We usually think of storytellers as novelists, playwrights, screenwriters. However, we’re all writers of the story of our lives. As British philosopher Alain de Botton writes in his wise, wonderful addition to the School of Life library, The Meaning of Life, “we may not be publishing our stories, but we are writing them nevertheless. Every day finds us weaving a story about who we are, where we are going, and why events happened as they did.”
Sadly, most of us are merciless narrators: we downplay our accomplishments, we foreground our flaws, we cast ourselves as detestable villains rather than lovable, if charmingly imperfect, main characters.
The stories we tell ourselves might seem like cold, hard, objective facts, but they’re merely stories, which by definition are interpretations of facts. A break up, for example, is just a break up. How we interpret that breakup will determine its significance. If we tell ourselves a melodramatic, tragic story (“He was the one; I’ll never find a good man again!”/”Now that he’s left me, I’ll die alone and be devoured in my kitchen by dozens of cats.”), we’ll a) find it impossible to move on and b) feel no motivation to leave our coach and potentially find someone else. After all, why go out and date if our ex is the “one” and “only one” for us?
In the end, the stories we tell determine the quality of our lives. Below are 3 ways Botton suggests we can be better storytellers:
1. find meaning & make things cohere
In many ways, life is like a novel: there are conflicts, there are characters. But unlike a novel, life doesn’t usually follow a neat, orderly logic. Rarely do our conflicts build to a dramatic climax or satisfying resolution. Events will be random and unsystematic, side characters will appear and reappear though they serve no real purpose. A conversation with the grocery store clerk will do nothing to advance the plot of our lives or teach us some grand universal lesson. A crow will caw without being in anyway symbolic. Despite what we read in books and see on television, we have never met the love of our lives while shopping for gloves in a crowded New York department store on Christmas. Compared to a novel, our stories seem hopelessly uninteresting and pointless. Indeed, entire chapters might— at first glance— seem irrelevant:
We might spend our twenties waiting tables so we can focus on our writing only to pop champagne on our thirtieth birthday without a published novel or real “career.”
We might devote untold time, money and energy to studying law only to realize the actual practice of law is not nearly as exciting as Law & Order.
We might invest ten years in a relationship that doesn’t work out.
We might go on date after date after date without any of our flings ever going anywhere.
Though these segments of our sagas might seem meaningless, the good storyteller weaves them into a storyline that coheres. Rather than tell themselves a self-condemning story (“You’re an idiot for devoting a decade of your life to writing! Now you’re thirty with no ‘career’!”), they’re kind, forgiving narrators (“You’re brave for so passionately pursing what you love instead of settling for a socially acceptable career”).
The choice of the wrong profession wasn’t an indefensible detour— it was a scenic route. We might not have taken the most direct road to our destination, but— because we wandered from the main highway— we were able to see some breathtaking panoramic views and get a better sense of what we did want to do.
The decade-long relationship that didn’t work out wasn’t a “waste” of ten years— it was a requisite 3,650 day course on how to love and be loved, our most important work.
The countless flirtations that never metamorphosed into something more weren’t humiliating failures— they were stepping stones on the path to finding a loving, long-term partner.
2. recognize you’re not the sole narrator of your life
Despite the much-loved myth of meritocracy, we’re not in complete control of our lives. Whether we graduate from an Ivy League university and win the Pulitzer-prize or spend our days mopping floors and doing other people’s laundry isn’t only determined by our talent, work ethic or ability. Our fates are influenced by many things: our parents, our families, our gender, our race, our sexual orientation, our culture, our particular moment in history. Whether or not we have a good career and money in savings is largely dependent on the state of the economy. Whether our industry continues to thrive or is squashed by new technology depends on consumers and tech giants in Silicon Valley. How long we live depends on our day to day choices (what we eat, how often we exercise and rest) but also on modern medicine and genetics.
According to Botton, “the good storyteller recognizes, contrary to certain impressions, that there will always be a number of players responsible for [our life’s] negative events.” Circumstance, chance, fate: each will contribute its share to our stories. We might be 35 and mortgage-less— not through any fault of our own— but because, for the past few decades, wages haven’t kept up with the cost of living. We might be single— not because we’re unattractive and completely unlovable— but because online dating has made it seem as though we have an infinite number of potential partners and, consequently, made many men less willing to settle down.
Therefore, if we want to be better storytellers, we should stop cruelly castigating ourselves for our “failures.” As Botton so wittily writes, “Sometimes, it really will be the fault of something or someone else: the economy, our parents, the government, our enemies or sheer bad luck.” Man may have mastered many things— fire, language, electricity, atomic energy, small pox— but he will never completely master his fate. His story will always be cowritten by the stars.
3. be courageous enough to write your own story
Rather than possess the daring and boldness to write our own completely original scripts, most of us cowardly follow our society’s formulaic templates. We let our lives be determined by custom and convention. We go to college, we get a job, we get married, we have children. We uncritically accept the standards of our family, our friends, our countrymen. The result? Our stories become no more than dull copies of someone else’s manuscript.
However, we don’t have to mindlessly rewrite our society’s stock stories, recycle the same tired conventions, reuse the same cliched character types— we have the power to pen our own script. Take, for example, the official story about “success.” Most people would say success is power and prestige, acclaim and awards: earning a six-figure salary, buying and selling companies, driving a Ferrari, landing a spot on the “30 Under 30” list at Forbes.
But we can define success for ourselves. Maybe for us, success doesn’t possess all the glitter and glamour of celebrity. Maybe it just means doing what has to be done with grace and dignity. Maybe teaching school children to read is just as impressive as leading a Fortune 500 company or climbing Mt. Denali.
“Good narrators appreciate that events can count as meaningful even when they’re not recognized as such by powerful authorities,” Botton writes, “We may be holidaying in a tent rather than the Presidential suite, hanging out with our grandmother rather than a pop group…and nevertheless lay claim to a legitimately meaningful life.”