August 4, 2020 / Esther Choy

Story Library

Create a story library in just one minute per day.

It’s pitch dark in the room and the floor feels exceptionally cold. I fumble my way to the closet only to trip over a book one of my kids left on the floor the night before.

“It’s time for my swim,” I think.

But deep in the morning haze, I forget that I am no longer in Hong Kong, where even during the winter a morning swim in an outdoor pool is not only feasible but an easy start to the day.

However, I am now back in Chicago, adjusting from Hong Kong’s climate—where 50 degrees is often the low—to Chicago’s negative teens.

Let me explain.

For six weeks at the end of 2015, my family and I packed up some of our belongings and stayed in a service apartment in Hong Kong. My husband and I kept working while homeschooling our oldest child. We also made plans with friends and family, as desperate to see them as if we were North Koreans who had been separated from their families in the south for decades.

Six weeks sounds like a long time, but at the end of our annual trip, we asked ourselves, “What happened to our time here? How come we didn’t do much of anything?”

Contrary to the reoccurring sentiment at the end of our trip each year, we did a LOT in six weeks. We felt like we hadn’t done much of anything precisely because we were so busy doing that we left no time for remembering.

And according to psychologist Daniel Kahneman, “We don’t only tell stories when we set out to tell stories. Our memory tells us stories, that is, what we get to keep from our experiences is a story.”

Without making the time to remember, even a busy six-week stint felt blank to us. If we felt that way, then what happens to those who are busy working, climbing the corporate ladder, raising families, and getting involved with their communities—and spending decades on these commitments?

From my experience working with clients, they draw a blank too. Deep down they know they have done a lot. But when asked to tell their stories—the most memorable, the most life altering, the most educational— they came up with random, incoherent laundry lists of facts.

Don’t let it happen to you!

“But I’m busy and I have no time to sit down to remember!” You might protest.

Sure. We don’t have time; we make time. And making the time to remember AND record doesn’t need to be so onerous. Here’re a few tips and tools for building your story library one step at a time.

Build a Story Library of Significant Everyday Moments

(Takes 1 – 3 minutes.)

  • Use Evernote, OneNote, or any number of note taking apps available in the market. Start a notebook solely dedicated to recording these moments or decisions.
  • Prefer a more multimedia take on your experiences? Apps like DayOne incorporate photo, video, and audio narration to record your moments.
  • Not a fan of gadgets? No problem. Find a box, jar or any empty but sturdy container that you can keep in a safe and private space. Write down your moments whenever they come to you on a scrap piece of paper and drop it in your container.
  • Try not to sound eloquent or even write grammatically correct sentences. Bullet points or short phrases are ideal.
  • If you do go the analogue way, be sure to write down the date of the entry.

Consolidate Your Memories, a.k.a. Stories.

(Takes 15 minutes, twice a year.)
  • Every six months, re-read your entries. Take fifteen minutes to reflect and jot down any new insights or patterns you have not yet noticed. Then, ask yourself the following questions.
    • What am I most proud of in the last six months?
    • What has been most unexpected to me in the last six months?
    • Based on what has happened in the past six months, what matters to me most now?
  • Resist the temptation to self-censor or to create the most articulate thoughts.
  • The most important thing is to take that 15 minutes to jot it down. In fact, be straight with yourself and allow no more than 15 minutes.

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Co-Create Memories and Stories with People Important to You.

(Takes as long or as short as you’d like.)
  • Use our Crazy Good Questions to ask just about all types of people you will encounter in your life.
  • StoryCorps has a free app that lets you instantly create a recording experience with someone important to you without the hassle of making arrangements to go to one of its professional recording booths.
  • If you have small kids, you know how hard it is to get them to talk about their days at school or daycare. Mother.ly offers this list of thirty-five questions, beyond the what-did-you-do-today varieties, that opens up wonderful windows of opportunities to peek into their world that you have limited access to.
All of these efforts at building a story library will be well worth it when suddenly you find yourself having to job hunt, write your own introduction for a panel discussion, or simply feel the bug to recap a story amidst all the busyness that defines your life.

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Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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