The Danger of Becoming the Stories We Tell

The idea of the “personal narrative” is that we take selective events or periods from our lives and combine them with larger ideas and purpose in order to get somewhere else.

In order to get somewhere else. Perhaps it’s a job interview, or in conversation at a conference; maybe you’ve been asked to give a speech, or you’re applying to graduate school. The reality is that in living our lives daily we do not think about a “personal narrative” so clearly defined. If we meet someone in a casual social situation, we may describe ourselves, but it will not be in the same way as we would describe ourselves in an interview. The “getting somewhere” is what separates describing ourselves to someone and telling a personal narrative; the former is done simply for its own sake, the latter to get somewhere or something.

Not that a personal narrative need be untruthful, but in their selectivity and in their tailoring to the “somewhere” that we are trying to get, personal narratives are likely to anchor us to parts of ourselves that in daily life are not necessarily most important. We may emphasise certain skills or personality traits that, true, we do possess, but which our friends would not think to mention if describing us.

The difference in what we describe in a personal narrative as opposed to what we would tell a friend is the difference between what David Brooks calls “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues”. We describe the parts of ourselves that will help a company grow its bottom line, or which will impress a graduate school program—skills, past work experience, competitiveness. Yet those are not the things that make us who we are. To our friends and family, or to the people we go cycling with during the weekend, what matters is whether we are kind and caring, thoughtful and conscientious, able to switch off from work and enjoy life, interested in others’ lives.

The danger in telling a personal narrative is that we may come to believe it; that in repeating so often and so forcefully the kind of person we are, other parts of self may start to fall away. The narrative, to repeat, may not be untruthful, but a narrative is by necessity never the whole truth. “I am an a, b, c” kind of person, “and x, y, z events from my life show that”, and “that’s why I’m perfect to get this (job, graduate program, etc)”. You are a, b and c, but also much of the alphabet besides, including qualities and values that are far more important.

In our attempt to “get somewhere”, the personal narratives we tell focus on the external parts of our lives that when all is said and done matter very little. And if we aren’t careful—if we spend our time climbing, always looking for the next thing, always “applying”—we will come to embody the personal narratives we tell, lacking in humanity and virtue as they necessarily do.

Between the Organization Kid and Hippiedom

“The Organization Kid” are the three words New York Times columnist David Brooks used to define a generation. Brooks travelled to Princeton and other elite institutions in the early 2000s and came away scared at how “The young men and women of America’s future elite work their laptops to the bone, rarely question authority, and happily accept their positions at the top of the heap as part of the natural order of life.”

I don’t think we’re Organisation Kids, but I think we have parts of that kid in us. We reject the conformity that leads to happily boring lives in a single job for life. But sometimes we find ourselves pushed towards that because it’s the “right” thing to do. We want college to force us to ask the important questions in life, to force us to confront our own character. Yet all too often we take classes that will look good on our resume. Some of us almost rejected the traditional path of a summer internship to instead spend the summer writing and travelling. But we didn’t, and worked 9-5.

Sometimes we find ourselves wanting a life without the internet. We want a private life where we can be ourselves and develop inner character without anyone watching. Other times we want followers and likes, the Instafame and instant gratification. Sometimes we want to ignore everyone in the world to be inwardly humble, to live as we believe we should live, and other times we throw ourselves at conformity to know that we are succeeding and will be remembered.

If the Organisation Kid “worked for Save the Children and Merrill Lynch and didn’t see a contradiction”, the “kid” today sees the contradiction and flips a coin to decide. We work at Goldman Sachs and do yoga and read Peter Singer, or we work at Save the Children and read The Economist. The contradiction is visible and we grasp for both worlds, too scared and too smart to leap at one and not the other.

Our dilemma is whether we become the mindless and busy conformists that Brooks was so scared of, or instead move forward into a hybrid of Organisation and Hippiedom.

Knowing more and wanting more, but seeing “easy” and wanting easy. That’s us.

Meaning

“Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.

— John Gardner, “The Road to Self-Renewal“, March 1994

“One of the enemies of sound, lifelong motivation is a rather childish conception we have of the kind of concrete, describable goal toward which all of our efforts drive us. We want to believe that there is a point at which we can feel that we have arrived. We want a scoring system that tells us when we’ve piled up enough points to count ourselves successful.
So you scramble and sweat and climb to reach what you thought was the goal. And when you get there, you stand up and look around and chances are you feel a little empty. Maybe more than a little empty.
You wonder whether you climbed the wrong mountain.
But the metaphor is all wrong. Life isn’t a mountain that has a summit. Nor is it—as some suppose—a riddle that has an answer. Nor a game that has a final score.
Life is an endless unfolding and—if we wish it to be—an endless process of self-discovery, an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our own potentialities and the life situations in which we find ourselves. By potentialities I mean not just intellectual gifts but the full range of one’s capacities for learning, sensing, wondering, understanding, loving and aspiring.”

— John Gardner, Stanford Commencement Address, June 1991

As a counterpoint to Gardner’s advice, it’s worth reading David Brooks’ New York Times column, “The Problem With Meaning.” David also quotes Gardner, yet disagrees with the use of the term “meaning” by cutting through much of its vacuousness:

“Because it’s based solely on emotion, it’s fleeting. When the sensations of meaningful go away then the cause that once aroused them gets dropped, too. Ennui floods in. Personal crisis follows. There’s no reliable ground.

The philosophy of meaningfulness emerges in a culture in which there is no common moral vocabulary or framework. It emerges amid radical pluralism, when people don’t want to judge each other. Meaningfulness emerges when the fundamental question is, do we feel good?

Real moral systems are based on a balance of intellectual rigor and aroused moral sentiments. Meaningfulness is pure and self-regarding feeling, the NutraSweet of the inner life.”

I’m not sure I feel wholly the same as David about meaning. It might be a vacuous term, but that vacuousness stems from the fact that the term encompasses different things for each of us. We do not all find meaning in the same place, and I take that as fact. What I think Gardner manages to capture so well is the sense that though meaning might be different for all of us, it’s crucial that we first break out of the limits on our own minds in how we think about it. If we come to think outside the places we normally look for meaning—a 9-5 job, a weekend hobby, occasional service work—then we are far more likely to make meaning mean something for us.

On Making Decisions Despite the Instability of Our Future Selves

Every so often a certain theme or idea can continue to pop up seemingly everywhere in life. It’s as if by thinking about something once we are primed to find it everywhere, and without looking or trying we will be bombarded with many riffs on the same theme for the next month or so. This has happened to me a great deal recently, especially with the idea that there is a logical flaw in how we construct our lives from our present state, allowing ourselves very little room for personal growth and change.

A while ago I wrote about how we are incentivised in daily life “to connect our dots looking forward, to extrapolate our pasts into our futures as if we were unchanging.” I was reflecting there on the fallacies inherent in career thinking, where we are encouraged to plan our entire lives from where we are now. But learning and growing as individuals is precisely the point of our education—were we to come out of university the same person as we began, it seems difficult to see how one was in fact educated. I was questioning why we think about our life’s trajectory as linear, instead of the likely reality that, as Steve Jobs said, you can only connect the dots of your life looking backwards—and there may, in the end, be no pattern at all.

I also quoted elsewhere a Wall Street Journal article on how experiences studying abroad can change and shape us. There, the authors stated that

“Concrete, defined plans for life are abstract because they are made for a self who is abstract: a future self that you imagine based on a snapshot of yourself now. You are confined to what is in the best interests of the person you happen to be right now—not of the person you will become.”

This was a tangential point to the main one being made in the article, and yet today it is really all I can remember from it. It might be, to some, a truism; and yet for others it might be a statement of fact so blindingly obvious that it had never even been considered.

Today I came across yet another riff on this idea, a different way of putting it that draws out different components. Psychologist Dan Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness is essentially a whole book related in one way or another to this idea, yet Maria Popova of Brainpickings had captured (as she always manages to do) the central few paragraphs. I want to quote two of these paragraphs in full, as I think they leave a lot to think about, especially for those of us currently being encouraged from all angles to make precisely the mistake that is being warned against.

“The things we do when we expect our lives to continue are naturally and properly different than the things we might do if we expected them to end abruptly… We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy. Rather than indulging in whatever strikes our momentary fancy, we take responsibility for the welfare of our future selves, squirreling away portions of our paychecks each month so they can enjoy their retirements on a putting green, jogging and flossing with some regularity so they can avoid coronaries and gum grafts, enduring dirty diapers and mind-numbing repetitions of The Cat in the Hat so that someday they will have fat-cheeked grandchildren to bounce on their laps. Even plunking down a dollar at the convenience store is an act of charity intended to ensure that the person we are about to become will enjoy the Twinkie we are paying for now. In fact, just about any time we want something — a promotion, a marriage, an automobile, a cheeseburger — we are expecting that if we get it, then the person who has our fingerprints a second, minute, day, or decade from now will enjoy the world they inherit from us, honoring our sacrifices as they reap the harvest of our shrewd investment decisions and dietary forbearance.”

“But our temporal progeny are often thankless. We toil and sweat to give them just what we think they will like, and they quit their jobs, grow their hair, move to or from San Francisco, and wonder how we could ever have been stupid enough to think they’d like that. We fail to achieve the accolades and rewards that we consider crucial to their well-being, and they end up thanking God that things didn’t work out according to our shortsighted, misguided plan. Even that person who takes a bite of the Twinkie we purchased a few minutes earlier may make a sour face and accuse us of having bought the wrong snack.”

These ideas are, at their core, talking about the problems with making commitments while young, when one’s self is still unstable. The obvious solution to the need to make decisions now for an unknown future is to delay making commitments to career or work until that self is more stable. But is it ever? And if it is, is that a good thing? Delaying commitments comes with downsides, too. In a class I took last semester with David Brooks we explored the advantages of making commitments while young—where everything can seemingly fall into place, and days are lived with a far greater sense of purpose. David explores these issues of making commitments in his latest book, The Road to Character, pushing strongly the idea that commitments should and must be made early. I wonder how to align this view of life with those views I’ve quoted above, where seeking meaning or making unalterable decisions when you are not yet your “self” seems imprudent.

My final paper for the class ended up being a meditation on Kazuo Ishiguro’s book The Remains of the Day, which raises all sorts of questions (again, another place the theme popped up) about whether and when we should make binding commitments to work or other areas of life in order to avoid wasting our days. My conclusion was, perhaps predictably, to say we need some sort of balance (in the words of a friend, “enlightened fence-sitting”). And that balance, I concluded, should lie in devoting ourselves to a number of things we love, and never solely one’s career.

That at least is the conclusion that my present self decided would be the one most satisfactory to my future self. I could be wrong (apologies, future Michael, if that it the case). But here’s the very point. Some decision must be made, even if that decision is inaction. And, ultimately, what this discussion is good for is in knowing what is actually at stake in these often quotidian-seeming decisions.