The 4-Step Formula to Take Direction in Your Life’s Story

Better Late than Never


For years, I never asked myself how to find direction in life. I just lived.

My life story was being directed by fate, my parents, bosses, TV, and my mood that day.

You can imagine how that worked out for me.

It didn’t. My story was boring, plotless, and, ultimately, pointless. I got stuck passively playing the role of extra in the background of other people’s stories.

That changed when I “pretired” and read A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller. Not only did Miller finally get me asking the question, “How to find direction in life?” but he gave me the four-part formula:

“A character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.”

Donald Miller

The four parts are character, desire, conflict, and resolution.

Here’s how I implemented them to start making my life’s story something worth remembering and how you can do the same.

The Four-Part Formula to Finding Direction in Life

  1. A Character
  2. ..Who Wants Something
  3. …And Overcomes Conflict
  4. To Get It
Character missing direction in life eating chips and drinking soda
“Maybe tomorrow I’ll spice things up with barbecue flavored chips.”

1. A Character…

Obviously, I’m the hero of my life story and you’re the hero of yours.

What’s less obvious are these two nuances that we tend to neglect. When we do, we are less heroic than we could be.

Nuance #1: Your Character Is What You Do, Not What You Think

Our actions define who we are. Nothing else.

I can think I’m Superman. I may even have extraordinary abilities. But if I sit around picking my outfit, hoping those abilities find me, or waiting for the right moment to unveil my superhuman skills, I’m no more heroic than some couch potato who eats an entire 14-inch pizza while watching make-believe heroes on TV.

And vice-versa.

I can think I’m an imposter with no special abilities, but if I go out there and do things most people don’t—experiment, explore, and put myself out there—people will believe otherwise. And the more I act that way, the more I start to believe it, too.

To paraphrase one of my favorite mantras:

You don’t think your way to a new way of acting; you act your way to a new way of thinking.[1I got this mantra from Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath. Like all the books from the Heath brothers, it’s well-worth a read.

Nuance #2: Memorable Characters Are Complex

Imperfections and contradictions are what make memorable characters and better stories:

  • James Bond is a debonair lady-killer and human-killer who also has serious ego issues and can’t find true love.
  • Elsa (from Frozen) is risk-averse, anxious, and self-doubting, but also loyal, protective, and creative.

I’m a mellow, methodical, and often antisocial but also free-spirited and easy-going.

You?

We can change and improve our characters. But we shouldn’t worry so much about our imperfections and inconsistencies.

We should worry about the big picture instead. That’s part two of the formula for finding direction in life.

Looking at what you want on Instagram
“Douchey photo, but I’d sure like to be fit like this guy.”

2. …Who Wants Something…

As storytelling teacher Brian McDonald puts it, a story without a point is like junk food. It may taste good but it’s ultimately unsatisfying and forgettable.

In our life stories, that “point” is what we ultimately want to achieve. It’s our personal mission statement. We all need one to set our direction, hold ourselves accountable, and inspire others to help us.

I wrote a separate post about finding and making my personal mission statement and how you can do the same. Here are some quick things to consider:

  • It has to be something. A mission doesn’t have to be world-changing, prize-winning, or even local news-worthy. But it has to exist. If we don’t know what we want, we’re never going to get it.
  • It won’t be tangible. What we truly want isn’t anything we can touch. Take Frodo from the Lord of the Rings, for example. The point of his story isn’t, “A little dude found a ring and tossed it in a volcano.” The point is, “Even humble little hobbits can do humongous things.”
  • It’ll inspire us. It will “ignite our rage to master,” as psychologist Ellen Winner puts it. This fire under our asses makes life so meaningful that we don’t need to escape our stories’ boredom by vicariously living others’ in movies or video games.
  • It’ll inspire others. Family, friends, and strangers will be inspired to step up and help us if our mission is clear and we show we want it. And we will inspire them to find and pursue their own, too.
  • And it won’t be easy to achieve. This is the next part of the formula for finding direction in life.
Overcoming conflict is hard work
“Still better than eating chips all day…”

3. …And Overcomes Conflict…

A story without conflict is as boring as a Barney episode. We can’t avoid conflict. We need it.

The Bigger, the Better

Author Jeff Olson said it best:

“You can gauge the limitations of a person’s life by the size of the problems that get him or her down. You can measure the impact a person’s life has by the size of the problems he or she solves.”

Jeff Olson, The Slight Edge

To be clear, Olson is not talking about getting into a “Whose problem’s bigger?” contest. Life’s not a competition. The size of the conflict we take on is relative and personal.

The problem I’m taking on in my life (and with this blog) is the pressure we all feel to stick to the status quo and become complacent.

It Takes Time

“The difficult is what takes a little time; the impossible is what takes a little longer.”

Fritjof Nansen

My younger self would have thought that the problem I’m taking on is boring.

He was more attracted by the idea of becoming a young superstar CEO and distracted by the immediate problems in his inbox. Whenever he saw a shortcut, he’d take it. It didn’t work out for him.

I’ve since learned to play the long game. I’m making seemingly insignificant investments toward a single purpose. They will accumulate and compound over time to create something truly meaningful.

My future self will be proud. I don’t give a shit what my younger self might think.

No Reward Necessary

From day one of my life, I was taught to live like a dragon-slaying, princess-laying prince. So no wonder I started off seeking the rewards of hanky-panky and swanky castle-like mansions.

But those rewards aren’t enough to satisfy in real life. No reward is.

The only reward worth going after, as the cliché goes, is the happiness of pursuit. That way, even if I slip on my mission and the dragon burns me to a crisp, or if the princess turns out to be a toad (she’s not), I won’t regret the effort it took to get there.

So I’m focused on my direction, not the destination. That’s how I can fulfill the final step of the formula for finding direction in life.

The right direction in life leads to character transformation, like this guy proudly flexing.
“Bring on the douchey photos!”

4. …To Get It

Life’s No Disney Movie (Luckily)

We don’t get to enjoy some Disney-esque, plot-resolving, climactic scene before the credits roll at the end of our stories.

And that’s a good thing. Because what would we do after? Sit around telling people about our past accomplishments? Or chase after something else?

No thanks. I’d rather keep pursuing my mission until the credits cut me off mid-scene.

“It” Is Transformation

The greatest success in life is to become the best we can possibly be. That transformation is “it” in the four-part story formula for finding direction in life.

As a rule in storytelling, characters don’t want “it.” We’re too scared or too complacent. That’s where the previous three parts of the formula come in:

If we stop thinking so much and patiently and doggedly take action to overcome obstacles in pursuit of our personal missions, we’ll get “it” along the way—whether we want to or not.

What’s Your Story?

“If you aren’t telling a good story, nobody thinks you died too soon; they just think you died.”

Donald Miller

We can all find direction in life and live our own great stories if we abide by the four parts in, “A story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.”

What are you waiting for?

Whatever your story is, it has already started.

As directors say in the movies, “Action!”


Thanks to Jorge and Dave for their input on this post!

Reading Donald Miller's book about finding direction in life by living a great story
A Million Miles in a Thousand Years inspired me to live an extraordinary story.

More Direction

I was inspired to apply the four parts of a story find direction in life by one of my favorite “sledgehammer” books, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, by Donald Miller. Read it for more direction on how to live an extraordinary story.

And read the companion post to this one, 8 Rules for Living a Meaningful Life.

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Chris and Kim

Kim and Chris started The Unconventional Route in 2018 to share their adventures fighting complacency to win at life. Today, over 150,000 people a month visit the site and thousands more explore a dose of uncomplacent ideas with them every 10 days in their free newsletter, Consider This.

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