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 was fairly simple: You had been shipwrecked on a deserted 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 this kind of “choose your own adventure” story was that although it 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 would lead me to safety.
Many people live their lives with a similarly anxious, right-wrong mindset. The promise 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, many people fear making the wrong moves and dooming themselves to a tragic ending — as if there were only two possible resolutions to every 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.
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But life is rarely this simple, 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 staying 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.
There are infinite ways to tell the same story, and how you tell yours affects the way you feel about yourself — which can influence how your life unfolds. After all, the world is far more receptive to a person humbled and strengthened by challenges, rather than one who is bitter about having to face them (or, worse, anxious for always trying to avoid them).
Instead of seeing a difficult episode in your life as a waste of time, identify specific ways you have grown by asking yourself these questions:
• Because of this experience, what did I learn about life/myself/relationships that I didn’t know before?
• In what specific ways have I gotten stronger… or maybe even softer?
• Do I feel more empathy toward others who’ve been through similar experiences?
Take time to digest your answers, possibly writing them down or discussing them with someone. This will help you change the way you tell the story of the experience, not just to others but to yourself.