Every story we love has some kind of underlying theme ranging from love, survival and redemption to good versus evil and coming of age. Story themes are universal, conveying a lesson, belief or an idea about life. The theme connects and guides all parts of a story from the plot points, conflicts and characters to the setting. In business, a theme could be like a mission, purpose or value statement.
As the lines of business and life become more and more blurred, especially for creative entrepreneurs, a theme can help guide us. It provides a path toward greater integrity between life and work. Here’s how:
You don’t allow others to spin your narrative.
With the abundance of information flying at us every day, it’s easy to get stuck in the cycle of trying to do what everyone else in your industry is doing. My inbox is overflowing from thought leaders telling me all of the things I should be doing to make my business more successful. Do I do everything they say I must or should do? Heck no! I implement what makes sense for me and energizes me– and I let the other stuff go.
One sign that you’re letting others spin your narrative is when you hear yourself saying things like “I guess I’m supposed to do_________ in order to be successful.” But deep down you have no interest in taking care of this “supposed to do.” The task just sits on your to-do list week after week reminding you what a terrible individual you are for not doing this one thing. For example, maybe you’re being told that you should post daily on at least three different social media sites, but it’s driving you crazy trying to figure out how to do all of this, so you do nothing at all.
A theme can help you stick to your personal values and communication style. If Instagram is your favorite social media hang out and it feels more natural for you to share information there, why not just post there? It will feel less like a chore you have to get through and more genuine to both you and your audience.
You seek guides.
Your theme should remind you that it’s okay to seek out advisors who you resonate with. In every story, the protagonist or hero relies on a guide to move them closer to their goal (ex., Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda are both guides to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars).
In real life, our guides may show up as advisors, mentors, teachers, coaches, therapists, healthcare providers, colleagues, family members and close friends. The guide typically may have a particular expertise or more life experience—“been there, done that, here’s how.” Because they’ve been on a similar journey or have specialized training, they can provide clarity and direction as you navigate your ship.
You are aware of the villains.
Every story ever told has a villain or antagonist. The villain can be an actual bad guy/gal (famous examples: Annie Wilkes, Misery; Norman Bates, Psycho) or can represent an internal struggle or pain point.
Alcohol or drugs might be the villain in a story about addiction or an arch rival might be the villain in a love story. A villain in your life might be lack of time or an internal conflict like guilt or stress. Villains like to make it seem as if our life goals aren’t possible. And because they can be big and scary to deal with, we put off dealing with them for as long as we can.
Unfortunately, our villains don’t just go away on their own. That’s the case in every great story ever told. They just get bigger, hairier and scarier.
A life theme helps strengthen us when finally faced with these villains. Part of my life theme is “curiosity.” This reminds me to get curious about the issues in my life that I know I’m going to have to eventually deal with. Consider ways to overcome your villain. What will your weapons be? Therapy? A more mindful approach to life? Additional training or education? A product or service that can help you face your nemesis and conquer it once and for all?
You know who is welcome and who is not.
On every quest, we run into gatekeepers or threshold guardians—the people/animals/things in stories (and in real life) that create obstacles, making it harder for the hero to complete a task along their journey toward reaching their dream.
Who in your life drains your energy or consistently distracts or discourages you?
A threshold guardian can be our own self-limiting internal dialogue telling us we aren’t good enough and should give up. By becoming aware of who and what the threshold guardians are in our lives, we can create solutions to work around these annoying obstacles.
Plot twists encouraged.
A theme is an underlying mission or purpose for your life, but it isn’t specific marching orders–as in you must stick to this plan no matter what! Remember, you’re the main character of your life. If you don’t like the path you’re on, you’re bored, or you’re unhappy with who you’ve become and want to make changes, you can –even if you know it’s going to be challenging. You’re allowed to change your mind. Many of my clients had careers that they’d settled into, only to decide 20 years in, they wanted to do something different mid-life—something more meaningful to them
Just as plot twists are necessary in stories, they’re part of our stories. We may not choose the plot twists (think a layoff, a divorce or a death of a loved one), but as curious human beings we have the capacity to learn and grow from these experiences.
Guided by our personal theme, we can navigate the road ahead with a little more clarity and confidence.
Creating your Life Theme.
Think about your life and what you value. What matters to you? What brings you great joy? What brings meaning and purpose to your life? Who do you want to surround yourself with?
As an example, here’s my life theme:
To live a life that values authentic creative expression, curiosity and connection with those who share my desire for a kinder, wiser version of humanity.
If you try this exercise, I’d love to see what you come up with! Share below.