can become the rest of our life.
We are a storytelling species. Human beings have been using stories to share insights and information since we first crawled out of caves. Throughout history, stories have been carriers of meaning. They help us make sense of the world and our lives. The stories we tell ourselves may be the most important.
Stories we tell ourselves about how we got here
I began thinking about the importance of stories while taking an adult education class. Our instructor led us through an exercise to develop the story of our life so far. We each received a 2’ by 3’ poster board and stack of sticky notes (about 40 yellow, about 20 pink, maybe a dozen blue, and about a dozen green).
First, we used the yellow sticky notes to capture in a few words the most significant people, events, and circumstances, of our lives. We put the yellow sticky notes randomly on the poster board. If we concluded that an event or circumstance or a person was not significant in our life, we could remove it later. As memory unfolded or greater awareness developed, we could add other notes for other people, circumstances, or events.
Next, we identified the sticky notes which described negative or painful situations or people. We transferred the information to a pink note and threw away the yellow one. Sometimes memories would cascade, and we added more yellow and pink sticky notes.
We arranged the remaining sticky notes in chronological order, starting at the top left and going down to the bottom left. When we got to the bottom of the page or when we recognized a new chapter of life, we would start a new column at the top to the right of what already existed. Most people in the class rearranged the notes as memories cleared. Recognizing life patterns was more important than a perfect timeline.
After some reflection, we identified distinct phases or chapters of our life. We wrote the title of our chapters on the blue notes.
When I skimmed the assignment, it seemed like a lot of self-absorbed busywork. Yet the blizzard of sticky notes captured more time, attention, and reflection than I expected. Most of the original chapter titles were replaced with more meaningful ones.
Our teacher has done this exercise with hundreds of people over a generation. He understands it as a profound tool for people to reflect in a different way about where we’ve been, and the path we’re on.
Reflecting on the story of your life
Our instructor challenged us to discern lessons from the story of our life. The class I’m in has many people of faith, and our instructor suggested that we consider what God had taught us in each chapter of our life. Regardless of whether you believe in God, you can summarize what you think are the key lessons of various portions of your life. Here are some questions you can ask.
- What lessons do I want to remember in this phase of life?
- What was God speaking to me then?
- What experiences did I have that I want to remember?
- What do I want the story of my future to be?
Stories that can shape your future.
Most of us never think about the story of our future. We like stability. We’re biased against change. Yet we’re always in transition. Sometimes we know it and actively cooperate with it. Other times we drift not quite attending to aging and other realities.
We don’t have to drift and drifting may take us to a place we don’t like. Instead of drifting, we can use a story of the future to guide us to the life we want.
Don Miller wrote Blue Like Jazz and became part of making a movie of that book. While making the movie he realized that his life was cowardly, petty, and dull, and he didn’t like it. Don decided to change his story and his new story guided his actions.
He began to take a few risks and do things that he had never considered before. Within a decade he was fit, adventuresome, and successful in ways that he had never previously considered. Now he helps people tell wonderful stories that influence others.
Using stories to reinvent yourself.
“Who were you back in the world?”
During the time of the Gold Rush people in the West used to ask each other that question. They knew that when people arrived here, they didn’t have to be the same person they were in Boston or Scranton. They could reinvent themselves and become someone different.
Sometimes we get no choice about reinvention. We might get fired or suffer the death of our spouse, or get diagnosed with a serious disease. Sometimes we choose to reinvent ourselves. That happens when we get married or change careers. And sometimes we reinvent ourselves because we want the next phase of our life to be different.
When we do that, we change our stories. We change the way we explain ourselves to others. We change our self-talk. Changing our stories can help us create the legacy we choose.
Imagine you come to your favorite restaurant for your 87th birthday … and it is a surprise party! Your dearest family and best friends are there to celebrate with you. Each one will speak for two minutes. What do you want them to say about you?
What changes might you make to increase the possibility that those people would recognize and appreciate those aspects of your character?
Terry Moore, CCIM, is the author of Building Legacy Wealth: How to Build Wealth and Live a Life Worth Imitating. Read his “Welcome to My Blog.”