“A story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.”Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years
From Jesus to Jordan and Othello to Oprah, every extraordinary life story follows the same simple formula: “A character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.”
Life without all four parts of this story formula—character, desire, conflict, and resolution—will feel directionless. Other people or fate may come along and direct our lives’ stories for us, but then we risk being cast in a boring bit part at best.
To find direction in life and avoid being an extra in the background of someone else’s story, we have to be the directors. The cameras are on and there is no dress rehearsal, so let’s get started. As directors say in the movies, “Action!”
The Four-Part Formula to Finding Direction in Life
1. A Character…
Obviously, we’re the heroes of our life stories. But many of us make misguided messes of our characters by neglecting two nuances:
Your Character Is What You Do, Not What You Think
Meet James. He’s a 20-something self-described loser who wastes his life playing video games and watching porn (and, even worse, sometimes playing porn video games). Having mindlessly swallowed his last bottle of booze and crumb of crappy snacks, James shuffles to the nearest 7-Eleven to restock. Though he gave up on his own health long-ago, he still cares about the environment, so he brought a backpack for his purchases. But he forgot to zip it. It flaps open as if it’s sticking its tongue out at people behind him.
As James turns the last corner on his trek, a baby falls from the balcony above him. Miraculously, it lands in his open backpack. Aside from a few scratches, the baby’s fine.
Just like that, James is a hero.
The Lesson: Actions define our life stories’ characters. Nothing else.
We may think we’re imposters and losers all we want, but if we go out there and do heroic shit, even if by accident, we’ll be heroes. Nobody will believe otherwise. Keep acting that way and eventually we’ll believe it, too.
And vice versa. We can think we’re Superman or Wonder Woman. But if we sit around picking our outfits and waiting for the right moment to unveil our superhuman identities, we’re no better than pre-balcony-baby-into-backpack James.
Memorable Characters Are Complex
Imperfections and contradictions are what make memorable characters and better stories. James Bond is a debonair lady-killer and human-killer who also has serious ego issues and can’t find true love. Elsa is risk-averse, anxious, and self-doubting, but also loyal, protective, and creative.
So don’t worry about being flawless, hypocritical, or inconsistent.
Worry about the big picture…
2. …Who Wants Something…
What’s the point of your life story?
As storytelling master Brian McDonald puts it, a story without a point is like junk food. It may taste good but it’s ultimately unsatisfying and forgettable.
So we need a point. And we have to try to make our point with the way we live. It’s our personal mission statement that defines the “want” in the formula of, “A story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.”
These wants can evolve over time, but whatever they are, some things don’t change:
- It has to be something. A mission doesn’t have to be world-changing, prize-winning, or even local news-worthy. But it has to exist. If we don’t know what we want, we’re not going to get it. Babies don’t actually fall out of balconies into backpacks.
- It won’t be tangible. What we want isn’t anything we can touch. Think of Frodo from the Lord of the Rings. The ring wasn’t what he was after. The point of his story isn’t, “A little dude found a ring and tossed it in a volcano.” The point is, “Even humble little hobbits can do humongous things.”
- It’ll inspire us. It will “ignite our rage to master,” as psychologist Ellen Winner puts it. This fire under our asses makes life so engaging that we don’t need to vicariously live other people’s stories in movies or video games to escape from the boredom of our own.
- It’ll inspire others. Family, friends, and strangers will be inspired to step up and help us if our mission is clear and we show we want it. And we will inspire them to find and pursue their own, too.
- It won’t be easy to get…
3. …And Overcomes Conflict…
A story without conflict is more boring than a Barney episode. We can’t avoid it. We need it.
The Bigger, the Better
Author Jeff Olson said it best: “You can gauge the limitations of a person’s life by the size of the problems that get him or her down. You can measure the impact a person’s life has by the size of the problems he or she solves.”
To be clear, Olson is not talking about getting into a “Whose problem’s bigger?” contest. Life’s not a competition. The size of the conflict we take on is relative and personal. Measure it for yourself.
It Takes Time
“The difficult is what takes a little time; the impossible is what takes a little longer.”Fritjof Nansen
Patience is the unsung conflict most directionless people refuse to confront. We put off taking it on in favor of more exciting but ultimately dead-end adventures. Especially now with seductive stories of unicorn businesses and social media millionaires, and the ability to satisfy our urges at the click of a button, it’s hard to resist looking for shortcuts.
This is where wanting the right thing and having the “rage to master” come in. We need them to power through the tedium and uncertainty of our individual actions. Over time, these actions add up to form a meaningful story we’re proud of.
No Reward Necessary
We’re taught to live our lives like dragon-slaying, princess-laying princes. And sure the rewards of hanky-panky and swanky castle life are nice. But they aren’t enough. No reward is ever enough.
The only reward worth going after is the one we get from the act of pursuit in itself. That way, even if we slip and the dragon burns us to a crisp, or if the princess turns out to be a bitch, we don’t regret the effort we took to get there.
So focus on your direction, not the destination. That’s how you’ll get what you want out of life…
4. …To Get It
Life’s No Disney Movie (Luckily)
In case you weren’t paying attention to the previous steps on how to find direction in life, the “it” we’re after isn’t any physical thing or wonderful reward. We don’t get to enjoy some Disney-esque, plot-resolving, climactic scene before the credits roll at the end of our stories.
And that’s a good thing. Because what happens after we get “it”? Chase after something else? We all know that sequels are almost always worse than the originals.
“It” Is Transformation
The greatest success in life is to become the best we can possibly be. That transformation is “it” in the story formula. Because when we get “it,” our little life stories play a role in making the bigger story of humanity a good one.
As a rule in storytelling, characters don’t want “it.” They’re too scared or too complacent. That’s where the previous three parts of living a story come in:
If we stop thinking so much and act as complex characters, go after something worth wanting, and patiently and doggedly overcome obstacles in pursuit of it, we’ll get “it” along the way—whether we want to or not.
What’s Your Story?
“If you aren’t telling a good story, nobody thinks you died too soon; they just think you died.”Donald Miller
“A story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.” We can all find direction in life if we abide by the four components of that phrase. Every direction is different. What matters is that you make it and take it.
And, whatever your story is, it has already started. What are you waiting for?
Thanks to Jorge and Dave for their input on this post!
I was inspired to apply the four parts of a story find direction in life by one of my favorite “sledgehammer” books, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, by Donald Miller. Read it for more direction on how to fill your life with extraordinary stories.
And read the companion post to this one, 8 Rules for Living a Meaningful Life.
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