You don’t know your own story until you’ve seen it through someone else’s eyes.
Trying to understand your own story as you’re living it is nearly impossible. In the moment, our lives feel like jumbles of chaos, and our emotions tempt us to panic if we haven’t yet hit our narrative peak. It’s much easier (and more emotionally centering) to understand our lives in retrospect, once the drama has faded and only the facts remain.
I’ve just discovered a way to simulate that experience as the story is unfolding.
The answer for me—which I’d imagine would work for every ambitious person—is to read memoirs.
I just read three: Will Smith’s, Andy Dunn’s (Bonobos founder), and Bobby Kim’s (The Hundreds). While it was inspiring to absorb their stories of success, the true benefits of the memoirs ran much deeper. Writing from three very different perspectives, and about three very different success arcs, these memoirists put a multifaceted mirror up to my own life, helping me see it in sharper detail.
If you’re an entrepreneur—or an aspiring one—here’s why you need to read memoirs:
1. It makes you realize you’re not alone. The journey of entrepreneurship is a lonely one. Entrepreneurs have higher than average rates of anxiety and depression, and we’re not very good at talking about it. As a result, we end up feeling like we’re the only ones going through this experience, and it’s a heavy burden to bear.
But the fact is, most entrepreneurs (and successful people in general) have gone through identical experiences of ambition, self-doubt, grit, and perseverance. Hearing it in someone else’s words doesn’t make the road to success any shorter, but it makes it less lonely. Narrative companionship, as I call it, goes a long way.
2. It gets you thinking about your own narrative arc. Writing is very important to me (I’ve been doing a lot of it lately). But often, when I sit down with a blank document and try to decide on the most important/resonant story to tell, I come up empty.
Solo writing can be like the sound of one hand clapping. By contrast, reading a memoir is like having a conversation with a mentor. The stories the writer tells activate memories that you may not have accessed recently, and that you wouldn’t have been able to recall without prompting.
Not only does this help you identify the pivotal moments in your life, but it helps you start the crucially important process of seeing your life as a narrative arc. Whether, like me, you plan to write it someday, or if you’re just hoping to create order from chaos, tracing your narrative arc is an extremely therapeutic process.
3. It helps you reframe your own experiences. Speaking of therapy, one of the most important elements of narrative therapy is reframing experiences that you tend to think of in a negative light.
I tended to think of my childhood experience in Kuwait as negative. It was a classist, racist environment, one in which my family and I had to fight for access and status. Years later, my therapist encouraged me to reframe, pointing out that it turned me into the ambitious, resilient person I am today.
Memoirs show how, with the right attitude, negative experiences are seeds that grow into positive traits, and ultimately, success. Bobby Kim grew up in East L.A., in an immigrant family, unsure of how he would fit into American culture. Because it didn’t come to him naturally, he had to find an active way in, and it set him down the road of becoming a respected illustrator and clothing designer.
4. It reminds you to be patient and play the long game. Social media has made it easier to compare ourselves to others—and it’s wreaking havoc on us. A recent survey showed that social comparison has significant negative effects on self-esteem and perceived social support.
The problem is thinking that someone else’s story should be our story. If we’re not finding the same levels or types of success as our heroes, colleagues, family, or friends, we must be doing something wrong.
The more memoirs you read, the more types of success stories you see, and the more you remind yourself that there’s no one “correct” way to be successful. True success means building; building takes time and patience. The long game—your long game—is the only story you should care about.
I encourage every entrepreneur to read as many memoirs as possible. Read both inside and outside your industry—life lessons come from all sources, and often the most impactful ones come from people outside our worlds.
And to make the process as active as possible, start to bullet out your own story as you read. Whether or not it leads to a memoir of your own, it will help you start seeing your story in narrative terms—an ordered sequence, not a chaotic jumble.