In my column last month, Live YOUR Life, I encouraged readers to stop listening to the endless stream of career and life advice that seems to be emanating from all directions. I cautioned that too often we look to external parties to provide the keys to our own fulfillment and in doing so, we fail to hear the most important voice on our journey – our own.
If you accept the premise that the best answers most often lie within, the next logical questions are “How do I listen to myself?” “How do I recognize the callings life is sending to me?” “How can I know myself better?” It’s easy for me to advise others to understand their joy, live by their values, and know their strengths and weaknesses, but how do we move from these abstract pearls of wisdom to actually practicing this approach in shaping our lives?
Let’s start at the very beginning, as Rodgers and Hammerstein suggested in The Sound of Music, “a very good place to start”. It can also be the most challenging place to start. In my teaching, I launch my students on their road to self-discovery by giving them a weighty assignment: “Write your own life story.” I ask them to take a minimum of 20 pages (typed, double-spaced) to do so. Most look at me in amazement when I assign this paper, wondering if I really believe their life stories can fill 20 pages.
Two weeks later when the students return to class with their autobiographies, I always ask them the same two questions. First, “Was it difficult to fill 20 pages?” For the vast majority the answer is “no.” In fact, many students report finding it difficult to fit everything into “a short 20 pages”. My second question is, “Did you find it meaningful to write the paper?” Virtually all respond with an emphatic “yes” (a very high positive response rate even after controlling for the general “sucking up” that many students may be engaging in). I offer two thoughts to my students:
- First, taking the time to write your life story is a rich, powerful, enjoyable, sometimes painful, and always cathartic endeavor that yields tremendous benefits. As I often say, whether your life was filled with adversity or you grew up in a “Norman Rockwell painting,” nothing is more important in your journey toward self-discovery than taking a long look back.
- Second, nothing reveals more about the person you are today and are likely to be in the future, than reflecting on the roads you’ve taken (or not taken). By writing your story you will learn so much – who influenced you most, what were the key turning points, what drove your decisions, what were the peak moments, what regrets you still carry with you and why.
Now, it is true that I can coerce the students into completing this project because of the threat of grading. Since I cannot grade your autobiographies, and it would likely be meaningless anyway, I’ll ask you to take the leap of faith that having the will and making the time to go through this exercise will be its own reward. In 2011, NY Times columnist and author David Brooks asked his readers who were at least age 70 to write what Brooks called a “life report“. He received over one thousand essays. I don’t have David Brooks reach and am not expecting a lot of submissions from my readers, but he and I did surface a number of common themes in reviewing our respective “assignments”:
- Resilience is often an under-appreciated skill. We invest so much time these days trying to protect our children from adversity. But hard knocks take many forms, and as the saying goes “into every life, some rain must fall.” Life isn’t about just learning to avoid the falls (that’s a life free from risk taking, which is surely wanting), but also having the mettle to get back up when we do. No character trait might be more important in life.
- We all have regrets, just don’t waste time dwelling on them. As my wise wife always says, “The sum of your life experiences is what brought you to where you are today. If you wallow in regrets from the past, does that mean you wish you were somewhere else in the present?” “No dear” I reply. And that’s not just me sucking up … honest.
- Chance plays a huge role in all of our lives. I like to call it serendipity which in this instance I define not as “positive accidents”, but rather as “the faculty for finding positive outcomes in accidental occurrences” – a small but very significant difference. In reviewing our stories we come to fully realize that our lives are defined by not only our preparation and sense of purpose, but also by chance occurrences and our response to them.
Yesterday was graduation day at Boston College. We were blessed with warm sunshine for our thousands of graduates and their guests. Our commencement speaker was Enda Kenny, Taoiseach (aka Prime Minister) of Ireland. One of Kenny’s helpful exhortations to the students was, “It matters less what happens to us, than how we deal with it. In life, we can allow our experience to strengthen us or diminish us. The choice is ours.” I couldn’t agree more. Remembering and reflecting on our life’s experiences, the good and the bad, the successes and the setbacks, the positive and the painful, will provide greater insights into who you are than any other undertaking I can imagine.
I am reasonably sure that few of you will embark on this exercise of recounting your life story, but I urge you to consider doing so. Looking back will always strengthen your insight and understanding about how to move forward. As the Quakers say, “let your life speak” – let yours speak to you. I am confident that those who do, will hear things that will alter them forever.
Brad Harrington is the Executive Director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family and a Research Professor in the Carroll School of Management. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org