The book, written by New York Times’ Bestselling author Bruce Feiler, is based on 225 life stories that the author gathered including different ages, backgrounds, and walks of life.
Feiler asked this people to “tell the story of their lives in fifteen minutes“, and specifies that all answers took more than an hour. He also included two key questions during these interviews: ‘what was the ‘central theme’ of their lives?‘ And ‘what shape embodies their lives?‘. Then, he spent a year building a massive database and coding each story for fifty-seven different variables, which he outlines in the book.
The thirty main takeaways I got out of this book are:
Stop for a second and listen to the story going on in your head. It’s there, somewhere, in the background. It’s the story you tell others when you first meet them; it’s the story you tell yourself when you visit a meaningful place, when you flip through old photographs, when you celebrate an achievement, when you rush to the hospital… How you tell that story – are you a hero, a victim, lover, warrior, caretaker, believer – matters a great deal. How you adapt that story – how you revise, rethink, and rewrite your personal narrative as things change, lurch or go wrong in your life – matters even more.
The key hypothesis presented in the book is: a) the linear life is dead; b) the nonlinear life involves more life transitions; and c) life transitions are a skill we can, and must, master.
The Italians have a wonderful expression for how our lives get upended when we least expect it: lupus in fabula. Fabula means ‘fairy tale’. The fabula is the fantasy in our lives, the ideal version, our lives when everything is going right. Lupus means ‘wolf’. The lupus is trouble, the conflict, the big, scary thing that threatens to destroy everything around it. Our actual lives, in other words. Lupus in fabula means ‘the wolf in the fairy tale’. The Italians use it as the equivalent of speak of the devil. Just when our fairy tale seems poised to come true, a wolf appears.
Embracing the Nonlinear life – a hallmark of our time is that life is not predictable. It does not unfold in passages, stages, phases, or cycles. It is nonlinear – and getting more so every day. It’s also more manageable, more forgiving of missteps, and more open to personalization, if you know how to navigate the new outbreak of twists and turns… we should acknowledge that our lives are nonlinear. Just as the cyclical life was replaced by the linear life, the linear life is being replaced by the nonlinear life… Nonlinearity suggests that instead of resisting upheavals and uncertainties, we should accept them. Ours is not the only life that seems to be following its own inscrutable path. Everyone else’s is, too.
In 1961, a middle-aged meteorologist named Edward Lorenz at MIT observed the irregular pattern of clouds outside his office. Lorenz developed the concept of the butterfly effect. The idea is that weather is not regular and periodic; it is irregular and aperiodic. Tiny influences in one part of the system can transform the outcome in other parts. As Lorenz memorably asked in the title of a 1972 paper: ‘Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?‘
The Deck of Disruptors – a disruptor is an event or experience that interrupts the everyday flow of one’s life… Disruptors are simply deviations from daily life. The parallel to a deck of cards is irresistible, so the author named this list life’s deck of disruptors. He further divided the list into the five story lines that emerged in his conversations as the shared fabric of personal identity: love, identity, beliefs, work, and body (see page 53)… Disruptors at different age stages – the author finds absolutely no evidence of any bump in major life disruption between thirty-five and forty-five. Instead, these disruptors can happen whenever (see graphs in pages 68-70).
How many disruptors will I face? – the answer is the final rule of disruptors: more than you think. Through an interesting approach and calculation (page 71), the author concluded that the total number of disruptors the average adult faces is between thirty and forty. This implies that the average person goes through one disruptor every 12-18 months… So we are all comparing to an ideal that no longer exists and beating ourselves up for not achieving it.
The good news out of living life out of order – of surviving the fifty-two card-pick up craziness of the deck of disruptors – is that we are freed from the shackles of expectations, whether they come from our parents, our neighbors or ourselves. The should train has slowed. Each of us can make our choices and decide what brings us peace… The bad news is that it can be more difficult. Faced with limitless choice, we choose none. We get writer’s block trying to write our won story. The difference between success and failure – between a life of fulfillment and a life of frustration – is how well you manage the challenge of making meaning in your life. Fortunately, there is a growing body of know-how to make that process easier.
Lifequakes (what happens when the big ones hit) – every now and then – and for many of us more frequently than that – we get hit by a blunter, more explosive force of change. These are the signature events that shape or, more accurately, reshape our lives, often in ways we can’t imagine and with an intensity we can’t control. These are the wolves that upend our fairy tales… A lifequake is a forceful burst of change in one’s life that leads to a period of upheaval, transition, and renewal… One out of eleven disruptors becomes a lifequake.
What do these events have in common? The author (page 80) identifies two variables: personal versus collective and voluntary versus involuntary. Personal means something that happens to you individually (a career change, a health crisis, losing your home), while collective is an event that happens to you along with many others; it could be your neighborhood, your community, your country, or larger (a recession, a war, a natural disaster). The author found that 87 percent of lifequakes were personal, 13 percent collective… Voluntary means that the person initiated the change (having an affair, switching jobs, changing religions), while involuntary means that it happened to you (your spouse has an affair, your house burns down, you’re fired). Forty-three percent of our lifequakes were voluntary, 57 percent involuntary. Overall, 38% are personal-voluntary, 49% personal-involuntary, 5% voluntary-collective, and 8% involuntary-collective (lifequake matrix in page 81). The fact that personal, involuntary lifequakes are by far the most common is a reminder that the nonlinear life is, at its core, not something most people seek out. We prefer to think we control the trajectory of our lives; the reality, unfortunately, is far more tenuous.
The fact that voluntary-collective lifequakes are such a small percentage is more evidence that people are more fixated on their own life stories these days than becoming a part of larger social narratives. People still engage with causes. Movements like BLM, Lean In, interfaith relations, and the Tea Party did come up, but more as everyday disruptors than earth-shattering reorientations. For better or worse, we live in a time when most of our societies start with I not we.
How disruptors become lifequakes – the first is timing. The disruptor falls at the end of a long string of disruotors; it’s the last straw. Also, disruptors seem to clump together, so there is a confluence of destabilizing events that collectively create even more instability. Finally, lifequakes are sometimes massive, messy, and often miserable. They come at inconvenient times that usually make them more inconvenient. But they also do something else: they initiate a period of self-reflection and personal reevaluation. They set in motion a series of reverberations that lead us to revisit our own identity. They force us to ask what we don’t ask often enough: What is it that gives me meaning and how does that influence the story of my life?
What kind of person do I want to be? What story do I want to tell? What gives me meaning? The father of the meaning movement, Viktor Frankl, was born in Vienna. Freud was born there as well. Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, has gone on to sell over twelve million copies… The ABC of meaning – A is agency (autonomy, freedom, creativity, mastery, the belief that you can impact the world around you), B is belonging (relationships, community, friends, family, the people that surround and nurture you), and C is cause (a calling, a mission, a direction, a purpose, a transcendent commitment beyond yourself that makes your life worthwhile.
The three strands of our narrative identity – our me story (the one in which we are the hero, the doer, the creator, we exercise agency and, in return, feel fulfilled); our we story (the one in which we are part of a community, a family, a team; we belong to a group and, in turn, feel needed); and our thee story (the one in which we are serving an ideal, a faith, a cause; we give of ourselves to others and, by extension, feel part of something larger). It turns out that we all have all three of the ABC of meaning within us – and all three of these personal stories. What’s more, we are constantly weighting and reweighting these elements in response to life events.
An autobiographical occasion – the term autobiographical occasion was coined by sociologist Robert Zussman to describe the moments in our lives when we are summoned, or required, to provide accounts to ourselves. He mentioned job, school, and credit applications; confessions, both religious and criminal; reunions of various sorts; therapies of various sorts; and diaries… An autobiographical occasion is any moment when we are encouraged or obliged to reimagine who we are. It’s a narrative event, when our existing life story is altered or redirected in some way, forcing us to revisit our preexisting identity and modify it for our life going forward.
Many of the autobiographical occasions mirror the building blocks of meaning… Some of these adjustments are acts of belonging… Some of these storytelling adjustments are acts of cause… The occasion of a lifequake is an occasion to reimagine your life story. It is an autobiographical occasion, the second of the major aftershocks.
The essence of chaos is self-organizing… Chaos is nature’s creativity in the face of constant change… We’ve become accustomed in recent years to the language of resilience, and to the idea that after a massive interruption we revert to the norm. We bounce back, return to our former lives, become ourselves again. All those expressions imply that after a big life disturbance, we eventually go to the person we were before. That kind of linear rebound does happen in some cases. But far more frequently, we actually move into new directions. Instead of going back to where we were before, we go sideways, forward, or some unforeseen place entirely. Shape-shifting, in other words, is nonlinear, just like every other aspect of the nonlinear life.
A transition is a vital period of adjustment, creativity, and rebirth that helps one find meaning after a major life disruption… Just as life is nonlinear, transitions themselves are nonlinear… Just as people live life out of order, they go through transitions out of order… The point is: stages rarely begin and end in a clear way – and that is perfectly normal. People go in and out of them in highly idiosyncratic patterns (see three stages of patterns image in page 148: long goodbye; new beginning; and messy middle).
Transitions are not simple or smooth. They are not straightforward or straight ahead. They are not predictable. Transitions take longer than what you think… The lifespan of a transition is five years… The issue is not how long transitions take, it’s how long we expect them to take. The burden is on us to adjust our expectations… We spend a huge percentage of our lives in transition. If you consider that we go through three to five lifequakes in our adult lives, and at least one lasts four, five, six years or longer, that could be thirty-plus years we spend in state of change. That is a halftime… There are seven groupings of tools for navigating life transitions. Collectively, they form the transition kit: accept it; mark it; shed it; create it; share it; launch it; and tell it.
Acceptance is difficult precisely because it involved drawing a line we usually don’t want to draw and entering a realm we usually don’t want to enter. But it’s also difficult for another reason: it never happens in isolation. It’s part of a larger stew of emotions that leaves us feeling inert when we go through times of change… Psychologists speak about negative visualization, where you imagine situations that are worse in order to help you accept the otherwise awful situation you’re in. In Option B, Sheryl Sandberg relates that after the sudden death of her husband, David Goldberg, her friend Adam Grant asked Sandberg how the situation might have been worse. “Worse?” she asked. “Are you kidding? How could this be worse?” His answer: “David could have had the same cardiac arrhythmia driving your children.” Sandberg says she found his answer helpful in reframing.
At its foot, fear is positive. Being afraid triggers a series of physical reactions – rapid heartbeat, flushed skin, adrenaline – that help save us from peril. Face-to-face with a lion, we know we must fight for flee. “Fear is good,” said the screenwriter Steven Pressfield. “Fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.” There are three primary ways people describe coping with sadness: resignation (begrudging acceptance, like so much of life today, is not linear, and returns at the most unexpected times); relationships (many people return to others in times of sadness); and radical honesty (fully admit their feelings – to themselves and to others)… From shame to sadness to fear, from overcoming your resistance to embracing the brutal facts of your situation, the first tool of transitions is to identify the circumstances you’re in and accept the emotions that come with this new state.
Mark it (ritualize the change) – people invent novel techniques to calm themselves down, assemble keepsakes to remind them of what’s lost, hold ceremonies to mourn the past. They create rituals – which is something of an old-fashioned word. There are four broad categories of rituals: personal (getting a tattoo, building an altar); collective (throwing a party, hosting a ceremony); name change (adding or subtracting a married name, adopting a religious name); and cleansing (going on a diet, shaving)… A ritual is a symbolic act, gesture, or ceremony that helps add meaning in times of transition.
Shed it (give up old mindsets) – most major religions include the idea that significant human breakthroughs include periods of disconnection and disorientation. Hindus call this phase forest dwelling; the Abrahamic faiths liken it to desert dwelling. Abraham goes forth into the unknown; Moses leads the Israelites into the wilderness; the Israelites are exiled to Babylon; Jonah disappears into the whale; Jesus goes into the dessert; Paul ventures on the road of Damascus; Muhammad retreats to the mountaintop… Ancient myths have the same trope: Oedipus heads into the unknown, as do Hercules, Jason, Perseus, Achilles, and Odysseus. The same happens later on to Benedict, Antony, Buddha, Machiavelli, and Dante. Classic fairy tales have similar theme: Little Red Riding Hood scampers into the scariness, as do Jack and Jill, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Jack up his beanstalk. Joseph Campbell called this leg of the hero’s journey crossing the threshold, when the hero leaves the ordinary world and embarks on an adventure.
We have to let go of old ways. How exactly do people do that? – the same way animals do. The biological process of molting is how animals routinely cast off their horns, hair, skin, fur, feathers, wool, even gonads. Snakes shed their skin, birds shed their feathers, crabs shed their shells, grasshoppers shed their entire exoskeletons. They do this because they are growing. They are undergoing a change in size, shape, season or maturity. They can’t achieve the new state without first casting off remnants of the old… The biggest category of things people relinquished in their transitions was parts of their personality… Like many aspects of life transitions, the act of shedding is fundamentally an act of adjusting your personal story. It’s a narrative event. It involves closing certain chapters in your life story in order to open a new one. That new chapter, as it happens, is built around one of the more exciting things I heard about: a period of breathtaking creativity.
Create it: try new things – at the moment of greatest chaos, people respond with creation… Individuals facing adversity often suffer from social exclusion, a sense of being ostracized from society, and feeling of being out of sync or out of touch with those around them. These attitudes, in turn, give these individuals more freedom to take risks, to experiment, to explore means of expression out of social mainstream...
Talent is insignificant – I know a lot about talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance… Central to the act of writing is a process of growth, of slowly gaining control of their narrative. On day one, participants tend to describe the event; by the last day, they give shape, context, and purpose to it. The act of writing speeds up the act of meaning-making.
Share it: seek wisdom with others – many of the tools for navigating transitions have an element of time built into them. They involve letting go of the past, marking the end of a life phase, beginning fresh initiatives, introducing your new story. But one of the elements that has no temporal element at all is sharing your story with others. It’s connecting with a friend, a loved one, a colleague, a stranger, a co-sufferer, a neighbor, or a mentor, and receiving, at exactly the moment you need it most, the feedback you most need… From naysayers to nudgers, comforters to slappers, outside voices play a pivotal role in our life transitions. They are Sancho Panza to our Don Quixote, Huck to our Tom, Laverne to our Shirley. They are co-narrators as we reframe and rewrite our life stories… They are confidants, the companions, and sometimes even the critics who inch us one step closer to finally achieving our new selves.
Launch it: unveil your new self – small wins, big changes, private rituals, public declarations are all part of the process of embracing the new beginning. They are incremental steps toward the largest task of all: revamping your story to yourself.
Tell it: compose a fresh story – this is updating your personal story… I used to be that. Then I went through a life change. Now I am this. Put some distance between the present and the past and use positive language. Also, tell your personal story in a way that maximizes its benefit by nailing the ending.
Five truths of transitions – they are becoming more plentiful; they are nonlinear; they take longer than you think (but no longer than you need); they are autobiographical occasions; and they are essential to life.
Each of our lives is a life story of its own. So learning to make meaning from your life stories may be the most indispensable but least understood skill of our time.