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Life archetypes

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

We naturally think about our life as a closed loop, a puzzle to be solved, as if today was our last day and we had to retrace the logical path leading to it, and explanation for how we got where we are. Since we cannot measure our time forward, perspective comes from looking back: Where am I and How did I get here?

Considering our life from the perspective of a closed narrative implies its load of rationalizations and bias. We tend to create personal myths, archetypes that bring cohesion to the chaos of our life[i]. Daniel Goleman, who introduced the now famous concept of Emotional Intelligence, relates that Dr. Mc Adams in the late 80's conducted a study where subjects were asked to tell their life story in two hours. The stories were then analyzed by researchers to see if there were any underlying themes and correlation to mythic characters. Typical characters emerged: the caregiver, the warrior, the healer, the homemaker, the lover, the humanist, the adventurer, etc. These myths not only embodied the subjects' past life but also shaped their approach to life. It could be argued that the researchers could also be noticing patterns that made sense for them (and over interpreting). Either way, it appears we apply a “coherence filter” to our life and the ones of others. The selection of patterns and turning points we make at 40 years old will obviously differ from the one we made at 30. Our perspective changes; certain events' impact lessens with time. Some events are delegated to the background; others emerge as significant. Decisions we made five years ago take a different meaning. Decisions that seemed, at the time, life changing and maybe were at the scale of our young life, seem irrelevant minor.

What drives our decisions highly depends on our values and priorities at the time we took them, but it does not preclude us fro attributing to them an entirely different interpretation at a later time. We may hold to the meaning we first assigned to our decisions and remember under which circumstances we made them, but the more we age, the more we may be willing to rewrite our story in the light of our current values and further experiences. Building an archetype for our self, even if it can be changed for another when our life takes a different turn, is comforting and can be somewhat self-deceptive. In order to resist the sirens’ songs of a simplified narrative, we need to probe regularly, choose environments that promote probing, and engineer situations that force probing. If we choose to approach our lives as a perpetual experiment and are willing to give inconsistent or unexpected answers, our past won’t have to define us. We can reinvent ourselves.

There are people who experiment over and over looking for a particular outcome, and there are those who are happy experimenting.

[i] “Personal Myths Bring Cohesion to the Chaos of each Life”, New York Times, May 24th, 1988, by Daniel Goleman

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