Retrospect is an uncomfortable thing. Looking back at the last five years of my life is a cringe-inducing exercise. All my failings, mistakes and poorly thought out actions are glaringly horrific. The nights I got too drunk. The people I’ve hurt with my selfishness. The time I’ve wasted and the opportunities I’ve missed can all paint a dark picture. It’s a picture many thirty-year-old American men can paint. Its the picture of trying to figure your shit out in your late twenties. But, luckily, there is some brightness too.
Today, I consider myself a happy person. I love what I do. I love the people in my life. Despite the messiness of the last few years, I’ve been able to create a life that I enjoy. But only recently did I realize that the tool that finally helped me figure it out was one of the oldest practices known to man: storytelling.
I tell myself a lot of stories. These days, I like to tell myself the “anything is possible” story, the “practice makes perfect” story or the “life is short” story. At the time of writing this I’m a big fan of the “it’s 5 o’clock somewhere” story and I can guarantee the “sleep’s the best medicine” story will have me in bed by 9 tonight.
The stories I tell myself are the anchors of my thoughts, my words and my actions. They are the internal narratives that make me who I am. There was a time when I told myself the “get money or die trying” story. Thanks, 50. There was the time I was convinced by the “bugs are scary” story. That was embarrassing. I was even tempted by the “no one understands me” story for a bit; also embarrassing. The stories I tell myself are always changing.
My current narrative is a borrowed set of story lines. They are the narratives I’ve collected from a host of movies, articles, lectures and friends. They are the gathered learnings from my mentors. They are the reciprocal stories of my upbringing, a series of “I’ll never be like them” stories. But it is through the recognition of these story lines, in all their beauty and ugliness, that I’ve seen the potential to guide my narrative towards a particular and positive outcome.
For a long time I had two primary narratives. The most prominent was the story of “I can’t.” For whatever reason, I felt inept for choosing the wrong major or for not having enough money or for screwing up a relationship or not committing to one in the first place. Simultaneously, there was the quieter narrative of escape. Some American story of, “go west,” combined with a muttering of, “into the woods.” All of these were created and reinforced by the books I was reading, the music I was listening to and the experiences I would create. Deciding to drink all day, for instance, resulted in a lot of “I can’t.” Follow that up with a hung over screening of Trainspotting and an overdose of Jeff Buckley, and you have yourself a well-founded story of inability. The great American travel stories were intoxicating as well. Whether by watching 180° South three times in one day or quoting excerpts of On The Road with friends, I cemented my internal narrative of getting away.
The problem was that these two story lines worked against each another. My “I can’t” story didn’t allow me to escape, and my “escape” narrative illuminated so many reasons why I couldn’t. The stories I had collected and nurtured were actually holding me back.
Eventually, circumstances changed and new story lines started coming into my life. At the time it felt like magic. I would meet someone new or by chance I would attend a talk or see some film and my old narratives were challenged, and slowly replaced.
More and more I was being convinced that “I could.”
I began realizing the stories I told myself were a key to unlocking my ability to control my internal narrative. That urge I had to listen to sad music when I was feeling shitty wasn’t just self-deprecating; it was a tool that I had unknowingly harnessed. The same approach could go in the opposite direction.
It was difficult to see this type of story reinforcement as something equally controllable. I had always viewed stories of positive change as serendipitous events. A certain story would come into my life at just the right moment and, “Ah Ha!” things would turn around or I would gain some new perspective. Now, I use stories as a tool. I craft “Ah Ha!” moments as actively as I craft my schedule for the day. By staying aware of whatever story I’m telling myself I can actively guide my narrative to line up with my goals of where I want to be.
Now, when I’m feeling less than productive, I watch that great documentary on the Eames. When I’m elated, I read an article about appreciating what I have. When I’m sensing a need for balance, I listen to a podcast on time management. When I get the urge to run away, I’ll still watch 180° South. It’s such a good movie!
I tell myself a lot of stories. Through them, I’m changing my life for the better.
What stories are you telling yourself?