Before we commence with the festivities, I wanted to thank everyone for helping my first book become a Wall Street Journal bestseller. To check it out, click here.
There’s a little-known group of people who live really good lives. Studies show they’re happier. They have more friends. They’re more successful. Accomplished and warm, they’re solid parents and community members. They live purposeful, meaningful lives.
What’s really interesting is that their circumstances vary enormously. Some are rich, some are poor. They’re not united by race, religion or politics and aren’t even organized as a group. More importantly, they’re good people. They lead communities and help shape our world. They are both inspiring and admired.
Holy crap. What’s their secret? What do we need to do to bring our lives up to code like theirs?
In psychology, these people are defined as having “generativity”: they’re concerned about future generations and they work to make the world a better place. And that’s one of the reasons they’re so happy: when we focus on making life better for other people, our lives get better too.
But what Eldritch witchery leads to this perspective — and all those wonderful benefits? Researcher Dan McAdams did studies to figure that out, and it turned out to be something shockingly simple: it was the story they told themselves about their lives.
Again, the events of their lives varied widely. But what was eerily similar was how they told the story of their lives. The structure it took. This group of folks who have never met, when you interview them, the way they recounted their very different lives always took the same form. There seems to be a magic in that structure.
This isn’t as crazy as you might think. Stories are important. They’re the bedrock of our identities and how we make sense of the world. Through a complicated system of ropes and pulleys our stories allow us to answer important questions like: Who am I? What is important? What am I here for? What is right and wrong? What am I obligated to do?
Plenty of good and bad happens to everyone but our stories highlight some moments and ignore others entirely. And it’s in that editing, that structure, that we shape our lives and what they mean. We often think our stories are something that only exists after the fact. But the truth is, the story in your head also guides who you will be going forward.
Yes, you have a story. Often, you’re not even cognizant of it – and that can be the problem. 2020 felt a lot like an “Intro to Eschatology” class but now as civilization reboots and we gasp for air in the first moments of post-pandemica, we would all benefit from having a better story of ourselves to help create a better future.
Sound hard? It’s not. You don’t need to reformat your mental hard drive. We can’t change the facts of what has happened to you, but we don’t need to. It’s all about re-structuring what has already occurred.
So we’re going to rewrite the story of your life using what Dan McAdams learned from the best people there are. Think of it as Your Life: The Director’s Cut. I titled this post “the most fun way to make your life awesome” and I intend to make good on my promise. We’re going to do more than just tell a tale, we’re going to fashion for you nothing less than your Superhero Origin Story. And that’s fun.
Who will be our guide? Dan McAdams is a professor of psychology at Northwestern University and his book is The Redemptive Self.
So what is this magic story? What makes it so special? And how do we use it to create your Superhero Origin Story? (Cape sold separately.)
Let’s get to it…
Stories are composed of sequences. McAdams found two key kinds of sequences in people’s stories that showed up again and again and had tremendous impact on the lives they lived.
The first is the “contamination sequence”: life is wonderful, then something bad happens and it sullies everything that came before it. We all have contamination sequences but for some people it’s a setback they never recover from. A fall from grace. They let it set the tone for the rest of their tale and this contamination sequence leads to a Contamination Story. Their personal narrative is about as uplifting as the Necronomicon.
These people seem stuck in a loop. Instead of learning from the past and moving on, they relive this sequence, almost as if they are trying to get it right the next time – but never do. You know people like this. They date the same kinds of awful people, get fired from jobs for the same reasons. Their contamination sequence is a mental biohazard that leads you to shake your head and say, “They never learn.” Their life is the symptom but the story is the disease. They’re running cognitive malware in their heads and eventually their lives come to resemble the dark poem of downfall that is their story.
These people often say they were dealt a bad hand. And that may be true. But what McAdams found is that other folks with equally bad (or worse) circumstances structure the stories of their lives differently — and live better because of it. Rather than a contamination sequence, they fashion the same difficulties into a “redemption sequence.” What’s that?
These people find value in the pain. They learn lessons from the negatives. Instead of a “crippling tragedy” they see a “setback that taught me a valuable lesson.” Same events, different interpretation. They don’t see themselves merely as resilient; they feel they are better and stronger for having experienced the problem. This allows them to cope and move forward instead of being caught in the doom loop of contamination. Rather than being trapped in trauma, they experience post-traumatic growth.
And finding benefits in the negatives of life has extraordinary concrete effects.
From The Redemptive Self:
Eight years later, those who construed some sort of benefit from the heart attack were in significantly better cardiac health and were less likely to have suffered a subsequent heart attack.
So you should just tell yourself happy stories that are cheerier than morning television? No. McAdams found telling yourself happy stories doesn’t provide much value. It was redemptive stories – where you suffer and grow – that created a better life.
And by giving redemptive meaning to contamination sequences, we can turn a contamination story into a redemption story. This is how people in therapy or AA turn their lives around. They don’t deny what happened. They see terrible moments as painful but necessary. A tragedy becomes a Pokemon evolution.
So how do we do it? Well, McAdams found the stories of those high in generativity all had that very similar structure. We’re gonna break it down, and fit the events of your life into it.
(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
So how do we write your Superhero Origin Story? Well, every tale starts with the beginning…
Consistently, those who scored highest in generativity felt special. They felt they had a gift. Maybe it’s a positive trait like being hard-working. Or they’d been lucky enough to have a loving family. Something that exerts a long-term positive impact on them, something not everyone has.
Now running around referring to yourself as THE CHOSEN ONE is not going to make you a lot of friends but feeling confident you have something to offer the world is key. It’s not that these people were arrogant, but that they had agency. If you don’t feel capable of making a difference, well, you probably won’t.
I know, some people are thinking, “What if I don’t have a gift?” Thing is, it’s not an objective benefit. In fact, McAdams found that the gifts generative people mention were rarely economic or material. They’re subjective. It’s something you think is valuable. (I have the incredible gift of being able to put a USB connector in properly on the first try.)
So take a second and ask yourself: What is your gift? What makes you special? Maybe you’re a good friend or doggedly persistent. If it’s helpful, think about how your childhood could have been worse, and find your gift in what made that not the case.
“Growing up I was blessed in that I had been given the gift of ________.”
Hey, fill that in. Don’t skip it. I’m watching. And, no, don’t write on your screen.
(To learn the #1 ritual you need to do every day, click here.)
If we were to stop here your story might be one of a self-important jerk. But we’re far from done. You are special. You have a gift. Good…
Because you’re going to need it.
The most generative people do feel they have a gift — but they’re also empathetic. They felt special but they also notice that others suffer in life.
A tiny bit of arrogance about having a gift is not an issue if you feel obligated to use it to help others. You must believe you have what it takes to make a difference.
So ask yourself: Who have you felt empathy for? Whose suffering has moved you – and how has your gift enabled you to address it? It can be something small: “I was pretty smart and saw friends who weren’t and I helped them with their homework. So I am the kind of person who uses my gift to help others.” You’re not lying. You’re just choosing to emphasize parts of your story you hadn’t given as much importance to in the past.
“Growing up I was blessed in that I had been given the gift of ________. Not everyone had it as good as I did. I remember seeing _____ and I felt the need to do something about it.”
(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
Okay, this is the part where I’m supposed to say generative people are super open-minded and flexible and boundlessly accepting…
Umm, not exactly…
People of high generativity are “not big questioners.” They’re not stubbornly set in their ways but the point is that if you debate the meaning of life every morning, you never get out of bed. We’ll have no trucking with such rowdydow. Generative people have clear values.
Simply put: you must make a decision before you can make a difference.
So what do you stand for? What offends your moral taste buds? It’s a big question but don’t philosophize, think back. What’s something that, morally, has always been clear to you? Do you stand up to bullies? Do you feel it’s wrong to ever leave someone with hurt feelings? When have you put your foot down because something is always right or always wrong? Now fill it in:
“Growing up I was blessed in that I had been given the gift of ________. Not everyone had it as good as I did. I remember seeing _____ and I felt the need to do something about it. I have always believed that ______ was the right thing to do.”
(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)
But bad things happen. There are always difficulties in life. How do you deal with those?
Hint: this ties in to those sequences we talked about earlier…
This is the big one. Not letting those awful moments rest as contamination sequences but instead, finding benefit in the negative. Seeing them as something you learned from, that you grew from.
So ask yourself: What was a big setback in your life? Maybe it’s something that still bothers you. Maybe it’s your contamination sequence. Well, not anymore, bubba. What valuable and positive lesson can you take away from it now? How did it change you and make you better? A health scare can teach you what’s important in life. Or maybe you screwed up. That’s how Spider-Man learned that “With great power comes great responsibility.” Fill it in:
“Growing up I was blessed in that I had been given the gift of ________. Not everyone had it as good as I did. I remember seeing _____ and I felt the need to do something about it. I have always believed that ______ was the right thing to do. It hasn’t always been easy. I faced problems, but I’m stronger because of them. They taught me that ______.”
(To learn how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)
So you faced some external challenges and learned from them. But this is the part of the story where the hero (that’s you) faces some even trickier internal challenges…
The two fundamental human motives are agency and communion. Getting ahead and getting along. Too much focus on agency and you’re a narcissist. But too much focus on communion can lead to low self-esteem and depression.
Think those kind, generative givers must be all communion? Nope. What makes someone generative is the balance of both. McAdams writes: “Generativity often blends narcissism with a strong and abiding concern for the next generation.”
Yes, he said the nuclear hot potato of narcissism is part of this. (Do not send me an email inbox full of shrill shrieking horror saying I told people to be narcissists. No need to go to Defcon 1. Untoggle the caps lock.)
Again, you can’t help others if you’re not confident in your ability to make a difference. You don’t need to be Archduke MegaEgo XXXVI but you need to have the belief in your ability to do something. What distinguishes a true narcissist from what we’re talking about here is the old Italian saying, “Cui bono?” That translates as “Who benefits?” Are you doing things to help yourself or others? Sometimes the line is blurry and that’s why McAdams found that even generative givers can struggle here.
So ask yourself: Have you been too focused on getting ahead or getting along? Do you need more agency or more community? And what’s the next step to getting the right balance? Fill it in:
“Growing up I was blessed in that I had been given the gift of ________. Not everyone had it as good as I did. I remember seeing _____ and I felt the need to do something about it. I have always believed that ______ was the right thing to do. It hasn’t always been easy. I faced problems, but I’m stronger because of them. They taught me that ______. I’ve wrestled with the issue of how to balance getting ahead with getting along and realized _____.”
(To learn how to make emotionally intelligent friendships, click here.)
Thus far we’ve covered the past. What happened to you and made you who you are. But a story must guide you forward. So what does your Superhero Origin Story say about your future?
When you’re young you say, “I haven’t accomplished ____.” And middle age is when a voice in your head starts adding “…and I probably never will.” There’s a sclerosis of dreams that happens with time.
But the story isn’t over. Nobody wants stasis. That’s a recipe for boredom, often born of fear. And if you have no goal to work toward, no dreams, you may end up in a contamination doom loop, stumbling around like Mr. Magoo.
So ask yourself: What are my future goals? Don’t just say money or freedom from some problem. What do you want to accomplish? How do you want to grow as a person? What difference do you want to make in the lives of others?
Your role can change. CEO’s often become advisors. The hero becomes the mentor. At the very least, you want to help your kids with their lives. (From now on feel free to refer to your children’s stories as your “sequels.”) Fill it in:
“Growing up I was blessed in that I had been given the gift of ________. Not everyone had it as good as I did. I remember seeing _____ and I felt the need to do something about it. I have always believed that ______ was the right thing to do. It hasn’t always been easy. I faced problems, but I’m stronger because of them. They taught me that ______. I’ve wrestled with the issue of how to balance getting ahead with getting along and realized _____. Going forward, I know there will be more challenges but I want to continue to grow and flourish by setting a goal of ______.”
Take a second. Let it sink in. Doesn’t that feel warm? It’s like you just passed a Metaphysical Turing Test. You’ve got what it takes to be a good human.
Now start acting on it.
(To learn how to live a long awesome life, click here.)
Okay, superhero, you have your story. This is what makes great people great. Let’s round it all up and put the final touch on your epic tale – and find out what it is that makes this narrative so powerful…
No bullet points this time. Let’s hear directly from Dan McAdams on what the magic story is.
From The Redemptive Self:
I learn in childhood that I have a special gift. At the same time, I see (and am moved by) suffering and injustice in my world. As a result, I come to believe that my personal destiny is to have some positive impact on others. In adolescence I internalize a belief system that sustains my commitment to improving the world. I will never abandon these core beliefs. Over the course of my adult life, I struggle to reconcile my strong needs for power and independence with my equally strong needs for love and community. Bad things happen to me, but good outcomes often follow. My suffering is usually redeemed as I continue to progress, to learn, to improve. Looking to the future, I expect the things I have generated will continue to grow and flourish, even in a dangerous world.
Does the Redemptive Story sound like something you’ve glimpsed before? It probably does. It’s the backbone of classic movies, great biographies and Sunday sermons. McAdams even did a study and found that 52% of the stories in People Magazine had this structure. This is a story that resonates with all of us and has propelled us forward, not just as individuals, but as a species.
Now you have your version. Tweak it. You can keep rewriting it. You should keep rewriting it. It’s all true, based on the events on your life. But it’s how you structure it that decides its impact on who you are – and what your future will be.
This is the story that makes great lives — and I think you can now see why. This story has both pride and humility. It’s goal-oriented and offers insight as to how to achieve those goals. It is purposeful and meaningful. It doesn’t deny the problems of the past but knows that they made you better. It creates a path to a better life for yourself and, more importantly, for others.
It’s much easier to keep taking on new, more difficult challenges when you know that you will be able to redeem moments of sorrow instead of being trapped in a cul de sac of contamination. (Writing your story the latter way constitutes editorial malpractice.) You want to learn and grow rather than perpetually feeling like a White Belt at existence. Redemption is a Brita water filter for the pain of life.
You have your Superhero Origin Story. It’s been a heroic effort for me to finish this post. But I’m not the hero of this story — you are. Well, maybe I’m part of the story. Maybe I’m the mentor figure here to tell you of your great power – and your great responsibility. (I promise not to reveal your secret identity.)
So now that you’ve got your story, are we done? No. The story may be complete but so much of your life is still ahead…
So this is not an ending. This is a new beginning.
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