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Friday
Apr102015

Tell Your Story

 

Let me tell you a story.

 

I love to browse in bookstores. When I have the time, I will study the books on display, picking out those that catch my eye -- perhaps because of the title, or because I am familiar with the author, or even because the cover image is striking. Then I will take this pile of books and find a good place to sit (all the best bookstores have comfortable seating) and read the first few pages of each book. If those pages catch my interest, the book goes in the “buy” pile; otherwise it goes back on the shelves.

 

A few years ago, during one of my bookstore expeditions, I came across a book called “The Art of Choosing” by Sheena Iyengar. I don’t remember now exactly why I picked it up -- it may have been the title, or the striking cover with a painting of an apple and an orange. For whatever reason, I added it to my pile, and when I read the prologue, I was hooked. Not only did the prologue convince me to purchase and read the book, but just from the prologue alone I gained an important insight that has stuck with me every since.

 

Ok, it’s not much of a story. It’s just one example of the many stories, big and small, that we share with others and ourselves. From the many stories we read, hear, and see, we are trained to think in terms of stories; it’s how we figure out who we are, and make sense of our lives.

 

And the prologue of Iyengar’s book is about these stories we tell ourselves. In her prologue, she tells her story of growing up as a blind Sheik with immigrant parents. But instead of telling her story once, she tells it three times. Once, as if what had happened was predetermined; once, as if the events were just a matter of chance; and once, emphasizing the choices she had made. Her insight was that by deciding which narrative to use, she could change the story and her sense of self:

 

"I could have thought of my life as already written…or I could have thought of it as a series of accidents beyond my control, … however it seemed much more promising to think of it in terms of choice, in terms of what was still possible and what I could make happen."

 

I loved this idea of us having the ability to tell our story however we liked.  She goes on to look at the American tendency to tell our story as one of choice.  In next month’s newsletter I’ll reference her TED talk, where she describes her study of how we make choices — and how we feel about the choices we make. She talks about both trivial choices (Coke v. Pepsi) and profound ones, and shares her groundbreaking research that has uncovered some surprising attitudes about our decisions.

 

There’s more than one way to tell a story.

 

I was reminded by this story of coming across Iyengar’s book by a recent article in the New York Times: “Writing Your Way to Happiness” by Tara Parker-Pope (http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/19/writing-your-way-to-happiness). The article describes research showing that by writing their own stories, and in some cases rewriting the stories, people from college students struggling academically to married couples dealing with marital problems could improve their chance of a better outcome.

 

So start writing. As you do, notice your critical voices.  Do you still beat yourself up and feel bad about what has happened?  Write your story again. How else can you write it? Write it another way. And another way. Write it so many ways you can pick the one that serves you best.

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