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Our Stories

ast weekend, I attended an educational seminar called The Landmark Forum and learned some new concepts on how I have come to view events in my past. The reaction we have to past events is to make up a personal myth or story and use this narrative to bring order and some level of understanding to the events that have occurred throughout our lives.

Communication through use of stories and story telling is the subject of one of the courses I had in graduate school, so I decided to compare what I learned then and recently. For more in depth understanding, please see the book by Dan P. McAdams entitled The Stories We Live By.

The purpose of my continuing education is to enhance my path of self-actualization. This concept from Abraham Maslow is rooted in positive psychology and provides a guideline for us humans to grow and become all that is possible. Certainly, the need to attain greater capability is attenuated by the particular challenges we face in both our personal and business lives. The more severe the crisis, the more we question and seek help, answers, and improvement. In my case, I don’t like to suffer the same results twice if I can learn from the first experience. Whether the initial problem was from a mistake I made, or something beyond my control doesn’t really matter.

Events happen often beyond our control and McAdams notes that “a life story is a personal myth that an individual begins working on in late adolescence and young adulthood in order to provide his or her life with unity or purpose and in order to articulate a meaningful niche in the psychosocial world.” We must use some method to bring understanding as life does not start out by someone handing you an instruction manual. We create our own. And our story continues to revise as we go on living.

“In order to live well we construct a heroic narrative of the self that illustrates essential truths about ourselves. The search for the mythic hero takes us eventually to the Promised Land where we can be genuinely prosperous, loving and happy.”

How does this relate to the satisfaction with our careers? The human being is the only animal who anticipates and dreads its own mortality. More heart attacks occur on Mondays than any other day. Other animals do not know what day it is. So we are living a life that we have concocted for ourselves based on what we learned from our environment or created stories to serve our own understandings. What I learned in the weekend seminar was to question those assumptions made about the events in my life and the stories I associated with those events. Since all stories are myths, the probability is great that my interpretation of the events may not match reality.

One reality is the ability to live life very naturally much as a fish lives in water. The fish does not know it’s in the water. That is just the natural environment. A tangible example is to think about our lives before we were born. It was warm, we were floating and we had continuous meal service. Then we squeezed out through a shoot too small and in the colder air were immediately slapped on our butts to being breathing. One way to get back to a more natural living state is to choose to be ‘in the game’ versus sitting in the stands. When athletes play on the field someone else is keeping the time. The athletes are focused on the task at hand. How many of us love our work and are involved so much that we don’t notice the time passing. This phenomenon happens typically during the time we spend with a hobby.

So how can we make work more fun, more productive and less stressful? Getting into the game means paying closer attention to the selected activity. Focus on the conversation you may be having in person or on the telephone or by email one at a time. My tendency had been to think about the next task to be completed, which served to distract me from current task. I wasn’t able to listen fully and contribute by giving the most valuable responses of which I was capable. I know there are lots of demands during our workday. Things pop up that we can’t control. How often have you started the day with an agenda and quickly got steered off course by unexpected emails, phone calls or requests and interruptions from co-workers?

When the Buddha was asked what he wanted to be most, he answered, ‘Awake.’ That is the same as keeping your head in the game moment by moment. Of course there should be long term planning as though we will live forever but live as if we were to die tomorrow. Follow the rules of maintaining personal well-being including proper nutrition, rest and exercise. After all, that’s what the athletes focus upon so they can perform optimally. We are the warriors and athletes in our own story. Be aware of your mental health as well. Successful performance requires that all our faculties be in good shape and that emotionally we allow loving and caring into our lives.

Upon her deathbed, Abraham Lincoln’s mother told him to “be somebody Abe.” Lincoln decided early in life to take that message to heart and work on creating a character that would bring meaningful and lasting change to the world. By being a person of integrity and tremendous perseverance through unimaginably daunting odds Lincoln was able to attain the greatness for which we remember him today. He wasn’t perfect and he was hated by many. But dedication to his ideals led him through disastrous challenges and he left our nation and the world a much better place than he entered.

Lincoln was always in the game. He had fun telling stories, jokes and entertaining people he met on both a personal and professional basis. He lived his life in spite of stories he could have readily told himself about why he should not succeed. To paraphrase the Gettysburg Address, we are now engaged in a great economic struggle known as a recession to test who will long endure. By being the person with valuable attributes and characteristics we can have whatever we want and do what we want in life. Now that would be some story to live and to tell.

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