04/02/2008 02:31 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Your Life as a Story

In our Practice, we often focus our client's attention on the "doing-ness" of their work, and the subtle subtext, in beliefs and behavior, that animate their actions. In all of this work, I am struck that we don't spend more time helping our colleagues and clients take more pleasure in what they are doing. If we are stuck in neutral, with barely a grin on our face, maybe we need a change. Often, we invest so much time thinking about what we want to do, perhaps it is time to think about what we were meant to do. Since we are all works in progress, taking measure of where we are on our "path" makes sense.

Your Life Story

The essential elements of leading and living with integrity and a real sense of daily possibility requires that we acknowledge that we are the authors of our experience and at any given moment we are the sum total of all of our choices. (That's a huge idea...better sit with that one for a moment!) Whatever we hold to be "true" was an agreement we made (tacitly or directly) with others/our community/or our culture.

To break through to another level of life experience, we must understand the story of our life, the roles we chose to play, the casting of our principals and minor players, the narratives we wrote for ourselves, and how each of our chapters, our individual dramas, played out for us. We must learn to live with the inevitable discomfort of knowing that all we hold to be "true" will be held as "untrue" by any number of others elsewhere on the planet . . . that no culture, gender, race, or belief system "owns" the truth.

One of our Partners, Dr. Robert Mintz, utilizes his background in narrative research, guided by the work of Dr. Dan McAdams at Northwestern University, to conduct a Life Story Interview with our clients. Through a guided interview, Bob asks clients to organize and review their lives as stories with chapters, plots, characters, heroes, villains and crucible moments/choice points/intersections.

Bob's experience confirms the belief that the processing of hearing oneself tell their own story invites a unique journey of self-discovery and personal validation. The act of telling a trusted listener about the critical events, people and situations of one's life offers a unique and powerful way to identify and resolve inconsistencies and conflicts in our life stories. The process allows clients the chance to make sense of their story; to bring congruence to it, resulting in a renewed

sense of meaning, personal integration and hope for the future. Clients get to see and hear the essence, patterns and themes their own success and dysfunction in their own words.

This powerful self-recognition invites them to stop blaming others and to step in and use their own pattern to change what needs to be changed.

Often, our clients discover that some of what they believed about themselves was more myth than fact, and that several of the patterns that blocked their success or happiness were imbedded in outdated "facts". They often find a way to confront fears and insecurities, learn to accept mistakes as their richest teachers not something to be feared, and to realize that good lives, like good stories, require good endings . . . and that we all have an active role in shaping the subsequent chapters of our lives. Drs. Mintz, McAdams and others remind us that often "we are the stories we tell."

In 1975, the late Ira Progoff created The Intensive Journal Method to help adults surface and understand the patterns of their daily life. Journaling is still a potent way to capture the rhythms and reflections of each day.

As Americans we make create our life stories against the robust realities of our culture. As Josh Hamilton and James Morrison wrote in The Stuff Americans Are Made Of, Americans are adolescents, "impetuous, unpredictable, inventive, sloppy, full of surprises, stupid, brilliant, expansive, and full of hope and promise." Doesn't that describe the animating energy of your life, and some of your decisions? They also write that our culture is about "the search and glorification of individual identity."

So, instead of planning a life, we often just stumble along. Or, as Alice Roosevelt Longworth remarked, "I have a simply philosophy: Fill what's empty. Empty what's full. Scratch where it itches."

We smile, but is that enough? The lessons of the Life Story Interview experience with many exceptional leaders, while encouraging, is more than a strategy or exercise. Each of us have a story, one that we use to move from moment to moment. I challenge you to consider your own.

The poet David Whyte cautions us, "We try to construct a life in which we will be perfect, in which we will eliminate awkwardness, pass by vulnerability, ignore ineptness, only to pass through the gate of our lives and find, strangely, that the gateway is vulnerability itself."

You might begin by asking yourself:

What were the life events that should appear in Bold Print? What were the two peak events of my life, where I experienced the greatest joy and happiness? What were the two lowest points, where I was backed up against the wall of myself with guilt, disappointment, loss? When did I take any of these moments to change something in my life for the better?

A Spring Garage Sale

I suggest Spring is a perfect time for your own April Inventory, a time to hold your own "garage sale of the mind." It's a wonderful way to get rid of a lot of clutter, unusable items, things you've outgrown, ideas that are stale, dreams left behind.

What's cluttering up your brain and its' environs? What no longer works for you? I know what I'd like to sell. I'd let them go cheap. Here are some tired concepts on my sale table:

The idea that there's something called "quality time" and that it can be scheduled. There's just time. Some of it is real nice, but it's never scheduled. Quality time doesn't exist except retrospectively.

The idea that you don't change much after 30 (or was it 40, or 50?) This is the notion that character is "set" rather like freezing ice cream after a certain age. You can have that idea for nothing. Take it away.

Here's a treasure: Success comes to those who work hard. This is a wonderful idea for those people committed to hard work and struggle, but the evidence is that hard work just makes you tired. Success is not something that comes to you; you are successful if you are fully present in, and enjoying your life. And working toward a goal or purpose. Anyway, here's the hard work idea for $3.95.

I invite you to consider your own sale table. I'd bet a great sale will unclutter your mind, freshen your assumptions and welcome in more than a breath of Spring air and inspiration. Why not? Rapture may be your reward.