “Well, now you know my story. You think I’m a freak, don’t you?”
“Place your right hand on your chest,” I tell her. She does. “Do you feel something?” I ask.
“Yeah, I feel my heartbeat.”
“Now close your eyes, place both your hands on your face, and move them around slowly.” She does. “What do you feel now?” I ask.
“Well, I feel my eyes, my nose, my mouth… I feel my face.”
“That’s right,” I reply. “But unlike you, stories don’t have heartbeats, and they don’t have faces. Because stories are not alive—they’re not people. They’re just stories.”
She stares into my eyes for a prolonged moment, smiles sincerely and says, “Just stories we live through.”
“Yeah… And stories we learn from.”
Story #3: The Weight of the Glass
(Note: This story is an excerpt from our NYT bestselling book.)
Twenty years ago, when Angel and I were just undergrads in college, our psychology professor taught us a lesson we’ve never forgotten. On the last day of class before graduation, she walked up on stage to teach one final lesson, which she called “a vital lesson on the power of perspective and mindset.” As she raised a glass of water over her head, everyone expected her to mention the typical “glass half empty or glass half full” metaphor. Instead, with a smile on her face, our professor asked, “How heavy is this glass of water I’m holding?”
Students shouted out answers ranging from a couple of ounces to a couple of pounds.
After a few moments of fielding answers and nodding her head, she replied, “From my perspective, the absolute weight of this glass is irrelevant. It all depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute or two, it’s fairly light. If I hold it for an hour straight, its weight might make my arm ache. If I hold it for a day straight, my arm will likely cramp up and feel completely numb and paralyzed, forcing me to drop the glass to the floor. In each case, the absolute weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it feels to me.”
As most of us students nodded our heads in agreement, she continued. “Your worries, frustrations, disappointments, and stressful thoughts are very much like this glass of water. Think about them for a little while and nothing drastic happens. Think about them a bit longer and you begin to feel noticeable pain. Think about them all day long, and you will feel completely numb and paralyzed, incapable of doing anything else until you drop them.”
Story #4: Just One Small Sip
Once upon a time there was a woman who had been lost in the desert for three whole days without water. Just as she was about to collapse, she saw what appeared to be a lake just a few hundred yards in front of her. “Could it be? Or is it just a mirage?” she thought to herself.
With the last bit of strength she could muster, she staggered toward the lake and quickly learned that her prayers had been answered: it was no mirage—it was indeed a large, spring-fed lake full of fresh water—more fresh water than she could ever drink in her lifetime. Yet while she was literally dying of thirst, she couldn’t bring herself to drink the water. She simply stood by the water’s edge and stared down at it.
There was a passerby riding on a camel from a nearby desert town who was watching the woman’s bizarre behavior. He got off his camel, walked up to the thirsty woman and asked, “Why don’t you have a drink, ma’am?”
She looked up at the man with an exhausted, distraught expression across her face and tears welling up in her eyes. “I am dying of thirst,” she said, “But there is way too much water here in this lake to drink. No matter what I do, I can’t possibly finish it all.”
The passerby smiled, bent down, scooped some water up with his hands, lifted it to the woman’s mouth and said, “Ma’am, your opportunity right now, and as you move forward throughout the rest of your life, is to understand that you don’t have to drink the whole lake to quench your thirst. You can simply take one sip. Just one small sip… and then another if you choose. Focus only on the mouthful in front of you, and all your anxiety, fear and overwhelm about the rest will gradually fade.”
Challenge yourself throughout the day to focus solely on the sip (task, step, etc.) you’re actually taking.
Honestly, that’s all life is—small, positive actions that you take moment by moment, and then one day when you look back it all adds up to something worthwhile—something that’s often far better, and different, than what you had imagined when you started.
Story #5: Where We Can Go When We Feel Lost and Alone
She notices the people sitting in a small sports bar across the street. They’re cheering and chatting. They look so alive. She wants to cross the street and join these people just to connect with them—to be a part of something. But a subtle voice that comes from within, that whispers from the open wounds in her heart, holds her back from doing so. So she keeps walking. Alone.
She walks to the end of the city center where she sees a dirt path that leads up a grassy hill. The hill, she knows, overlooks a spiritual sanctuary. But it isn’t the sanctuary she wants to visit tonight—not yet anyway. It’s a warm, breezy Saturday night and she wants to find a place outdoors with sufficient light so she can sit and read the book she’s grasping in her right hand.
But reading isn’t what she really wants. Not deep down. What she really wants is for someone—anyone at all—to tap her on the shoulder and invite her into their world. To ask her questions and tell her stories. To be interested. To understand her. To laugh with her. To want her to be a part of their life.
But it isn’t even this connection with someone new that she wants most. At least not at the deepest level. At the deepest level, in the core of her soul, even fleeting connections with others seem to interfere with what she desires most. Which is to know that she’s not alone in the world. That she truly belongs. And that whatever she was put here to do, in time, will be done and shared with others who deeply care.
This young woman left a substantial segment of her life behind to be in this small city tonight. A few months ago, she was engaged to a strapping young businessman, managing a fast-growing start-up company, working long, hard days and enjoying the fruits of her labor together with a deepening community of friendships in Manhattan.
In a period of just a few months, her fiancé and her split and decided that it was easiest to shutdown the company and divide the monetary remains rather than attempt co-ownership. As they began the process of shutting down the company, she learned that most of the seemingly deep friendships she had made in Manhattan were tied directly to her old business affairs or her business-socialite of an ex-fiancé.
While this young woman didn’t consciously expect such a rapid, tragic series of events, it also wasn’t totally unexpected. Subconsciously she knew that she had created a life for herself that was unsustainable. It was a life revolving around her social status in which all of her relationships brought with them a mounting and revolving set of expectations. This life left no time for spiritual growth or deep connection or love.
Yet, this young woman is drawn to spirituality, connection and love. She has been drawn to all three all her life. And the only thing that steered her off course into this unsustainable lifestyle was the careless belief that if she did certain things and acted in certain ways she would be worthy in the eyes of others. That her social status would procure lasting admiration from these people. And that she would never feel alone.
She realizes, now, how wrong she was.
The young woman walks up a steep paved road on the outskirts of the city center. She feels the burn in her calf muscles as she marches higher and higher. The road is, at first, filled with quaint boutique shops and young couples and friends, but as it advances uphill they give way to small cottage homes and kids playing with flashlights in the street. She keeps marching higher and higher until she reaches a clearing where there is a small public park.
In this park, a group of teenagers are huddled around two guitarists who are strumming and singing an acoustic melody. “Is it a popular song?” she thinks to herself. She isn’t sure because she hasn’t had time lately to listen to music. She wants to join the group. She wants to tell the guitarists that their music is incredible. But she hesitates. She just can’t find the nerve to walk over to them.
Instead, she sits on a park bench a few hundred feet away. The bench overlooks the cityscape below. She stares off into the distance and up into the night sky for several minutes, thinking and breathing. And she begins to smile, because she can see the spiritual sanctuary. It’s dark outside, but the sanctuary shines bright. She can see it clearly. She can feel its warmth surrounding her. And although she knows the sanctuary has existed for an eternity, her heart tells her something that stretches a smile across her cheeks: “This sanctuary is all yours tonight.”
Not in the sense that she owns it. Nor in the sense that it isn’t also a sanctuary for millions of other people around the world. But rather in the sense that it belongs to all of us as part of our heritage, exclusively tailored for every human being and our unique needs and beliefs. It’s a quiet refuge that, when we choose to pay attention, exists all around us and within us. We can escape to it at any time. It’s a place where we can dwell with the good spirits and guardian angels that love us unconditionally and guide us even when we feel lost and alone.
Especially when we feel lost and alone.
Story #6: What We Have Been Searching for All Along
About a decade ago on his 37th birthday, after spending his entire adult life loosely dating different women, he finally decided he was ready to settle down. He wanted to find a real mate… a lover… a life partner—someone who could show him what it meant to be in a deep, monogamous, trusting relationship.
So, he searched far and wide. There were so many women to choose from, all with great qualities, but none with everything he was looking for. And then, finally, just when he thought he would never find her, he found her. And she was perfect. She had everything he ever wanted in a woman. And he rejoiced, for he knew how rare a find she was. “I’ve done my research,” he told her. “You are the one for me.”
But as the days and weeks turned into months and years, he started to realize that she was far from perfect. She had issues with trust and self-confidence, she liked to be silly when he wanted to be serious, and she was much messier than he was. And he started to have doubts … doubts about her, doubts about himself, doubts about everything.
And to validate these doubts, he subconsciously tested her. He constantly looked around their apartment for things that weren’t clean just to prove that she was messy. He decided to go out alone to parties with his single guy friends just to prove that she had trust issues. He set her up and waited for her to do something silly just to prove she couldn’t be serious. It went on like this for awhile.
As the tests continued—and as she, clearly shaken and confused, failed more and more often—he became more and more convinced that she was not a perfect fit for him after all. Because he had dated women in the past who were more mature, more confident, and more willing to have serious conversations.
Inevitably, he found himself at a crossroads. Should he continue to be in a relationship with a woman who he once thought was perfect, but now realizes is lacking the qualities that he already found in the other women that came before her? Or should he return to the lifestyle he had come from, drifting from one empty relationship to the next?
After he enrolled in our Getting Back to Happy Course a few days ago, desperately looking for answers, this is the gist of what Angel and I told him:
One of the greatest lessons we learn in life is that we are often attracted to a bright light in another person. Initially, this light is all we see. It’s so bright and beautiful. But after a while, as our eyes adjust, we notice this light is accompanied by a shadow… and oftentimes a fairly large one.
When we see this shadow, we have two choices: we can either shine our own light on the shadow or we can run from it and continue searching for a shadow-less light.
If we decide to run from the shadow, we must also run from the light that created it. And we soon find out that our light is the only light illuminating the space around us. Then, at some point, as we look closer at our own light, we notice something out of the ordinary. Our light is casting a shadow too. And our shadow is bigger and darker than some of the other shadows we’ve seen.
If, on the other hand, instead of running from the shadow, we decide to walk towards it, something amazing happens. We inadvertently cast our own light on the shadow, and likewise, the light that created this shadow casts its light on ours. Gradually, both shadows begin to disappear. Not completely, of course, but every part of the two shadows that are touched by the other person’s light illuminate and disappear.
And, as a result, we each find more of that bright beautiful light in the other person.
Which is precisely what we have been searching for all along.
Story #7: Naked and Free
She has light brown hair, a seductive smile, and the most engaging set of hazel-green eyes I’ve ever seen. It’s the kind of engaging I can’t ignore—the kind that makes me want to engage too. Because she’s mysterious. And I’m curious. And I need to know more.
Yet, I do my best to avoid making eye contact. So I stare down at the pool table and pretend to study my opponent’s next move. But only long enough for her to look the other way, so I can once again catch a glimpse of magnificence.
I do this, not because she intimidates me, but because I think she may be the girl Chad met last night. A wild night that, he said, “involved two bottles of port wine, chocolate cake, and sweaty bed sheets.”
Then, just as her eyes unexpectedly meet mine, my opponent groans, “It’s been your turn for like five minutes. Ya planning on going sometime tonight?” And the girl walks gracefully away.
So I continue to wonder… “Is she the port wine and chocolate cake girl? Gosh, she doesn’t look like that kind of girl.” But I don’t wonder too long because Chad enters the room and says, “Marc, there’s someone I want you to meet.” So I follow him into the kitchen and we bump right into her. “Oh, Angel,” Chad says. “This is my buddy, Marc.”
And I smile from ear to ear, and give off a little chuckle…
Because she’s not the port wine and chocolate cake girl. But also because I spent the past twenty minutes thinking about the port wine, and the chocolate cake, and the sweaty bed sheets.
Hours later, the party begins winding down. But the band is still playing, the two painters who have been painting a wall mural all evening are still painting, and Angel and I are still dancing.
“Are you tired?” I ask.
“No,” Angel says. “Dancing is my outlet. When I dance, I transcend myself and the doubts that sometimes prevent me from being me. This evening has been enchanting, just dancing with you and being me.”
So I twirl her around. And the drummer keeps drumming. The guitarist keeps strumming. The singer keeps singing. The painters keep painting. And now we’re the only ones dancing.
As we continue to dance, she says, “I feel as if we’re naked. And not just you and me, but the drummer, the guitarist, the singer, and the painters too. Everyone left in this room is naked… naked and free.”
I smile and tell her that I agree. “We are naked. We are free.”
As I know we don’t have to take our clothes off to be naked. Because moments of passionate presence flow into each other like port wine flows into chocolate cake. And if we let them, these moments can expose us completely, and continuously. And create climaxes that don’t even require sex.
Because a true climax has little to do with orgasm, and everything to do with the passion, love, and devotion we choose to invest in someone or something. In the same way, nakedness has little to do with how much clothing we wear, and everything to do with our awareness in a given moment of time—an unfettered, present awareness that frees the mind and allows us to truly live the moment for all it’s worth.
After a few more songs, Angel asks if I’d like to join her out on the front porch where it’s quieter. “Just so we can talk about life,” she says.
I give her a little wink. “I love life in this crazy world! It is crazy, isn’t it?”
She smiles. “Yeah, a world in which we can be naked with our clothes on and experience continuous climax without intercourse.”
“Because instead we can achieve both with music, or paint, or dance, or any form of avid self-expression,” I add.
“You got it. Even the sincerity in this conversation is beginning to work for me,” she says as we step out the front door and into the moonlight.
I tell this short story mostly because I need the reminder.
I need to be reminded of the beauty and sweetness of passionately absorbing oneself into the present moment—into the people, the dialogs, and the priceless little events that exist there.
I need to be reminded of what it’s like to be “naked” and “free.”
Because too often, amidst the hustle, I forget.
I forget to pay attention.
I forget to be grateful for the opportunity directly in front of me.
So I tell a story about a night from my distant past that I can remember and recite in vivid detail simply because I was completely present at the time.
I wasn’t distracted. I wasn’t in a rush to get somewhere better. I wasn’t resisting things, or trying to change them in any way.
I was 100% there.
And, as a result, I allowed that night to change my life.
Now, think about how this relates to YOUR life.
The floor is yours…
Before you go, please let us know:
Which story or point above resonates the most with you right now?
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