As a fourth-year student expecting to graduate this spring, I’m searching for a job. And like everybody else trying to get hired, I play the game. Each time I build a résumé or write a cover letter, I present my best hirable self. I put my past on a piece of paper, and provide all my proven proficiencies. With each potential position, I construct a different history of my education, employment and skillset — a history of myself.
After so many applications, I begin to contemplate the ways I frame my personal narrative. For all these companies, I am only really saying, “HIRE ME!,” and I’d prefer to identify myself beyond an eager job-seeker. So how would I answer the simple question, “what’s your story?”
Well it turns out we’ve all had to answer this question to get into college. The University of California application includes the personal statement — an opportunity in two essays to share how the applicant’s past has shaped their present, a soul beyond a transcript and test scores.
The first prompt asks the applicant to “describe the world you come from,” and “how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.” The second asks for “a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you,” and “what about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are.”
Aside from assessing writing and persuasion capabilities, admissions officers encourage applicants to be honest and personal; they look to see if applicants can reflect, interpret and learn from their life experiences. To be successful, one needs to prove that they are a thoughtful individual. That’s why I get the impression that this ability, to think critically about one’s past, is vital for academic and career success.
So I frame myself positively for others, professionally and socially. But how do I frame myself? I’ve lived only one life, yet I’ve created these different timelines for work and school. We could say it’s connected to a type of cognitive bias, known in psychology as the framing effect — where different conclusions can be drawn from the same information.
This principle states that we will react positively to a piece of information if it promises gain. But if that same proposition is framed negatively, expecting a loss, we decline. This phenomenon suggests that we inherently hold preference for potential gain and our perspective shifts to positive framing.
Using this technique, creating a personal narrative for oneself can be cathartic. Our lives are defined through selection, and over time, we pick and choose what feels important. We identify the cards we were dealt, and recount the plays we’ve made.
Yet, what if you, the protagonist, is caught in a tragedy? At times, it seems like a curse that certain circumstances can overshadow an infinite sea of details. I offer the wisdom of musician Victor Wooten, who says, “Life is not only about getting the responses we want, but about continuing to do what is right regardless of the responses we get.”
So if we ever feel lost, this storytelling can act as a reminder, an inventory of guiding experiences. We can remember the mistakes we’ve made, and the lessons we’ve learned. We can conjure role models, and those who gave support. Sometimes it’s easy to lose the big picture. It can be useful to see how our past has led to our present, and how our present is going to get us into the future.
Thus, our decisions on how to view the past gives us some agency on how we approach the future. No matter what experiences we have had, we want to know that we are on track.
And what track should that be? Does all this reflection point to anything? For an answer, I turn to a quote from The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. The Indian sorcerer Don Juan says to the young anthropologist, “For me there is only the traveling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart. There I travel, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length. And there I travel, looking, looking, breathlessly.”
If you would like to become the official biographer of DANIEL HERMAN, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.