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Rashi Goel

Stories are Self-fulfilling Prophesies (Part I)

The Festival by Grandma Moses
Reading Time: 7 minutes

This is the first edition of a two part series on personal storytelling.

Our shape shifting autobiography

We all share our personal histories with each other. Each time we share our story, we play a game of Chinese whispers with ourselves. With each narration, we move a few facts around, shift the meaning a little bit, and end up creating a new memory (of our story) for ourselves.

The next time we tell our story, we build off of this memory. This way, over multiple years and numerous narrations, the story we end up with differs from the one we started off with.

So which version of the story is the right one?

What remains constant? Do the facts that change even matter?

Is what we have forgotten important? Or is it a blind spot?

Could we, if we were to retell our story more strategically, change our reality?

Yes, we can. If we change the autobiography in our head, we can change the story we write next.

Two narrative arcs

Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams has developed a concept he calls “narrative identity.” He defines it as “an internalized story you create about yourself — your own personal myth”. Like myths, our narrative identity is made up of heroes, villains, keystone events, and adversity we have overcome.

McAdams has studied narrative identity over 30 years, and has concluded that all narratives boil down to two story arcs – Redemptive or Contamination.

McAdams’ research shows there are two arcs to our personal stories
  1. Redemptive stories transition from bad to good. People who tell such stories are more likely to be motivated to give back to society and nurture future generations. These people are able to find a gift, a learning or positive outcome even in the most dire of circumstances.
  2. Contamination stories transition towards bad. Such people tend to be more anxious and depressive. They are unable to find meaning in their lives and hence tend to think less about giving back to society.

This research proves that if we change a contamination story to a redemptive one, we can change our happiness levels. There cannot be a better example of this, than Viktor Frankl.

Viktor Frankl’s personal story arc

We might have heard of, or read Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning.

5 Things We Can Learn from History to Help us Deal with COVID 19 – Cloud  Solutions Group
Source: Google Images

He suffered inhuman levels of torture in the Nazi concentration camp. He could have contaminated his story and focused only on the (very real) suffering all around him. But instead, he identified a purpose for his life and immersed himself into it. That made all the difference between living and surviving with grace or perishing, broken and beaten.

Stories have a domino effect

Changing our narrative identity has a domino effect. This video illustrates this concept best. It is a must watch.

An inadvertent mistake changed the way this person thought about himself and this changed his life trajectory. Imagine what all we could change by changing our story consciously!

In this edition, I will discuss how we might go about consciously rewriting our story to make it more ‘redemptive’. By:

  1. Realizing there is no one truth – The Rashomon Effect
  2. Finding the themes
  3. Flipping the script

In the next edition, I will discuss ideas to protect our redemptive stories from becoming ‘contaminated’.

1.Realize there is no one truth – The Rashomon Effect

Oftentimes, we forget that we were not the only participant in our story. In fact, there are as many versions of our story as there are people.

Rashomon is a first of its kind thriller directed by Akira Kurosawa. The film begins with the murder of a samurai in a forest. Then all the characters – a monk, the wife, a bandit and the samurai (in spirit form), share their own versions of the murder.

Rashomon (1950) - IMDb

Each version is subjective, self-serving, contradictory and even manipulative.

The Rashomon effect is named after the film.

The Rashomon effect - Sketchplanations
Visualization of The Rashomon Effect

In the same way, different versions of our life story exist – we are all unreliable narrators of our own life.

And our narration is unconscious. To retell our life story with a redemptive lens, first, we have to become conscious of the story we tell about our self. Here is how we could go about it:

  • pretend we are sharing our life story on a podcast and record our self on video.
  • or write our story in the form of a novel, with each chapter covering 5 years of your life. (So if we are are 40yrs old, we will have 8 chapters).
  • be as long winded and detailed as possible. No censoring allowed.
  • jot down key milestones and experiences that have shaped us.

Second, activate the Rashomon effect – get versions of key milestones from different people.

  • limit to trusted friends and family. They will rarely will have poor intent. But their versions of our story will throw up many blind spots.
  • one good way to do this to is to pretend to be a podcast host and interview friends and family. Important to record it.
  • discuss our life in the third person. One, it will get family and friends to open up and speak frankly. And two, it will help us take an objective view of our story.

This will be important for us for step 2 – finding the themes.

2.Find the themes

The sum is greater than the parts. Through this exercise, we identify our victories, innate strengths and crystallize the themes we have lived.

For instance, we might remember the experience of a having a very strict math teacher as transformative because the high standards might have driven us towards excellence. If we see a pattern of such examples, we could conclude that we are spurred on by challenges. That is an autobiographical theme.

Once we start processing all the data we have collected, themes will reveal themselves to us, like lightening flashes. We can further process our story by asking ourselves ‘why did we do it that way’, ‘how did it makes us feel’, ‘and then what happened’, ‘why did we feel that way’.

Themes stay with us throughout our life. For instance, look at Grandma Moses. Her story shows that the most innocuous events end up becoming themes. She had wanted to paint since she was a child. She recollects, “I was along about 9 years old when my father said one morning at the breakfast table, ‘Anna Mary, I had a dream about you last night.’ ‘What did you dream, pa?’ ‘I was in a great, big hall and it was full of people. And you came walking toward me on the shoulders of men.’ As of now, I have often thought of that since.”

She lived her entire life as a farmer’s wife. Household duties kept her from painting. She finally took up painting at the ripe old age of 76 and achieved fame in a time when painters were mainly men.

The Festival: Reimagining Grandma Moses – Bennington Museum | Grandma Moses  | Vermont History and Art
The Festival by Grandma Moses

Things that gave us joy when we were children are hints of what we are good at. As Grandma Moses said, “[As a child] I used to like to make bril­liant sunsets, and when my father would look at them and say: ‘Oh, not so bad,’ then I felt good. Because I wanted other people to be happy and gay at the things I painted with bright colors.”

It is easier to find themes that are positive. But what if we find themes that are not so positive? We flip them.

3.Flip the script

We are the writer, editor, and raconteur of our own story. Now that we have different versions of our story, we can make, as McAdams says, “narrative choices.”

This is not a deep emotional exercise, but a simple edit job of combining all the best versions to craft the best version of our story. Remember, we are rewriting our story, not the emotions. As Eckhart Tolle says, “Emotion in itself is not unhappiness. Only emotion plus an unhappy story is unhappiness”.

We can actively flip our unhappy stories and only focus on the gift we gained out of it. For instance, I suffered from ill health in childhood. So I was not very sporty. Instead of focusing on the sports experience I lost out on, I instead started celebrating all the time I had to read fiction! And reading has become a lifelong gift from this phase.

Even making smaller story edits to our personal narratives can have a big impact on our lives. Few tips on how to rewrite our story:

  • Find the gift in the unfortunate events
  • Find our flow – what what we were naturally good at, and enjoy
  • Notice opportunities that came easily
  • Notice victories and what led us to them

Once we have flipped our story, even small tweaks towards a more redemptive story arc will make a world of difference, we have to make sure we don’t ‘contaminate’ our story going forward. We explore that in the second edition of this newsletter, next time.

Until then, stay inspired!

Our brains are addicted to stories

Stories are not limited to bed time fairytales; nor are they the exclusive domain of career storytellers in Hollywood, Bollywood, or Netflix. In fact, they are an essential part of a marketer’s toolbox.

Read my latest essay on why stories work the way they do in our brains, here.