Rewriting Your Story

Gina slumped into the chair in my office and unloaded all the things that were bothering her – things she wanted us to work on. It was not a short list either. Her boss had overlooked her for promotion several times. At 45, she felt there was an age bias toward younger employees in the company that she that been with for 15 years. She was, she told me, “too old” to go back for an MBA. New neighbors had recently moved into the apartment above hers and every night sounded like they were rehearsing for Riverdance. On top of all this, the dating pool for a single over 40 year-old woman in Manhattan was slim. All the good men were either married, gay, or only interested in 20 year-old hotties.

The breezy manner in which this was delivered suggested a degree of familiarity with the story from previous telling and re-telling, almost a gleeful relishing of the unfortunate details that she wore proudly like a badge of honor. Finally, after 50 minutes I asked simply: “Gina, do you feel like you’re in charge of your life?” She looked at me quizzically, as though I hadn’t been listening. “Well, obviously not,” she shot back. “Or I wouldn’t be here talking to you.”

Story Fondling
Children often enjoy hearing the same stories, or watching the same movies over and over – because there is great comfort in knowing the outcome. Familiar stories help us to organize a frightening world into a comprehensible framework. Stories make sense. Stories create order out of chaos.
As adults, we are equally adept at revisiting old story patterns. In coaching parlance, the term we sometimes use is “story fondling”. The word fondling implies a loving embrace, or a warm caress. The problem with many of our stories is that they are not loving, and very often built around a faulty premise. Sentences that begin with “I’ve always been a…Everyone in our family is…I’ve never been really good at…My whole entire life…” may indicate that a story is being told. Sure it may be comforting and familiar, perhaps even funny, but it is also severely limiting. Stories told often enough become self-fulfilling prophecies.

What’s Your Story?
We all have them. I’m a product of divorce. All my relationships end in tears. I don’t like change. I’m not really good with people. The details and how we spin them into a narrative largely determine how we see our lives, and consequently – our experience of living. Whether it’s a painful family drama, a tragedy or a comedic farce – the choice is all in how we frame it. The very first step in reclaiming your power is recognizing that everything in your life – how you feel, how you react, how you live, where you work – is a choice. I’m not suggesting that people actively choose illness, or poverty or disability. Of course they don’t. But more important than the actual circumstance of your life, is the story that you are telling yourself about it. If the story is not serving you, then maybe it’s time to try another one?

As a coach, I am privy to a lot of peoples’ stories. It’s often tempting to want to “fix” their circumstances rather than examining their imprisoning beliefs. Don’t think your thoughts are holding you back? Try this: No one will hire me because I’m too old. I’ll never find love. This is not the life I imagined for myself starting out. I thought once I made partner, I would feel different. Everybody’s moved on but me, I think I may have missed my chance.

Never Too Late
Whatever your particular story – it’s vitally important that you remain an active protagonist rather than a hapless victim of circumstance. You want to be the kind of hero who doesn’t listen to naysayers and enjoys beating the odds. And it’s never too late to begin. For every Mark Zuckerberg who gets off to an early start, there are thousands of others who do remarkable things well into their middle and twilight years.

Julia Child didn’t learn to cook until she was 40. Didn’t launch her masterpiece cookbook till she was nearly fifty. Frank McCourt worked all his life as a teacher in New York City’s public schools. He was 66 when he published his memoir Angela’s Ashes. If ever there was an example of reframing a story, this is it. He took what should have been a devastating childhood, and with honesty and humor, spun it into pure narrative gold – and the Pulitzer Prize.

At this years’ Academy Awards, you may have seen David Seidler, the 73-year-old former stutterer winning his first Oscar for writing The King’s Speech. Or how about Kimani Maruge, who had to wait 80 years for the right to go to school. When free primary education was finally introduced in his native Kenya, Maruge knew it was his last chance to learn how to read and write. At the ripe old age of 84, he enrolled in the first grade at his local school. In 2005, Maruge addressed the United Nations in New York on the importance of free primary education. This year will see the release of a new movie about his life, entitled The First Grader.

If the life you are living is smaller than the one you once imagined, take a good look at how you are telling your story – to yourself, to your spouse, to the world at large. Make sure the narrative is serving you, and not the other way around. In a world of infinite freedom and choice, it is never too late to rewrite your autobiography.

The past is prologue. The rest is still unwritten.