What can popular autobiographies teach us about living our lives?
Whilst writing up the analysis for my PhD, I noticed something interesting, soldiers who successfully negotiated killing in combat, had agency rich, powerful life narratives, in which they continually made meaning out of their experiences, adapting and changing their sense of self, and life purpose, in the face of new life challenges.
But let me back up a little, and put this into context.
My PhD was, in brief, an exploration into how soldiers made sense of, and ultimately accepted killing in combat, as part of their role within the milliary.( For more details, follow this link). To this end, I undertook a detailed examination of combat soldiers’ autobiographies. These autobiographies were rich, detailed, and filled to the brim with fantastic amount of details about soldiers’ life experiences in combat.But as I analysed these autobiographies I discovered something else: The soldiers had a very distinctive way of talking about not only their experiences, but how they made sense of these experiences. Naturally I began to wonder, is there a pattern for people who successfully overcome difficult, challenging, or just anticipated life transitions? If the answer was yes, could they be found in published autobiographies?
Let me share my insights from autobiographies, ranging from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s incredible life story, right through to the fascinating experiences of Navy SEALs.
- They don’t have much time for past mistakes.
I don’t mean they don’t acknowledge, accept and learn from past mistakes. Quite the opposite, the use these mistakes as a lesson, which fuels their ambition. What I mean is that they don’t dwell on the guilt, or shame associated with these mistakes. We know from counselling research, individuals can get stuck focusing on their mistakes made, allowing it to cripple them, and preventing them from pursuing a life that brings them positive well being. Often these individuals externalized the problem, meaning it became something that was not a part of them, and therefore, not something that was inherently wrong about themselves, but instead a negative outside force to be controlled and dealt with.
2. They have a coherent story.
In Narrative Identity Psychology, we know that individuals form an identity by integrating their life experiences into an internalized, evolving story of the self, providing the individual with a sense of unity and purpose in life. These experiences can mean taking challenges and obstacles as an important part of their story, with past experiences drawn on to give them the strength and wisdom to negotiate new challenges ahead. The combat soldiers I analysed did not always have experiences in combat that fit neatly into their understanding of their life purpose. Indeed they were often faced with morally dubious scenarios, and saw things which challenged their belief in the military as a force for good. But how they dealt with these experiences was truly insightful. Often, the soldiers saw these challenges as something they overcome, not something that plagued them. It made them stronger, helped them understand themselves better, and ultimately, helped them negotiate life outside of the military. As you might imagine, leaving the military after being in the infantry is not always easy, for a variety of reasons. But the soldiers saw this change as the next step of their lives. Some turned to healing, and saw this shift as balancing their life after being witness to violence, others took their experiences of overcoming great odds which enabled them to excel in the civilian world. In this way, life was not a messy split, or wasted time doing one career, before switching to another, indeed one part of their life, set them up for the next.
3. A Belief in the Self, or belief in God.
Arnold Schwarzenegger has a seemingly unwavering belief that he was meant to be great, this is something he shares with fellow actor Sly Stallone, and a range of successful individuals from our lifetime. They shared a belief in themselves which they protected from other people’s doubts, and scepticism. Despite failures which would signify the contrary, they pushed forward, never taking their eye off of their goal. But for every Arnie and Sly, there are less well known individuals who have a sense of purpose and well being. The reason for this is the ability to shape one’s own narrative. We are the author of our own narratives. Sure, we can’t control the events that happen to us, but what we can do is control how we reflect, make sense of and ultimately integrate those experiences into our story. Will that failure make you stronger? Or will you allow it to consume you?
Some individuals seek great comfort in feeling their life is guided by a higher being. One special forces individual I analysed believed that God had allowed him to survive the hardships of combat, and indeed take those experiences, to become a person that ultimately went on to heal others. In this way, a higher being may be looked upon to make sense of their life narrative. Whether the individual looks to themselves, or to a higher power, in both occasions they believe their story is coherent, and simply just ‘makes sense’.
Autobiographies can give us insight into how individuals weave a complex tapestry of their life experiences to form a coherent agency rich narrative. Some especially successful individuals, who you might inspiring (perhaps in your chosen field), may motivate you to reflect on your own life, and find unity and purpose in your own story. I encourage you to pick up a book from someone who has perhaps lived what you perceive to be an extraordinary life, and come out the other end seemingly full of joy, passion, or just a calm sense of well being, and see what you can learn from them.
Part two to follow…