It's Not Whether You Win or Lose But How You Tell Your Story

By finding meaning in the challenges we face, we create our own happy endings

Posted Apr 04, 2017

Tyler Seeberger/Creative Commons
Source: Tyler Seeberger/Creative Commons

When I was young, one of my favorite books was Sugarcane Island, which was the first “choose your own adventure” type of interactive book. The premise of Sugarcane Island was fairly simple: You had been shipwrecked on a deserted and dangerous island. The goal was survival and finding your way home. At the end of each chapter was a list of possible choices. Whichever one you chose determined your fate in the next chapter.

The problem with the “choose your own adventure” stories was, although the story could end in one of many possible scenarios, I always felt a lot of anxiety. In Sugarcane Island, I could make “good” choices, leading me back to civilization, or “bad” choices, where I’d be swallowed by quicksand or eaten by cannibals. Obsessed with making the “right” choice, so I wouldn’t wind up on an island native’s dinner plate, I read ahead and memorized all the decisions that got me back safely. Of course, once I knew all the safe choices, the book got boring, and I moved on to the next story in the series.

Many people live their lives with a similarly anxious, right- wrong mindset. The promise of childhood and of fairy tales is that we will survive our trials to live happily ever after. But we know not every story ends wrapped in a bow. Faced with constant choices in a precarious world, many people fear making the wrong moves and dooming themselves to a tragic ending, as if there were only two possible resolutions to every conflict and story. The problem with this thinking is that success is defined narrowly based on a limited set of criteria — in essence, do you get off the island or don’t you? In addition, each result is interpreted the same way: getting off the island is always right, and staying is always wrong.

But life is rarely this cut-and-dried, and our perspective can change how we regard what happens. Had my sojourn on Sugarcane Island been framed as a learning opportunity, I might not have been so worried about “getting it right.” For instance, what if I had been asked to assess what important life lessons I had gleaned or survival skills I had accrued from each choice, or even been presented with the option of writing my own ending? Perhaps I might have even considered remaining on the island a “right” ending — if that meant befriending the natives or establishing a peaceful coexistence with them. 

While everyone naturally seeks happy endings, we can’t always control the plotline of our lives. Even if events unfold in unexpected or undesirable ways, we can still mine our stories for a silver lining, identifying enriching experiences and important lessons to carry into the future.

One way we can do this is to look at each challenging episode in our lives as a chapter and actually name it something…for example, “Adventures in Unemployment” (having a sense of humor can be very helpful). When people become depressed, it is usually because they mistake one or more difficult chapters in their lives for the entire plotline. Naming the chapter helps you zero in on the meaning while subtly suggesting that it has a discreet beginning and end.

Take the 2006 Blockbuster, "The Pursuit of Happyness." The true rags-to-riches film chronicles exactly 28 chapters in the life of Chris Gardener, a suddenly single father who battles homelessness and ridiculous odds to earn a coveted entry-level position at a major San Francisco brokerage firm. The genius of this film is that 27 of the chapters, wrapped into gritty little headings like "Locked Out," "Being Stupid," and "Riding the Bus," are about the "Pursuit" part of the equation. Only the last chapter, as the narrator points out, is entitled "Happiness."

If Mr. Gardener had gotten stuck in one of these chapters, misinterpreting his temporary difficulties as a never-ending story of struggle and victimization, he may have failed to muster the courage and resilience to succeed. Consequently, the film might have been called "Giving Up," and its message - that the seeds of happiness are often sown with toil - would have been lost.

Once you identified and named the chapter, consider thinking about yourself as the protagonist of that chapter, and reflect on how you’ve grown since it began. To give yourself a little emotional distance allowing for more objectivity, you might ask yourself questions about the protagonist. For example, what has the protagonist learned about him or herself, about life, or about the world? How has he or she become wiser because of the events that have transpired?

That way, instead of seeing a difficult episode in our lives as an unnecessary waste of time, or beating ourselves up for perceived mistakes, we might appreciate the progress we have made, even if it’s just getting to know ourselves more deeply. This can help us be kinder and gentler with ourselves, leaving us with a more optimistic outlook for the future.