I’m working on a new project, and I’d like your help. It’s about how we all navigate the unexpected disruptions, transitions, and turning points in our lives. I’ve faced a few of these defining challenges myself in recent years, and I’ve become curious how others get through them. In the 20th century, we spoke of lives as linear. Now we know better. Our lives take all different shapes. I’m fascinated by how we adjust the narratives of our lives to accommodate the new realities we face and live with meaning, purpose, and joy.
That’s where you come in. The heart of this project is a series of life stories I’m gathering. I’d love to hear yours. If you’d like to share your story (or learn more about how this is done), please click here. If you’d like to receive our free newsletter, with stories, strategies, and suggestions, please enroll here. If you’d like to join the conversation, please follow me on Facebook and Twitter. You can also email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, if you’d prefer to browse, I’ll be posting here regularly.
Until then, as the Italians say, everyone has a wolf in their fairy tale, a challenge they’re struggling to overcome. You’re not alone. There is a way out of the woods. Together, let’s find it.
“A high point of my life was when my youngest son was Bar Mitzvahed. Seeing my whole family up there on the Bima, as well as Mark’s family. We had a lot of issues, Mark and I, about the Jewish stuff. My family totally embraced all this wonderful Jewish history and has been very supportive, even though they were WASPs and I was raised without any religion. But his family was very unhappy with his choice to marry someone who wasn’t Jewish. His dad died without ever being able to accept it, which I have struggled to understand because I felt like I was doing everything I could. It wasn’t until that Bar Mitvah that his mom finally realized I was serious about raising my kids Jewish. I think maybe part of her didn’t believe till then. That’s one of the reasons it was such a magical moment. It was a merging of the families.”
When I was going through chemotherapy eight years ago, I went through extreme lows for about ten days, during which I bottomed out and could barely leave my bed, followed by gradually regaining my strength for another ten days, before going back to be walloped in the next round. I described this brutal, three-week schedule in a letter to friends. An old girlfriend emailed me: “Wow, those up cycles must be so beautiful. I bet you really appreciate life during those times.”
“Yeah,” I wrote back, “but there’s also laundry to fold and sinks to unclog.”
Though I didn’t know it at the time, unclogging my sink may have been even better for my recovery that oohing and aahing over the sunset. It’s what psychologists call a personal project.
First coined by Cambridge personality psychologist Bryan Little, a personal project is a task, a plan, or an aspiration we would like to do in our lives. A project can range from the trivial – “cleaning out the cat litter” – to the profound – “curing hunger.” It can be solo – “run a marathon” – or communal – “take the kids to Niagara Falls.”
After decades of research and scores of studies, Little has found a direct correlation between the personal project we pursue and our ability to flourish. “As our personal projects go, so does our sense of well-being,” he writes in Me, Myself, and Us.
Take cleaning out the cat litter. Sounds mundane, but if you’ve just had your hip replaced, it feels like a milestone.
Research involving thousands of subjects has shown that people keep a running tally of around 15 personal projects in their lives at any one time. The single most popular is “losing weight,” followed by “stop procrastinating” and “write a book.” (Call me, if that’s on your list!) But the range is vast. Some examples:
- Work – “Prepare next year’s budget.”
- Interpersonal – “Have dinner with Sally.”
- Maintenance – “Buy more printer cartridges.”
- Recreational – “Take a cruise.”
- Intrapersonal – “Try meditation.”
Some projects, it turns out, are better than others. Interpersonal projects are more likely to make us feel happier and fulfilled, Little has found. If you want to feel better, make sure at least one of your projects involves a friend or loved one.
Also, the way we phrase our personal projects has an impact on their success. Projects that are worded as direct actions, such as “lose ten pounds,” are more likely to succeed that those that are phrased as goals, “try to lose weight. “Trying personalities” should try to rephrase – er, should rephrase – their personal projects as distinct actions.
In my Life Story Interviews, I’ve started asking the question, “What are three personal projects on your plate?” The question comes near the end of the interview, when we turn to the future. The answers have been surprising, even inspiring. Planning for the future is a sure sign of optimism and plowing forward.
What about you? What three personal projects do you have right now?
“What Shape Is Your Life?” I’m gathering life stories and would love to hear yours. These interviews are part of a new project I’m working on about life transitions, how we navigate them, and how we turn the unexpected ups and downs into opportunities for re-invention and rejuvenation. To learn more, to share your story, or to nominate someone you think has made interesting life transitions, please click here, or send me at email at email@example.com. To keep up with the project, including blogs and excerpts of the stories I’ve gathered so far, please sign up for my newsletter.
“I remember discovering a copy of Everything You Always Want to Know About Sex: But Were Afraid to Ask, which is this horrible book when you approach it as a young gay kid, because homosexuality is described as unhealthy, cross- dressing. Just this bizarre opinion about what gay life was. And I remember looking at it and thinking, This is not what I want to be when I grow up. I was having this tug of war between what I knew to be true about myself and what this guy said my life is going to be. So, when I get to my teens, and I’m being educated by Benedictine monks, who are celibate, it dawns on me that celibacy is the answer. I could ignore this issue for the rest of my life and live a life of intellectual rigor and inquisitiveness. All sorts of doors seemed to open with the notion of being a monk. I started exploring and decided that I had the religious vocation to be a monk. So, after high school, I went and joined a monastery.”
I’d like to hear your life story. Here’s why:
In recent years, I’ve had a number of unexpected pivots in my life – from life-threatening cancer to financial uncertainty to family crisis. Sure, I knew that all these things might happen. But l didn’t expect them to happen to me, at least how they happened and especially when they happened. My life was supposed to take a predictable path. Now that path had disappeared.
I soon discovered I wasn’t alone. Everyone I knew was struggling with one defining challenge or another – from failing relationships to failing industries, from lost limbs to lost homes, from switching religions to switching genders. The world, it seems, is full of disruption, disorder, chaos. Change, once a break in the normal, has become the new normal.
And it’s not going away. If anything, the unease we’re all feeling is part of a larger transition.
In recent years, our understanding of how we all live has changed dramatically. We used to see human lives as rigid, full of fixed traits and unchanging identities, proceeding along predictable timetables. Now we know better. Everyone’s life is different, full of its own unique twists, pivots, peaks, and wobbles.
I’m trying to understand how we make sense of all this. Specifically, I’m undertaking a new project to figure out how we survive theses fluctuations. How we adapt and update our life stories to accommodate so many unexpected interruptions. Everyone’s got them, yet some people seem to navigate them more easily. How?
The heart of the project is a series of life stories I’m gathering – scores of them, from all walks of life and ages. I’d like to hear yours. Really. Or, if you’d prefer, please recommend someone who’s got a great story to tell.
The Life Story Interview I’ve designed takes about two hours and can be done in person or via Skype. If you’d like to participate, or if you have any questions, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, if you’d just like to browse some of the stories we’ve collected and lessons I’ve learned, check out my blog, or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn.
In the meantime, thank you for reading, sharing, and joining. And tell me: What shape is YOUR life?
“I had the good fortune of having this amazing teacher on my first day of school in America. Her name was Ms. Pinsin. She was this lovely African-American teacher at Stone Elementary School in Greenville, South Carolina.