About two years ago, journalist Emily Esfahani Smith gave a TED Talk on what she had found to be the four pillars of a meaningful life: belonging, purpose, transcendance, and storytelling.
If you’re interested, you can watch the talk here.
While the entirety of Smith’s research is compelling, I found the fourth pillar — storytelling — most intriguing. According to Smith, storytelling helps people find meaning because it lets you create, edit and transform the story of your life. You’re the author of it all.
That means, on a more granular level, you’re also the author of your money story. And every time you have an interaction or make a choice involving money, you shape your story.
So, when you start getting pocket money from your parents. When you open your first bank account. When you get your first job. When you decide to start saving money. When you start paying rent and bills. When you take a trip overseas.
These are all tiny parts of the narrative you’re building, the story you’re creating.
The problem is we don’t always have the know-how to make mindful decisions. Beyond that, some interactions are out of our control. Sometimes, things just happen.
In other words, sometimes the story just writes itself.
Let’s say you decide you’re finally done living with housemates. You’re making decent money and you want to get your own little studio. Your rental application is approved! You move in and it’s as spectacular and as liberating as you thought it would be.
But you need a nice couch and television to set up your brand-new place. So, you put a little money, here and there, on your credit card. Then, a pipe bursts and you don’t have renter’s contents insurance. So you have to replace a few things out of your own pocket.
Before you know it, you’re $2,000 in the hole.
A few things in your control, a few things out of your control — but that’s your story.
And this is where storytelling comes in.
One of the most powerful things you can do is remember you have the ability to edit your story and transform the way it is told.
You take a figurative red pen and you look at where you might have gone wrong.
You ask yourself the important questions. Did you really need the couch? Did you really need the television? Should you have had renter’s contents insurance?
And when you have your answers, you edit your habits. You rework your budget so you can pay off your debt. You check yourself whenever you want to buy something you can’t afford. You revise the way you save money so you’re covered if there’s another little emergency.
That’s the editing process, in a nutshell.
When you’ve finished with your red pen, the final step is to transform the way your story is told. You can’t rewrite it, sure, but how you tell your story — to yourself — matters.
Do you tell yourself it wasn’t your fault?
Or do you tell yourself you were a young eager beaver and you made some mistakes you have since learned from?
Ultimately, the point of storytelling is that it’s all up to you. It’s your story. Your choices. Your narrative. And you can tell yourself whatever you want.
But it seems to me that the more you reflect on how you came to your financial position, and how your financial story may continue, the more likely you may be to make meaningful financial choices.