Your life is a story.
Do you know what it’s about?
Some people never ask the question. Others think about it but decide not to dig in too deeply. It’s a big question to answer and certainly not one you are interested in getting wrong. That makes not answering seem like a good option, as if not playing somehow removes your piece from the board. It doesn’t.
The story you are telling with your life right now – this life, this one – is an unfolding narrative that will continue with or without your full awareness or participation. That’s strange to consider but all too true. Many, many people live out their lives as if by accident, stumbling from one incident to the next, oblivious to the patterns of their experience. It’s a haphazard existence that hinges on the hope for a next, better outcome. The storyline is hard to follow, the main character is under-developed and the action is a jumble of motion never coalescing into a clear purpose.
It doesn’t have to be this way. With a modicum of discernment you can deepen your understanding of who you are, why you are and what you are here to do. You can become a fully developing character – a beautiful, intentional work in progress – whose future is by no means guaranteed but whose present holds the promise of clarity and confidence.
Imagine the experience of a community of people routinely committed to deepening their understanding of self. Imagine the humility, the empathy, the thoughtfulness cultivated by the willingness to take that look. It brings to mind Thomas Merton, who described his own revelation this way:
“Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time, there would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.”
To truly know yourself, to know your story, is to become unflinchingly honest about who you are. Once you are, you will normalize and activate your personal understanding, and use it to influence those around you to take on the same exploration. If that’s not leadership, I don’t know what is.
And it doesn’t have to be a majestic or spiritual process. It doesn’t have to include radical depth or years on the couch. It’s hard work, yes. Because the most useful learning is predicated upon trial and error, missteps and mistakes. What I call “hard work” is the resolve you must find to stick with it, build up your resilience and keep moving forward. Your curiosity is your fuel, now you need a framework to get started.
A terrific way to formulate your story might just include a statement of your values and why you hold them; your strengths and how they fulfill you; your limitations and how they challenge you; and your purpose and how it drives you. Here are a few questions and ideas to help you begin to uncover those elements of your story.
What do care about more than anything else? Some say an easy way to answer this is to look at your calendar and your credit card statement. In other words, follow your time and your money. What do you care about so much that nothing would persuade you to let it go? What do you care about so much that you want to teach others about it and help them care about it the way you do?
It might be family or community. It might be contribution or financial security. It might be learning, service, pleasure, faith, achievement, education, influence or responsibility. It might be respect, creativity, adventure or compassion. Whatever it is, you live your life in service of fulfilling it because it matters that much to you to do so. (There are more ways to explore this here, here and here.)
Your Values are your guide. It’s a safe bet that you are living by them right now, regardless of your ability to name even one. The power of knowing and naming them is that you become equipped to make decisions that align with what you care about most. Your future work, relationships, financial decisions – all of life’s “moments of truth” – will be better informed through the clear articulation of and commitment to your values.
Next, Your Strengths
When did you feel proud, fulfilled or satisfied? What were you doing? Chances are you were using your strengths. It’s pretty simple: when you use your strengths you are more satisfied and more engaged than when you don’t. In my opinion everyone should commit to lifelong learning, always trying and exploring new things. (That may even be the secret to happiness, but I can’t be sure.) What I am sure of is that I have to pay the bills and I want to have enough left over to do things in life that I enjoy. And to earn that much needed money I would rather do things I am good at, that I enjoy doing, that raise my esteem, build my confidence and create reliance on my contribution. Those are called strengths and the sooner you figure out what yours are the faster you can get to using them. Spend a few bucks on yourself and take the StrengthsFinder to learn more.
And, yes, Your Limitations are important, too.
You can call them “weaknesses” or “challenges” if you prefer. I like to call them “the ways I routinely get myself into trouble.” Important note: your weaknesses are usually discovered on the shadow side of your strengths. That is to say, when you overdo that strength just a bit too much it begins to work against you, the evidence of which is the annoyance on the faces of your friends and colleagues. For example, one of my signature strengths is my ability to express ideas or concepts through story. Sometimes I overdo it, falling in love with my own expertise and crowding out other people’s ideas or perspectives. Make sense?
Once you have your strengths identified spend some time examining their shadow sides. This will give you a good idea of your limitations. If you are up for a bigger challenge, send a note to a few close friends that includes your values and your strengths and ask them to share with you the ways you do AND don’t live up to them. Their feedback will be a massive gift and you might just inspire them to do the same examination.
Finally, what are you here to do? What is Your Purpose, your reason for being here?
This is the hardest one, hands down. It’s just not something we think about and I think that’s mostly driven by fear. “If I say it, you might just expect me to do it!” or “If I say it, you’ll think I’m crazy!” Quick note: the people who laugh at your declared purpose are simply projecting their own fear about stating and claiming their own. Guaranteed. By owning your purpose you will unsettle those who want to name their own but just might not be ready to do so. Because they are unsettled by it, they might strike out at you. So be it. Bring on the slings and arrows!
Purpose is the arc of your story. It drives the narrative forward keeping you, the protagonist on the path of your own life. You can live without a purpose. You can bob along in the current, bouncing from this to that. Most people do. But if you know your purpose – or even just committed to figuring it out – and you live in fulfillment of it, what a sense of internal power you will have!
Finding purpose is about trusting yourself, trusting that there’s a reason you keep reading those kinds of books, watching those kinds of movies, attending those classes, watching those TED talks. It’s about trusting those inclinations and then feeding them, nurturing them. It’s about asking people who do those things that inspire and engage you just why they do them and how they got started and what they are thinking about now and where there want to go tomorrow. And then it’s about assimilating that information into your own version of purpose. Being original is overrated. Everything is derivative. Copy the people you admire until you can’t help but express it in your way. Do that long enough and a sense of purpose will emerge along with the conviction necessary to live it out.
Hint: Purpose is directly related to Values and Strengths. Any effort toward clarity in any element of your story is an effort toward clarity in all of them.
The simple, urgent truth is that we need your story. We need you to fall in love with it so that we can do so, also.
This life? This is it. What story do you want to tell with it?
P.S. My values are freedom, learning, awareness, achievement, and meaning.
My strengths are (1) the ability to convey impact and meaning in speaking and writing, (2) getting things started, (3) integrating ideas and concepts…connecting the dots.
My purpose is to inspire everyone I meet to be more creative, resourceful and generous in the face of complexity and change. Starting, always starting with myself.
DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.