What’s your story?
If you feel like time’s flying by with nothing to show for it, you’re trapped in a vicious cycle of routine, or you could be doing something better with your life than reading blog posts like this, this might help you start to find direction in life:
Imagine if, around fifty to one hundred years from now, your great-great-grandchild happens upon a photo of you. They show it to their grandma or grandpa—your grandchild—and ask, “Who’s this?”
What would you want your grandchild’s answer to be? What story do you hope your life will tell?
You probably don’t know exactly. That’s why you’re reading this.
Good! Because it’s never too late to edit and retake direction of your life’s story. And the earlier, the better.
To do so, start with the fundamentals: “A story,” writes Donald Miller in his mental “sledgehammer” of a book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, “is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.”
There are four parts to this: 1) Character, 2) Desire, 3) Conflict, 4) Conclusion. To find direction in your life, here’s how to break those down and assemble them into a story worth telling.
How to Find Direction in the Story of Your Life
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:
Nuance #1: Your character is what you do, not what you think.
Our actions define who we are—nothing else.
You can think you’re Superman. You may even have extraordinary abilities. But if you sit around picking your outfit and doing your hair, waiting for the right moment to unveil your superhuman skills, you’re no more heroic than some couch potato who eats an entire 14-inch pizza while watching make-believe heroes on TV.
But the opposite is true, too:
You can think you’re an imposter with no special abilities, but if you go out there and do things most people don’t—experiment, explore, and put myself out there—everyone who sees you will believe otherwise. And the more you act that way, the more you’ll start to believe it, too.
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 wellworth a read.
Nuance #2: Great characters are complex.
Imperfections and contradictions are what make great 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 mellow, methodical, and often antisocial but also free-spirited and easy-going.
What makes you imperfect and inconsistent?
Whatever it is, frame it as an opportunity for the type of character development that makes a story worth telling (or living).
2. …Who Wants Something…
Imagine you had a bajillion dollars and perfect health and could do whatever you wanted. You could travel around the world eating incredible food, seeing the most beautiful sights, and having fun with your family and friends…
…but great as that sounds, eventually your dopamine highs would wear off and you’d find yourself lying in your king-sized luxury bed asking yourself, What’s the point?
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.
The “point” of your life story is your purpose.
Answering “What’s my purpose?” goes beyond the scope of this post (you might find some practical clues in this post). But, quickly, here are some criteria to consider when looking for yours:
- It has to be something. Your purpose doesn’t have to be world-changing, prize-winning, or even local news-worthy. But you should be consciously aware of what yours is. If not, you’re probably not going to get it.
- It’ll inspire you. It will “ignite your rage to master,” as psychologist Ellen Winner puts it. This fire under your ass makes life so meaningful that you don’t need to escape your story’s 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 you if Your mission is clear and you show you want it. And you will inspire them to find and pursue their own, too.
- And it can’t be easy to achieve. This is the next part of the formula for finding direction in life.
3. …And Overcomes Conflict…
A story without conflict is as boring as an episode of Barney the Dinosaur. We can’t avoid conflict. We need it.
So, to find direction in your life, hone in on a conflict you’re willing to take on.
Pick on something bigger than you.
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 each of us takes on is relative and personal.
But the conflict has to be bigger than ourselves. So ask yourself:
What’s a problem or injustice with the world I’m well-positioned and willing to help take on?
To give you an example, with this blog and my life, I’m doing my best to battle the forces of complacency and social pressure that hold people back from living their best possible lives.
It takes time.
“The difficult is what takes a little time; the impossible is what takes a little longer.”Fritjof Nansen
Patience is the unsung conflict most people who lack direction in life refuse to confront.
It’s tempting to put off the boring daily habits that eventually grow into something sturdy and substantial in favor of more titillating but ultimately hollow and meaningless activities.
And it’s impossible not to dream of finding shortcuts or getting lucky.
This is where having a greater purpose comes in. It provides you with the intrinsic motivation to power through the tedium and uncertainty of committing to the small things that, over time, add up to form a meaningful story we’re proud of. And taking on the right purpose will feel rewarding along the way, so rather than feel the urge to take shortcuts, you can enjoy the scenic route.
No reward is necessary.
The only reward worth going after, as the cliché goes, is the happiness of pursuit. That way, even if the direction you take turns out to be a dead-end, you’ll have had a good time getting there and won’t regret it.
So focus on finding your direction, not some destination.
And feel free to adjust course along the way if you feel that’ll make for a better story.
4. …To Get It
There is no grand climax to your story.
You probably won’t get to enjoy some Disney-esque, plot-resolving, climactic scene before the credits roll at the end of your story.
And that’s a good thing.
Because what would you do after? Sit around telling people about your past accomplishments? Or chase after something else?
Nah. Better to keep after an endless and meaningful mission until the credits cut you off mid-scene.
This is “it.”
If the story of your life has no grand climax, what’s the “it” in “A character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it”?
It is transformation—getting closer to becoming the best you can possibly be.
As a rule in storytelling, characters don’t want “it.” We’re too scared or too complacent.
But that’s where the previous three parts of the formula come in:
If you stop thinking so much and patiently and doggedly take action [Part 1] to overcome obstacles [Part 2] in pursuit of your purpose [Part 3], you’ll get “it” along the way—whether you want to or not.
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.