What Story Are You Telling Yourself?

Chad Kellogg died in Patagonia on Valentine’s Day this year, at 42 years old. I didn’t know him very well, just through a handful of phone interviews and one very brief in-person meeting. If you heard anything about Chad, it was probably something about his attempts to break the speed record on Everest—that was the most attention-grabbing thing.

But he was a real climber, an all-around alpinist, and my impression of him was that he had an insanely high level of fitness gained through working harder than anyone out there. He sold all of his stuff and lived at the very edge of bankruptcy to continue to do what he loved: climbing. He did massive traverses and big climbs in the Cascades, put up new routes on big technical peaks in Patagonia, Alaska, Nepal, and China. He was a hero to lots of climbers for his work ethic, his enthusiasm, and his attitude.

I respected Chad, but didn’t know so much about him until he died, and his friends started to share stories about him—things he did, things he said, how he climbed in the mountains. I scrolled through a Tumblr page set up by his friends to collect memories of Chad, and I found one by his friend Mark Westman, who knew Chad for 17 years. My favorite part of Mark’s post was this sentence:

“When I catch myself in moments of negative self-talk or low self-image, Chad’s words of advice he once offered have always brought me back to center: ‘The story you tell yourself becomes your reality.’”

I wrote that one down. I doubt Chad would have ever have said so, but the story he kept living and telling himself over years, to me, seemed just short of a being a superhero. Speed record on Rainier. Speed record on Denali. Diagnosed with colon cancer. Beats it. First ascent on huge peak on this side of the globe. First ascent on that side of the globe. He wasn’t in climbing films or magazines, or ad campaigns—he just went out and did it, in some of the most amazing places in the world.

You might think he had almost nothing in common with John “Slomo” Kitchin, a 69-year-old man who skates the same stretch of boardwalk on San Diego’s Pacific Beach every day. Besides both following their respective bliss, I’d say they couldn’t have been less alike. Except last weekend, while watching the New York Times documentary on Slomo at the 5Point Film Festival, I heard him say this:

“Everybody has the capacity to dream up and believe anything he wants to. The shrinks, or the psychoanalysts, would call it a ‘personal delusional system,’ and you believe it because you choose to.”

Slomo left a successful medical career to devote himself more or less full-time to skating, or as he says, trying to get back to the state of mind he had when he was 11 years old, before he started the trajectory into the middle third of life, when everything got too serious. If you watch the film, you can see everyone on the Pacific Beach boardwalk react with joy to what they see as a man doing exactly what he wants with his life. I watch Slomo, and I’m a little envious of the simplicity of his bliss, and the courage it took for him to pursue it.

Both Chad and Slomo are/were living very unique lives of infectious enthusiasm, and both were clearly in charge of their own stories. Chad didn’t believe he was a general contractor; he believed he was a mountain climber. Slomo understood he had been working just for the material ends, and becoming, in his words, “an asshole”—and that’s not what he wanted to be, so he moved into a studio apartment and concentrated on skating on the boardwalk. It seems Chad and Slomo were kind of saying the same thing, that you are whoever you think you are, if you believe it. Maybe we should all take a step back and ask: what story am I telling myself?


19 replies on “What Story Are You Telling Yourself?

  • Sabrina Oesterle

    Chad also said: “Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t do!” I draw on that wisdom almost every day! At work, in my relationships, when training and climbing. Chad has been on my mind the last few days. I miss him so much! But his wisdom will always stay with me. And with that, he will always be in my life. Thank you for this story, Brendan!

  • Kate C

    Hooray for Thursdays! Love this post. I’ve noticed the same thing from my 3 year old. He tells these stories and becomes the characters in them, and it lets him try on different rolls, personalities, even lives. Today he’s a snuggly little kitty who just wants hugs, tomorrow he’s a giant scary dragon that wants to be in charge of the house. It’s made me more aware of how I think about myself. When I say “I’m just not that smart.” or “I’m not good at that.” I’m putting myself into a smaller and smaller box each time… and those thoughts might not even be right or real. Better to be imaginative about what I could be than imaginative about what I can’t.

  • Jenny

    What a powerful reminder…that is now taped up to my wall. Thanks for the Thursday inspiration Brendan!

  • Jenny Johnston

    What a touching post. You are so skilled at writing beautiful and meaningful topics in a very down to earth way. It is inspiring.

    I have actually written about my own very transforming experience from self loathing, to self loving and all it was was a shift in the “story” I tell myself. I have a friend from high school who does EFT (emotional freedom technique) and I have been “cured”. All she did was help me acknowledge that I was creating this world of hate in my head and it did not need to be my reality. I wrote a 5 part, brutally honest tale on how I came to love myself after nearly 4 decades of self hate, heal a relationship with my sister, and be a better role model for my two children.

    It is all in the perspective we take. In every moment of every day we can never change what is happening around us, but we can control how we react or respond or the attitude we attach to the things going on in our life.

  • Dave Antaya

    You (and Slomo) did it again. I wasn’t feeling too good about things, and now I feel better. What’s better than that?

  • Elle Mclees

    Thank you Brendan for another good one. A variation of this theme is something I have whispered to myself on many occasions: ‘you create the life you have.’
    And : ‘How you spend your days is how you spend your life.’
    I am currently reading your book, so I get a double dose of you today!

  • hidden exposures

    as always, you give me something to think about.

    here’s the thing, though. while chad’s story resonated with me, slomo’s did so less. why? because the way i look at it he essentially made enough money to retire early. give me a mansion and a bmw and ferrari and i don’t think i’d need any courage to cash it all in to live somewhere much more simply and do what i really wanted to do. while i can appreciate the self-reflection he took on in order to feel empowered to make that change and go against what is arguably “the grain”, he had the financial means to do so. take someone else who has crazy debt and who is living paycheck to paycheck – how are they supposed to change up their life to live it just how they want?

  • velosopher

    I’m a therapist, and I practice what’s called Narrative therapy. I start from the view that we all tell ourselves stories about ourselves, but most of us are unaware of that. We shine a light on the current story, pick it apart, ask what works and what doesn’t, and why. Then we talk about what their preferred story is — something inside them already, something they’ve already started living, but in patches, fits and starts. We cultivate that story. Their life changes from the inside out. It’s a joy being able to work like this, because it really isn’t work. The raw materials are already there, in everyone.

  • Ryan Good

    Hidden Exposures- you nailed it! I have these conversations often, about the balance of having enough money to support yourself and having the time to pursue your passions. I’m not materialistic, live simply, and have little debt. But, I do need a place to live, I have family obligations, and I like to eat and be able to go to the doctor! And there’s just not much in between- I either stay at my job and wish I had more time to do things I love, or I don’t and I’d have plenty of time but couldn’t afford to do them! I’m not trying to be a downer- really!- but there must be some middle ground, and I’d love to find it.

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