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Sometimes, we stop doing things we love because something made us change the way we feel about them. We start to lose motivation and even the fondness after harboring negative thoughts and emotions, whether from external sources or from within us. Today’s topic is about “learned helplessness” and how it hurts us and those around us. It gives the idea that every failure is attributed to a person’s incompetence. Although this is not true at all, an individual can potentially lose sight of the relationship between success and their actions. Our guest, Crystal Clay, shares her research and wisdom on learned helplessness, it’s warning signs and how to overcome it. Learned helplessness is taught and learned in both personal and professional settings. Learned helplessness is about giving away control, lack of trust and fear, and creates people who begin to lose the desire to even try.


“Learned helplessness is about responses to failure, not success.” -Crystal Clay



00:28 Learned Helplessness- A Real Issue
05:55 Unboxing Learned Helplessness
08:19 Understanding Learned Helplessness
12:10 How Learned Helplessness Hurt Others
16:37 How to Recognize Learned Helplessness and Overcome It
21:39 Learned Helplessness in the Business Setting
24:31 Run Towards Your Fears
28:00 Learned Optimism


[bctt tweet=”Learned Helplessness is a real issue. Learn more about this lurking predator and how to beat it with @arlene_gale and executive coach, Crystal Clay. #BookWritingBusiness #BusinessBuildingBooks #control #failure #expectations #disempoweringlanguage #fixedmindsetVSgrowthmindset #learnedoptimism #resilience ” username=””]



08:34 “Learned helplessness is about responses to failure, not success.” -Crystal Clay

17:11 “…disempowering language takes the power away from themselves and gives the power to blame.” -Crystal Clay

26:22 “Words are so powerful. Sometimes words are thrown into the world without a whole lot of thought to the impact they have on other people.” -Arlene Gale 

27:07 “Most people make decisions based on the words that have been spoken over them at some point in their lives.” -Crystal Clay 

27:42 “Resilience is key in overcoming learned helplessness.”-Crystal Clay

28:23 “Creating self-awareness is the first step to overcoming any kind of scenario.” -Crystal Clay

30:02 “In in our businesses, people are not our customers, they’re not our clients- they’re talents. It’s our job to help them to learn how to feel that way and own that expertise.” -Arlene Gale 

30:12 “Too many times, people in business don’t see themselves as experts or call themselves experts. And they needed to do that.” -Arlene Gale


Meet Crystal:

Crystal Clay is the founder of Olive Branch Consulting. She is also an Executive Coach,  Certified Diversity Trainer through the Harvard’s Conflict Management Group (CMG), Gallup Strengths Coach, Certified Expert in Emotional Intelligence and a member of the International Coaching Federation.  She currently serves on the Bermuda National Museums Education Committee and the Board of Trustees for the Bermuda High School for Girls Charitable Trust. Crystal also holds a PhD in Organizational Leadership and a Master’s Degree in Human Resources and Management. 

Crystal enjoys working with leaders all over the world, helping them to develop their leadership ability while moving in alignment with their goals. She is passionate about women’s leadership and is committed to empowering women at various stages and ages to leverage their strengths, to fulfill their dreams and to meet their full potential. Having over 25 years of experience, Crystal is highly qualified in solving issues regarding Employee Engagement and Talent Management.

Telephone: +1 441 400-3684 



Arlene Gale: Welcome everybody. Today we’re going to talk about myths and mindsets related to a topic called LEARNED HELPLESSNESS. Now, I suffered or was familiar with the ideology, the circumstances, the situations around learned helplessness. I just didn’t know that that was even a term that existed. So when I met today’s guests and heard her speaking at an event, I’ll tell you what, it was all I could do to keep my hind end in my seat because I wanted to stand up and go, hallelujah, hallelujah, she gets me, you know, or amen, preach it because she is so right on in this topic of learned helplessness, whether we’re talking personal or professional learned helplessness. It is a real issue. And for me, in my experience, one of the things that this resonates with me for is because I didn’t realize that I was so different from so many other parents in raising my children, quote unquote. Because when I raised my sons, I never thought I was raising children. I always had a mindset that I was raising young adults. And so, there is a mindset shift and a reality difference whether we’re raising children or young adults because my kids started at an early age learning to do things around the house, dishes, and laundry, and cooking. Because I had this epiphany one time when my kids were like three and eight where I hated to be cooking dinner. I hated to be in the kitchen because they were out having fun and I could hear them laughing in the backyard. And I began to resent something that I really love, which was cooking because I was stuck inside, quote unquote cooking for my family out of quote, obligation and not love. And so I figured, you know what? This isn’t working for me, so I’m doing something different. So the next day, I cook a meal, and by God, my husband and my sons were in the kitchen with me and everybody took apart. And you know what? There’s this mindset that a three year old can’t cook. Well, the problem I discovered was not that the three year old couldn’t help me cook, but that I needed to move past the fact that meatballs needed to be all the same size. Because you know what, my three year old was perfectly capable of rolling meatballs for that meatballs and spaghetti. So from that became the mindset that everybody helps in the kitchen. At three, or four, or five years old, they can sort laundry. Because again, my mindset is I’m teaching young adults.

So, I want to introduce my guest today, Crystal Clay, who’s going to tell you all whether I’m crazy or not, whether I’m normal, and I hate the word normal. I think normal is overrated. I don’t want to be normal. I want to be extraordinary. So I’m going to bring Crystal into this conversation, but first, I’m gonna tell you a little bit about her. She’s the founder of Olive Branch Consulting. She is an executive coach, facilitator and consultant. Crystal is committed to extending growth and development support to individuals and organizations that are in alignment with their business, personal, and career goals. She partners with leaders all over the world to enhance their leadership and effectiveness and assess how those things impact their teams, organizations, and communities. Crystal experience spans the financial service industry, public sector, nonprofit, faith and educational institutions in North America, including beautiful Bermuda, the US and Canada. She’s passionate about women’s leadership, and is committed to empowering women at various stages and ages to leverage their strengths, to fulfill their dreams, and to thrive to meet their full potential. That’s what I call mastery. She’s committed to paying it forward. Crystal has served as the Chair of the Bermuda Insurance Institute Education Committee. She also served on the Bermuda College Board of Governors for several years and has led the Academic Affairs Committee. She currently serves on the Bermuda National museums Education Committee and the board of trustees for the Bermuda High school for girls charitable trust, and if that’s not enough, Crystal is a certified Diversity Trainer through the Harvard’s Conflict Management Group, a Gallup Strengths Coach, a certified expert in emotional intelligence, and a member of the International Coaching Federation. Crystal also holds a PhD in Organisational Leadership, a master’s degree in Human Resources and Management. That’s all this woman does. It’s amazing to me that you would find the time to be on my humble little Mindset Meets Mastery Podcast. Hello crystal, how are you today?

Crystal Clay: I’m great and wonderful to be meeting mastery with you, Arlene.

Arlene Gale: Well, thank you so much. So let’s go back a little bit, a step back or two, and let’s just talk a little bit about how on earth did you get interested in a topic like learned helplessness?

Crystal Clay: Well, it’s so interesting that I got on the topic, of the interest of the topic by holding a women’s seminar. As you said in my bio, I’m particularly interested in women’s studies and empowering women, and I was asked by a group of ladies to do a women’s seminar, and in doing so, I thought what would be an interesting topic? And then that took me back to when I started a study, or think about my dissertation when I was doing my PhD. And I came across a theory back then called the Social cognitive career theory (SCCT). I had a thought, it’s quite complicated.

Arlene Gale: It does.

Crystal Clay: It was really all about self efficacy, outcome expectations and goals. And I was particularly interested in the aspects of that theory as they related to the kinds of goals that women set. And so, in thinking about that, I thought that would be an interesting topic to pull out the topic of self limiting beliefs. And and self limiting belief, one of those areas that women have particularly been interested in. But one of those things that have been, as you mentioned, a real issue for many women in the workplace. And so, that coupled with my work in studying positive psychology as a Gallup Strengths Coach, putting those two together, it helped me to discover if these phenomenon of learned helplessness and the impact on not just women, but the impact on students, children, and families in the workplace, et cetera. And so, I’ve really been quite intrigued with the topic and understanding learned helplessness, recognizing it, becoming aware of it is the first step to overcoming it.

Arlene Gale: Well, in learned helplessness is something that impacts our personal and professional lives. And we can be on either or both sides of the equation. We can either be a perpetrator of learned helplessness, or we can be a quote victim, or be subjective to somebody else’s placing learned helplessness as who they think we should be. How do you define learned helplessness?

Crystal Clay: Literally helplessness in a nutshell is the belief that we cannot change the course of negative events. That failure is inevitable and in some cases just insurmountable. Viewpoint, learn helplessness is about responses to failure, not success. And the word that you used that I particularly liked in framing of this question was this word called CONTROL. And an important element of the theory I talked about earlier, Social Cognitive Theory is personal control, or whether we are controlling, or being controlled by the environment around us. And usually, when we talk about personal control in terms of having an internal or an external locus of control, and those are the two things that really determine whether or not we have learned helplessness or not.

[bctt tweet=”“Learned helplessness is about responses to failure, not success.” -Crystal Clay” username=””]

Arlene Gale: Hmm. So with control, like in my example, you know, I was showing love to my family by cooking meals, and doing laundry, and doing this and doing that because I thought, well, first of all, I need to maintain control for my own sanity but that turned out to be a false narrative. But then also the fear of my failure or my children’s failure kept me from delegating. And that seems so easy now, but why is it not easy for so many women, especially to have that fear of failure or that lack of ability to delegate?

Crystal Clay: Well, what you raised in terms of your experience is you taught your family learned behaviors, and in teaching your family learn behaviors, you yourself became a victim of learn helplessness because then, you mentioned earlier that you began to hate cooking, which you love to do, and you began to hate the things that were innate for you, the things that you enjoy doing and so learned helplessness, you feel like you actually lose control. And while you were trying to control your situation, you were focusing on your external locus of control, and thinking that everyone else was responsible for the way that you were actually feeling. So rather than having an internal locus of control and leveraging your internal locus of control, which you did eventually, because eventually you said, you know what, I’m going to do something different.

Arlene Gale: Eventually a story of my life.

Crystal Clay: You stood up and you said I’m going to do something different. But in the beginning you felt like you were a victim of your control. You felt in the beginning that everybody else was responsible for how you were feeling, and how you were acting, and what you were doing until you took that step. And that is essentially the difference between having your personal control and having an external focus of control. And that is when you look at more informally a definition of learned helplessness is this idea of expectations. And once you begin to set the expectations correctly in the home, then you were able to have the freedom to be able to operate within your locus of control.

Arlene Gale: So when we have this mindset where the control or fear of failure, whatever it is that’s the driving force, what are we depriving other people of, whether, let’s give an example of a personal situation and a professional situation where our cattywampus view of control is actually hurting other people.

Crystal Clay: Well, other people in depriving them of the opportunity, for example, and I’ll use the workplace as an example of that in terms of professional environment, and the workplace, you can actually give someone an opportunity to thrive and to give them an opportunity to try something different, or you could tell that person that they’re not capable of doing something, and you could actually stifle that person in the workplace, and/or you can actually continually criticize at that person every time that they do something. And because you’re continually criticizing them everytime that they try something new, then that for them sends a message to them that they are actually helpless and they actually have no control over their situation that no matter what they do, it’s not going to matter because it’s never going to be good enough. And that creates this believing, in the workplace, believing that what they do, it doesn’t matter. And I have no control over the outcome because so-and-so doesn’t like me, or so and so is never going to give me another opportunity. And so, it’s a belief that your actions are actually futile and that leads to that person believing that they are actually incompetent.

Arlene Gale: And so, you used a professional example is the same truth in a personal setting like say with our spouse or with our children?

Crystal Clay: Yes. And this comes up and particularly, when it comes to relationships and especially at domestic violence. And in many cases people will ask, why didn’t they tell someone? Why didn’t they just, why didn’t they leave? Why did they even try to leave? In these cases, abusers often administer a series of electrical shocks. And if you look up the beginnings of the research around learned helplessness, it really came from Dr. Martin Seligman who did some, back in those days in the 60’s and 70’s, He did some experiments around dogs and electrical shocks that we wouldn’t of course do today, but abuses often administer a series of electrical shocks to accomotized victims to the abuse. And they teach them that they do not have control over their situation. So the abusers actually maintain complete control, and the victims, they learned that they are actually helpless about their circumstances. And that’s how the situation perpetuates itself.

Arlene Gale: Hmm. That’s a very serious different mindsets of how that victim abuser plays out. Interesting. I’d never thought of it that way. That’s big.

Crystal Clay: Yes it is. Yes. And so, therefore, we cannot have judgment in those situations because we just don’t, we haven’t had the opportunity to walk in that person’s shoes and to know their mindset, and to understand their mindset on the real impact of learned helplessness. And that could cause them to stay in a cage when they really could get out. But it’s the mindset that actually is keeping them in prison.

Arlene Gale: Wow. So we’re going to take a quick break and then I want to talk about, you know, we kind of defined learned helplessness. We give it some examples, but I want to know when we come back, Crystal, what are some of the warning signs that we could take away today of learned helplessness? And then what is the opposite? Or what is the cure for learned helplessness. And we will discuss those topics when we return with Crystal Clay in just a moment.

Welcome back to Mindset Meets Mastery with Arlene Gale, and my special guest is Crystal Clay, and we are talking about learned helplessness. And before we took that break we were talking about, what are some of the signs or symptoms that specifically we can look for and learned helplessness, and then go into, how do we cure this phenomenon?

Crystal Clay: Yes. So some of the ways that you can recognize learned helplessness, or things like most self-esteem, and children, especially poor motivation, this whole idea of of giving up, or even having lack of effort, putting in lack of effort. And in adults, oftentimes, you can hear this in the workplace, you can hear it personally amongst your friends, your colleagues, you hear it in the language, and the language might sound like I shouldn’t, I can’t, I won’t be able to, that’s not possible. And I call that disempowering language that takes the power away from themselves and gives the power to blame. And so, you can see that in lack of confidence and a negative self talk, I call it. And the second part of your question in terms of overcoming that, and especially in children, and I really endorsed how it’s working about the fixed mindset versus the growth mindset. And especially in children, that growth mindset perceived their abilities to something that can be changed and developed over time, even when failure happens. However, the fixed mindset believes that their abilities are carved in stone. And no matter what they can do, they can never be changed. So when they fail, they start to question their own ability and they attribute their failure to something that they actually cannot influence, which comes back to the locus of control. And so, what is the opposite of learned helplessness? And oftentimes, you talk about learned optimism, but there are some things that you can do to reverse, where you use was cure and to overcome learned helplessness, and one is to adopt an optimistic explanatory style. In other words, what is your thinking about your narrative? And I always tell people in my classrooms to think about the story that you’re telling yourself, or think about what you’re thinking about, and then how do you explain the events that happen in your everyday life.

[bctt tweet=”“…disempowering language takes the power away from themselves and gives the power to blame.” -Crystal Clay” username=””]

And in terms of whether they’re personal, internal versus external, the situation, is it internal locus of control or based on external? And then is the situation is your narrative based on something that is permanent? Stable? Or is it based on a temporary situation that happened? And whether or not, sometimes people call this catastrophizing. And that is whether something is really global, whether it applies to all situations and it’s consistent in your whole life, or is it just with respect to that specific situation? What is the story that you’re telling yourself is the thing. And then also reframing the situation, and changing your perspective, and looking at the adversity, and what it is? And then, what is your belief about it? And then, what is the real consequence of that. And so, those are reframing the situation is a key thing. And then, in the workplace for managers in particular so that they can recognize it on their teams is re-acknowledging what is actually happening. And oftentimes in the workplace, you can see it, and you can hear it by hearing things like, Oh, we’ve tried that before. Oh that will never work, we’ve done that in the past, but you know, that’s impossible. That will never get approved. And so acknowledge what’s happening, and call it. And it’s important to affirm the past experience because people want to see a degree of empathy, but then focus them on solutions, and get them talking about what actually might work, and inspire them to continue through challenges. I love the idea of inspiring through storytelling, and then help them to recognize ways that they can overcome it. With children especially, which is much more sensitive because if you can address learned helplessness quite early on, then the children have a much higher opportunity probability to build self confidence, and so, therefore, you can encourage the effort that they make and let them know that there is no reason for them to be afraid cause behind learned helplessness is fear.

Arlene Gale: Right.

Crystal Clay: Then tackle the cognitive aspect, and be sure to emphasize the effort that students put into a text, et cetera. And let them know that it’s not solely based on their innate abilities because if they do, then it adjusts their mindset to focus on controlling their — and focusing in on their locus of control versus they’re just purely their academic performance based on innate abilities, and then emotionally build their confidence by providing them with more time and help, of course. I’m happy to see that in schools now. People give prize awards for effort, and that speaks to a growth mindset.

Arlene Gale: Well, and I think that, well, a couple things. First thing that comes to mind to get your comment on is also in a business environment where, well, we’ve never done it that way before.

Crystal Clay: Yes.

Arlene Gale: And that really shuts down creativity, doesn’t it?

Crystal Clay: Yes, it really does. It tells people that they have no control over their destiny, and it’s like the example of the elephants, which is always a great example, whether they’re young and they’re tied to a large tree with the heavy chains. Initially the elephant tries to move away and after a while the elephant realizes his efforts futile, and then they resist, and they can’t move away. But once the trainer removes the chains and puts on a slight rope, the elephant doesn’t even try because in their mind, it wouldn’t matter if they tried to get away, they won’t be able to. And so the elephant’s past experience is now dictating their belief system, and its current and future behavior, and it’s learned apathy. We see that with employee engagement surveys when people say, you know what, why bother if nothing’s going to change? And so therefore, that limits their creativity in terms of thinking about solutions, and being solution oriented, and being proud of the solution versus, and they focus on being part of the problem, whether it’s intentional or unintentional. That is the way that they begin to think.

Arlene Gale: And I think that when management says, well they’re not a self starter. You know, part of that may be the individual’s personality, but the other part of that may be that you kind of beat that out of them as a manager, why would they start anything? Why would they make a suggestion if all they’re going to get is, we’ve never done it that way before, that won’t work, or whatever.

Crystal Clay: Yes, exactly. And that becomes part of this self fulfilling prophecy. You know, they don’t believe that they can do it. And then the manager says that they can’t do it. And then it just becomes a vicious cycle. And that’s how victims, they repeatedly take this low self-concept mindset, internalize it, and unlikely to attribute failure to their lack of ability. And they see no relationships between any success in their own actions.

Arlene Gale: Well, and when a business manager decides that it’s just easier if I do it myself. And then they get overwhelmed, and they get stressed, and they take it out on their employees, and it becomes a vicious circle.

Crystal Clay: Yes it does. Yes. And it creates a negative climate, and it lowers the self efficacy of their employees that are under them.

Arlene Gale: Absolutely. So there’s so much on this topic that we could learn and talk about personally and professionally. But I want to put you on the hot seat for a moment. Are you ready?

Crystal Clay: I’m ready.

Arlene Gale: I always say, I always ask my guests, are you ready? Like they really have any choice.

Crystal Clay: Yes, that’s right, exactly.

Arlene Gale: It’s a false choice. I apologize for that. The first question I want to ask you is, what is a mindset in your life around this topic of learned helplessness that may have hindered you in mastering an element of your life?

Crystal Clay: That’s a great question, and I did really well in school, in math up until I had one particular teacher. And I have a particular teacher when I was going through a difficult time in my life, and I used to look up the window a lot because I was kind of, I guess ruminating on the situation, and one day he called me out and he asked me the question with really do a math problem, and because I wasn’t really paying attention, I didn’t answer, or I took a minute to answer, and then he said: “Nevermind, it doesn’t matter anyway. You’re not going to get it anyway.” And that stayed with me for a while, in terms of my mathematical aptitude, it almost stopped me from pursuing my PhD because I knew that there was going to be a very high statistical analytical part of doing my PhD studies that was going to require me to engage in that way. And it almost was a metal blocker, and it almost stopped me from doing that, and then I decided I’m going to run towards the thing that scares me, and I did it anyway. And when it came to that aspect in terms of quantitative research and all that went with that, then I had to overcome it by getting the kind of support that was necessary in order for me to really begin to build my confidence in doing that. And once I did that and found that level of support that I needed, then I realized that that was a perception. It was a lie that I told myself for several years, it was an idea, but it was idea, it was like a table that has no legs to stand on. And I took it on as a belief based on the supporting evidence that I had from that teacher. But that belief was actually alive.

Arlene Gale: Words are so powerful, and as adults and as leaders in the business community, I think that we, you know, sometimes words get spewed out without any, I don’t know, foresight or caring, I’m not sure what the right word is for, the fact that sometimes words are thrown into the world without a whole lot of thought to the impact they have on other people.

[bctt tweet=”“Words are so powerful. Sometimes words are thrown into the world without a whole lot of thought to the impact they have on other people.” -Arlene Gale ” username=””]

Crystal Clay: Yes, that’s absolutely right.

Arlene Gale: You know, because words can cure us or kill us, they can lift us up or they can knock us down, and then you can continue to run over somebody, or you can stop and think about what you said and then reach out and apologize. Some people use words, and they don’t even think about how it impacts the other person.

Crystal Clay: No, that’s absolutely right. And most people make decisions based on the words that have been spoken over them at some point in their lives.

[bctt tweet=”“Most people make decisions based on the words that have been spoken over them at some point in their lives.” -Crystal Clay ” username=””]

Arlene Gale: Absolutely. And in a professional environment, it can kill an organization’s creativity and success.

Crystal Clay: Yes, it certainly can. And both you and I and our listening audience, I can think about the stories that they’ve heard of people telling you or maybe it’s yourself, something that you couldn’t finish, or you couldn’t run the race, or you couldn’t walk, or whatever that is. If you’ve listened to every time, you wouldn’t do anything, you’d be paralyzed. But resilience is key in overcoming learned helplessness.

[bctt tweet=”“Resilience is key in overcoming learned helplessness.”-Crystal Clay” username=””]

Arlene Gale: So, yeah. That leads me to my next question. What is one nugget, if you could leave the listeners with one golden nugget today that they could act on or change their mindset on, what would that be?

Crystal Clay: They could change their mindset in terms of understanding where they are on the optimistic explanatory style. And one thing that I would encourage your listeners to do is actually take the test by Dr. Salomon, it’s on Learned Optimism, so that they can recognize their actual styles. And again, I always believe that creating self-awareness is the first step to overcoming any kind of scenario. The second thing I would say is to find a partner and have that person call out every time you use language or use behavior that might seem like a learned helplessness, if that is an area that you want to be able to overcome. And the more you recognize it, the more you are accountable for changing it, and the more motivated you are to change that behavior.

[bctt tweet=”“Creating self-awareness is the first step to overcoming any kind of scenario.” -Crystal Clay” username=””]

Arlene Gale: Absolutely, absolutely. Well, just brilliance, Crystal, and I appreciate you sharing your brilliance with my audience today. Can you take a moment and tell us how do we find you? How do people connect with you, and hire you to bring you in to help them overcome learned helplessness in their workplace?

Crystal Clay: Well, thank you. My website is www.olivebranch.bm. That’s B as in boy, M as in Mary. And you can find me Crystal Clay on LinkedIn. And you can find me on Facebook, Olive Branch Consulting on Facebook as well. My Email address is crystalclay@olivebranch.bm.

Arlene Gale: So crystalclay@olivebranch.bm.

Crystal Clay: Yes.

Arlene Gale: And what is your key expertise if a company were to hire you to come out and work with them, what would be the number one problem that you would work with them to solve?

Crystal Clay: Employee engagement and talent management.

Arlene Gale: Great. Awesome. Well, that is a good reminder that in all of our businesses, you know, they’re not our customers, they’re not our clients, their talents, in my opinion, it’s our job to help them to learn how to feel that way and own that expertise. I think too many times people in business don’t see themselves as experts or called themselves as experts, and they need to do that.

[bctt tweet=”“In in our businesses, people are not our customers, they’re not our clients- they’re talents. It’s our job to help them to learn how to feel that way and own that expertise.” -Arlene Gale ” username=””]

[bctt tweet=”“Too many times, people in business don’t see themselves as experts or call themselves experts. And they needed to do that.” -Arlene Gale” username=””]

Crystal Clay: Yes, they do. Yes, absolutely.

Arlene Gale: Well, we speak a lot of the same language, and I’m going to leave my listeners with this, and hopefully you will smile when you hear some of the language that we have in common. But I want to start by thanking you so much for your time, and really encouraging the listeners to heed your words of wisdom, and to connect with you on social media, and hire you to come out and work with them. So, thank you.

Crystal Clay: Thank you. It’s been such a pleasure. Thank you, Arlene.

Arlene Gale: Well, thank you very much, and this is what I want to leave the listeners with. “Do not let the world dictate your story. Be mindful of the stories you tell yourself about what is or is not possible in your life. You get to choose to write your own story your own way every day.”