When I first started listing identity statements on a five day trip around Norway, I was faced with a problem: what was I to do with this growing sense of self? On one hand, I started to see possibilities based on using those ‘I am’ statements in a creative way, but on the other, I had to face my personal fatalism. I think most of us struggle with a variation of this foible. For some, it’s the thought that fate is in control of their lives and they don’t get to choose. For others, it’s a sense that everyone else but them gets to determine their future. I had to face this problem before I could proceed, so I started by calling my sense of inertia what it really was; an internal force that was wreaking havoc with my soul. Any sense that makes me feel I don’t have a large degree of choice about creating my future is unnatural. Everything within us is wired to imagine, process, and choose the kind of life we’d like to live. We may not have the power to fulfill every dream, but we sure as hell are designed to have a go.
So, I made a conscious decision to shift gears. I shifted from seeing the future as something I tripped over—or a series of things that happened to me—to choosing to look at the future as something I was actually able to create. The surprising thing was how natural this perspective became. Once I let my imagination connect to my identity, ideas started flying into my mind. Not vain things I’d never be able to accomplish, but tangible scenarios that given some effort and time, were actually doable. I think many of us give up on dreaming because we have no real reference for those dreams. But when you’re connecting the realities of your soul (your ‘I am’ statements) to an imagination wired to connect the dots, you can’t help but create a plausible story. I suggest you make a similar commitment. Start this section by committing to look at the future as something you’re mostly in control of so your imagination can do its job.
Long-term dreaming: I first started telling the long-term story of where I wanted my life to go when I met my Hilde. In that time I learned to appreciate the totally fresh angle Hilde had on my dreams,. She was also really honest in telling me if I was rushing into things which helped me slow down and realize that walking out my identity was more about leaning into things than knocking down doors. I still had to step out in faith and take a lot of risks, but leaning into things gave me the opportunity to mature. I learned to move forward with integrity rather than making my actions a means to an end.
Committing to the story: Telling the story of how I wanted to walk and work with young people in Norway and around the world has given me access to the resources needed to make that happen. I wanted to help these kids know their own passion and have a faith that could support it, but this couldn’t happen until I clearly committed myself to making it happen in the unique way that I envisaged. For instance, my wife and I both share a story about how we want our home to be a place where lots of young people can experience a sense of belonging and healthy modeling in how to deal with different challenges. But it took us both telling that story to others and making active choices to invite people in—being available when needed—before we were trusted in our local community. As I committed to and moved in my own story, the resources I needed to get things done, like trust, money, and people followed that commitment.
From the previous section on connections, themes, and experiments, you can see that I’m heading towards using your identity to make long-term life choices. At the easy end of this whole idea, you could use your identity to make everyday decisions, like comparing your ‘I am’ statements to job listings to look for a good fit. But the real potential in knowing who you are lies in the renewed ability to use that knowledge to create your future via storytelling. Linking identity to storytelling your future has tons of potential. For instance, when you have a story, you have a destination. This is huge, because if you know where you’re going, you can easily see the steps you need to take to get there. Most of us live our lives in six-month segments. We look for the best possible way to survive the next 180 days based on outside-in values like where the money or fun is. We’ve become like the elevator operator in Huxley’s Brave New World who has the same excited reaction every time he gets to the top floor. We get excited about the next idea or choice, but eventually we get to the end of the six months and have to start the scary decision making process all over again.
To beat the cyclical process of endless short-term choices, you need a larger narrative to follow. You need a story that embraces your entire identity, and from that identity defines the people you want to relate to, the place you want to live in, and the values you want to live by. Your story needs to inform the important developments of your life, like what kind of education will mature your ‘I am’s’ into their full potential, or who’s the tribe that will collaborate and grow with you, etc. This overarching story frees you from the stress of repeatedly re-cycling the short term by creating
a long-term sense of direction, one that helps pace yourself. I realize though, that some people don’t want to define their future too narrowly in case they ‘miss out’ on something. This concern, however, usually means people don’t define a story at all, which means they miss all kinds of opportunities. I’ve found that stories don’t actually limit your choices, they give you a larger context for movement. And once you’re moving, you can interactively change the story as you go. All you have to do is keep your story integral with your identity.
STORY WARM-UP EXERCISES
Are you ready to tell the story of your future? Grab that journal of yours and jot down / process these warm-up questions:
1.Do you believe that you get to speak out your future and fulfill that story? If not, who does - who’s in control of your life? (you may want to ask for it back)
2. What are some limiting factors you feel the world is imposing upon you and what can you do to change that over time? Where is the world calling the tunes that you’re dancing to? For instance, on the personal side - I’ve always been stressed over finding enough money to keep afloat, let alone pursue my dreams. So I choose to subject those concerns to my family and community, making myself vulnerable and open to input or support. In doing so, solutions start to emerge, including the way we’ve crowdsourced the production of some of my books. On the 'bigger issue' front - I don’t like the price of fuel, but I’ve been driving around town for 35 years, so I have to change my ways and walk more... In the long-term, I ‘localize’ my life as much as possible, which is only a small part of the big picture, but it helps shift the control meter from victim to activist. What about you?
3. Review your time perspective as mentioned earlier. What’s long-term planning for you so far, why? What can you do today to start stretching that view?
4. What are the core values you want to express, via your identity, in this longer term story? For instance: I value the underdog and therefore want to help people move forward despite their circumstances...
5. In terms of group scenarios, are you willing to move forward as an extended family? And outside of this, who’s your tribe (local musicians, entrepreneurs, handicap care givers, film makers...) and how can you engage them to move forward with you, especially on new projects?
STORIES AND LONG-TERM THINKING
You will have tried a few mini stories in the previous sections, but what I’d like to move you towards is a longer-term story. One that combines the 'mini' ideas with the rest of your identity to see what your life could look like over the next 15 to 20 years. And stay with me here - even if your ‘time perspective’ is freaking out just a bit - because the further you can see, the more clear today’s path becomes. We’ll get there gently too, so take a risk with me here and let’s see if we can turn that identity map into a story of your life. After all, it’s only 15 years, so you can do this a few times in your life, right?
I’ve found a good way to start a long-term storytelling process is to look at what changes when you’re 40? That number may freak the younger readers out just a tad, but if you’re only viewing the future from a 20-something lens, you’re not seeing far enough. We need to see what we’re becoming in order to imagine past our present limitations. For instance, when you’re 40:
1. What experiences (education, practice, life skills) will you have had by the age of 40 and how will that effect your confidence? Especially based on using the strength of your identity for the next couple of decades? Perhaps you could journal the kind of experiences you'd like to have had by then and how that may make you feel. For instance, you may have pursued a formal (university) or non-formal (running your own business) education where you've learned over the next 15 years how to run and own your own online store. How would you feel having done that well for a number of years?
2. What kind of wisdom will you have developed over the coming years? You need to project how you’ll grow as a person to give yourself an accurate assessment. For instance, I knew that if I grew in my communication skills over the years, I could predict the ability to write or teach in the way I am now... This is especially important given that we’re inundated with ‘the now’ - with its short-term priorities killing our long-term development. So try and predict some of the things you’ll learn in the coming years that would allow you to achieve a bigger story.
3. What will your extended family dynamic be like? How will it be different from now? You’ll have a growing network of family and community (if you care to) to work with and support each other in these adventures. What could that family look like when you’re 40?
4. What will your financial situation be like? It’ll be different from now for sure. And don’t assume it’ll be worse, instead, base your projections on the healthy use of your identity strengths. This may even be the basis for looking at the next 15 years after you're 40 to see what you can do next.
5. What will the world around you be like when you’re 40. Access to knowledge, markets, opportunities... all change, some for the worse, but I see the world slowly growing into a kind of caring maturity. If it does get worse, it’s our fault anyway, so imagine and work towards the world you want to exist. You can start with infrastructure (like energy, water, food) and move towards technology, and then maybe towards your city...
6. Imagine you’ve put in 10,000 hours of craft development by the age of 40. Imagine being more fluid, capable of acting on your identity in solid ways that are not only very fulfilling, but very bill paying too. What would your life be like practicing all that skill in a particular area?
Your ability to look down the road may be a little rusty, but you're totally capable of this. Spend a little time and look over your answers above carefully before you start telling your long-term stories. This is a world-view shift—or rather you’re shifting your view from participant to creator—so take a bit of time to review - let it sink in.
Story telling with people who can help the story come true..
A few people I’ve come across are internal processors who do really well creating their stories by themselves. Most people I’ve worked with though, do much better when they have a close friend or family member to dream with. Most of us need people who can listen to our identity statements and project scenarios together. And since we’re talking about looking at your medium term future, the stakes are kinda high, so I suggest committing to people that can help you make it happen. Over
the past ten years, I’ve taken the opportunity to spend a week with various friends going over all the stuff we’ve talked about so far. We’d spend a few hours a day just walking through their ‘I am’ statements—revealed in the scenes of their lives so far—and then project some possible stories together... We’d process issues as they came up, and then look to the future with large sheets of paper, whiteboards, or long conversations by the river... I make the investment because this is important stuff. I mean, who does this kind of thing anymore, right? It’s not typical to spend this kind of time on issues of identity and processing the future. We spend way more time in counseling than we do help9ng each other in these ways. Maybe there’s a correlation? We need to call on our friends to regain this lost ground. If you don’t take yourself and your future super seriously, no one else will. Engage those close to you in a deeper process because it’ll be good for both of you. Here are some tips for storytelling together with others:
1. Make sure you clear the decks. Pick a time, or rather, create some space for a few days together where you can focus (include good food!).
2. Pick a good location. Your home is the best place to start but a lot of people don’t really have a home, so where would you be able to process in peace and have room to spread out a bunch of paper (with some decent food!). Make the environment match the value of the event (which is recapturing your future).
3. When you start, design your day around your natural seasons, like when you’re best with people, or which part of the day you internally process... when should you get out and walk or exercise (and eat great food!)... Create a basic schedule and don’t get distracted.
4. Have your identity map ready for the day(s) but be ready to expand it as you tell the stories mentioned below. You may want to review the section where I asked you what you wanted. Start by taking a quick scan of that section, and jot down anything else you want to add to the ‘what you want’ part. Then take a few minutes and look at your identity map. Not looking for anything in particular, just let it soak in.
5. Take your time as you walk through the ideas below together. Let your intuitions speak up a bit. It’s not about nailing the questions, but rather letting them draw out a natural process. Get used to giving time for your intuition to speak, it’ll make all the difference.
As I’ve walked through this process with many people, I’m always impressed with how each person takes it in a new direction. The framework in this book often moves from a few simple ideas to living stories as my friends unpack their own details and apply them in different ways. They then customize and stretch my ideas into their own wise way of seeing the world. It’s been a joy to observe and to be a small part of their transition. See if you can evoke the same movement in yourself and in those working with you.
THE CHAPTERS IN YOUR STORY
As you begin to form a cohesive narrative, lets look at the various chapters that form the overall story. Sometimes it's best to have an outline or overview of the story before you tie it all together. These five chapter headings might be a good way of tackling the larger narrative which we'll pursue further down this page. For now, grab your journal and have a go at outlining:
The Community Chapter
As I’ve walked through this process with many people, I’m always impressed with how each person takes it in a new direction. The framework in this web site often moves from a few simple ideas to living stories as my friends unpack their own details and apply them in different ways. They then customize and stretch my ideas into their own wise way of seeing the world. It’s been a joy to observe and to be a small part of their transition. See if you can evoke the same movement in yourself and in those working with you.
The Work Chapter
Odds are you won’t have a typical career in a decade or two. You’ll probably work through a series of projects which use your various strengths. Try and describe five different projects you’d be working on, large and small, and what you’d be doing specifically in those projects. Again, have your identity map handy to help inspire some of these work scenarios. Try to avoid the typical job description stuff unless it’s totally you. And remember, you’d be 15 years older, smarter, handsomer...
The Relationship Chapter
Try and describe a family vacation 15 years from now. Are you a father or mother? And who else is in this vacation like, extended family, life-long friends? Where are you at and what are you doing during the vacation? After telling the general story (or your back story) try and describe your particular connection and effect on each relationship during the vacation. If you’re not the vacationing type, try and describe your various relationships spread over a week’s time living in a city like Portland or wherever. (for relationship / lifestyle tips, check out Portlandia:-) These questions help draw out your relational values. Don’t try and paint the perfect relational world, but the kind of family / tribe you want to develop in the coming decades.
The Education Chapter
You may have really liked or hated school, but if you could design your own education, what would it look like? Try and describe a class, or
any environment that would perfectly fit your learning style, including the layout, what you’re learning, and who’s there with you. Or you could outline a university degree program that would train you in the exact way needed to draw out and polish your ‘I am’ statements. Or you could start with a learning objective like, ‘I want to become a world-class choreographer with a huge international range of dance styles in my palette’. Once you have the goal, describe the kind of education you’d need to get there.
What you’re looking for in these questions is your soul’s natural learning preferences. Or even better, the language of your own education. Each of us has natural ways of developing, as the proverb says, “according to their own way”. Tapping into this natural flow is essential if we’re to maximize and mature our identity. My sense is that we have to overcome the abuse of previous ed systems by inventing, or collaborating, to create a personalized curriculum which includes your overall education goal clearly in mind, the ideal learning environment for that goal and the specific curricula to get you there.
The Creativity Chapter
All of us are amateur creators. Not in the sense that we’re all average, but rather, that we all love to create. The word amateur is derived from Latin amare which means ‘to love.’ Despite lacking creative encouragement, we secretly still would love to make stuff. Again, not artistic stuff, just making things that allow our identity to flow through the work of our hands. Most of us continue to put this inner drive on the shelf thinking it’ll emerge in retirement. Which in my opinion is why most people want to retire early, so they can do what they really like as soon as possible. I say ‘why not now’? What would creativity look like in your ideal story over the next 15 years?
Highlighting the Creativity Chapter of your story...
I think creativity is central to our overall stories. You may or may not thinks this is the case for you but bear with me and have a look at the following exercises to see how creativity my play out in your own long-term story. For instance, grab your journal again and create a section called "Creativity and my story", or something like that and:
Start by making a list of four or five things you’d love to make. Could be as simple as restoring furniture or cars, or as complex as building your own tractor or bakery oven Try to not think of what you could make today, but in the next five years or more. Stretch your imagination out a bit here by looking towards how the next few years could create the platform for this creativity. And it doesn’t have to be something you make money at. One designer I’ve heard of helped a fully paralyzed graffiti artist with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) communicate and paint again by creating a cheap pair of hard-wired sunglasses hooked to a projector. We’ve limited what we can make to what we can sell, and I think we’re all losing out with this mentality. Regardless of the money, what would you like to make?
Next, describe how those things you want to make could possibly change a small part of the world. Not the whole thing, just that local part of the community you could affect with something ingenious. I find that when I move past the typical view of creativity (making amazing things to impress millions, earn millions...) towards a beneficial perspective (making things that truly help or inspire people), something gets released inside. I believe true creativity hinges on this motivation. When I stop trying to earn or impress, I free up the internal bandwidth of my own intuition, and thus my creativity. Try and connect the five things you’d love to make with a beneficial effect on your neighborhood, city, or world.
Finally, try to visualize your creative environment. Draw or collage (from mag clippings) the space you’d love to work in, and describe your creative process in that space. What does it look like, who’s with you, what kind of music is playing, how much time are you spending there each day... Again, you’re projecting what this space would be like in 5, 10 or 15 years from now; when you get to call most of the shots.
Direct Identity Connections
Changing tack a little, let’s develop another aspect of your story from a very different angle. Seeing this from a lot of different perspectives allows you to draw on more sources when it comes to writing your overall story. So stay with me, there’s method to this. Open a fresh page of your journal and try this:
1. Start out by taking three or four fairly random ‘I am’ statements from your identity map.
2. Brainstorm three or four very different things you could do with the combination of those statements.
3. Then, choose the idea you like best and grow that thing like a child. Meaning, what could you do in the next five years to develop it... Then, over ten years what could it become? And then in 15 or 20 years, what could that core idea grow into?
Do this two or three times with very different ‘I am’ groupings until you end up with a good set of ideas that you really like. As you do this, you’ll get a feel for how your identity stays the same over time, and yet your creativity matures... This is an important place to arrive at, where you’re not held back by a lack of confidence but instead are giving yourself room to grow.
A few strong 'i am' statements
Some project I could do with them
Growing one of these projects over 5 years
Or say, over 10 years
Over 20 years?
Get the journal, tell your story(s)
So let’s have a go, shall we? Here are some tips in telling this big picture story.
Review - Have a look over all the story exercises we’ve done so far
See if you can see any symmetry (repeating ideas, stuff that keeps popping up). You’re not looking for a simple path, but for how different ‘I am’ statements keep shining through the various story angles you’ve written so far. Or, you may catch a glimpse of some highlight that really inspires you so you may want to tease that out a bit. Let this review give your intuition another chance to speak to you. It’s an art well worth developing. Note any highlights or inspirations on the top of a new section of your journal entitled (if you like) The Story of My Next 15 Years:
Outline your big picture story
As a writer, I find it really helpful to start my stories with an outline. Once I have the broad strokes I can fill in the details with characters, time frames and places that turn that outline into a living story. You could try this built on the review mentioned above, where you look over all the stuff you've written so far in your journal, and mind map /bubble map or outline ideas as they appear to you looking over your work. From this overview, go on to the next step.
Essay or visualize:
Next comes the hard work. Write out an essay or short story based on the outline above. The idea is to add nuance, motivations, twists in the story... that allow you to see the real-life effect in these ideas. Remember, we’re trying to move away from straight laced algorithmic approaches to the identity = job description equation. Try to notice the colors on the walls of your future home or the sound of your children’s voices when you teach them to take their first photograph. I want you to describe the way you take the natural world around you and form it into something even more beautiful / useful. This story allows other aspects of your soul to speak up, maybe for the first time, in an implicative way. And it doesn’t matter whether you can write well, because that’s not the point. You have a built-in gift, which is the natural ability to tell your own story, so just go for it. You’re not being graded or paid for this either, so just relax. You may want to start out with visualizing the story by illustrating parts of your life or clipping a bunch of mag pics that show what you want to be living like or doing. Some people have done ‘vision’ boards like this which is also a good way to get those juices flowing, but at some point, you want to fill in the gaps with words. Words that will inspire and encourage you to step up and do something.
Communicate: Next, I suggest you share your story(s) with people you can trust to take you seriously. And by the way, if you think you don’t have those people in your life you’ll have to look harder. Often we’re trapped by what we think people think of what we think... One guy said the fear of man is not being afraid of people, it’s being afraid of what we think they think of us. So go and see who you can bounce these stories off, because my hope is that this kind of communication will at least encourage your hearers to think of their own story. You may be happily surprised with the viral effect this kind of process can lead to. We’re all very well versed in the discouraging, depressing ways of killing each other’s dreams, howsabout being different?
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Putting it all together - Meta narratives and making commitments
Now that you’ve had some time to brainstorm a bit and come up with a wide array of ideas about your future, let’s get back to the power of story to put it all together. When you take the various pieces of your story; home design, relational hopes, projects you could invest in, etc., and put them all together, you’re starting to form a meta-narrative. This larger story should define and inspire movement your soul can support over decades. To get there, lets look at the primal force that story can be for you and your friends. As I mentioned, over the millennia people have gathered around the fire and listened to inspiring stories that reminded them of where they came from, who they were, and where they could go. This primal force is the kind of narrative that calls our soul to action. These stories stretch us and move us out of our comfort zone into a place where only the strongest commitment to integrity (being your self) will bring fulfillment.
As I’ve mentioned above in the bit about scenario planning, I think these stories work best when they speak to and move the group forward. But sometimes to arrive at that we need a personal narrative that can connect with others as we go. This personal story needs to tie together all the sections listed so far into a story arc. This arc has a number of different elements to it, typically a beginning, middle, and end that’s true to your identity and values. We’ll break these elements down in the next section on planning but for now I want to focus on the reason why all stories have an arc and how those bits may help you move forward.
The meta-narrative or story arc of your life has a beginning where the journey is defined. This usually happens in the first act where a defining event challenges the hero (that’s you by the way:-) into action. I like to think of this as our busted past, or wasted hours pinned behind a lame classroom desk, or the misused hours we spent on things that weren’t based on our identity. The defining moment could also be when you’re faced with a decision about education or work, and feel conflicted about the choice because you’re not sure if it’s you or not... So you have to make some choices and need a raison d’être to proceed. Sometimes the hero runs away from the challenge because they have no sense of identity and therefore purpose, but please don’t do that, it always ends badly. Let the present dilemma move you into action.
The second act in this meta-narrative is the forming stages that unfold identity in action, which usually leads to another challenge, namely that the world will not play nice which makes it super hard for the hero to be themselves and achieve their goals. This leads to the second act climax, or conflict, which requires something special from our hero. Something amazing inside has to emerge to overcome this barrier to growth or fulfillment. I often see this in my friends’ lives where they have a dream or a goal and then get rebuffed by the world around them. This often leads to even more self-doubt. But if you’re super motivated—hopefully by a story that’s truly you—you’ll press through this challenge and find something deeper. Something that calls together your mind, soul, and strength into a symmetrical attack on the problem.
The third act of your story arc sees you pressing through those challenges and resolving the conflict begun in the first act. You’ve now moved past the vague impressions of self into a realization of personhood. Your resolution often helps to solve the issues of those involved in your story and you form a community narrative that moves your whole crew forward. I’ve seen this in quite a few people who persistently stuck at their story until they established themselves. This doesn’t mean a lack of further challenges, but rather an ability to face just about anything thrown at them from this stage on.
This meta-narrative is the story you tell about the next 15 years. It’s not about the job you’ll have, it’s about the life you’ll live. We’re moving past the industrialized version of careers into a more holistic story about your home, relationships, creativity, etc. You can include your work but remember to see it as a vocation (spiritual and personal calling) where you earn by creating value vs. selling yourself to pay for the weekend. Looking past your future as a means to pay the bills and into a holistic expression allows you to put your whole self into creating value, which just so happens to have the pleasant effect of paying the bills.
A good example of this what my friend Blue and company have done in creating the local cafe the original book behind this web site was written in. I’m including it here just to give some life to the ideas. Have a read and then get ready for your turn...
Committing to your story
We all know how to daydream and plot ideas. But it takes a special kick to move dreams into action. I’ve found that making a commitment to our story requires the simple use of our free will. A will that’s been retarded by confidence killing systems (like standardized school tests, grrr) but is still capable of making baby steps, which over time can change our lives. A good story will kick this simple force into action, but at the end of the day, taking the first step in starting a big project will always be going against our internal trends. So you just gotta suck it up and make that step. Practice will create confidence and confidence will inspire more steps, so give your soul something to work with and make some commitments. And tell other people, because that sort of forces the issue in a good way.
As you develop your big-picture story, don’t feel like you need to be trapped into one narrative. You’re only looking at the next 15 years so it’s not like you’re stuck to this one path. I think it’s best to write out a few of these meta-narratives from different vantage points so that you see the diverse possibilities your entire identity can create. I encourage people to tell three very different stories spanning the next 15 years (including being in different cities or countries) and then either choose one or stitch various pieces together to create their best case scenario.
Finally, once you have the story down, you need to give it a little time to settle. You’re about to make some pretty big decisions (which we’ll look at in the next section on planning) so your heart and mind need some time to form an agreement. You don’t need too long—as that may lead to procrastination—but just long enough to make a commitment you can share with others and then act on. Some people will need to enter a season of experimentation to make sure they really want to invest along certain lines. This is a really healthy use of your time, especially if you’re going to build the next 15 years on that experiment. But again, whether you’re experimenting or diving in, you don’t want to spend too much time waiting for a confidence that will only develop once you gain some experience. Take your best shot and get moving. If necessary, you can diverge a bit on the way.