We all have a personal narrative. For some of us, it is liberating and energizing, but for most of us, it is limiting and draining. The good news is that we all have ability to evolve our personal narrative to make it more fulfilling, if we choose to make the effort.
I’ve written about personal narrative before, including here and here, and it is a key theme in my new book, The Journey Beyond Fear, that will be coming out in a couple of months. For those who have not been following me, I should clarify that I have a very different view of personal narrative than most psychologists.
For psychologists, personal narrative involves looking back over our lives and crafting a story of the choices we made that brought us to where we are today. For me, personal narratives have two key components: our view of the future and our call to action to others.
When we look out into the future, are we focusing more on threat or opportunity? That view of the future will play a key role in shaping our emotions and actions today. Also, as we seek to address the threat or opportunity out in the future, are we asking for help from others or are we trying to go it alone?
We all have a personal narrative that’s driving us forward, but few of us have made the effort to make that personal narrative explicit, much less reflect on how well it might be serving our needs and potential for impact. That effort can be very rewarding, especially if we use it as a catalyst to evolve our narrative so that we are motivated to have much greater impact that is meaningful to us and can motivate others to join us in that effort.
Opportunities for evolution
Our personal narratives can evolve on multiple dimensions. Let’s start with our view of the future. In a world of mounting performance pressure, more and more of us have adopted a dystopian view of the future where threats are everywhere. The world is coming to an end, our societies our crumbling and our personal lives are more and more vulnerable to disruption.
While certainly understandable, that view of the future feeds our fear and makes us more risk averse and we become even more vulnerable to mounting performance pressure.
But there is an alternative view of the future. The same forces that are creating mounting performance pressure are also creating exponentially expanding opportunity – we can have far more impact, with far less resources and far more quickly than ever before. We need to make the effort to see those opportunities and to search for the opportunity that excites us the most.
If our view of the future is shaped by a really inspiring opportunity, we will begin to draw out emotions of hope and excitement that will motivate us to move boldly forward. We’ll find ourselves having much more meaningful impact and we’ll be driven to learn how to have even more impact in addressing this opportunity over time.
But there’s more. If we can focus on an opportunity in the future that really excites us, it increases our desire and ability to motivate others to join us in the quest to address this opportunity. Truth be told, most of us are pursuing personal narratives today that don’t provide a call to action for others to join us. Personal narratives that focus on a threat in the future tend to isolate us. As fear takes hold, we find it harder to trust others and we are more inclined to try to move forward on our own. That sense of isolation further intensifies the fear.
On the other hand, if we’ve found a really exciting opportunity out in the future, we can become very motivated to ask for help from others and, if the opportunity is appropriately framed, it can motivate many to invest time and effort in addressing the opportunity. This helps us to get significant leverage and have far more impact than if we try to do it all by ourselves. If it’s a big opportunity that will take years to achieve, it can also help us to build long-term, trust-based relationships that will play a significant role in overcoming our fear.
Challenges of evolution
When I talk about evolution of personal narrative, many people interpret this as writing up a new, and more fulfilling, narrative based on reflection of their existing narrative. I wish it were that easy. In my experience, personal narratives can’t evolve just by thinking and writing. They need to evolve through action – and it’s not just a one-time evolution, but a continual process of evolution shaped by actions taken and reflection on the impact achieved through action.
As we begin to focus on an opportunity in the future, we need to test and refine that opportunity through action now. We need to identify and pursue actions in the short-term (ideally weeks or a few months) that have potential to address that opportunity. As we pursue these actions, we need to reflect on whether those actions are generating the level of excitement we anticipated and whether they are helping us to make progress towards achieving the opportunity. If not, we need to either evolve our view of the opportunity that would be most exciting to us or our view of the actions that would have the greatest impact in making progress.
We also need to start reaching out to those we think could be most helpful with a call for them to join us in our quest to address the opportunity we’ve identified. Are they really investing the time and effort required to address the opportunity? Are they achieving real impact from their efforts?
If not, we need to further evolve our personal narrative. Is the opportunity we’ve identified big enough to motivate others to participate? Have we identified the right people to address the opportunity ahead? Can we frame the call to action in a way that would help them (and us) to achieve greater impact?
Our personal narratives are capable of, and require, continual evolution if we are going to achieve the impact that is most meaningful to us. There is always the potential to achieve more. In fact, if we’re truly excited about the opportunity we are identifying, we will be constantly seeking ways to have greater impact.
Effective personal narratives will trigger a learning mindset. We’ll be excited by the opportunity to have more and more impact over time. And we’ll realize that the most effective way to learn is through action, not just sitting in a chair and thinking about it.
And, it’s not just learning through action – it’s learning through action together with others. No matter how smart we are as individuals, we’ll learn a lot faster if we can come together with others who share our excitement about the opportunity we’ve identified. That’s why it’s so important to have a call to action to others that excites and motivates others to come together and constantly seek to increase impact.
Our personal narratives have untapped potential, no matter how well framed they are today. If we’re going to unleash more and more of that potential, we need to commit to continually evolve our personal narratives by acting together with others in ways that help us to learn faster.