As anyone who ever attended a high school reunion can attest, your personal identity is fluid. Hairstyles, sports allegiances, and even personalities change over time. (Cue that Simple Minds song Don’t You (Forget About Me).)
Evidence from my own yearbook includes Ryan, a sweet if wildly unmotivated friend who, at age 20, dropped out of college to be a ski bum in Colorado. Fast forward eight years, and Ryan is the CEO of a nonprofit startup dedicated to preserving ecological practices of indigenous communities in Andean South America. I spotted him in Palo Alto with a Bluetooth receiver behind an ear that he once reserved for storing clumsily hand-rolled cigarettes.
Ryan’s personal story is now a successful part of his company’s fundraising and branding efforts. He uses his evolution to demonstrate how apolitical weekend outdoorsmen can become activists. It perhaps goes without saying that his parents are especially fond of this narrative.
That’s the thing about storytelling. The same sequence of events can take on different meanings depending on the person delivering the story, the audience, and the desired interpretation.
Why we tell our own stories
“We are tellers of tales, and we seek to provide our scattered and often confusing experiences with a sense of coherence by arranging the episodes of our lives,” writes Dan McAdams, a Northwestern University psychologist who studied narrative psychology.
Experts like McAdams explore how depictions of one’s life events shape personality and experience. Eventually, the versions we tell ourselves become the truth — even if our memories are faulty or inaccurate, we believe these stories to be true and alter future decisions accordingly. This is powerful stuff.
“If you’ve interpreted the events of your life to mean that you’re innately unlucky or unwise, then it’s hard to look optimistically at the future,” writes Susan Cain, author of QUIET: The Power of Introverts. “Conversely, if you acknowledge that you’ve made mistakes and faced difficulties but seek (or have already glimpsed) redemption, you’ll feel a much greater sense of agency over your life (and your future).”
How personal narratives help us succeed
Consider our old friend Ryan. If he had deduced that dropping out of college was proof his life was destined to fail, it might have become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Instead, he turned his gap years into the origin story of an international philanthropic business.
Whether you’re a budding startup scion, reeling from a recent divorce, or about to transfer to a new department at work (again!), you get to decide what it all means. You are both the protagonist and author of your life’s story. Here are a few things to consider as you write your next chapter.
- Declare yourself. You know how sometimes you tell a friend or partner you are going to the gym later strictly as insurance you actually go? Publicly stating takeaways from your life story can be similarly effective.
Doug Conant, the introverted former CEO of Campbell Soup, reportedly scheduled one-on-one “Declare Yourself” meetings with his staff so they could hear his story firsthand: How he liked to work, what had been successful for him in the past, how they could move forward together. Sharing lessons learned from your own narrative aids collaboration and intimacy, and builds momentum towards future goals.
- Reread previous drafts. When you’re faced with a difficult decision or transition, carve out 30 minutes to revisit documents from your past. If you keep a journal, check passages from times of stress or change; or, take a look at old emails to close friends. Has your understanding of the events changed in the months or years since they transpired? Revisiting the real-time reporting of our earlier selves can provide valuable perspective on how our stories, struggles, and priorities continually evolve.
- Think beyond blueprints. Most cultures have certain conventions that demonstrate individuals’ progress; e.g., go to school, get a job, get married, have children. According to The Atlantic, these sorts of blueprints can be useful, but they can also “stigmatize anyone who doesn’t follow them to a T and provide unrealistic expectations of happiness for those who do.”
Instead of ranking your biography against common tropes, consider the individual trajectories within your life story. Maybe you had kids before you graduated from school, awakening a passion for youth culture and resulting in career as a child psychologist. If you’d stuck to a certain script, you might not have gotten to that ending.
Or maybe you value the model provided by a standardized blueprint and want to use its details to construct your own narrative. Either way, you control how your story is told. The floor is yours.