We’ve heard it over and over again — that the one thing guaranteed to all of us in life is change. But as we ride through the inevitable ups and downs, how do we make sense of who we are, what we’ve been through and what we’ve learned?
Below, Bruce Feiler — author, TV host and instructor of our TED Course on how to master life transitions — offers insights on how to understand and tell your personal story. Learn other skills to help you create a better world for yourself by checking out our other TED Courses here.
A story has no inherent meaning; somebody has to give it meaning. And in the case of the story of your life, that someone is you.
So if a transition is the process of making ourselves whole again, repairing our life story is the crown jewel of that process.
Our story is the one part of a transition that ties together all the other parts: “I used to be that. Then I went through a change. Now, I am this.”
There can be risks in personal storytelling. Sometimes we use our life story to beat ourselves up or hold ourselves back. “It’s all my fault!” “I’ll never be happy!”
But the upsides of personal storytelling far outweigh the traps. Storytelling allows us to take events that are exceptional, unforeseen or otherwise out of the ordinary and convert them into meaningful, manageable chapters in the ongoing theater of our lives.
Here are three tips I’ve identified that can help you tell a more effective life story:
1. Use past tense
Put some distance between who you are today and who you were when your story veered off course.
So instead of constantly talking about yourself as still feeling overwhelmed or confused, start referring to those feelings as happening in the past. For example: “When that first happened, I felt stuck. Now I’m beginning to feel unstuck.”
Stories are made of words and language. Use words that help you confirm your progress.
2. Make pigs fly
The author John Steinbeck used to sign his name with a quirky logo of a pig with wings. His explanation? We must all try to attain the heavens even though we’re bound to earth.
The same applies to our own stories. The more we’re able to conjure up a future that seems out of reach, the more we’re able to move toward it.
Pigs are going to show up in our lives. Make yours fly.
3. Nail the ending
Narrative psychologists have found that stories are more effective when they have redemptive endings. The event may be positive or negative, but the story ends upbeat: “Winning that award was great, but I was especially touched I could share the recognition with my colleagues” or “My father’s death was long and painful, but it brought our family closer.”
The larger point here is worth emphasizing. We have a choice in how we tell our life story. We don’t write it in permanent ink. There are no points for consistency, or even accuracy. We can change it at any time, for any reason, including one as simple as making ourselves feel better.
After all, a primary function of our life story is to allow us to place difficult experiences firmly in the past and take from them something beneficial that will help us to thrive in the future. Only when that happens, will we know our transition is complete.
How will you know when that happens?
It’s a fairly simple feeling. And it’s not the feeling of ending at all. It’s the feeling of beginning. It’s the feeling that you’re ready to plunge back into the woods, dive back into the waters, jump back into life.
You’re ready to dream another dream. And to utter the most spellbinding, life-affirming words we can utter. The words that suggest a new story is coming.
Once upon a time.
Sign up for Bruce Feiler’s TED Course to learn more about finding meaning in your life transitions, from debunking the myth of a “linear life” to shedding old habits and embracing new identities.
To unlock more valuable life lessons taught by TED speakers — and find out how to put them into practice! — check out the rest of our virtual TED Courses, including new insights on how to flip the script on love with writer Mandy Len Catron and how to harness the power of a slower pace with writer Carl Honoré.
Watch Bruce Feiler’s TED Talk now: