Your Story Isn’t Out There

Icon thx Graham John Pegg via nounproject
Icon thx Graham John Pegg via nounproject

When you picture “living the life”, what does that look like? How far is that life from your current location (either in kilometres, or years, whatever)?

I recently read Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, where he writes about how living a good life is like writing a good story. As he was learning about how to write stories, he decided to apply his findings to his own life. That decision led him to hike the trail to Machu Picchu, start dating a girl, bicycle across the US, and start a national mentorship program, among other things.

As I was reading, I found myself thinking, “Yeah, to live a good story I should really do the hike to Machu Picchu. Or start biking long distances. You know, do something crazy.”

Have you ever had similar thoughts? As you’re dragging your feet through your day, you look at all those cool people on Instagram (or wherever you get your life-envy fix) and think that if you could just climb some great mountain or land some dream job, then you’d be living a cool story. Like Walter Mitty, our dream life lives somewhere outside of our current, mundane existence.

Most of the personal adventures he shares in the book – hiking to Machu Picchu, biking across the country – he calls “practice stories”. Although they were great for kickstarting his fitness routine and convincing himself that he could change his storyline, they weren’t the real thing.

At some point in my reading, I started to realize that doing “something crazy”, while it might be helpful on some level, wouldn’t actually help me with my real story. In fact, these kinds of one-off adventures would be an escape from the story I was currently living. And while I might not be able to write a book about getting breakfast ready for my daughters or pushing them on the swing after work, no change in my physical location would give me a more real story to live.

Where are you at? Do you need to do something drastic to reboot your story, or do you, like me, already have the raw materials for a great story right where you are?

If so, here are a few thoughts about what to do when you feel discontent with your current story:

1. Get used to the long middle.

The beginning and the end of stories are usually the exciting parts. In a movie, they spend a lot of time with the characters as the story begins, then time travel a bunch to get us to the next exciting part (the end) within a couple hours. They cut past a lot of the middle – the paperwork and the bathroom breaks – to get to the action.

When you’re living a story, though, you get to live through every. single. second. of the long middle.

Miller compares this “long middle” to kayaking across a body of water. When you first leave the shore, you feel the beach fading quickly behind you. You’re making great progress! Then, once you reach the opposite shore, you similarly feel the finish line approaching quickly. But there’s a point in the middle of the paddle where you don’t feel any progress. You start to think that your paddle strokes aren’t getting you anywhere, that you’ll be stuck in the middle forever.

For many of us, we might be living some exciting mini-stories, but on the long arc, we’re somewhere in the middle. Keep paddling. You’re making progress, even if it’s slow.

2. Lean into your story.

As we all know, there’s a way to escape your story without ever leaving. You can checkout by checking your phone when you take the kids to the park or thinking about work projects during dinner. While we’re physically present, it’s easy to avoid engaging with the people around us (the other characters that might make the story interesting).

Something I learned from Miller was that turning your average story into a great one sometimes only requires making that phone call you’ve been putting off, or raising your hand when an opportunity arises. But you’ll only take advantage of those opportunities if you’re leaning into your story, rather than daydreaming about the story “out there”.

3. Enter your story again (repeat daily).

Several times a week I go for a morning run to start the day. I call this “sacred” time, because it’s just me and the road, and maybe a podcast in my ears. After running, I’ll come back home, sit on the deck and watch the sunrise (or the stars, at this time of year). It’s a refreshing space.

Then I get to make a choice.

I can start the rest of me day in that “me” space, daydreaming of all the other stories I could be living. Or, I can enter the context of my real, already-happening-if-I-want-it story. My real story is sometimes mundane, many times interrupted by children, but it can be great, if I’m open to it.

I think we all have that choice. We’re all living a story, whether we like that story or not. But we have the opportunity to enter it, occupy our current context and live the role that’s uniquely ours.

And who knows? Maybe in doing so we’ll find that our ordinary story isn’t so ordinary after all.