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.