Home All “What’s Your Story?!” Make it a Good One.

“What’s Your Story?!” Make it a Good One.

written by David J. Pollay 2 August 2007

David J. Pollay, MAPP '06, is a co-founder of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA). David has an Economics degree from Yale University and has held leadership positions at Yahoo!, MasterCard, Global Payments and AIESEC. He is an Executive Coach who specializes in business relationships. He is also an author and keynote speaker known for his best-selling books, The Law of the Garbage Truck (how to navigate negativity) and The 3 Promises (how to create personal fulfillment every day). David's articles are here. For permission to reprint David's articles, please contact him.

“What’s your story?!”  We used to ask that question when I was growing up in Wisconsin.  We didn’t know what the question really meant; it was more of an expression.  We just wanted to know why people were acting the way they were.

Freshmen year in college I was asked to play a simple game in my Introduction to Psychology class.  Professor Judith Rodin, future president of the University of Pennsylvania, asked us to be an “eye-witness” to a staged event, and afterwards describe what we saw.  You could guess the results.  Our descriptions of the same event differed from student to student, sometimes dramatically.  The “facts” were not as obvious as we thought they would be.

Our life is not a series of facts only.  It is mostly a set of interpretations we have made about events in our life.  These interpretations add up to a story – a story of who we think we are, what we have experienced, and what we’re likely to do in the future.



Last semester I went with my Mom to an art history class at Florida Atlantic University.  The room was packed to hear professor David Courtney.  His message that day was captured in his question to the class, “Are you taking an adventure every day of your life?”  He challenged us to immerse ourselves in something we love, something that challenges us every day. 

Each day is an opportunity to build our positive life story.  Our story guides our actions; it is the link to realizing our best possible life. 

Years ago I was sitting in a conference room with one of my employees.  He had once again offended a customer and half my department.  I was trying to help him realize that his approach to communication was not helping our business, and it wasn’t helping him.  And then in a moment of frustration he yelled out proudly, “My way has gotten me this far!”  I paused.  I looked at him.  I felt sad.  He was right.  He wanted to be a director, yet he was a second level customer service representative.  His story was not working.

Dan McAdams, professor of Psychology at Northwestern University, refers to our stories as our personal myths.  McAdams said in his book The Stories We Live By, “If you feel that your myth is stagnant, if you sense that you are not moving forward in life with purpose, if you believe that you are falling behind in some sense with respect to the growth of your personal identity, then what you are looking for is developmental change in personal myth.”    

I recently called Ray Fowler, former CEO of the American Psychological Association; I was considering a significant opportunity in my life and I wanted his advice.  Fowler told me, “For forty years my philosophy has been, if you’re presented with an ‘outrageous’ opportunity, take it.  I have never regretted doing something; I have only regretted not doing something.”

Consider Fowler’s advice.  Consider Courtney’s advice.  Make your life story about adventure, meaning, and growth.

So, what’s your story?!
Touch and go – Fast Descent courtesy of Paul L. Nettles

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David J. Pollay 2 August 2007 - 1:41 am

Read Senia’s article for some thoughtful advice on building your life story.


Chris 2 August 2007 - 9:10 am

Thanks so much David for another great post! I have found that having a story to explain my own life helps me not only to understand where I’ve been, but also to help me make decisions about my future. I especially like the advice to have an adventure every day. I have never thought of each day in that way, but I’m going to now!

Kathryn Britton 2 August 2007 - 10:46 am

It’s also interesting to ask “Who’s writing your story?”

Dave Krueger (www.mentorpath.com) says one way to figure this out is to watch your speech. Do you tend to refer to yourself in the passive voice? “My fear kept me from …” “My spouse wouldn’t let me … ” Are you a passive spectator in your own story? Perhaps it is time to step back into the active voice and author your story yourself. I think of that point a lot when I’m gearing up to make difficult decisions or do difficult things.

I’d also like to add a link back to my March post about the power that stories can have in moving positive psychology ideas from the academy to the rest of the world. https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/kathryn-britton/20070307149
Thanks for your additions to the collection of stories!



David J. Pollay 2 August 2007 - 11:53 pm

Thanks Chris for the post. It is exciting to think that we get to write our own stories every day. Just to think that tomorrow is waiting to be written. And we’re not only the writer of our stories, we’re also the lead actor, director, and producer. There are so many ways we can choose to start our day, interact with other people, do what we love to do, etc. The actions we take today and tomorrow become the material for our life stories.

Thanks again for your note.


David J. Pollay 3 August 2007 - 12:11 am

Hi Kathryn,

Thanks for the great point about making sure that we craft our stories in the active voice; it conveys conviction (to others and to ourselves) and responsibility when we do.

And thanks for linking back to your earlier article on the importance of stories in education. Your post makes the powerful point that the best discoveries we make in Positive Psychology must be communicated in a way that grabs and holds people’s attention.

And communication through stories is what humans do. Listen to the way people recount their day: They do it in story form (i.e., “So let me tell you what happened. I was…”). You do not see them running to a PowerPoint slide, or a set of graphs and tables (there is a time and a place for this).

Thankfully Positive Psychology is scientifically studying (through rigorous testing) what makes people reliably happier and more successful. The research papers are the first step to communicate the discoveries found in the lab and in the field (we’ve each conducted our own research). The challenge is then to make sure that the good information from the studies is not left only in the journal articles that fellow academics read; we have to find ways of communicating the appropriate research (not everything is meant for application) in insightful, memorable, and actionable ways. Well-grounded stories help us do this by engaging our intellect and connecting to our emotions.

Kathryn, thanks again for your comments and for your earlier post.


p.s. For those new to the Positive Psychology News Daily site, co-founders of Positive Psychology and rigorous scientists, Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, and Mike Csikszentmihalyi of Claremont College are brilliant storytellers. Christopher Peterson of the University of Michigan, Karen Reivich of the University of Pennsylvania, Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia, Ed Diener of the University of Illinois also do a great job of relating their work in story form (to name a few). Kathryn, we’re fortunate to have studied with each of them. Thanks again for your good thinking.

p.p.s. Jeff’s comments following your March post were also insightful.

www.thehappinessblog.com 4 August 2007 - 3:30 am

I was truly inspired by your post. Commuication with self is such a vital part of our ability to enjoy life. I am struck by the example of Dr. Seligman, as told in Authentic Happiness, when he wrote about the story that hijacked his mind when he was waiting on the phone call announcement regarding his becoming the next APA President. He said that he began to tell himself that he wasn’t qualified for the position, he didn’t know enough, etc., etc. However, and this is another great tool offered from positive psychology, he was able to confront his story and combat it – “dispute” the narrative.
I think that how we tell the story of our life is crucial to our well-being and growth potential. The best news of all is, however, we can act not only as storyteller but director and dispute some of the storylines that stand in the way of our progress.
Thanks for the great post!

Jeff Dustin 4 August 2007 - 10:56 am

Yes, stories are powerful medicine or poison, depending on their content. Really disputing is the practice of running a counterstory. Optimism is a way to spin the facts in your favor so you get that Momentum rolling.

What kind of institutions develop the best cultural strengths of the collective? I’d argue those that have the tighest and most compelling stories. Marines are a great example of storytelling that inspires. Sales is all about selling a story. The list could go on infinitely. The power of language is to influence self and others in profoundly effective ways.

Pos-psych.com is a collection of such stories. I think a key point to remember is that a vivid tale captures the attention, has maybe a bit of humor, but above all connected with the audience and relates to what they’ve experienced, what they know. Prior knowledge links to the new stuff and makes it permanent.

The biggest potential for the psych community, in my mind, is the marketing of good positive science to the public. You guys and gals are at the knife’s edge of this movement and that’s exciting.

Consider this for one moment. Imagine if…a fraction of the high-end graphics and digital sound in videos and gaming were put to the use of expanding people’s happiness, not merely pleasure. Imagine if you could play your way to more flow and meaning. It already happens with selected films, such as American Beauty and a range of others with deeper themes.

Is there a way to dramatically deliver compelling content that is sustainable for those who could benefit from PP?
I’d argue that Seligman did a great job with reflectivehappiness.com, particularly the video clips of himself talking about the interventions. That was a good step…but what if you could *tip* PP into the mainstream by making it sexy.

You’d need celebrities and *just folksy* types to spread the word.

That’s kind of what happened with Meditation and Yoga…it became fashionable to hum Om and to contemplate the cosmos. Whole industries cater to the mystical augmentation of your Chi energy. Mandala sales have gone way, way up. Look at Tal Ben’s Happy class at Harvard, 1300+ students a year. Human beings hunger for happiness. (I’d like to see a Michael Moore film about American happiness and the mental health industry. That’d be hilarious while also arousing much debate. Obviously there is and will be lots of quackery involved when the bigger world sees the money to be made. Most Self-help books are great evidence of the corny stuff available.

Yet, in all, if you could connect celebs with the cause, I think the world would probably get a skewed version of the research but you’d generate a lot of talk and interest and that’d be great.

Paris Hilton (on PP): “That’s Hot.”

David J. Pollay 4 August 2007 - 11:22 pm

Thanks to the Happiness Blogger for your comment. Great point about Marty’s APA President story. His story first shows us how natural it is for us to have “worst case” thoughts (even for one of the most influential psychologists alive today), and shows us the power of the disputation process.

Thanks for all of your post.

Best to you,

David J. Pollay 4 August 2007 - 11:45 pm

Thanks Jeff for a rich post. Here are a few more thoughts to follow yours.

Jeff, my first few years at Yahoo! were all about the stories we used to tell to each other, our partners, our customers, and our new hires. Each story said something about our culture, our values, and our priorities.

Great point about making sure that our stories connect the new insights we’re sharing to the current and past experience of our audience members (readers, workshop participants, students, etc.).

Jeff, you are right; the public has a trusted place to go for insights into their happiness. Positive Psychology at its foundation is all about the science. Our stories only communicate what we discover through study.

Wonderful idea about seeing more movies and games focused on meaning and flow, not just pleasure. I know a few of my fellow writers on Positive Psychology News Daily have put together long lists of movies and songs that deliver more than passing pleasure only. You could add yours to the list.

Endorsements from well-known people are welcome if they are respected. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see Nelson Mandela speak at a Positive Psychology conference?

Thanks Jeff for your always thoughtful posts.

Best to you,

Cari Lewis 5 August 2007 - 1:17 am

Thanks for an inspiring article, David! When reading articles like this one, my first impulse is to think that the imperative to “be adventurous” is good for young and single people with no responsibilities – I start to think things like “Well, if I didn’t have 3 children…” or “If I weren’t so tired…” or other true but self-defeating thoughts. I wonder if some of my reticence is just my nature, or if it can be attributed to my experiences growing up an american black female (nature vs. nuture). I am a successful person, yet these thoughts still intrude! In any event, your article makes clear that these thoughts keep one from being fully actualized, and from reimagining and revisioning our life stories in support of our dreams. I am grateful for your article, and I will be mindful of it the next time I approach a new opportunity! Thanks again David! – Cari

David J. Pollay 5 August 2007 - 10:37 pm

Thanks Cari for the great post!

I think you have inspired many of us who are parents with your note. You make it clear that parents may have more responsibilities than they did when they were younger (allowing us more flexibility to pursue a variety of opportunities), but they still have dreams worth pursuing (and with creativity they can achieve them). And while nature and nurture play a role in how we all approach life, it’s great that you are intent on making the most of your next opportunity!

Best wishes,


Melanie 6 August 2007 - 10:20 am


Great! It’s not only the stories of our past but what do we want to tell for our future…Life’s an unfinished novel, some days mystery, romance, and bittersweet. I look forward to the next chapters with great anticipation! Keep on writing!!!

Alberto Casellas 7 August 2007 - 10:08 am

HI David
Your story reminds me of “we can’t escape who we are, or where we came from, but we can invent who we can be in the future”. I have seen how powerful our own stories are to the future we hold. As I’ve worked with thousands of employees over the years, I have experienced how employees, colleagues, leaders, can succeed or fail based on just the stories that they tell themselves. Thanks for writing and reminding us to carft our story for today.
All the best,
Alberto B Casellas

David J. Pollay 7 August 2007 - 1:35 pm

Thanks Melanie. I love the “unfinished novel” metaphor! Thanks for the post; I appreciate it.

Best to you,


David J. Pollay 7 August 2007 - 1:36 pm

Thanks Alberto for sharing your experience in business.

It’s fascinating to hear the stories of our employees and teammates. You point to the predictive nature of stories. It sure is important that we pull together a story that brings out our best. Thanks for the post Alberto.

Best to you,

Mikey 30 August 2007 - 2:50 pm

Great article David. You really have a wonderful way of helping us tell our stories. And a way of assuring us that someone is listening. Thank you for being such a great emcee on the stage of life. You make my story light up that much brighter knowing you are out there thinking of ways to help me know happiness. Happiness in a world that can convince a person that happiness doesn’t really exist. Now that is something.

David J. Pollay 2 September 2007 - 11:28 am

Hi Mikey,

Thanks for the great post! I sure appreciate your support Mikey; your comments (very poetic) really mean a lot to me. And I’m glad to have the chance to be connected to the story you are writing and living in your life.

Best to you,



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