If You Want to Live a Compelling Life Story, Start With Coherence

March 6, 2016
Todd Hall

Sandra Levy-Achtemeier started her career as an academic psychologist at a major university. She was enjoying a good measure of success, publishing her research, presenting papers around the world, and receiving grants from prestigious institutions. But all through this period, she had a growing sense that it didn’t mean much to her. When she asked colleagues what they would do if they only had two years to live, most of them said they’d keep doing exactly what they were doing. She knew she wouldn’t. She knew she would get out of the academy in a heartbeat. After some soul searching, she realized that the story she’d written so far with her life wasn’t authentic and coherent. Her current projects and goals didn’t match her deepest values and the virtues she aspired to develop.

Sometimes we head down a path that doesn’t reflect a coherent life story that gives us a sense of meaning.

This can be due to several factors. For some, like Dr. Levy-Achtemeier, it’s a larger career path that’s not a good fit. For others, it’s difficult to figure out how all the pieces of life fit together. It’s become even more difficult now with the rise of multiple jobs, careers, roles, and projects across time and even at the same time. I continue to struggle with this. How do my various roles fit together, including those in work and non-work contexts? Is there a unifying theme, or just disparate goals leaving me feeling fragmented?

Whatever the particular scenario, and whatever life stage you’re in, we all need to feel that our lives make sense, hang together, and have meaning. We need to feel that our lives reflect a compelling story. And at every stage of life, you have choice; you can choose to rebuild your life to reflect a compelling life story.

We are wired to think in the form of a story. From a very young age, we begin to weave together sequences of events into stories to make sense of our world. A sense of meaning in our lives comes from the story we tell about it. To return to Dr. Levy-Achtemeier’s story, her deepest values were connected to her spiritual roots in the Catholic tradition going back to high school. After her soul searching and input from her community, she left academia and attended seminary to study for the Episcopal priesthood. Once she made the decision, she felt a great sense of joy and peace. She has gone on to do meaningful pastoral work that integrates her background as a psychologist. She re-wrote her story and created a “sense of coherent wholeness.” [1]

There are good and not-so-good life stories. So, how do you build, or re-build a compelling life story? There are several indispensable truths of a compelling life story, but here we’ll focus on one: coherence. A good life story is coherent. In other words, the various aspects of your life “hang together.” But they hang together because they are centered around the core of who you are. There are two types of coherence: coherence with values and with motivations.

Coherence with Values

When Dr. Levy-Achtemeier shifted from her academic to pastoral self, she experienced a greater degree of coherence between her life-long values and the newly formed goals and practices of her pastoral career path.

At one point in my career, I pursued graduate training in statistics at UCLA. I was immersed in a new culture with different values than I had been used to, coming from the world of clinical psychology. For a while, I contemplated moving into a more pure research career. But over time, I realized that these goals didn’t feel coherent with my deepest values related to helping people develop. The larger social context and community didn’t seem like they would move me toward the kind of person I want to become. So I stuck with applied research and continued to work directly with people in therapy and coaching. This work feels like a coherent and compelling life story for me.

To what extent do your current goals and practices fit with your deepest values? This requires that you take a step back and get clear on your deepest values. Is your work contributing to you becoming the kind of person you want to be? If not, you may need to make a change, ranging from approaching your work differently to changing you career.

Coherence with Motivations

You may have various roles that are generally consistent with your values, but some fit better than others with your core motivations, and more broadly, your talents. Some are a better expression of who you are, and closer to your greatest contribution.

I spent several years developing a web-based assessment system. I enjoyed parts of this work, but over time it became clear to me that this work didn’t sufficiently tap into my core motivations, which involve achieving my potential to develop others (see the MCORE assessment here for a resource to identify your core motivations). In hindsight, it side-tracked me from the contribution I’m uniquely wired to make based on my core motivations, experiences, and talents. When I let this go, it freed me up tremendously and gave me a much stronger sense of coherence in my life story.

Think about how each of your roles and projects fits with your motivations, passions, and talents. You may need to let some things go. As you progress in your career, you will likely need to say no to more things. Think of a bull’s eye that represents the center of your motivations, passions, and talents. As you consider taking on new projects, ask yourself if a given project falls within the bull’s eye. Saying no to those that don’t fall within the bull’s eye will promote more coherence in your life.

On the other hand, you may also need to add some things to fill out your sense of coherence. Your life may not hang together well in a sense because you’re not doing something you were meant to do. Is there something at the intersection of your natural motivations and talents that you’re not doing? If so, start experimenting with doing something in this area.

I hope these reflections help you to live an ever more compelling life story.


[1]  Levy-Achtemeier, S. (2012).  Flourishing Life: Now and in the Time to Come. Eugene, OR: Cascade.

More From Dr. Todd Hall

If You Want to Succeed in Life, Don’t Ignore Emotions – Train Them

5 Mindset Shifts to Promote Connection

To Promote Positive Change, Start With Grief

Todd Hall, Ph.D. is Chief Scientist and cofounder of Connection Culture Group. Dr. Hall is a psychologist, author, and consultant focused on helping people live and lead with connection. He is a co-developer of the MCORE motivation assessment, and a contributor for the Human Capital Institute. You can learn more about Dr. Hall's work at drtoddhall.com and follow him on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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