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Understanding Your BackStory

“Tell us about yourself.” 

Can you think of a more anxiety-provoking question? On one hand, it’s a softball question, right? Who else knows more about your own life than you? But, rarely does anyone answer this question in a clear, concise, or interesting way. Most people drag on for too long, telling way too many insignificant details. Others skip the most important, relevant parts (remember Seinfeld’s “yada, yada, yada”?). Rarely, if ever, do we get to hear someone talk about their life story that has an integrated narrative thread- a fancy way of saying it all makes sense. Why is it so rare to hear someone talk about themselves in an effective, memorable way?

I once heard a 20 year veteran Navy SEAL say, “I’d way rather be in combat getting shot at than to have to talk about myself in an interview.”

On one hand, we get the message while growing up that it’s not appropriate to talk about ourselves and grab the limelight. We can all think of someone who talks about themselves too much and is always trying to be the center of attention. Nobody wants to be ‘that guy’. Also, in our core, we all want to avoid humiliation, embarrassment, or shame at all costs. If we provoke attention, people will look at us, and we might be overwhelmed by their rejection. 

But mostly, none of us get taught how to talk about ourselves in an effective way that doesn’t make us come across as self-indulgent or narcissistic. We don’t get the opportunity to reflect on and understand our past, to process through to find or make meaning from our backstory, or the chance to practice telling our own story in a safe environment. 

Whether in a job interview, first date, cocktail party or in the stands at a Little League game, we all get asked to talk about who we are. The question comes in different forms, like "Where are you from?" Or, “So, what do you do?” No matter how it’s asked, the direction is the same- they want to hear about who you are and where you come from. Of course, you can answer with the town you were born in or the details about how you moved around a lot- but what do those answers really say about you?

People want to know who you are. They want to get a sense of where you come from, and how it's shaped your life. They want to understand the key events and moments that have had a lasting impact on who you are, and who you’re becoming. They want to hear about obstacles you’ve overcome, and failures you’ve pushed through. 

For most people, it takes time to figure out how to talk about yourself. There’s no formula, and no one else can script the answer for you. You have to do the process first.

Also, you can’t start writing a meaningful story with your life until you make sense of where you come from and how it’s shaped you. Even the most boring backstory is still complex. If you explore your past and get to know your backstory, a few important things happen:

  • Clarified Direction: you’re able to see where your life is headed and the path that you’re on- it’s called trajectory. When you’re a teen, it’s important to make a series of decisions that will influence the direction your life takes. Most students don’t take the time to think about the overarching path they’re on already. No one invents their life from thin air- we all come from a people, a place, and a set of circumstances that are already influencing where we’re headed. The more we see the thread of meaning in our backstory, the more we’ll be able to see how that thread plays out. 
  • Social Capital: you’re able to tell your story in a more compelling way, become more persuasive, & become someone others can trust and count on. Storytellers always win- they are more likable, sociable, and influential. Many people assume that being an effective storyteller is an innate gift- some have it and some don’t. Rather, good storytellers are made- they think about their life through the lens of story, and they practice telling stories a lot. The more they do, the more feedback they get and the more effective they become. 
  • Wellbeing through Integration: you’re able to heal from past wounds so they fuel who you become rather than act as anchors. A core therapy model practiced by thousands of therapists around the world asks clients to retell their past experiences and reflect on how they might connect. The model invites people to recall memories, especially divergent memories, and reflect on how they relate to each other. Our brains and bodies store memories inefficiently- all over the place- and in the process of telling our past stories we can find connections that we hadn’t previously made. That moment when you see a pattern or feel a connection is what most would call an insight or an ‘aha moment’. Internally, it’s our brains integrating stored memories together, becoming more efficient and effective at seeing patterns. It’s the foundation for mental health and wellbeing.
  • Stronger Agency: knowing your backstory will empower you to pick up the pen to write a life story that’s consistent with your true self. You won’t feel like life is happening to you, like you are at the mercy of events and circumstances thrown your way. You’ll see an overarching narrative structure to your life, and you’ll even recognize the decisions you made in your past, even unconsciously, determine what happened. The more you reflect on the past choices you made, the more you’ll realize in the moment that an inflection point is upon you. You’ll feel more confident that you are authoring your life story.

Doing a deep dive into your backstory will help you on many levels. You’ll be able to talk about yourself in a clear, compelling way. Other people will know who you are and know how to interact with you. You will integrate some divergent experiences and ideas from your past. You’ll have greater clarity for how to make better choices for your life. You’ll feel more confident in your own agency. 

[How do you guide a kid to more self-awareness? Check out this article]

What are the most critical conversations to have with your kids/students?
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For years we’ve been studying what a young person needs in order to transition into a healthy, thriving adulthood.  

They're uncommon sense ideas, really.

Download this checklist and use it with your students (or kids).

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