Career : Rewriting Your Life Story
Daniel D. Elash, Ph.D. Dan is the principal of Syntient. Dan's Doctoral Degree is in Psychology from the University of Kansas. Dan's consultant expertise includes enhancing organizational capability through collaboration and facilitating change at the individual, team and organizational levels.
Dan is a speaker and teacher who places strong emphasis on developing social innovation in client organizations. His goal is to help client companies realize their untapped potential. Dan uses communication and community building as fundamental platforms for generating and sustaining personal and organizational capability.
We’ve all heard it said that we play starring roles in our life stories. But, we are more than actors playing out someone else’s script. We are also the authors of those yet unfinished novels. Sure, the story is about you; your choices, your struggles, and your triumphs. As long as we hold the view that we merely actors playing a part in an unfinished script, we await what will be written with a variety of emotions ranging from anxiety, despair, joy, or anticipation. We are acted upon by forces beyond our control and our options are largely defined by what has been written before.
What would change if we were to realize that we are also the author? For one thing, we would realize that we have the ability to deliberately develop our characters. We could change the story line. We could build on potentials, change our perspectives, and reinterpret the events on our pasts in ways that open new doors. My point, in this article, is that you have an author’s power over your story. By shifting perspectives you can shift from reactor to creator. In what follows, we will look at the ways in which you can use this insight to create a more satisfying life. Remember, the future is unwritten, the story is unfinished, and so, there is room for change and development.
How Does It Work?
We tend to go into the future bounded by our interpretations of what we believe has been written before. You can learn by listening to yourself in the ways in which you talk and think. We say things about ourselves as if they were carved into stone rather than written on a page. Things such as, “I don’t make very good decisions”, or “I’m not very strong”. We think to ourselves that, “I can’t ever catch a break”, and that “There is nothing that I can do”. We let past experiences and old perceptions define who we are today and limit who we can be moving into the future. When we limit ourselves to what we have been in the past, or remain significantly defined by the bad choices of yesterday, we fail to realize that since the future is not here yet, there is room in the present for something new to emerge in the future. That something new, of course, depends upon what we do in the present. It is the great hope of all mankind that the future is not written unless we drag our past into it. It is a choice rather than a life sentence. It all depends upon how you look at it and what you do with a new perspective.
What Can We Do?
While our choices may indeed be finite, they are still more diverse and complex than we usually realize. Therefore, while what follows m ay not be exhaustive, these ideas can still serve as keys to unlocking a future that doesn’t have to be a repetition of the past. At any moment, we face choices that can change our paths, alter our course. As Robert Frost has written at the end of his poem, “The Road Not Taken”, in his book entitled Leaves of Grass,
“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
In every situation, you have your choice of roads to take. You are not bound by the roads chosen in the past. You can branch off and chart a different course, and in so doing end up in a very different place.
- Asking, “What If” – Asking, “what if” simply opens our thinking to the possibilities that are inherent in every fork on our roads. What iffing challenges our creativity, it can fire our imagination. Asking, “what if” opens the doors to multiple possible futures. It empowers you to write your story in ways that lead to the outcome that you envision. We are no longer limited by the shortcomings of our parents. We are no longer restricted by what we have been in the past. The simple act of acknowledging the possibilities of “if” enables us to better explore our alternatives. Instead of saying, “I am shy” we can ask what would I do if I didn’t continue to be shy, or clumsy, or so caught up in anger or whatever. Holding such thoughts open us up to acting “as if”.
- Acting “As If” – Wanting to be a different or better person doesn’t magically transform us. We have to do something different in order to change. Character is built over time rather than with a New Year’s resolution. However, it does come from practice. Repeated practice builds habits. With each step, we walk further down a new path. One way to start is to act “as if” you had the trait that you wish to develop, it justifies the early experience of thinking of yourself as someone different than the one you are today. Whether you choose a role model to emulate, someone who displays the trait you admire, or you act solely on your own ability to imagine yourself with the trait you wish to possess, making the choices that accompany that trait can build the mental muscles that support and sustain it. By acting as if you are it, you can become it.
- Taking Counsel from Your Regrets – All people live with regrets; the foolish choices of youth; what seemed like a good decision before you had the experience to assess a situation differently; even actions taken when you didn’t know yourself as well as you thought you did. However, some people are better than others at forgiving themselves their mistakes. Those who don’t are often people who would rather not look too closely at the things that they regret. They avoid or deny the pain associated with the regretted choices, rather than learning the lessons that can come from the pain. Don’t let your regrets define you. That was you then and you are different now, if for no other reason than that you regret the choice you made. But, instead, take counsel from those regrets. What do you wish that you would have done differently? How could you make amends or repair the damage you might have done? What do you wish you would have known then that you do know now? How can you use the insights gained to guide your choices going forward? For just as we all have regrets, we all possess the ability to learn from our experiences. Faced with similar circumstances we can make different choices. We can apply new experiences and new perspectives in ways that we didn’t then.
- Believing in Your Hopes – The difference between hope and reality is often a matter of developing a plan. Planned actions, mixed with belief, are capable of making wishes come true. While you may never become the king of England, if that is your wish, improving you skills, knowledge and resources are within your grasp. If you transform your wishes into the actions you can realize them. The old saying that, “If you think you can, or if you think that you can’t, you are right” applies here. Using your hopes as fuel, and believing in effort and work, can take you to new places. You can put yourself on a more satisfying path.
- Acting with the End in Mind – What do you stand for? Not what did you stand for before, but what do you want to stand for now. What do you want to be? Not what have others told you that you were in the past. If you don’t know where you want to end up, then any old path will get you there. However, as the author of your life story, you have great influence on how your story ends. If you’re not dead, the final chapters have not been written. The story is still unfolding. There is still time to craft an ending that comes closer to what you want to be. Think about your life to come. What do you want it to be? Put your aspirations into words. Then work on writing the story that will take you from here to there.
I am an optimist, it is true. Optimism is a choice for life. It is an affirmation of the human spirit. Pessimism, in my mind, is a choice for stagnation and sameness. In the larger sense it is a choice for death. No matter what your past story has been, you are no longer the person that you were. The present is your workshop for becoming the person you want to be. Stop confining yourself to whom and what you used to be.
As long as you can learn, as long as you can make choices that are better than those you made in the past, your future story is unwritten. Sitting and wishing won’t change your story; it will only make it more tragic. Wallowing in self-pity or endlessly replaying regrets; won’t write a new ending. But taking charge or your choices, and making them better than those of your past will not only lead to a better ending, but to a more satisfying journey on your path from here into the future. Whether you assume the responsibility or not, you are the author of your life story.
Copyright 2010 Dan Elash