How many of us heard about the story of Iceland in this summer’s European Championship? A story that really has two versions, both of which are true.
The first is one where a country of a mere 333,000 people — roughly the size of a Pakistani village or a Manhattan block — progressed farther in their first major football/soccer tournament than any outsider ever thought possible. Beating countries like England, which was ranked 13th internationally, is 200 times the size, has the world’s most expensive football league to hand pick players from, and so much more. Versus the Icelandic team, who was ranked 131st just a year ago, whose coach is a part time dentist, whose goal keeper is a film maker, whose country is so small that nearly 10% of its population actually traveled to France to watch the games, 99.8% of the others watched on TV, one player said he recognized 50% of their fans in the stadium, and so much more.
Or there is a second story, one with a similar beginning/middle but a completely different ending, which concluded abruptly after a “painful” 2–5 defeat against the home nation France.
The difference between these two stories — like all other stories we tell ourselves and others — depends entirely on who is telling the story. That is, it depends on you.
Although this is “just a sports story,” there are hundreds of stories like this every day that we have to interpret and decide which version we want to receive/tell. And perhaps realizing this reality — that this is in fact a decision we make — is the first step towards accepting a more hopeful version of the stories we face? Because if we don’t decide, then history seems to tells us that our default response is sadly to not accept (or even look for) a more hopeful version.
Author Rebecca Solnit writes that this default to cynicism and despair becomes a habit that we have to proactively fight against:
An underlying problem is that despair isn’t even an ideological position but a habit and a reflex. I have found that a lot of people respond to almost any achievement, positive development, or outright victory with “yes but.” Naysaying becomes a habit.
She goes on to use climate change as an example, and tells one version of a story that highlights how much incredible change and difference this movement has already made. And another version where many (if not most) of us don’t appreciate or see this progress because we don’t think it’s enough and/or because we didn’t see all the struggle invested just to achieve these incremental victories:
[Accepting a more hopeful version] requires being able to recognize the shades of gray between black and white. Much has changed; much needs to change; being able to celebrate or at least recognize milestones and victories and keep working is what the times require of us.
Instead, a lot of people seem to be looking for trouble, the trouble that reinforces their dismal worldview. Everything that’s not perfect is failed, disappointing, a betrayal.
If the road to progress is lined with small victories — and rarely involves a “great leap from evil to pure goodness” — then perhaps we need to get better at identifying and celebrating a more hopeful version of the stories that we experience. Perhaps only then will we be able to realize that there is actually incredible progress being made, and that we can also play a role in helping create more progress in the future.
For another incredible Iceland-like story, check out the unbelievable documentary Next Goal Wins, which shares the astonishing journey of the lowest ranked football team in the world and their path to incremental progress and creating a different story.