7th April 2020

Culture / Featured / Dan Kieran

The Story of Who You Are by Dan Kieran

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DDan Kieran co-founded Unbound in 2011 alongside writers Justin Pollard and John Mitchinson. Since then it has published over 150 books, including the Sunday Times bestselling Letters of Note, The Good Immigrant and the Man Booker long-listed The Wake.

Fusing traditional ideas of patronage with contemporary crowdfunding models, Unbound seeks to publish the books that readers want to read, providing a new platform for the most challenging and innovative of projects. Here, Dan writes about the power of our minds and their ability to change. How we are the creators of life, the deciders of our fate and the makers of the paths we travel.

This is the text of a talk Dan gave at the Google Academy on the 7th February 2020. The theme of the event was Story telling.

We encounter storytelling in everything we do. We tell stories in the conversations we have with the people around us every day. We consume stories through books, theatre, tv, music and film and we increasingly encounter them in marketing and advertising. But there is another story all these stories are experienced through. Your entire life is lived through the prism of the story you have told yourself about you.

What is the story of who you are? It’s the story you have told yourself you are for so long it has become true. I learned this about myself because of two things I did in the last few years.

1 – A 12-month course in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy I did to try and overcome my fear of flying.

2 – A week I spent building a wooden surfboard in Cornwall even though I had never surfed and was crap at DIY.

First, we’ll cover my fear of flying. The first story.

When I was a child, I was scared of flying but as I was a child my fear didn’t get the deciding vote on whether or not I got on a plane. I mean it was an ‘80s childhood, so I only had holidays that required aeroplanes three times, but when I was fifteen, I got off a plane that had brought me home from a trip to New York and vowed never to get in one ever again.

I didn’t fly in a passenger plane again for the next twenty-five years. Being scared of flying became a part of my identity during that time. I just refused to fly.

It was easy in some ways because I was poor, but I developed a cool workaround, which was to travel slowly, by which I mean cheaply. The first time I did the workaround trip was when my oldest friend asked me to be best man at his wedding. In Poland. I had to go but I couldn’t fly. The morning I was due to get the Eurostar to Brussels the IRA fired a mortar at Waterloo Station and all my subsequent connections were cancelled. I managed to get to Brussels but then had to blag my way on a train to Warsaw using the little German I remembered from my GCSEs. I was temporarily stranded in Cologne at midnight but talked my way onto a train to Berlin and then persuaded the guard on a sleeper to Warsaw to let me on. It was an amazing, if slightly alarming, experience. Early the following morning as we sped through the Polish countryside, I gave an impromptu English lesson to a boy on his way to school and at a one point shared my compartment with a man and goat. It was only one journey, but by the time we pulled into the vast, terrifying concrete station I realised my life up until that point had been absurdly mundane. Almost as If I had truly ‘lived’ for the first time.

This, I had discovered by accident, was what is now called ‘slow travel’. The experience made me even more convinced flying was not for me. This is when my career as a travel writer began. I was the one travel writer working at the time who didn’t want to jet around the globe having fancy holidays. I was the travel writer who didn’t fly. I realised some profound truths in the process. That when we think of travel we obsess over destinations and ticking off destinations all over the globe. But you can never ‘get away from it all’ as the holiday ads say, because wherever you go you take yourself with you. The dream the holiday has come to represent in your mind does not exist. What you really do when you travel is explore a different part of yourself. The atlas you are travelling across and experiencing is the atlas of your own mind. You are journeying into a different way of experiencing yourself every time you go away. And the way you do it is incredibly important. If you take a taxi to an airport which is essentially a large shopping mall full of brands you see at home and get on a plane and watch your usual TV shows and then arrive at another airport where a taxi takes you to your hotel, itself selected because it supplies Western entertainment and Western food you may be moving; but you are not actually travelling. Your mindset the entire time you are away is the same one you have at home.

Twenty years after that first workaround trip to Poland I wrote a book called The Idle Traveller about all my experiences and the ideas that had poured out of me about travel in that time. It’s a book of travel philosophy rather than specific destinations. It did pretty well. I am proud of what not flying inadvertently taught me about travel, which is that most of us don’t travel any more. We only arrive.

I now had a strong ‘slow travel’ brand, which I took to ludicrous extremes, once spending a month driving across England in a 1957 electric milkfloat with two friends for a book and a documentary for Radio 4.

That trip turned out to be a huge amount of work. You have to charge a milkfloat for eight hours to get enough charge to drive 20 miles. To travel all the way across Britain we would need to find a way to charge the float once a day to make it to Land’s End. The trouble is you can’t just plug a milk float into a normal plug socket. There is only one part of a domestic house that has enough oomph to charge a milkfloat’s batteries. The cooker socket. So for us to successfully make that journey we had to persuade a complete stranger to let us wire our milkfloat directly into the cooker socket of their kitchen for eight hours, with our thick cable hanging out the window, overnight, to be able to carry on moving the following day. It was insane. Interestingly, as an aside, only two people we asked in the entire trip said no. We made it to Land’s End. The electricity we used would have cost 1p a mile had we paid for it, but everyone gave us their electricity for free. We had proven it was possible to love the planet and travel at the same time – as long as you are prepared to go slowly.

You can see how I now had a vested interest in not flying. It had become my income. My identity. Only last week I was asked to go on a trip as a ‘pioneer of slow travel’ and write about it, which is great. I’m very lucky.

But, nevertheless, a decision I made at fifteen for reasons I could not actually explain at the time, became who I was in reality for twenty-five years. I lived that story for so long I no longer questioned it. Not flying became part of who I was.

The story I had told myself that I didn’t fly became true.
But I don’t just mean that in a practical way. I made it true in another, much more mind altering, way too.

The brain is not static in the way it is constructed. You can change the structure of your brain by thinking different thoughts. This is shown most clearly, and famously, in London Cab drivers, whose brains look different to yours and mine. The parts of the brain for spatial awareness, the hippocampus, is larger in their brains. And that’s because they have to learn The Knowledge to qualify. They train so hard learning how parts of London are connected their brains restructure themselves to do it more efficiently and effectively. The brain doesn’t like extra work. It loves efficiency. So, it will change itself to enable it to be better at the tasks it is being asked to do regularly.

So, what has this got to do with my fear of flying?

Imagine my brain as a fifteen-year-old having the thought that I’m scared of flying and deciding not to fly anymore. My brain is young and still forming itself and let’s imagine it looks like a cornfield – this is a common Cognitive Behavioural Therapy analogy. And every time I think a thought that thought travels across the surface of the cornfield. Now let’s imagine every thought I have has wheels. Those wheels make a mark on the cornfield every time the thought is thought. The more I think something – in this case that I am scared of flying and I don’t fly – the more times that thought, with its wheels, marks the cornfield to create a path for the thought to travel along unhindered. The brain is changing itself to make this thought more efficient.

So now imagine I’m not fifteen anymore. Twenty-five years have passed and I’m now forty. And I’ve been thinking the thought that I’m scared of flying and that I don’t fly pretty much every day since then. Twenty-five years later that wheel has not just made a path on the cornfield of my brain. It has dug a ditch in the cornfield. The ditch is so deep the thought can now only travel along the ditch it has made for itself. The thought is no longer passing along the ground above, able to see new things around it, where it might get bumped off-course by something like scientific evidence or rational enquiry. None of that matters to my thought process about flying now because the wheel of my thought about flying is moving easily and efficiently along the ditch it has made for itself.

My brain has re-structured itself to facilitate this thought because as far as it is concerned this thought happens so much it must be ‘true’ in the same way it knows other things are true, like fire is hot and water is wet.

Now obviously this process is a positive thing if the thought is a thought that you don’t need to question, like fire is hot. But fire actually is hot. It’s not something you have decided about yourself is true but could equally have decided is not true.

But I want to change. I am going to do whatever it takes. I’ve had enough. I am getting in an aeroplane.

Dan Kieran

Now my brain has serious work to do. It is going to have to wield everything in its arsenal to protect me from doing something it knows – after twenty-five years of me thinking it – is true. And my brain has an advantage over my determination. Because my brain knows me like no-one else. It controls my body. And my mind. It can do all kinds of things to me if it believes doing them will protect me. It can mine my memory to show me things to make me feel less brave to stop me putting myself at risk. It can remind me of my darkest, nameless, fears and pull adrenaline out of me to accompany those memories when it wants to. It has nasty tricks up its sleeve to enable it to control me.

What you have to remember about these false stories you have told yourself about yourself is that your brain feels safe living the false story you have told yourself – however dysfunctional it is in reality – and wants to protect this story. The story of you.

But I am really determined. So, I start to plan a flight.

The trouble is, attempting to get on a plane now involves defying the physical structure of my twenty-five year old non flying – because I’m scared so I don’t do it – brain that’s own existence depends on keeping me safe based on the information I have given it – in this case twenty-five years of telling it flying is committing suicide.

What do you think the brain is going to do to try and protect itself from the story I have spent twenty-five years believing Make me have panic attacks if I go anywhere near an airport to save your life? Yep. It does that.

Remind me of the last time I had a panic attack every time I see a plane in the sky even if I haven’t flown in twenty-five years and I am having a barbecue with some friends on a Summer afternoon? Yep. That used to happen to me too.

Could it even give me nightmares about being trapped on a plane that was about to crash just to make sure you got the message? Yup. I had those at least once a week for two decades. The brain is a powerful thing. It’s all we have. It’s all we are. It will do all it can to protect us.

But after twenty-five years, I had to find a way to change this story I had told myself was true.

I fell in love with someone and I was more in love with her than I was afraid of flying, which shows you that fear is the opposite of love rather than hate by the way.

Dan Kieran

I didn’t want her life to be impacted by this story I had told myself was true. I didn’t want it to become part of her story too.

So, after years of putting it off – because my brain had by now even managed to convince me to be afraid of not being afraid in the future if anyone ever managed to make me free of the fear – I went to see a lovely chap and CBT practitioner called Steve.

Steve knew all about the dastardly tricks at the brain’s disposal to keep us ‘safe’ in old patterns of behaviour. He explained to me how repetitive thoughts become the way your brain is constructed over time and then he told me how he was going to help me change the story I had told myself about myself and come up with one that was a bit more practical.

He said that to change the structure of my brain around my fear of flying we had to do three things.

1 – We had to find the original cause of my fear, discover what caused it and deal with it however deeply it was buried.

2 – We had to engage with the fear using my rational brain – I had to research the subject and collect evidence to prove my fear was wrong.

3 – I also had to prove to my brain I wasn’t scared by, you guessed it, getting in a plane and not dying because that is the only way I could prove to my brain flying was safe.

We started with the first one. It took a long time. But I eventually found the cause of my fear had nothing to do with aeroplanes. The root of my fear was an even more entrenched story I had told myself about myself that I had come to believe was true, which was that I was fundamentally not good enough. It took a while to find the root of that one. And for the record, I bet everyone reading this has a version of this somewhere in their past too. Imagine looking at everything that happens in your life through the prism of not believing you are fundamentally good enough and not realising you are doing it? How restricting could that be to your life?

Next, I spent a long-time reading research papers on the theory of flight. I also read the Wright Brothers autobiography. And I read loads of aviator authors’ memoirs and novels – and there are some really amazing ones. Then something really odd happened. I began to want to learn how to fly. My brain had a hard time with that one, as you can imagine.

A few months later, I got in a plane at the end of a fear of flying course at Heathrow airport.

The flight was a success. I cried when I got back to my car afterwards. It’s emotional stuff this. But I wasn’t ‘cured’. It was the first step. I had to fly on my own again. I had to create a new pattern of behaviour. I had to have more thoughts, with wheels, making new marks in the cornfield of my brain.

In the February after that I flew on my own to Amsterdam and back to speak at a conference, which only takes half an hour each way, but I did it and I was fine. The thought process when I thought about flying was no longer just the thought that travelled along the old ditch of panic and death. Now I had a new story about myself that began to frustrate it. This was a new thought back on top of the cornfield remembering the flight I’d taken where I was fine.

My brain began to oscillate between telling me flying was dangerous and that it was completely fine. In April that year I did a talk at a conference in Austria and flew there with a colleague but back on my own. It was a two and a half-hour flight each way. There was turbulence half an hour in on the way home and the flight actually lasted three hours because we were stacked above London for half an hour before we could land. I looked after the lady next to me who was afraid and told her she would be fine. I was fine.

I still get the heebie-jeebies a little bit before flying, but only briefly, because I have new thoughts about flying now with wheels marking a new path in the cornfield of my brain. These thoughts remind me of the times I have been up in the air staring out the window in awe at the ability of humans to fly. The old ditch in the cornfield of my brain is being filled in. The new one that says I am not afraid and do fly is not as deep as the old one yet, but it is getting deeper every time I fly and survive.

All of which is great, but while I am happy to have faced this fear, the experience has made me question other stories I have told myself about myself that I believe are true.

A fear of flying is an obvious problem. Not being able to get in a plane is something you can see and attempt to fix. But what about whether or not you are worthy of love? How do you discover if you have told yourself that story about yourself? What if you spend twenty-five years living with that assumption and don’t know it’s an assumption, just accepting, instead, that it is as much a part of who you are as your fingers?

If you think ‘I’ll never fall in love’ often enough could you make that story about yourself become true? Yes. You can. People do.

At this point I started to worry that my identity was essentially made up of neuroses and if I dealt with them all I wouldn’t recognise the version of me that was left. It turns out this is not true. You are not your neuroses. What you find when you haul yourself out of these ditches of stories you have told yourself about yourself is the sun shining down on you. And when you spend some time up there thinking new things, doing new things, challenging the story of who you think you are and living differently, you’ll see your brain is not just a cornfield. The cornfield has an edge you can go beyond. Your thoughts about who and what you are lie over the horizon. The paths that lead into the unknown are created by the new stories about yourself you want to be able to tell.

Which brings me, finally, briefly, to my second story. The surfboard.

Ever since watching Point Break as a teenager I have wanted to be the kind of person who surfs, but I came to accept this is ‘not the kind of person I am’. Well it wasn’t until a few years ago, but I have now been surfing so I am changing that. But it’s not just surfing I can’t do. An art teacher once told me I ‘wasn’t the kind of person who could make things with their hands’ and because I believed her my entire adult life, I made that story about myself true too. As a result, I do not own tools. I do not do DIY. But James Otter, who I met at the Do Lectures in 2015, told me this was nonsense and I could make one if I wanted to. If I tried. He said if I went down to stay in Porth Towan with him for a week I could make a wooden surfboard from scratch in his workshop. He would show me what to do but I would do it all myself. Because I believed the story I had told myself that I couldn’t do it – and I now recognised this as the sign of a story I knew I had to challenge – I went down to Cornwall.

I didn’t take Steve my CBT man with me, but I did apply his three-pronged logic. I knew where this story I had told myself about myself had come from. I also knew there was no actual evidence that I can’t make things with my hands because I have never tried to make anything with my hands as I didn’t believe I could. So, I went to see James and did number 3. I built a wooden surfboard in a week to show myself I could. And it’s beautiful.

And what’s interesting about the surfboard – and this is where making something is different from my experience with flying – is that if I wake up one morning and feel depressed or low because, you know, shit happens in this world of ours. If I wake up on one of those days and think I’m fundamentally a bit crap. That I’ve achieved what I’ve achieved out of luck. That people don’t really like me. That I’m inevitably going to let people down. That the people I love will realise what an idiot I am one day, and all leave me.

Now my brain can go into overdrive telling me all this horrible stuff, and when you are weak and low, the evidence and the logic against it can be hard to believe even if you know it’s not true. The jeers keep coming. And even if at that point I think ‘well screw you brain, I was scared of flying for twenty-five years and I’ve got over that’ my brain will turn to me and say ‘well go on then. Prove it. Go and book a flight now. You won’t. You can’t. Because you’re still scared.’ And short of getting up out of bed and travelling to an airport and getting in a plane there and then, which is probably not practical because of the school run and commuting and meetings, those old behaviour patterns can re-establish themselves, and before you know it you are starting to rebuild the thought pattern in your brain by telling yourself you are scared of flying all over again.

But that doesn’t happen with this surfboard.

Because when I wake up on one of those days and feel low and crap and useless and my brain tells me I’m good for nothing I can point to this, which is a real three-dimensional thing that exists in the world I made that even my sadness cannot deny the existence of. It’s not a bloody Amazon review. I can hold it. It is a work of art I made with my own hands when I believed that was something I could not do. It is physical evidence of my ability to change the story about myself I thought was true. It is beautiful. And even my brain shuts up when faced with this. When I hold this wonderful board in my hands. And I remember the week I spent making it. What it took out of me and what I put into it.

When I hold this surfboard, it is a physical reminder of my ability to go beyond what I thought I was capable of.

This surfboard is evidence I have changed the story I had told myself about myself was true.

My surfboard is now part of the story of who I am, which is why I wanted to finish by telling you about it. I am still challenging the story I have of who I am and what I can do. I do it in the business I run all the time. And at home with my wife and kids. I am always on the lookout for these stories I have told myself about myself that are not true.

You are a story too. The story you have told yourself is true. We are all the stories we have told ourselves we are. And this means you can change the story you have told yourself you are, too.

Dan Kieran

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Dan is a successful and prolific author but he is best known as CEO of radical crowd-funding publisher, Unbound. Unbound has published over 150 books, including the Sunday Times bestselling Letters of Note, The Good Immigrant and the Man Booker longlisted The Wake.

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