Growing up, I had a friend who became obsessed with scrapbooking. In high school, I remember going to her house, and she proudly showed me rows of family albums. What memories! She’d pull one from the shelf and say, “This was the year I was born.” Or “Here’s first grade.”
She’d open the massive book and point to a class photo. You could pick her out immediately. She was the one with a winning smile and her signature curly brown hair finished with a perky pink bow.
“There you are.” She’d point to the girl awkwardly standing in the back with blond bangs almost covering her eyes. “Look how cute you were.”
A part of me thought it was a little odd that she was doing this in high school. Wasn’t she supposed to be hanging out with friends or obsessing over boys or something? But another part of me thought it was pretty amazing.
My memory archiving consisted of old spelling tests, strange drawings of ducks I did when I was four, random photos, and unfinished journals stuffed in a see-through plastic container my mom had bought at some discount store.
“I’ll get around to scrapbooking when I’m a grandmother,” my mother would say, while my dad would set up the camera every Christmas and take videos of us opening presents and follow us around at every soccer game and family event like he was our own personal paparazzi. By the time I had reached high school, my parents had boxes and boxes of photos of my siblings and me. As well as mini tapes with countless hours of video. And hard drives with gigabites of data.
None of it was organized. None of it was accessible. And if I wanted to find my class photo in first grade, it would take me hours, if I even found it at all. I’ve spent years trying to find one set of my baby photos that mysteriously disappeared when my mother put them in a “safe place.” Every time I visit my parents, I look again without luck.
It’s great that my parents had the foresight to capture moments of us growing up and to store those for the future, but this barrage of information is overwhelming. I don’t want to spend hours viewing videos of me kicking a soccer ball around. Or watch recital after recital of me singing with a giant sunflower on my head. Not to mention, all the effort that’s involved in acquiring a VHS player or the proper projector. And what about as I get older? Will my kids or grandkids even understand the significance of any of these memories?
The Novel of Your Life
Have you ever had the experience of digging through a box of old family photos – you know, ones from a few generations ago with black and white people with serious expressions? They’re neat, but how do you identify which one was your great-grandmother? After a while, these snapshots become meaningless because no one organized them or told of their significance.
In order for your memories to last, you have to consciously extract the moments that had the most impact and explain what meaning they had for you.
Of course, you don’t want to do this with every photo or Facebook post or YouTube video because you’d be bogged down with way too much information and your family would get sick of reading about what you ate for breakfast.
In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell said, “When you reach an advanced age and look back over your lifetime, it can seem to have had a consistent order and plan, as though composed by some novelist. Events that when they occurred had seemed accidental and of little moment turn out to have been indispensable factors in the composition of a consistent plot.”
So, a lot of what makes memories great is perspective. It’s being able to look back and pick out those plot points that have composed the novel of your life.
This can be tough – especially if you haven’t reached an advanced age or don’t really have enough perspective to see the inner workings of your own personal novel yet.
But there are strategies to bring out these points and to keep refining this personal novel, now and in the future, no matter your age or state in life. So that what you pass on isn’t a bunch of spelling tests from grade school that have no significance or boxes and boxes of information that will be thrown out when you die. You want the highlights. You want the wisdom you attained. You want the lessons you learned. You want to pass on the best parts of yourself. Because those parts not only make your life more meaningful, they also become a source of strength and understanding for your family.
Questions About Perspective
You may not always know what’s important as you’re going through an experience, but adding some perspective-enhancing questions will help with the process. As far as what you do with the information after you’ve asked the questions, that’s up to you. But I’d recommend keeping a journal, posting it on a website that makes it easy to archive, and save your most-important memories (which probably isn’t Facebook or Instagram, unless you’re really disciplined in what you post and you don’t care about privacy), or turning it into a video or book.
When you’re archiving memories, you’ll want to look at the distant past, the not-so-distant past, and the current time.
Distant Past Questions
The distant past is easier to put into perspective. Here are some questions to get you started:
- What was your very first memory?
- What period or event can you pinpoint as the happiest time of your childhood?
- What have been the best times of your life so far? lWhat have been the best learning experiences so far?
- What is your favorite possession and why? lWhat are your most cherished memories?
- What was your most romantic moment?
Not-So-Distant Past Questions
Consider what has happened to you over the last year and think about these questions:
- What is the most significant thing that has happened in my life over the past year?
- What stage am I at in my life and how is that impacting my viewpoints?
- What seemed important to me a few months ago that is no longer important? (You probably won’t archive this, but it will get you to start filtering events with a higher level of awareness as they happen.)
Current Events Questions
These are questions to ask as you’re going through an experience.
- In 100 years, when someone is reading about me, will this memory matter? (This one’s tricky, because what seems trivial — like how sweet the flowers smell when you walk to visit your lover — could seem insignificant now, but may be a beautiful detail when you talk about visiting your husband-to-be in the future.)
- How can I make the most of what’s happening right now? What significance does it have? (i.e. a vacation, a hike, going to school, or other event)
Not every event needs to have significance, and you don’t need to manufacture it. But there are places and times when everything seems to click. You know, when you are around a table with your friends, laughing and joking, and the night unfolds in an almost magical way. Or the times when the opposite happens — when you’re on your way to work, you get a flat tire, the tow truck is two hours late, someone helps you on the side of the road, and says one sentence that burns into your mind and changes your perspective forever.
It’s those small moments. Those moments of reflection that make up the novel of your life. Your life’s novel isn’t significant because of the events that took place. It’s significant because of you and how those events shaped your inner development and choices.
Don’t let pieces that make up the novel of your life get lost in your head, in a folder on DropBox, or at the bottom of a see-through plastic container under stacks of minutiae. Craft it into something beautiful that your family will want to read or look at some day.
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