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Part of my job as a professor is to review manuscripts for academic journals. A journal editor sends me an article in my area of expertise, and it’s my job to give an opinion about whether or not the journal should publish the paper.

I recently finished reviewing a paper. The paper had a lot of strengths. The topic was interesting, the sample was unique, and there were a lot of fancy analyses. But there was one major problem with the paper: The authors didn’t have a consistent story that tied the paper together. The introduction didn’t fit with the research questions and data analyses. There wasn’t a strong punch line or take-home message.

You Need a Story

When you write a paper, book, or blog post, you need a story. You have to have a main point, and everything should point back to that main point. The story has to be clear.

As I finished writing my recommendation to the editor to reject the paper (Sorry to whomever wrote that paper!), I started thinking about how it is important to have a story in our lives.

Meaning and Purpose

When people are struggling, they often don’t have a clear sense of meaning or purpose for their lives. Meaning is how people connect their personal situations with the world around them. Meaning answers questions such as, “Why am I here?” Meaning helps instill our lives with significance and value.

The Story of Your Life

If you are struggling to experience a sense of meaning or purpose in your life, spend some time thinking about the story that drives your life. Here are some questions to get you started:

  1. What are your values? Values have to do with the things you think are important. For example, some people place a high value on family. Others value independence. Some folks place a high priority on being successful at their job. Some people value spirituality and connection with God. Take a few minutes and write out your top 10 values. Take a look at your life and think about whether the activities you spend the most time doing line up with your values.
  2. What are your interests? Interests have to do with what kinds of things you like to do. For example, some people like being with people, whereas others like to be by themselves. Some folks like sports, and other people like to go shopping. Some people like being creative, whereas others like to organize things. Take some time and evaluate whether the things you do in your everyday life are consistent with your interests.
  3. What are you good at? We each have different strengths and weaknesses. When I was growing up, I was good at math, but bad at art. You probably have a sense of the things that come easy for you, and the things you struggle with. Take some time and think about whether your daily activities are consistent with your skills and talents.
  4. What about our world tugs at your heart the most? Our world is a broken place. Some people don’t have enough to eat. Others don’t have access to health care or clean water. Some folks aren’t able to reach their potential because they don’t have good schools nearby. Some people die from diseases we don’t have a cure for yet. Other folks choose to end their own lives. What aspect of our broken world makes you stop, turn off the news, and say, “This has GOT to be different.”

Connect the Dots

Living a good story is about connecting the dots. Where is the connection between (a) your values, (b) your interests, (c) your skills, and (d) the broken world? Where is the intersection? That’s where you need to be.

Discussion

Do you feel like your life is meaningful? Do you have a sense of purpose? If not, where is the disconnect? Is the lack of alignment with your values, interests, or skills? Where is the connection between your values/interests/skills and helping fix something broken in our world?

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