Using Feiler’s ABC’s Of Meaning To Tell Better Stories

Bruce Feiler had to deal with a rare cancer diagnosis, a complete career overhaul, and a suicidal father – all at the same time. He’s come out the other side intact with some fascinating views on and ways of explaining narrative psychology. We can apply these to our personal lives, our careers, and those we seek to serve.

When one story is finished, we can start a new one. When nothing is happening, we can invent a story. When too much is happening, we can narrow our focus to one story at a time. Keeping those stories going is how we keep purpose alive. Applied to our work, keeping our stories running is how we both create value and drive progress, from “once upon a time” to “the end,” over and over again.

Idling is a problem. Losing the plot is a problem. No story, no meaning. Even worse is when a story is passing us by and it feels meaningless, or worse, it feels hurtful. Bruce Feiler writes about narrative psychology. Years ago his father had become suicidal. At a loss for what to do, Bruce would email his dad a simple question like “tell me about the time you met mom,” and miraculously, his dad started to reply. One question and one story a day. One prompt and one message of meaning. It slowly helped to pull his father out of the depths of his depression.

Feiler offers what he calls the ABCs of meaning. The ABCs are Agency (the power we have to make choices), Belonging (the people and communities we share our stories with), and a Cause (a purpose for getting from the beginning to the end). He applied the ABCs when he gave his father a restored sense of self, a role as father, and a purpose to share his stories. We can apply the same to our work.

In every experience we provide, we want to understand the story we’re telling and why it’s meaningful. We want to know what the sense of agency is we are empowering our clients with. We want to consider how being a part of the story links people together. We want a strong grasp on the cause, purpose, or action we are seeking to accomplish. If we approach every experience we are creating with these in mind, we can help build meaning and value into everything we do.

Stories are how we make sense of experiences to ourselves and talk about them with others. If we don’t have control, if we feel ostracized, and we don’t see a meaning, we’re either going to tell a bad story or none at all. Conversely, if a story is teed up for us to make a great decision, have it positively impact ourselves and our community, and do so in the name of a just cause, we’re going to want to tell everyone. The narrative matters, it’s up to us to help people tell the right story.

Check out Bruce Feiler’s interview with Jesse Hempel on the Hello Monday podcast and his book, “Life is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age.”

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