"It didn’t occur to me at the time, but it’s obvious now that in creating the fictional Don, I was creating the person I wanted to be, the person worth telling stories about. It never occurred to me that I could re-create my own story, my real life story, but in an evolution I had moved toward a better me."
What would happen if you wrote your life’s story and then rewrote it as fiction to tell a better story? In A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: How I Learned to Live a Better Story, Donald Miller takes us on a journey he began by working to recreate himself for the movie Blue Like
Jazz. He discovered the elements of good fiction are also the elements of a good life. Living a good life isn’t about achieving our goals, it’s about the meaning we create through our journey. The purpose of life, like a story, is character transformation. We play the role we write for ourselves. To live a better life we need to write a better story.
Imagine a trip from New York to Chicago. If you walked, perhaps the trip would take a month. It would physically change you and require lots of preparation and consideration for adequate protection, clothing, shelter, food, and navigation. If you rode a bike it might take ten days. You would still need to prepare, but the journey would be a little different. If you took a road trip, it would be a full day, and you’d consider entirely different things like road conditions, gas mileage, and pit stops. If you flew, it might take two hours, and you’d think about airfare and could get by with just your wallet. Each trip has the same destination, but the experiences are disparate. The journey is the story, and the story we choose to live transforms us in different ways.
Stories create meaning beyond our personal life. We use them in marketing by telling a story of pain, presenting our solution, and promising joy. We use them at work, in our company’s culture and the values we share—they give us meaning and fulfillment. We can choose a better story.
The Big Idea
Living a great story is worth the struggle
"And once you live a good story, you get a taste for a kind of meaning in life, and you can’t go back to being normal; you can’t go back to meaningless scenes stitched together by the forgettable thread of wasted time."
Living a good story isn’t easy. Miller explains a good story has a character that pursues a great ambition, takes risks, makes sacrifices, and struggles, then finds value, meaning, and joy in their pain. We’re designed to seek comfort, affirmation, order, and security. In a good story, we need an inciting incident to force a character to endure hardship. Familiarity is comfortable, and hope is tempting. Even in adverse situations people fear change and avoid it until they are forced to alter their path.
We don’t need to wait for an inciting incident to force us to change. We can imagine ourselves doing the things that are important to us, projects that support our values, work that makes a positive impact, and connecting with supportive people. The magic begins when we start doing things to achieve these goals. To start, we need to overcome our fear of failure and understand how adversity creates value in our lives.
Conquer fear of failure with whimsy
"I asked Bob what was the key to living such a great story, and Bob seemed uncomfortable with the idea he was anything special. But he wanted to answer my question, so he thought about it and said he didn’t think we should be afraid to embrace whimsy. I asked him what he meant by whimsy, and he struggled to define it. He said it’s that nagging idea that life could be magical; it could be special if we are only willing to take a few risks."
It’s easy to passively hope for something better or tell ourselves that we could do it if we wanted. Ambition is scary because we’re compelled to try and possibly fail. Fear disappears, we become empowered when we believe life could be magical if only we take a few risks. The theme of the story changes from avoidance of failure to the wonder of living.
I had not thought about embracing whimsy. I’ve experienced inciting incidences that stirred up my life and sent it on a new trajectory, and I’ve learned to appreciate life and spend my time with people and projects that give me a sense of value and meaning. I’m still usually risk averse. I don’t want to lose what I’ve gained. I like the idea of approaching risk with playful acceptance and seeing magic in unexpected or unpredictable changes.
Pain and suffering create meaning
"Suffering, as absurd as it seemed, pointed to a greater story in which, if one would only construe himself as a character within, he could find fulfillment in his tragic role, knowing the plot was heading toward redemption. Such an understanding would take immense humility and immeasurable faith, a perspective perhaps achieved only in the context of near hopelessness."
In this excerpt, Miller is referring to Victor Frankl’s papers written after surviving Nazi concentration camps where he lost his wife. Great suffering requires you to choose to play the role of victim or hero. Those who grow from tragedy prefer the hero narrative, and they find meaning and joy in the big picture in spite of personal discomfort and instability. Most of us will never experience that degree of suffering, but we can benefit from Frankl’s perspective. The search for meaning is motivation in itself. We would choose pain instead of life with no purpose.
Miller talks about how a good story is a condensed version of life with all the trivial stuff removed. The best stories have a lot of suffering, and the characters life is at stake—this is where we find meaning. I think sometimes we create conflict and drama in the meaningless interludes between disasters to assert our value. We don’t feel compelled to take risks that produce real meaning because we’ve satisfied our needs in a way that feels safe. In the end, we haven’t fooled ourselves, and we feel empty and discontent. We haven’t dared to live a good story.
Throughout the book, Miller relates his discoveries and insights from his incredible journeys. At one point he recalls he thought, “It hurts now, but I’ll love this memory.” The price of joy in life is enduring the pain, and we should embrace it, without the pain life feels meaningless. It’s easier to take risks when we think of them as magical transformers of life. When we look back at our experiences, we’ll see how they changed us and how we found meaning, purpose, and value in our lives.