Chuckling, he reassured me that it wasn't. "Once I got out here and my eyes adjusted," he explained, "I started looking at all the constellations — do you see how beautiful the Milky Way is tonight?" Still sensing my confusion, he opined, "Sometimes it's really nice to take a step back and look at the bigger picture."
The same is true for self-examination. The "life story" approach helps you look backward to learn how the sum total of your past shaped you. If each life event is a star, our life story is the constellation. And if we spent all of our time looking at individual stars through a telescope lens, we couldn't appreciate the magnitude and beauty of the constellations that dot the sky. To that end, the process of becoming, as Timothy Wilson describes it, "biographers of our lives" is a profoundly powerful but surprisingly underutilized approach to better understand who we are, who we are becoming, and who we could be.
How to use your life story to make sense of your past and future
Psychology professor Dan McAdams has been prolifically researching life stories for more than 30 years. The approach that McAdams and his colleagues use to help people compose their life stories goes something like this:
Think about your life as if it were a book. Divide that book into chapters that represent the key phases of your life. Within those phases, think of 5-10 specific scenes in your story—high points, low points, turning points, early memories, important childhood events, important adulthood events, or any other event you find self-defining. For each, provide an account that is at least one paragraph long:
- What happened and when? Who was involved?
- What were you and others thinking and feeling, and why was this event especially important for you?
- What does this event say about who you are, how you have developed over time, or who you might become?
- When you are finished writing your account, take a step back and look at your life story as a whole:
- What major themes, feelings, or lessons do you see in your story?
- What does the story of your life say about the kind of person you are and might become?
- What does your story say about your values, passions, aspirations, fit, patterns, reactions, and impact on others?
After collecting life stories from tens of thousands of people, professor McAdams and his colleagues have learned that they usually have overarching themes running through them. Identifying such themes can help make sense of seemingly contradictory aspects of ourselves. Let's look at the example of Chase, an introverted non-profit fundraiser who loves his work. His pattern of introversion and a passion for a job that requires him to frequently schmooze might seem incongruous at first. But when Chase examines his life story, he notices that every high point has involved "doing good" for someone who was less fortunate. So even though his job requires more mixing and mingling than an introvert might usually prefer, it allows him do what is most important to him: help others. And if that involves a little socializing, Chase is happy to do it.