“One's destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”― Henry Miller
How our stories shape us
Ever since I was a very young child, I was obsessed with stories. I begged my mom to read to me some of my very favorite stories over and over again. So much so that people assumed I knew how to read when I was three. I had memorized every word of “The Monster at the End of this Book” and could act like I was reading.
To me, stories always had a way of transporting within an instant to a world where up could be down, the magical could be the norm and darkness could be light. I craved my reading time and to my brother’s dismay, would read everyday, even on the brightest of days when he would have rather us go run around outside.
It’s no surprise that I took that love of story into adulthood, my career and now into my foray into blogging. It’s what binds us and can help create so much understanding across language, culture and lived experiences. I’ve bonded with so many people who’ve lived very different lives from my own, because they’ve share their story and I am able to find the kernels of truth that resonate.
Once you get down to someone’s true story, I find that it has an almost tactile feel to it which helps you understand the contours of it’s edges, lets you follow it to its core and allows the listener to grasp on. That’s what I try to seek when having discussions, especially when language, experiences and culture are vastly different. Stories help us connect, broaden our imaginations, open pathways to new questions, foster understanding and draw on our empathy. They can also be used for harm, but let’s focus on the light shall we?
Where are you in your story?
Sadly, in the past month, we’ve learned of 3 colleagues/friends around our age who’ve passed away. It really shook us. These people were in their prime, healthy, successful and were postitioned to do so much more. And as I heard from others who knew them and read their obituaries I thought about their stories and my own.
As I thought about each of their life stories, one of the defining points was that they each lived so fully. They had accomplished, enjoyed, influenced, traveled, contributed and loved. Their deaths felt incredibly tragic to happen so young. And yet the way they lived fully was inspiring and almost suggested that they had some inside information on their shortened shot clock.
I know that I certainly have taken time for granted. Time with friends, family, collegues and strangers. It’s always the thought that you will see each other again, you’ll meet up soon, you’ll get to that experience later. Maybe more before the move to Asia than now. I think the move made me confront the fact that I may not have as many chances to “see” someone again and heightened my sense of my own timeline.
Do you ever question if you are in the beginning, middle or towards the end of your story? For me, this used to just be a matter of age. When you are a kid, time and experiences seem endless. Now that I am in my 40s, time in many respects seems to be moving really fast and yet when it comes to time as a parent of young kids it can move awfully slow (especially Sunday afternoons for some reason…when is bedtime again?)
Without knowing how my story will end, how does my existing story drive me?
I consider myself a seeker. I have always sought to have a clear vision of my future, ever since I can remember. I’m not exactly one to do a vision board, but wouldn’t be too hard pressed to find journals going back to the 3rd grade where I carefully plotted the life I saw for myself, how fast I’d like to get “there” and all of the ways that I might climb.
And some of the stories that I’ve told myself about where I’ve been and where I was going, have truly helped push me to change the things I didn’t exactly love about my current reality or continue those things that I thought I excelled in. The more I saw myself as a leader and acted like I had the ability to move others in a direction, the more I believed it could be done.
But that storytelling can also get you into trouble, depending on the slant you use in the retelling. Your perspective can convince you that you don’t have the ability to change, stretch, love or even try. It can convince you that your hangups are much worse than they actually are or that your abilities are not as great. We are all experts at poking holes in stories when we see others imploring them to justify why they did or didn’t try something, but it gets harder to do this for ourselves. What part of your justification is true and what part is being led by the story you told yourself about it?
Does your story help or hinder you?
As a matter of practicality, it’s almost impossible to be impartial when thinking about your own motives, abilities, faults or desires within your own story. You aren’t a character in Real Housewives or Bling Empire. (Although, wouldn’t that be fun for a day or two??!) But in all seriousness you can’t live every day or make each small decision as if it’ll be your last, it would paralylze you or make you simply turn away from the mundane necessasities that life (especially life with small kids) requires. Everyday can’t be lived as if its your last just like every issue can’t be treated like it’s a four-alarm fire.
I think a pivotal time to consider one’s time scarcity is when you are making a big decision or feeling like you are stuck in a crossroads. This prioriity check can help you put your decisions into perspective without minimizing or trivializing.
Instead, I found that focusing on what I want my overall story to be helps drive me toward more fulfillment, more challenge and more fun. It can help to strategize how to stay in a place that brings you joy for longer and understand the reasoning or advantages that challenges bring. Many times in my life, I’ve used my own storytelling about my lfe to propel me out of jobs, relationships, projects that didn’t suit me.
But you have to be careful when doing this, especially when your imagination betrays you and doesn’t dream as big as your potential. I do believe you have to imagine your future before you can live it. But you have to be open to the idea of change and open to a life that’s very different to what you know to be able to receive it and accept it as part of your story when it does come along.
And this is the tricky part…you have to ask yourself, who is writing this story that you are living? Are they an unreliable narrarator leading you to invision a sad future or a PR fixer spinning the best story they can with what they have? I am all for dealing in reality but I think the world is full of commentators, doubters,critics and naysayers. The worst thing you can do is let that sully what your potential story can be. Careful not to prove your haters correct by not imagining the very best & biggest outcome for yourself.
Will the outcome be worth the sacrifice?
One of the blessings of my life here in Singapore has been having the chance to meet people from all over Southeast Asia and the world on their home turf. Coming from NY, I have the unique perspective of living in a highly diverse city, but it’s different when you are meeting people in their home country vs. welcoming them to yours. There is a different ease and willingness to share more since it is I that is the guest.
We met a brilliant chef in Thailand who shared with us his story both through his food and a great chat. His job was to help set up new kitchens in different places around Southeast Asia. He has been away from his family, who were back in India, for 6 months while he got his kitchen running well. Much of this is just a job but he also has to weave a story for himself about the sacrifce he’s making. For him it was worth it, even though it was incredibly difficult to miss certain milestones for his kids, wife and extended family, because they are able to do so much more with his sacrifice than without it. As he shared with us his family pictures and excitement to see them again, I could also see his pride in his work, love for his family and how this sacrifice itself was also an important part of his story.
In Singapore, I met this powerhouse woman within the banking world who was almost 20 years my senior and had spent her career relentlessly climbing to the top. Yet she had to take time off for her health to handle the immense stress she had been under. Taking this time off wasn’t a decision she wanted and yet it was no longer a choice, it was a necessity. She came to an opposite conclusion about her sacrifice for the outcome she was reaching for, as the outcome was no longer worth the price she was paying. Now that she was back to work, her entire perspective has tilted towards a much healthier and more productive approach, but this also helped her accept that she wanted to add much more to her story than she originally was striving for.
And we all do this cost benefit analysis, each time we leave for work in the morning, take a business trip or even take on a bigger work challenge. You bet on the reward, you bet on the future outcome, you ignore or downplay the risks at times because you bet on the outcome being worth the sacrifice.
Editing & embracing your story
I’ve found that my story and what drove me in the past stayed prettty consistent for the bulk of my adult life. I tried to keep to a path that I thought would bring me the most success and the most happiness. I may not have been entirely sure of where I was going from the start but there was some logic or patterns that I created to help make the story fit into a forward moving narrative.
Being in a new country & culture with different expectations, people, opportunities, etc. has led to so much angst but not because life here is unhappy, but mainly because I don’t know how to fit this into my story just yet. The pause on my career has felt like I put a pause on large part of my identity. Although I’ve found lots of other things to do, none of it fits quite right. It's hard to explain or complain about unless you have gone through this kind of change, but it is still part of my story.
The best way I found to break out of the expectations of what I thought was my story is to create a new narrative that doesn’t just include the past and current states, but includes the challenge as part of your identity. I see the sacrifice and the advantages to the experience but have to reconstruct my own story instead of trying to force this experience to fit into my old life's plot line.
Sometimes it doesn't hurt to remember that the “monster” at the end of this book, might just be my own scary storytelling. And making my story work for me, should and does start with reminding myself that I am the author of this tale. It starts with embracing all of the new and old, making it your own and projecting forward to a time when this is experience is in fact a wonderfully complex chapter in a life well lived.