Personal Narrative

You’ve probably heard the phrase “you’re the hero of your own story” before. For plenty of people, you’re your own villain, too.

One of my favorite movies is a completely underrated masterpiece called Stranger Than Fiction, starring Will Ferrell. Ferrell’s character, Harold Crick, discovers that he’s a fictional character in a novel when he suddenly gains the ability to hear the voice of the narrator and book’s author. Since no mental health professionals will take him seriously, he seeks out a literary expert, Dr. Jules Hilbert (played by Dustin Hoffman). Dr. Hilbert approaches the problem with a literary eye, telling Harold that he needs to look for clues as to whether the story he’s in is a comedy or a tragedy, in order to predict Harold’s ultimate fate. The same events can happen in either story, but the lens through which you view them changes the nature of the tale significantly.

I won’t spoil any more for you (it’s such a good story and so absolutely worth a watch), but the element I want to draw out is that this is also true about you. Hopefully you’re not hearing any disembodied voices describing your life, but the point is that you’re life is only partially defined by your actions. The rest is defined by the story those actions become a part of.

Here’s another phrase you’ve probably heard: “History gets written by the winners.” While that’s a cynical look at geopolitics, there’s a powerful lesson for the individual there. The meaning of events is often open to interpretation. Let’s say you’ve decided to take up rock-climbing. One day you have a pretty bad fall and you break your arm, resulting in you being in a cast for a few months. Those are the events, but that’s not the story. The story is up to you – is that the story of why you decided to quit rock-climbing, or is that the story of how you learned a valuable lesson about both safety and perseverance, and got back on the mountain and became great?

That’s up to you.

No event exists in a vacuum, good or bad. A story is created by connecting different events together – and the meaning of an event can change years later when something new happens or new facts come to light. There’s always time to write a new chapter, which means even the past is not set in stone. You can’t change what happened, but you can absolutely change what it means.

So often we let our personal narratives define us, instead of the other way around. We often use the power of these stories to shield us from uncomfortable truths – to shift blame away from ourselves, or to explain away our failures as inevitable, or to define ourselves as deserving of something we haven’t earned. It’s natural, but it’s dangerous. Once we start to tell our story this way, it becomes difficult to change. You can’t tell the story of how you overcame a failing in order to rise to great heights if your story doesn’t include acceptance of that flaw to begin with.

Even worse is when we write the ending of the story far in advance, and yet use that power to write a bad one! You’re literally taking a third-person omniscient view of your own life and using that to predict failure. If you’re going to pretend that you can predict or even manifest the future’s events flawlessly, you might as well write incredible success! At least then you’ll be striving for something, giving yourself a road map, and inspiring yourself. But what’s the point of writing an inevitable failure?

Of course, I know the point. You write a future failure as inevitable because you’re more afraid of the “failure” part than the results of that failure. People want to avoid blame more than they want to avoid disaster. As long as you couldn’t have been expected to do better, you can at least be comfortable in the knowledge that the failure wasn’t your fault. So we decide in advance that the failure was inevitable. And then of course, it becomes so.

So few of us ever realize that the exact reverse of that power is also true. You can just write an inevitable success, and writing it will make it so. Failure is a choice – as long as you choose not to quit, you’ve only got two states of existence you can occupy: Success, or Still Trying. You don’t fail until you quit.

It’s an adventure story. Your adventure story. And it has a happy ending.

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