You are a creator. As another creator, I salute you. What have I created? A few books? This article? Leadership courses?
What We Create
I have created something much more far-reaching in my life: my story.
I am male. I am fifty-five. I am American, with Spanish and Hungarian ancestry. My parents divorced when I was five. I grew up with a physically abusive step-father and spent a lot of my childhood reeling from family trauma, with low self-esteem related to what was happening at home. I learned the most important values that have guided my life while living for three years as a community development worker in rural Africa.
As I learned to trust and become confident in myself over the years, I became very intrigued by the social connection that had been so elusive in my life growing up. I research, write and teach about social connection, including how leaders facilitate it to create organizations in which human beings can experience Compassionate, Meaningful, Sustainable Relationships (or what I call “CMSRs”) with others and thrive in their lives. I live and teach in Rome with my wife, who is Mexican, and our two children.
You also have your story.
You Never Controlled the Plot
Part of your story is that you are attached to the other characters who have helped you develop the plot. This is why you use the possessive adjective: “my mother,” “my child,” “my boyfriend (or girlfriend or husband or wife),” “my friend,” “my brother.” Since your personal identity is interwoven with these other characters, their behavior is very important to you, as it exerts a lot of influence on your story.
You are also attached to specific objects—“my car,” “my house,” “my clothes,” “my books”—even though they have never brought you much happiness. Each time you have finally owned one of these objects, you have realized that you are still stuck with yourself—desperately alone with only your story to keep you company.
Research has found that, once you have a base level of financial resources, experiences, rather than objects, are the drivers of happiness. Why? Because experiences (“doing” something with others, such as going to a restaurant or a concert) are more often shared—helping us evolve from our stories with others through our CMSRs—while objects (“having” something such as a new shirt or gadget) are most often enjoyed alone, leaving us embedded in our memories of our past relationships—our stories.
It is true that you created your story and you are the only one who can change it. Yet it is not true that you can change the other characters. You’ve likely spent many years trying. It was a full-time job that supplemented your other full-time job of attempting to be you.
Your only option if you do not wish to go through life in a constant state of anxiety and stress about the other characters in your story is to finally accept them as they are. To stop blaming them for being them as best they know how—rather than you-as-them-if-you-were-them, which you never were and, for this reason, never really worked for them.
Step onto the Balcony
If you are like most of us, you have probably not yet made this transformative decision. You have likely spent most of your life preoccupied with the comings and goings and machinations and preferences of the other characters, instead of seeing them as they are: as other human beings who enter and exit your stage—your story—throughout your life.
To transcend the perpetual drama that is your story, then, the first step is to step off stage and onto the balcony, and observe yourself on stage, in the middle of your story, interacting with the other characters.
We are the only animals with such stories. We feel guilt, worry, anxiety, even depression, because of our fixation on our story—especially on the gap between how we wish our story evolved versus how it actually has. Dogs, cats, ferrets and rhinos do not feel all these complex emotions based on the complex plot-lines of their previous social encounters, or their fears about how they will navigate future social encounters. They just live.
We Think Social
We have risen to the top of the food chain thanks to our highly evolved social cognition, our ability to read others and develop social groups larger and more elaborate than any other animal’s. Our social forte, however, has also become our social albatross: we over-think past the point at which ideation becomes rumination—all about our social relationships. The story.
This has been proven—when we set down a task or take a break and “relax,” our minds think about one thing more than any other: our social relationships. Our story. In other words, our default cognitive mode, or what neurologists call our “default network,” is social.
To Truly See Another
How can you release yourself from the hold your story has over you? When you transcend the drama of your story, you will also begin to develop an all-consuming love for humanity. Since no specific characters in your story have to influence you at the level at which you’ve become accustomed, you begin to also see other characters to whom you had previously paid little or no attention.
The person who cleans your home or serves you a meal; the gas station attendant; the person you pass in the park whom you do not make eye contact with, causing her or him to feel wie Luft behandeln, which in German means “to be looked at as though air” and, as a clever recent study has found, to afterwards feel more disconnected from others; the homeless person whom you walked by before because he was not “yours”—you always said “my brother” to your brother, but never “my homeless person” to the homeless person—all of these human beings suddenly seem more important to you in the broader purview you now have of your life.
If no one belongs to you, then perhaps everyone—including you—belong to something greater than you. Something more magnificent than anything you have ever felt connected with. Something that makes you feel distinctly human and gives you the profound, ineffable feeling that you are reaching your potential as a human being.
Three Story Options
I invite you to make a life-transforming decision. There are three story options: First, to determine whether you will exist in the story you inherited. Second, to live in the story you create. Third, to transcend and live as free of these stories as possible.
The third option can enable you to live in a new reality in which your connection with other human beings in the present becomes more significant than the story you have elaborately narrated to yourself for a lifetime about “the ones that got away”—the previous social relationships that passed through the four natural processes of human social interaction: birth, growth, decay and death.
(The few CMSRs in your life that have weathered the years and are still growing are what I call your “social gold.” Truth be told, they keep you alive. Appreciate them rather than ruminating about those relationships that are no longer. Renew them if it’s what you desire and is possible—usually it isn’t—otherwise let them go and make room for the new.)
It is possible that it is first necessary to choose the second option—to create a new story—before you can arrive to the third option, in which you transcend the new story and become more interconnected with humanity.
The new story is like a stick that you tie to a small tree that enables you to process the past and greet the future with an open heart. Once you truly embrace this new collective space, you can throw away the stick and allow the tree—the third option in which you live beyond the encroaching tentacles of your stories—to grow.
Once you truly enter this new approach to loving and feeling compassion for all others—each struggling to work through, and possibly transcend, their own story—you will realize that the major conflict in your life has never been, as you always believed, between good and bad. It has always been between the truth and the lies you have told yourself for a lifetime.
From one creator to another, I wish you well on your journey.
Anthony Silard, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Leadership and the Director of the Center for Sustainable Leadership at Luiss Business School in Rome and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Monterrey Institute of Technology (Tecnológico de Monterrey). Anthony is a world-renowned leadership educator whose research focuses on emotion, leadership, loneliness and trauma. His latest book is Screened In: The Art of Living Free in the Digital Age. Anthony’s blog, videos, courses and podcasts are available at www.theartoflivingfree.org .