Recently I was reflecting on my day with my partner, Julie-Roxane. Here were the highlights:
- In the morning we went into town and did some shopping.
- Then we worked for a while.
- In the afternoon we had tea with a neighbor in the village.
- In the evening we watched tv.
On the surface the day was rather mundane, yet we both felt the day had been incredibly fulfilling. What made it so?
Here’s a more detailed look at that day:
- In the morning we went into town and bought secondhand clothes at a thrift shop.
- Julie-Roxane volunteered at the local community center. I worked in my grandmother’s garden.
- In the afternoon we had tea with a neighbor who had just returned from India and wanted to swap stories.
- In the evening we watched tv with my grandma.
OK, one more, slightly different look at the same day:
- In the morning we supported a local charity, reduced waste by recycling clothes and saved money on things we needed.
- Julie-Roxane served hot meals to senior citizens in our community who might not be able to cook for themselves. I cleared a patch of ground in the backyard that my grandmother couldn’t do herself.
- In the afternoon we connected with someone else who loves India as much as we do.
- In the evening we spent time with my grandma.
All three descriptions were accurate but it’s the third version which gave my day a sense of meaning.
What I think sometimes goes misunderstood is why. It’s not just about describing what actually happened. It’s about connecting the dots between what I did and what I value that made it a better story for me. Much of what made that day meaningful actually happened before it ever started.
This is probably why a younger me would have written that third version off as “just a story,” an embellishment, a shallow mind trick. Because if someone just hands you that third story it does feel shallow. Why wouldn’t it? You didn’t do any digging.
What a younger me would have missed though is that choosing the first version is also telling a story; in this case that what I did wasn’t meaningful. That is, if he had chosen it at all. More likely, he’d never have realized that he had a choice, that the story could be told another way.
Learning to tell better stories is a skill. It means taking the time to know our values, reflecting on our experiences and sifting out the 99% that isn’t important. It means making the effort to go beyond what happened to why it mattered. It means taking a stand because stories always reveal the most about who’s telling them.
Our stories are drafts, never finished. We can amend them, rewrite them or find completely new ways of telling them. If we don’t like the story being told it’s up us to find a different one. It’s hard work sure, but what’s the alternative?
No one can develop your story for you, but there are plenty of people who’ll sell you theirs.