Rethinking The Personal Narrative

If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backward 10 years later.

— Steve Jobs, 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech

We’re all familiar with the narratives around famous entrepreneurs. Every experience it seems, no matter how insignificant (like a calligraphy class), led to the great success they see today. These stories are told and retold and began to crystalize into a mythology about how someone’s life unfolded.

But what happens when we can’t suspend disbelief, when the story just seems too clean, too linear? Whether it’s hearing someone talk about “how they got here” in an interview, or listening to a business leader “talk about their background”, the crisp connection of events, jobs, and choices have always made me feel like there’s something missing. I notice myself fighting against feelings that the speaker is being disingenuous or even deceitful.

I think this stems from an incorrect assumption about the role of the personal narrative. A personal narrative is not a personal history, because experience can be framed in innumerable ways. A personal narrative is a tool for one’s own use, a way of marshaling our energies towards the goal in front of us and calming the chaos of our mind. It is not an objective recounting of facts or a retelling of our resume. A personal narrative is a way of telling a story that puts structure around our entropic lives and careers.

When a personal narrative carves a path that ends in our current job or endeavor, it helps to provide incredible resolve. The “why” of where we are today is an answered question. That clarity is something that frees the mind to focus on more pressing problems, instead of constantly trying to justify why we belong.

This means that a personal narrative can be fluid. Provided we make reasonable decisions, it’s a way to accept our current situation and to find opportunities for flow in whatever we are engaged in. This isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be periods where we seek to objectively evaluate where we are in life and whether or not we need to make course corrections. But we shouldn’t be reticent to edit our past as we age and gain more experience. The subjectivity of the narrative is what makes it so powerful — we can use it to frame ourselves in ways that we might not yet be, but that we can grow into.

Life is full of uncertainty and unlimited choices. Maybe all paths lead to the top of the mountain, but there are a million ways to get there. If we view our lives as a connection of random events it can be overwhelming. Mainly because it makes our existence seem devoid of meaning. A sense of purpose is an incredibly powerful way of coping with this uncertainty.

As I’ve thought through narratives, I’ve resolved to celebrate the personal narrative. Now instead of trying to poke holes, I want to ask the following question: “How does this narrative serve to support you in your current goals, and what does it tell me about how you want to see yourself?” Certainly this is a question that I should ask myself first.

I don’t yet have a satisfying personal narrative. Sure, I can rattle off where I’ve worked and what I’ve done, but there are periods in my life that I struggle to put into context. It’s liberating for me to think that this is totally fine. And knowing that I have control over both how I “tell my story” and how I change it in the future is something that is truly empowering.