By Laura A. Roser

How to Extract Your Life Lessons

One story, told right, could decide the fate of your children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. Think about it, that one story about how you started your business could be the thing that unifies your family and makes them want to dedicate their lives to your vision. Or your story about how you fought for your marriage, could give your daughter enough strength to fight for hers.

Princeton researcher and neuroscientist, Uri Hasson, did several studies in which he found that by simply telling a story, someone could plant ideas, thoughts, and emotions in the listeners’ brains. Brain scans also revealed that when someone tells a story and becomes emotional, they create the exact same emotional reaction in others’ brains. In other words, your stories are the best way to spread your beliefs to your family.

But not all stories are created equal. In fact, if you don’t watch out, you could also bore your kids to death by detailing the dress you wore to the prom for the eighteenth time. You could try to extract too much “wisdom” from your stories and become preachy and overbearing, causing your kids to rebel. You could try to protect your kids from your unpleasant memories and fail to teach them about how resilient your family is, making it harder for them to cope or connect with you when they face their own struggles. Or you could decide to not talk with your kids about your past at all and regret never having shared the most-important parts of yourself.

My advice: Share your stories. Share your hopes, challenges, and triumphs. But do it intelligently.

Through our Wisdom Discovery™ process, we’ve identified five main obstacles people face when trying to convey their wisdom to their families.

Obstacle 1: Not Realizing How Extraordinary You Are

Many people feel as if they don’t have much wisdom to offer. Sure, they’ve lived life and learned lessons, but they don’t see how that’s helpful to others. This is a complete misconception. Your family loves you and your experiences are much more potent to them because you are a part of them. Your seeminglymundane stories can be loaded with inspiration.

One of my favorite stories about courage comes from my mother and her experience with an elementary school teacher when she was young. He accused her and two other girls of cheating. The other girls started crying, but my mother denied it, defiantly crossed her arms and scowled at him. She was outraged that he would accuse her; her parents had always taught her that cheating was one of the worst things you could do and she knew she did not cheat. Finally, the teacher told my mother she could go because she obviously didn’t cheat. This story has stayed with me whenever I need to stand up for myself or my principles. You have many stories like this that could help your family.

Your family will also be intrigued by details about your home life growing up and how you experienced the world during your generation. Things that seem commonplace to you (like loading a video cassette into a VCR) could be fascinating to your grandchild, who doesn’t know what that is. Your experience of history gives your family members an intimate peek into what it was like through your eyes.

Obstacle 2: Turning Feelings to Words

Another obstacle to transferring wisdom is simply telling a good story. Some people are fantastic storytellers. Others struggle with putting thoughts and feelings into words.

You may remember the first time you fell in love, but if you just say, “it was glorious and magical,” you miss crucial elements of the story. Your listeners want to be taken on the journey with you. The key is determining why you are telling the story and then taking your listeners through the twists and turns of your love. This requires bringing in small details – like how the flowers smelled when you walked to your beloved’s home – and showing how much you loved him (not telling us about it). For example, instead of saying, “I loved him so much,” you’d say something like, “I’d write his name over and over again in my notebook. In fact, I got so distracted, my teacher sent me to the principal’s office because I couldn’t pay attention in class.”

Think of your stories as art. Read some good memoirs. Observe how the authors write about life events and model their techniques. Begin to think of your life as a novel.

Obstacle 3: Uncovering Hidden Gems

Most people don’t have a catalog of life lessons. This is why we take our clients through a memorypriming process that helps them to uncover important events in their lives. One of the best ways to uncover meaningful experiences is to participate in a guided autobiography group with a skilled moderator. That way, you can listen to the stories of others and be reminded of your own. This helps you to understand your life and attached significance to events in your past. Many people experience “ah-hah moments” when they review their life.

One man I was talking with, for example, told about an experience with his father. As a boy, he went camping with his father and several scouts. They were all sitting around the campfire and someone threw a can of nuts at the group. He instinctively reached up and caught the can. His father said to him, “I can’t believe you caught that. I would have never even tried.” It was in that moment that he realized he could make different decisions than his father and that he could try to be someone great, rather than sitting back and never taking a chance.

Before he mentioned the story to me, he had never assigned that much meaning to it. But after he described it, he realized it was a big turning moment in his life. It gave us both chills.

Obstacle 4: Engaging Short Attention Spans

Microsoft did a study in which it determined that the average attention span is 8 seconds (a goldfish’s attention span is 9 seconds). Everyone is distracted, and that’s especially true for the younger generation with their smartphones and addictive apps. It’s crucial that you know how to keep your stories engaging. If you entertain and enlighten, your grandkids will listen for hours, but if you go off on tangents and repeat yourself, they’ll roll their eyes and start glancing at their phones.

Entertaining your audience is more important than telling every little detail of the story. You want to spark conversation and get your kids and grandkids involved. That’s how you develop engaging conversations and build a library of family wisdom that sticks.

Obstacle 5: Coming Off as Preachy

Think of sharing your stories as something that’s fun and interesting – a way to introspect about your own life and share the journey of growing and learning with others. Don’t come into it with an agenda of trying to change or control your family members. Sometimes people will tell a story as a way to help another “see the light.” So, in telling the story, rather than being humble and introspective, they are forceful and closeminded. It’s especially bad if you compare your story to the behavior of your loved ones. This will repel them faster than nothing else.

You see this all the time. A story like, “My grandmother always told me to work hard and that’s what helped me become the man I am today. Now, son, you need to buckle down and work hard, otherwise, you’ll be a loser and this family doesn’t produce losers. Got that!” Yuck. This just makes this man’s son feel bad about himself. If you want to tell a story about working hard, tell it, but don’t use it as a commentary to complain about what someone else is doing wrong.

Stories should spread empowerment and resilience. A dose of humility is always needed because the more you introspect and the older you get, the more you realize that there’s a lot of unknowns in life. Most experiences don’t make much sense until you look back and assign meaning to them. That’s why everything is clearer in hindsight. Your family members need the space to be able to grow, make mistakes, learn, and make sense of their own journey.

Wisdom That Bonds and Enthralls

When you take the time to share your life with your family, something magical happens: You begin to understand their behavior better, you appreciate them more, you have deeper conversations, and you create an open environment for sharing and support. Life can be hard and although no one has a manual, you can give your loved ones a shoulder to lean on and words of encouragement as they transverse experiences of love, joy, struggle, doubt, shame, and triumph. Sharing yourself lets them know they are not alone and gives them permission to do the same.

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 Laura A. Roser is the founder and CEO of Paragon Road, the #1 authority in meaning legacy planning. For more information about meaning legacy planning services, visit