The horse trainer: narrate your life like there's no yesterday

Are you a good storyteller? If so, great! I'd love to hear some of your stories. If not, it might be time to improve. After all, your life depends on it.

This is the third article in a series about a new way to interact with the world.  There are links to the first two articles at the bottom of this one.

What do you mean, my life depends on it?

How would you answer this question: What kind of life do you want? 

Stop and think about it for a moment.

Maybe you thought of a job you'd like to have, a title, or a dollar figure.  Maybe you thought about your current friends and family, or maybe you thought about the friends and family you'd like to have.  It's even possible you thought about the kind of person you'd like to be, the kind of person you would like to be known as.

Maybe you hadn't had to answer that question in a while.  Is your answer now different from the one you gave last time?  If so, I recommend writing it down somewhere you'll see it later.  Before long I'll help you understand why you'll be glad you did.

Now that you've finished that exercise, let me narrow down my original question a bit.  What kind of life do you want: Do you want a life with a high degree of satisfaction, or would you rather have one filled with distress?  

Wait, don't leave yet.  Of course I know your answer to that question, but the point is, there are other people who want the same things you want, the things you answered the first time I asked the question. And there are people who have those things already.  But here's the important point:  Some of them are mostly satisfied, and some of them are frequently distressed.


In large part, it comes down to their life story.

Take two people with very similar circumstances, and look at how they view their life.  One feels extremely grateful for what she has.  The other is disappointed that he doesn't have more.

Why an identity needs a narrator

Remember, understanding the importance of crafting our own identity gives us a greater degree of control over the many influences that are constantly acting on us. Your life becomes more a life of your choosing and less a life that's chosen for you.

Identity is like a map that guides everything we do, but it's only helpful if we make frequent, deliberate, careful updates to the map. That's where the narrating self comes in.

Imagine a map of a construction site. The builders need to map to know where to place the parts of the building. Try to imagine building a building without a map. Where would the foundation go? The driveway? The landscaping?  What if the water pipes came out of the ground on the wrong side of the building, for example?

The map requires these elements:

  1. Existing features
  2. Planned features
  3. Constant updates

Inside of you are two workers that are responsible for updating the map. They are your narrating self and your planning self. The planning self can't fit things on the map without consulting with the narrating self to find out what's already there. And the narrating self has to consult with the remembering self. And, as we'll see in an upcoming article, the remembering self is unreliable and inconsistent. This sounds like a recipe for trouble for the builders.

Here's the important part: the narrating self doesn't have to rely on the remembering self for everything. Unlike a map of a physical place like a construction site, your identity isn't fixed to anything outside of you.

Yes, your past experiences are on the map, and your current roles are landmarks, but the narrator gets to decide how to interpret those experiences. Which means the narrator has a lot of power over the shape of the map.

There are limits, of course, to how much artistic license the narrator can take. We can only fool ourselves so much. Trying to rewrite history will damage our self-esteem. But while we can't pretend our past doesn't exist, we (acting as narrator) can choose how to interpret those events.

The most effective way to interpret our past events without setting off alarm bells in the form of low self-esteem is to learn good storytelling techniques.

Think of one of your favorite stories. What did you like about it? Was there conflict? Did the hero of the story always come out on top?

In fact, no story is worth telling if it doesn't involve conflict.  Yet many, if not most of us, seem to spend our lives trying to avoid conflict in some way.  Or we get frustrated when things don't go the way we wanted, and ask, Why me?  We curse and swear instead of thanking the universe for putting us in the middle of a good story.

Every life is a story

Here's the important point: Every story is a snapshot. Even a full-length movie or a novel can only go into so much depth.  A map can only display a fraction of the territory it represents. Lewis Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno Concluded contains the lines:

"We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!”

“Have you used it much?” I enquired.

“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr: “The farmers objected: They said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight!”

Your life story is the "country," and your identity is the map.  Your narrating self is the cartographer who draws all the landmarks so the planning self will know where to draw the building.

Ask any photographer and they will tell you that finding a scene worth photographing is only the first challenge.  The real skill comes in knowing how to frame the scene.  Likewise, a good storyteller knows when to start the story, what to include, what to leave out, and when to end the scene.  

Let's get some science here

Dan McAdams, Professor at Northwestern University, has given a lot of thought to life stories and narrative identity.  Notice his conclusions:

Identity becomes a problem when the adolescent or young adult first realizes that he or she is, has been, or could be many different (and conflicting) things and experiences a strong desire, encouraged by society, to be but one (large, integrated, and dynamic) thing. Of course, perfect unity and purpose in life is only an ideal and may itself not be fully desirable anyway.McAdams, D. P. (2001). The psychology of life stories. Review of General Psychology, 5(2), 100–122. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.5.2.100

When he published that paper in 2000, there wasn't a lot of evidence available in the form of research studies on the subject.  By 2013, the situation had changed.

Research into the relation between life stories and adaptation shows that narrators who find redemptive meanings in suffering and adversity, and who construct life stories that feature themes of personal agency and exploration, tend to enjoy higher levels of mental health, well-being, and maturity.McAdams, D. P., & McLean, K. C. (2013). Narrative Identity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(3), 233–238. doi:10.1177/0963721413475622

University of Guelph Professor Andrea Breen's research has also focused on narrative identity development.  Her experience is similar to McAdams'.  She said, “Storytelling is really important for children’s development. Kids who come from families where there’s lots of storytelling tend to be stronger in terms of their language, relationships and emotional well-being.”

It's time to write your stories

Just as it's not always healthy to cling to one idealized future self, there's no need to put yourself in a box when it comes to your life story.  Feel free to dig around a bit before deciding who you are, especially if you're tempted to limit yourself.  Are you overwhelmed by current circumstances?  Put the story frame around you with your present self right in the middle.  The story starts when the problem started, and it will end when it's over.  How would you write the ending?

Are you considering doing something new?  Are you unsure that you can handle it?  Reach into your past and write down times when you succeeded at something challenging.  It doesn't matter how small the challenge was.  Add it to the map.

Are you afraid of failure?  Reach into your past and write down times you failed.  How did you react?  What would have happened if you had succeeded?  What good thing that's happened to you since then might not have happened if you had succeeded?

What if you've failed repeatedly in the past?  Don't let that define you.  When you finally overcome that problem, your story will have greater value for yourself and others, than if you'd never had to put up that kind of fight.  Remember, the failures in your past are horses that you have ridden.  You will become a better rider and eventually you'll get mastery.  

These exercises are slightly different than the ones we did last time, because then we were focused on the future and this time we're focusing on how to make a story using what has already happened in your life.

Remember that your brain is prone to all kinds of biases and thinking errors.  Many of these happen because the mind adds meaning when it doesn't get enough from the senses.  So don't let your brain turn into a runaway horse.  Keep a firm hold on the reins and write your own story instead of letting feelings of fear and inadequacy hold you back.

Other tips

  • Don't live in the past.  Past events have value, but the future can be even better.  Past events can:
    • teach us valuable lessons
    • warm us with happy memories
    • serve as valuable narrative elements, even if they are not good memories
  • Expect defeats and failures.
    • When you encounter disappointment, stop and think about how you feel.  Write about it if you can, or make a voice recording.  It will enrich your story.
    • Realize that your instincts will try to mislead you. Let the horse (your animal self) feel the disappointment, but don't let it gallop away with you.
    • Recognize that your other selves can help you make the most of the new circumstances.  You are powerful.
  • Don't try to hold another rider's reins.
    • Focus on learning to control your own horse and let others worry about theirs.
    • Let bygones be bygones.  Holding on to resentment won't improve your story or your life.  
  • Embrace failure.
    • You will learn and grow more by taking risks and being willing to fail.
    • The more you fail, the more you will succeed.  It's the law of averages.
  • Realize that you might be misjudging yourself.
    • A strength to one person can be a weakness to another, and vice versa.
    • Don't let yourself become the villain in your story.  You are the hero, even if you mess up.  As long as you're not victimizing others.
  • Have a hobby or some other activity outside of work.  Don't let your identity be too closely tied to one thing.

Finally, here are two tips that deserve to be by themselves:

If you are having a hard time letting go of a negative view of yourself, say "I'm not that kind of person. That's who I used to be." And realize that it is the absolute truth.  You can start a new identity today.You'll also need to work on starting new habits that support your new identity.  Doing this will give your doubting self proof that you really are a different person.

Start keeping track of your life.  As much as possible, write down what happened, who was involved, how you felt, and what was interesting about the scene. This will serve two useful purposes:

  1. You'll become a much more interesting person to be around.
  2. Your future narrating self will have better landmarks to work with.

I saw this tweet while I was writing this article and it fits really well with everything I've been saying:

Let's get back on the horse

Our preparation for this trail ride has been very thorough.  So far, we have our map, and we have a trainer who's very familiar with the territory who can skillfully mark the location of important places along the trail.  Next time we'll see how the guide - your planning self - can skillfully add more information to the map to make sure this will be the ride of your life.


  • Our degree of satisfaction in life depends largely on the stories we tell ourselves.
  • We need to stop limiting ourselves by the past and start creating stories that will empower us.
  • Using the elements in our past creatively, without trying to rewrite them, preserves self-esteem.
  • Science supports the idea that skillful life narration promotes mental health, well-being, and maturity.
  • Try the exercises suggested to see how you can start improving your life story today.

Article series:

  1. A New Way to See Your Self - Take a Trail Ride to a New Identity

  2. The Map: Who Are You? Where Are You Going?

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