We all have a personal narrative, even though few of us have made the effort to articulate it. That’s a shame because our personal narrative can be a source of deep insight as well as a great way to amplify impact. Done right, they can be a powerful weapon in helping us to escape from the dark side of technology.
I’ve written a lot about narratives, for example, here and here. Narratives are different from stories in that they’re open-ended (they don’t yet have a resolution) and they’re ultimately about the people you’re talking to, not about you, the story teller, or some other people. Narratives are powerful because they are ultimately a call to action – they help people to see how they can have greater impact.
There are social narratives and institutional narratives, but we each have a personal narrative as well. At the end of the day, that’s the narrative that really counts. It defines how we connect with the world and where and how we can have impact.
The elements of a personal narrative
So, what’s a personal narrative? Like all narratives, it ultimately answers three questions:
- Why am I here?
- What can I accomplish?
- What can you do to help me accomplish that?
The key is that final question – it defines how you will connect with people and represents a call to action for them.
Like I said, few of us have taken the trouble to articulate our personal narrative, even though we all have one. It’s usually an implicit narrative that can be made explicit by reflecting on the choices we have made and the actions we have taken throughout our lives. Even though our lives are usually very complex and often involve what appear to be very diverse activities and relationships, there's usually a thread running through all of that, a thread that, when made visible, can be very revealing.
Making our narrative explicit can yield a lot of insight about who we have been and gives us a chance to reflect on whether it is who we really want to be.
My early personal narrative
Take my own personal narrative as an example. I grew up in a dysfunctional family environment and it shaped a powerful narrative, one that helped me to survive that childhood but one that became more and more limiting over time.
My early narrative could be summarized as “I’m here to help you with my mind.”
This narrative made me a servant of others. The idea that others could help me was completely foreign to me – I was isolated in an environment where I was repeatedly told what a burden I was. No, my role was to help others, to be very attentive to what the needs of others were and to respond quickly and effectively in addressing those needs. My needs were irrelevant.
Also, my childhood experiences had taught me that emotions were very dangerous and destructive. I was exposed on a daily basis to the deep anger of my mother. My only escape was into the refuge of books where I could engage in the world of the mind, and leave all those troubling emotions behind me.
So, it was natural that, in seeking how to help others, I would focus on harnessing my mind and intellect, rather than trying to engage with people on an emotional level. It led me to focus on cultivating my mind – I excelled in school (even though I rarely went to class) and I stayed in school for a very long time (ultimately collecting my final degrees at age 28).
I also channeled a lot of my helpfulness to others in the form of writing to express ideas and insights that could be used by others. Writing was a particularly appealing way to help because it allowed me to avoid direct contact with people and kept me safely isolated behind my desk.
In my personal relationships, I was the caregiver (the father figure), taking care of every need of my partner and rarely, if ever, expressing my own needs, much less asking for help. I would use my intellect to earn a good living so that I could be an even better caregiver.
I wasn't consciously aware of the narrative that was shaping my life, but it had a profound effect on me. All my major choices and actions in my early life could be explained in terms of this narrative.
My evolving personal narrative
The process of making this narrative explicit had a powerful impact. It made me aware of how limiting and confining this narrative had been on my life. It also made me aware that there was another part of me that was struggling to express itself, a part that was much richer and ultimately far more rewarding.
So I began to craft a new narrative, one that I'm continuing to evolve, but one that is far more satisfying. It goes something like this: “let’s overcome our fear and feel the excitement that comes from exploring new frontiers on the edge together so that we can provide others with platforms to achieve more of their potential.”
It starts with acknowledging fear, an emotion that had a profound impact on me as a child and one that still haunts me in so many ways. But then it quickly shifts to the opportunity for excitement, something that I’ve increasingly felt as I’ve found ways to let go of my fear, especially by coming together with others who share my quests on the edge.
Now I’m not alone, but I’m inviting others to join me and share the excitement of exploration. By coming together we can more effectively overcome our fears and learn faster than we ever could on our own. Emotions, both negative and positive, are now front and center in my narrative.
There’s still a component of helping others, but now it’s a little more nuanced. Rather than simply helping others who are passive, it’s about helping others to take more initiative to grow and achieve more of their potential. Once again, together we can achieve far more than we ever could on our own.
Notice that, while the narrative is deeply personal, it's very much focused on communicating to others where and how they can contribute to my quest - and articulating what's in it for them. In fact, it now becomes our quest – we're coming together to accomplish something awesome.
Escaping the prison of limiting personal narratives
My early personal narrative was clearly shaped by my unique circumstances, but I’ve come to believe that this kind of limiting, perhaps even dysfunctional, personal narrative isn't unusual.
In fact, I believe that most of us, in a world of mounting performance pressure, have evolved personal narratives that don't serve us well. Sure, they represent an understandable reaction to the pressures around us, but they dramatically narrow our ability to achieve our full potential.
Only by making them explicit and reflecting on them will we be able to assess whether they serve our true needs and potentially evolve much higher impact narratives.
Here are four questions to ask yourself:
- Given the choices I've made and the actions I've taken throughout my life, what's the personal narrative that has led me down this path?
- Is this personal narrative one that can help me to achieve the things that I really want to achieve or is it inhibiting me in some significant ways?
- How could others help me to achieve even more impact and what's in it for them?
- What specific choices can I make and what actions can I take in the next day, week and month that will start to evolve my narrative in ways that will help me to achieve more of my true potential?
The journey shaped by these questions could be a very uncomfortable one, but it's a journey that could help us to become much more of who we really were meant to be.