The Common Good
January 2010

The Story of Your Life

by Don Miller | January 2010

What fiction teaches us about what’s real.

What if you took the elements that make a great story in screenwriting or novels, and you began to apply them to your life? In other words, if at the end of a movie you feel this sense of fulfillment when the credits are rolling, what if you could feel that at the end of a year, or a lifetime? How would you structure your life differently?

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The principles of a good story are just this: a character who wants something and is willing to overcome conflict to get it.

And what we want matters. Imagine if I wrote a screenplay: This character works in a grocery store, and he decides that he wants a Volvo. And he works for three years and overcomes this hard boss that he has, and at the end of the movie, he gets the Volvo. He’s driving off the lot, testing the windshield wipers. Are you crying at the end of this movie? Are you saying to yourself, “If he can have the Volvo, I can have the Volvo?” No, you’re not.

There’s nothing wrong with driving a Volvo or living in a nice house. But if that’s what our story is about, we shouldn’t expect to feel any different at the end than we would if we were to see it on the screen.

I wrote a book about growing up without a dad, and I met my dad recently for the first time in 30 years, so I’m acutely aware that in America we have 27 million kids growing up without a dad; 85 percent of the people in prison grew up in a fatherless home. We have 360,000 churches—if each church would just mentor 20 kids, we would shut down an enormous number of prisons in our country. So I wrote down this new ambition: I want to start mentoring programs in churches all across our country.

What happens when you find a good ambition is, you’re going to get scared. If there’s no risk, there’s no story. And the best stories are the ones where you could lose your life telling the story. And you might. You could get ridiculed. What if God wants you to give all your money to start this program?

Over 200 times in the Bible, God tells us, “Do not fear.” Why? Because God’s pressing us into better stories. Don’t be afraid. Do this thing. It will make you a different person. When doors close, kick down the doors. The more conflict there is, the better the story is going to be.

That’s the beauty of this—you don’t have to win. We don’t have to shut down half the prisons in the United States. We have to lay down our lives. We have to pull out of the silly, stupid stories that we are brainwashed into telling by commercial society—stories about cars, clothes—just dumb stories.

The number-one way we consume stories—and have our moral compasses adjusted—is not through movies, but through each other. People around us who are telling stories adjust what we think is beautiful and what we think profane, what we think is worth living for and what we think is worth dying for.

And when you tell a good story with your life, when you want a good thing, and are a person of great character, and will not compromise your story, the people around you will understand better how to tell good stories with their lives. Your life, your story, must not be compromised.

Don Miller is founder of The Mentoring Project and author of A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life.

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