In the course of his research, Dan McAdams has found that everyone has a story — but summarizing an entire life isn’t easy. To facilitate the process, he has created an interview format that encourages his subjects to share the most important moments from their past. To construct your own life story, follow this condensed version of McAdams’ script (he suggests you try this exercise with a friend or relative, taking turns talking and listening). By the end, you’ll probably find that your life truly is a great story.
Step One: Life Chapters
Think of your life as if it were a book. Divide the story into chapters (at least two or three, and at the most seven). Give each chapter a name and briefly summarize the contents. Think of this as the overall outline of your story.
Step Two: Critical Events
For the next section, think about key events in your life — specific moments rather than experiences that play out over days or months. For each of the following events, describe what you were feeling or thinking, who was involved and what this event says about you as a person:
- Peak Experience: A moment when you experienced extremely positive emotions. It should be one of the best scenes in your memory.
- Nadir Experience: A low point in your life story, a moment when you felt despair, guilt or pain.
- Turning Point: An episode where you underwent a major change, especially a moment that was a turning point in your understanding of yourself.
- Earliest Memory: The earliest memory for which you are able to identify what happened, who was involved and what you were thinking and feeling.
- Important Childhood Scene: A memory that stands out as particularly significant. What does it say about who you are or who you were at the time?
- Important Adolescent Scene: An event from your teenage years that is especially important or significant.
- Important Adult Scene: A specific event from the adult years that stands out.
- One Other Important Scene
Step Three: Life Challenge
Looking back over the various scenes, describe the single greatest challenge you have faced in your life. How did you handle it? How has it impacted your life story?
Step Four: Characters
Describe the people who had the greatest positive and the greatest negative influence in your story. (Think of them as the heroes and villains of your book.)
Step Five: The Future
First, describe a positive future: what you would like to happen in the rest of your life story (be as realistic as possible). Then, describe a negative future: something that could happen but that you hope does not happen.
Step Six: Life Theme
Looking back over your entire life story, can you see a central theme, message or idea? What is the major theme of your life story?