Your Life is Your Story

Story is everywhere in life. Perhaps your story is that you are responsible for the happiness and livelihoods of dozens of people around you and you are the unappreciated hero. If you are focused on one subplot – your business – then maybe your story is that you sincerely want to execute the major initiatives in your company, yet you are restricted in some essential way. Maybe your story is that you must keep chasing even though you already seem to have a lot (even too much) because the point is to get more and more of it – money, prestige, power, control, attention. Maybe your story is that you and your children just can’t connect. Or your story might be essentially a rejection of another story – and everything you do is filtered through that rejection.

Marco Polo leaving Venice on his journey to China, 1338.

In 1265 two enterprising venetian merchants, the Polo brothers, who already had commercial interests in the Crimea on the northern shores of the Black Sea, set out to investigate the markets of the Asian interior. Relying on information and maps from other travellers, they made the gruelling journey across central Asia and visited the Great Khan of the Mongols, Kublai Khan. This unusually enlightened ruler sent them back west with a message to the Pope, since the Mongols were interested in a pact with the Christians against the Muslims. Six years after their first expedition the Polos set out again to take the embassy of Pope Gregory X to the Mongol emperor. This time they were accompanied by Nicolo seventeen year old son, Marco.

In his famous account of his travels Marco Polo describes seeing, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, fountains gushing with a dark substance that could be used in lamps. This black gold became a commodity that governments in later centuries used to manipulate economies and go to war over. The Polos crossed the present Pakistan and Afghanistan following the ancient Silk Road, the route by which silk, tea and other exotic oriental products reached the distant Mediterranean on camel trains. At last, after some four years of travelling, the Venetian adventurers arrived in Peking (now Beijing).

Having entered the emperor good graces, Marco was sent on missions to various parts of the Empire and to Tibet, Burma and Indo-China. For three years he administered Yangzhou and became closely acquainted with the life and customs of the people. So useful, in fact, were the Venetians to Kublai Khan that he could not bear to let them go home.

The three intrepid merchants eventually returned to Venice in 1295, 24 years after their departure. On their return Marco Polo knocked at the door of the family home, but as he was dressed in rough Tartar clothes, he was not recognized by his family at first. A feast was then prepared, during which Marco Polo dramatically cut open his rough travelling clothes with a knife and poured out diamonds and precious stones, to the amazement of all around.

While imprisoned by the Genoese after the navel battle of Curzola, Marco dictated the story of his life and travels to his cell-mate, a Pisan man of letters named Rusticello. The result was Il Milione, in which tales of the fabulous are interwoven with rigorous observations. For a long time it was the only source of information for the Western world on the Far East. Freed from prison in 1299 Marco Polo returned to Venice and died there 25 years later. On his deathbed he is supposed to have said: I wrote not even half of what I saw.

Story is everywhere. Your body tells a story. The smile or frown on your face, your shoulders thrust back in confidence or slumped roundly in despair, the liveliness or fatigue in your gait, the sparkle of hope and joy in your eyes or the blank stare, your fitness, the size of your gut, the tone and strength of your physical being, your overall presentation – those are all part of your story, one that’s especially apparant to everyone else. We judge books by their covers not simply because we are wired to judge quickly but because the cover so often provides astonishing accurate clues to what is going on inside. What is your story about your physical self? Does it truly work for you? Can it take you where you want to go in the short term? How about ten years from now? What about thirty?

You have a story about your company, though your version may depart wildly from your customer’s or business partners. You have a story about your family. Anthing that consumes our energy can be a story, even if we don’t always call it a story. There is the story of your relationship. The story of you and food, or you and anger, or you and impossible dreams. The story of you, the friend. The story of you,  your father’s son or your mother’s daughter. Some of these stories work and some of them fail. According to my experience, an astounding number of these stories, once they are identified are deemed tragic – not by me, mind you but by the people living them.

Like it or not, there will be a story around your death. What will it be? Will you die a senseless death? Perhaps you drank too much and failed to buckle your seat belt and were thrown from your car, or you died from colon cancer because you refused to undergo an embarrassing colonoscopy years before when the disease was treatable. Or after years of bad nutrition, no exercise, and abuse of your body, you suffered a fatal heart attack at age fifty – nine.  ‘Senseless death’ means that it did not have to happen when it happened;  it means your story did not have to end the way it ended. Think about the effect the story of your senseless death might have on your family, on those you care about who  you are leaving behind. How would that story impact their life stories? Ask yourself, Am I okay dying a senseless death?  Your immediate reaction is almost certainly, “No!, of course not!

Unhealthy storytelling is characterized by a diet of faulty thinking and, ultimately,  long – term negative consequences. This undetectable, yet inexorable progression is not unlike what happens to coronary arteries from a high-fat, high-cholesterol diet. In the body, the consequence of such a diet is hardening of the arteries. In the mind, the consequence of bad storytelling is hardening of the categories, narrowing of the possibilities, calcification of perception. Both roads lead to tragedy, often quietly.

The cumulative effect of our damaging stories will have tragic consequences on our health, engagement, performance and happiness. Because we can’t confirm the damage our defective storytelling is wreaking, we disregard it, or veto our gut reactions to make a change. Then one day we awaken to the reality that we have become cynical, negative, angry. That is now who we are. Though we never quite saw it coming, that is now our true story.

We enjoy the privilege of being the hero, the final author of the story we write with our life, yet we possess a marvelous capacity to give ourselves only a supporting role in the ‘storytelling’ process, while ascribing the premier, dominant role to the markets, our family, our kids, fate, chance, genetics.  Getting our stories straight in life does not happen without our understanding that the most precious resource that we human beings possess is our energy.  

It is our storytelling that drives the way we gather and spend our energy. Stories determine our personal and professional destinies. And the most important story you will ever tell about yourself is the story you tell to yourself. 

So, you would better examine your story, especially this one that is supposedly the most familiar of all. Participate in your story rather than observing it from afar, make sure it is a story that compels you. Tell yourself the right story – the rightness of which only you can really determine, only you can really feel – and the dynamics of your energy change. If you are finally living the story you want, then it need not – it should not and won’t – be an ordinary one. It can and will be extraordinary. After all you are not just the author of your story but also its main character the hero. Heroes are never ordinary.

In the end your story is not a tragedy. Nor is it a comedy or a romance or a thriller or a drama. It is something else. What label would you give the story of your life, the most important story you will ever tell. To me that sounds like a hero’s journey.

End of story.