Do you have a narrative for your life and what you’re doing that motivates and empowers you?
The Importance of Narrative
The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren is towards the top of the best-selling books of all time, at 33 million copies. The main point of the book, if it isn’t obvious from the title, is to help the reader find their purpose for existing and then use that purpose as motivation.
The Bible is potentially the best-selling book ever, at an estimated 5 billion copies sold. What does it provide readers? The narrative of why they exist—in fact, it’s a narrative of why everything exists. You could make the case that the core of most religions is the story of who we are, why we’re here, and what to do with our lives—and that, in turn, is partially why religions are such a powerful force in humanity, because they connect so deeply with our need for personal narratives.
Further, let’s take a step back for a minute and realize that basically all books, all movies, and almost all forms of media ever are crafted around some kind of story. The news is communicated as a series of stories. Even science textbooks and business books are usually filled with stories or organized into some loose narrative.
Humans are storytelling animals. We’re story addicts. We sometimes have a hard time caring about something unless we can weave it into some kind of story.
Our movement has many different origin stories, depending on who you talk to. Some might point to Animal Liberation, the now-famous book published by Peter Singer in 1975. Looking back further, you might say that the antivivisection movement starting in the mid-1800s was the beginning of the modern animal rights movement. Or you could even look back much further to ancient civilizations, as Norm Phelps does in his book The Longest Struggle.
And regardless of where we started, we can have all kinds of different stories for where we are now, who’s doing what work, etc. These stories of our movement help us understand the pieces and how they connect.
In the startup domain, the narrative is what can keep early-stage employees engaged day after day in the face of incredible uncertainty. Here’s a quote from Scott Belsky on the Tim Ferriss podcast:
“In some ways, I use the analogy of driving your team in a car with the windows blacked out, so no one knows where they are and how far they are in the journey. And that is sort of what a startup experience is like, by the way. You don’t know where those milestones actually are. You don’t necessarily even know where you’re going and how far along you are. The only thing that makes that more comforting or tolerable is a great narrative during the journey. Okay, we just crossed the state line. There’s this on the right. There’s this on the left. Even if it’s not necessarily answering the question of how far are we and where exactly are we going, there’s something about being talked through it. And I think that one of the jobs of someone at the helm is to build that narrative.”https://tim.blog/2018/09/13/scott-belsky/
And these narratives—these stories of who we are and why we’re doing what we’re doing—are incredibly important for our movement, too.
Chances are, you have a story of why you started wanting to help animals. (I talked about my story briefly in Vegan and Back Again.) That’s one of the things that people often tell each other, their “vegan story” or their “activist story”. Those stories are important because they help us explain how we got to where we did—they legitimize the journey and help convey it to others. These vegan stories also represent an opportunity to discover how people changed from point A to point B so that we can help create that journey for others.
But in addition to how you got where you are now, what narrative do you have for your current work, and your current journey? What’s your story for where you’re going? If you do work with a group, what’s your group’s story?
These stories are important for motivational, inspirational reasons, but they’re also a good way to remain focused as well. If you don’t have a compelling narrative of why you do what you do, then in time you might grow restless or dissatisfied. You might lose track of why you got involved with your work in the first place, and you might think something else is a better use of your time.
When we look back at the efforts of others, it’s easy to see that people work for years focused on the same thing in order to create the impact they end up having.
Similarly, cohesive narratives are how people are going to remember who you are, and that narrative is going to be how they explain your work to others.
“Do you know ____?”
“Yeah, I do! It’s amazing that they’re trying to end animal farming by getting ballot initiatives going in every city and state around the country.”
In her book Grit, psychology researcher Angela Duckworth relays a parable about three bricklayers:
Three bricklayers are asked, ‘What are you doing?’
The first says, ‘I am laying bricks.’
The second says, ‘I am building a church.’
The third says, ‘I am building a house of God.”
The first bricklayer has a job. The second has a career. The third has a calling.
Organizations, and entire movements like our own, have the opportunity to create callings for people—reasons so strong for why you do what you do that your work seems to transcend normal activities and exist as part of a greater story. For me and many others, this work is a calling—and I can attest to the motivational power of viewing it that way.
People will work for free if there’s an inspiring narrative that they believe they’re a part of. Not only that, but the narrative will help them work better and more cohesively because they’ll know the vision through which to filter their actions. A strong, understandable story can serve as a way for people to take the right actions without having to always rely on asking someone.
So if you do work with a group or organization, what narrative are you going to give the work you do together? What’s your story for why all of you are working together?
It’s no accident that many people who accomplish a great deal with their lives talk about believing in the vision of what they were doing. Scientists, writers, politicians, and athletes all talk about believing in what they’re doing, doing it for some higher purpose than the thing itself: seeking truth; the love of the subject matter; the need to create; the belief in a better society; the desire to show others the extent of what is possible; etc.
To continue the seemingly endless, difficult work we must do, we have to keep our vision—our personal narrative—centered. What is your role in creating a better world for animals? How are you fulfilling that role?
Knowing that your life is part of a meaningful story that’s bigger than you is one of the greatest things imaginable, and it’s at the core of what it means to live a fulfilling life. (If you haven’t read the essay “A Meaningful Life” by Matt Ball, I highly recommend it.)
If you know your personal narrative and can articulate it, share it with others. Let them know what guides you, what gets you out of bed in the morning, and how your work might intersect with theirs. If we all share our personal narratives with each other, maybe we can find out how to work better together.
My Personal Narrative
I’ll start by sharing my own narrative for 2019.
My narrative is that I want to do anything I can to help bring an end to the exploitation of animals. In 2019, I’ll be working to do that in two ways:
- First, I’ll use data and technology to help our efforts at Mercy For Animals, where I work full-time; and,
- Second, I’ll find ways to connect and empower people already on our side. I will connect them with resources, ideas, information, and other people, and I will help them have an even greater impact by working together and by working smarter.
I’m currently focusing on improving my ability to execute long-term projects, such as AMP, and thinking about how to bring more people into my life and work in meaningful ways. Although I’m deeply saddened and angered by the realities of why we do this work, I try to practice acceptance of the world as it currently exists (while, of course, trying as hard as I can to change things) and joy in the knowledge that I’m helping create a better version of humanity.
One of the biggest areas I have for improvement is in my organizational skills. I’ll be trying to tame the mountain of papers on my desk and the plethora of digital spaces and applications that fill with notes and to-do lists. I’ll try to fix the underlying habits that lead to a cluttered and disorganized life.
That’s my story—or at least a very short version of it. What’s yours?
Next Steps: Creating and Using Your Stories
Going forward, here are some very practical next steps you can take if you’re looking to bring the power of stories into your activism:
- Your past story. Write down your story for how you got involved with helping animals. What is the beginning of that story? What are the main turning points along the way?
- Your current story. Now, write down your story of the work you’re doing now. What are you trying to accomplish, and with who, and why? What’s your vision? (You can also write down your organization or group’s story as well.) Make sure that your story inspires hope within you for your own future. Try to make it something that is exciting for you, that will make you want to get out of bed in the morning.
- Share your story. Finally, share your story with others and ask them what theirs is. You can write it out and share it online, or you can talk about it with friends and fellow advocates. When you meet someone new in the movement, you can swap stories and see what the overlaps and intersections are.
That’s it! See if you can notice a difference in how you approach your work and how motivated you feel when you have a clear and inspiring story in your head for what you’re doing and why.
And if you do notice a difference, please share it—I’d love to hear your story.
The Animal Movement Project (AMP) is a platform dedicated to building the movement for animals.
We share thoughts and ideas that can take the movement for animals from x to 10x. Our focus is predominantly on animals exploited for food since they account for more than 99% of the animals exploited by humans. The topics covered are often about ways to tie the pieces of the movement together or to fill in the gaps. We focus on connecting people, ideas, and resources to each other.