“When writing the story of your life, don’t let anyone else hold the pen.” ~ Unknown
I grew up without a TV in my household. While most of my friends were talking about their favourite shows, I’d pretend to understand, nod along, and try to laugh at all the appropriate times. While I had missed out on most of the shows and movies available during my youth, I didn’t miss out on all of them. Whenever my dad would need to work late, my mom, sister, and I would head to his office and get set up in a conference room with a rented movie. It was during one of these times that I was first exposed to the Star Wars trilogy.
For many different reasons those three movies carry so much sentimental value for many millions of fans. For me, it was never the action, science, or acting that drew me in, it was the story. At its core, the plot of Star Wars is that a completely insignificant farmer’s nephew (so an insignificant of an insignificant) turns out to be the most important character in the story of the galaxy. It was about someone being whisked away from the boring life they knew, and some external force thrusting them into the middle of an amazing story.
Having witnessed this as a child that was the plan I created for my own life. It wasn’t until much later that I could articulate this reality, but it always was there. I was living my life expecting that at any moment I would be whisked away into an exciting and meaningful existence. I was living as if I was someone very important and was just waiting for my time to come, for my adventure to begin.
Fast forward to thirty-two years old, almost eight years as a successful owner of a design agency with the last three wishing I could quit my job, and my fantasy wasn’t panning out. I was beginning to get suspicious that nobody was coming, that my great adventure, the one that I just thought I needed to wait for, wasn’t going to show up. It was then that I started to consider the reality that I would need to change my strategy. I still wanted the adventure and the meaningful life, I was just now realizing that what I had hoped for—that it would given to me—was less and less likely to happen.
It was then that I started to realize that I had been living my life as if I was the main character in a story someone else was writing. I didn’t know my role or my lines, but believed that I was the main character. That had to change.
The mental switch I made was to move from being the main character in someone else’s story, to the author of my own story. If I wanted adventure, I would have to write an adventure story, and if I wanted meaning, I was going to have to write a meaningful story. That shift was incredibly empowering, but also incredibly concerning, because now I was responsible for the story. It was no longer that someone else hadn’t started writing the life I wanted, but that each day I would be responsible for writing it. If it wasn’t what I had hoped for, it was my doing.
One problem that I immediately realized was that I’d never written a story like this before, so where was I to start? That took some introspection. I had to outline the kind of story (=life) that I wanted for myself, I had to outline the principles and values that I wanted for my main character (=me), and I had to plan ahead what steps I would need to take to make progress in my story.
It also meant that many of the risks that I would need to take wouldn’t just come at me, but that I would need to orchestrate them, and willingly and knowingly move into them.
Fast-forward three years and I’m improving as a writer, at least of my own story. My main character is engaging with risk, he’s growing, and he’s learning a lot. I don’t necessarily know what the next few chapters look like, and I have no idea what the ending will be, but I’m hopeful, because right my story is a good one, and I like where it’s headed.
What about you? Do you feel like a character in someone else’ story or do you feel like the author of your own? What kind of story do you want for your life, and what are the principles and values that you hold for your main character?
This is a brilliant exercise for identifying and clarifying your values in life: Bull’s Eye Worksheet
Now consider the following questions:
- What would you do and how would you change your life if you won the lottery tomorrow?
- What have you always wanted to do in life but been too afraid to attempt?
- What would you do if you know you couldn’t fail?
- What would you do, how would you spend your time if you only had 6 months to live?
- If your life was perfect in every aspect and you were too, what would it look like?
Imagine at the end of this life we’ll all be comparing stories and someone will ask to see yours. When you look at what you’ve written so far and what you’re currently writing, will you be proud to show them, or wish there was more there?
Chances are that as you go through this list you’ll realise that you already have or do many of the things you value. While working through these questions, focus on your own agency, focus on what you can change and how you can be. It’s not about controlling others or external circumstances but about working on yourself so you will become the author of your very unique and personal life story.
Written by Samuel Mandel