The Story of My Life

When we think about what makes a life good or bad, we tend to focus on the key events: a small envelope on the counter, a basketball that rolls around the rim before falling in, the cold of a doorknob before you walk out.

After offering career advice to a young Redfinner last Thursday, Greylock’s James Slavet told me he should focus less on what you do, and more on how to think about it.

Conversations with James can have the commotion and intensity of a car wreck: there’s a lot going on that you have to pay attention to. Somewhere between noticing that Jamaicans acknowledge one another by saying “Maximum Respect” and an anecdote about “offensive” financing — not just offensive as in, “we don’t need the money” but offensive as in “that’s really offensive” — James mentioned that people are happier when they have a narrative for making sense of their lives.

I seized upon this tiny observation. I used to wonder why the circumstances of my life had hardly changed, yet I’ve been happier about them now than I’ve ever been. And I think the reason has been that I can fit those circumstances into a story.

At first, the story rationalized decisions I had already made. Now the story helps me make better decisions. Some people’s story is that they like helping others. Others live for their families, speak truth to power, experience as many new sights and sounds as possible, or imagine themselves as pirates. Making up a story to explain why you do things is a good idea for two reasons.

First of all, it makes sense of things, so your life doesn’t feel totally random. It’s easy to despair over having to read “Goodnight, Gorilla” for the 83rd time, or spending five hours tracking down one bug, but less so if you know that your children are what’s important, or if you’ve dedicated your life to the perfectionism of true craftsmanship.

And most important, a story makes sense of changes, in a way that can sustain you through a difficult transition. A story after all isn’t a painting; it wouldn’t have a plot if its hero didn’t change: Raskolnikov confesses, Rocky believes in himself again, Madame Flaubert falls in love, Francis Macomber stands his ground, Darth Vader turns on the emperor, Holden Caulfield comes home, Huck kneels before Jim.

At some point in my 30s, I decided that my story is that I like being creative, not  in a lonely artistic way — which is something I’ve tried with bad results — but in a social, productive way. The change from a romantic ideal of the lonely artist to something more humble and collective has made me much happier.

The change began a week before I started at Redfin, in Vermont, when I ran into someone who, I had been told, published the modern Great Canadian Novel. I’d never heard of it, and still can’t remember its name.

But I remember the writer, a gentle man with a long beard. He said he started only with a very precise idea of how he wanted people to feel at the novel’s climax, when a village had congregated around a winter bonfire. He talked about it as if it were a state function, where he could allow himself to get lost in the twists and turns of plot and character so long as he arrived at that bonfire, and how it made people feel.

I wondered as he said it if I would ever be able to capture a feeling like that. But I knew I could help build the bonfire. Even today at Redfin, I feel unsure of every product decision we make or financial metric we measure, but am very clear on what the company should feel like when we succeed. This is why I believe our deepest innovation isn’t our search site, or our home-buying service, but the company itself, which in ways large or small, can be a different collection of people than you’re likely to find every day, where everyone has ideas, and everyone can be a leader.

I want to be a part of that, and to do so, I’ve had to change: becoming more supportive and less in-your-face, more cautious about my own opinions and more receptive to others. I still have a long ways to go, but it’s the change that I’m proud of, not just the result that it has had. The change used to be painful because what I loved wasn’t my story, but the image of myself as I’d been my whole life before the story began.

Now I know some will say the story is beside the point, just the music that is playing in our heads while we do our little dance in the office and at home. But it’s easier to dance when there’s a song to make sense of it all. And there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.

Discussion

  • http://twitter.com/blakewilliams Blake Williams

    What an excellent post. Thanks.

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      Too kind Blake! And I'm going to give Keepsy a try…

  • http://alexlod.com Alex Loddengaard

    I had a similar realization when I started my internship at Redfin. If you recall, I was considering Investment Banking, the year 2007. Growing up in a wealthy suburb of Los Angeles I had a desire to live a comfortable life. I think it was me, you, Mose, and Robert that sat down to lunch on day in the Uwajimaya food court. You offered me an intro to your brother for IB, but you focused on creativity and all of its opportunities. I'm grateful I'm not in IB and instead in a creative marketing role at a great company. I've decided that changing the world with your colleagues and friends is a far more nobel reason to be in technology. Equity, fame, and fortune don't really matter for our own happiness–they're all temporary.

    Your last point about being less in-your-face and more supportive striked up a thought about a book by Liz Wiseman called Multipliers. The book is about how a leader can get more out of their employees in a way that makes them smarter, better, and happier. It talks about demanding the best work of your team, but letting everyone be a leader, providing guidance and anecdotes along the way–creating an intense environment, not a tense one. Having been subject to leaders I can say with complete confidence that multipliers (like you, Jay, Mike, and Scott) are more fun to work for, better for one's career, and make one's experience generally better.

    Anyway, great post as always, Glenn. Also, posted 8:30 on the Headlands this morning. But Jay still beat me.

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      Alex, you definitely belong in a creative marketing role and you shouldn't be anywhere further than 20 minutes from a gut-busting cycling climb!

  • JanelleS

    Interesting. The story of my life constantly has “Flight of the Bumblebee” playing in the background…

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      Played on an accordion Janelle? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVbuIZ-5-8o

      • JanelleS

        It's the only way hear it, in my humble opinion. And considering my husband plays the accordion, a double hell yes.

        • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

          An accordion-playing husband? How could we know each other that long without your telling me that?????!?

  • Chris Diez

    Great Post Glen! Thank you for leading from the front!

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      You lead me, too, Chris, every time I see you.

      • Chris Diez

        Awww shucks. Looking forward to seeing you in action in January. Take care GK.

  • http://www.digitalquarters.net Ben Elowitz

    Two words: thank you.

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      It always means a lot coming from you my friend…

  • Vfrontiere

    Wow! I loved reading this. The funny part is, I actually WAS a Pirate. 5 years in the show at Treasure Island in Las Vegas. So, no need to imagine how that felt! I do agree with what you were saying about how it “feels” when a company, (or we as individuals), begin to succeed. It happens over and over again but it never gets old. I love that feeling.

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      This is one of my favorite comments of all time. Thank VFrontiere for the funny and heart-felt comment…

  • Maggie Cross

    I love your posts that transcend business (not that I don't love the others…) and this is my favorite one to date! I just had a conversation with my 14 yr old son yesterday concerning what he wants the story of his life to be. Having a life story makes the pimples, date rejections and general teenage angst that much easier to bare. :)

  • Brian Carraway, Redfin

    Inspiring and thought provoking, thank you Glen. When I read this Monday I felt compelled to write something, albeit my first response to date, but better late than never I suppose. I think we all fall victim to the ever lingering thought of what their “story” is, and what needs to happen to reach that climactic point. Reading this post gave me insight as to how I should think about my own, instead of what I need to do to shape it.

    Great stuff!!

  • Susana Musi

    You write music.

  • Hguzelis

    Your words makes me want to know you. In the ray of sunlight sometimes we could observe the dust particals. Somehow reading what you wrote made me think of that.

    Another partical from space

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