Have you ever thought about your life as a story? My guess is that you’d benefit greatly by thinking about the story of your life, and perhaps analyzing your performance thus far. By doing this, you’ll probably be able to see for the first time what your life has really been about as well as where your life is heading. The truth of the matter is that all of us are actually writing, directing, and starring in our own story every day. We just don’t tend to think of it that way. But here’s an interesting question to consider: Would you enjoy going to the movies to see your story being acted out? Is it a good story that others would find interesting or, for that matter, would you find it interesting? Would you like how you are living your life if you were watching yourself on a movie screen?
One of my favorite pastimes is watching movies. I love a good movie. Nothing seems to have the power to carry me away like a great story brought to life on the big screen. But have you ever stopped to think that many of the stories we like the most are actually quite similar in structure? In fact, you might be surprised to learn that most successful movies are based on stories that have only a few key elements. I’ve seen academic lists of 5 elements including Introduction, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Denouement from movie critics, and I also remember hearing someone use as many as 7 elements to analyze movies which I found more interesting because the elements used could more easily be connected with a person’s life. For our purposes, I’m going to use a rough outline of those 7 elements I once heard discussed but I’m going to change the order a bit and re-label them in an effort to help you see how powerful this concept can be when it comes to living your best possible life.
Remember, your life really is a story, or series of stories. And maybe by detaching to see your life as a moviegoer would see it, you’ll be able to see things you’ve never seen before. By viewing your life as a story, is it possible that you might discover how to make it better? How to get unstuck? How to solve your current problems? How to overcome whatever it is that’s standing between you and what it is you really want in life?
Most stories start with a person that has a desire or a wish or a goal that he or she wants to make real. We could simply label this element “The Desire.”
Let’s use the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus to bring this whole concept to life. If you haven’t seen the movie, consider watching it with this list of elements at hand. If you have seen it, consider watching it again and see if the movie’s message doesn’t affect you more once you understand the structure of the story. In Mr. Holland’s Opus, Richard Dreyfuss plays the leading role of Mr. Holland who is a man on a mission. He is a man who wants to write great music. He wants to be a world-class composer. But a story only begins with “The Desire”. What makes a story start to take shape and get us involved and engaged very quickly is the next element which we’ll call “The Problem.”
In Mr. Holland’s Opus, we quickly see that Mr. Holland has a major problem which can simply be labeled the cares of life. He needs money so he can have the free time he wants to write his opus. He needs to figure out a way to make some money. We can probably all identify with that problem on many levels. So often we have a desire to do something but it costs money. If we don’t have the money, we have a problem that needs to be solved.
But the movie also doesn’t stop there. Part of what makes any story interesting is seeing how problems are going to be overcome and Mr. Holland doesn’t disappoint us. He jumps right in to the next element of a story which we’ll call “The Plan.” Mr. Holland’s plan is simple. He is going to teach music until he can finish his great opus or symphony and, in the process, become a world-renowned composer. It’s an interesting desire with a plan to overcome his immediate problem. “The Desire” followed by “The Problem” with the introduction of “The Plan” that appears to have some merit. Isn’t it also interesting that we could probably identify these same elements in our own life? What’s your desire? What do you want to accomplish? What is your problem? What’s holding you back or standing between you and your desire? And what is your plan? Do you have a strategy to work your way through the problem or problems facing you in life?
Of course, we know that there’s always more to a great story than a desire, a problem, and a plan. If fact, if that’s all there was to Mr. Holland’s Opus, or any other movie we were watching, we’d probably be on the verge of being quite bored and getting ready to ask for our money back before we even finish our popcorn. But it’s the next element of a great story that makes things really get interesting. Let’s call this next part “The Opponents.”
Great stories have many levels of opponents and this is certainly true in the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus. And the job of the opponents is to do everything they can do to block “The Plan” and that’s exactly what happens to Mr. Holland. While Mr. Holland is content to do the minimum requirements as a music teacher so he has plenty of free time to compose his opus, the principal of the school has another idea. She doesn’t want Mr. Holland sneaking out early when there are students that need additional help. And we quickly see that Mr. Holland is confronted by a whole host of students that don’t appear to have a lick of musical talent yet he is expected to teach them. Let’s label all of these opponents, external opponents.
Getting back to your story, do you have any opponents? People that are holding you back? You might right now be making a list in your mind. What makes Mr. Holland’s Opus so interesting is the fact that he doesn’t just have one opponent but a number of opponents. I’ve heard people categorize opponents into three areas including external, internal, and intimate. The external opponents are easy to see. For Mr. Holland, we already discussed the principal and students but there were also others if you watch the movie and think about this a bit.
For example, what about the internal opponent that we all face? In the movie, we can see Mr. Holland conflicted about what to do just as we so often are with the choices we face in life. Mr. Holland wants to get his opus written and become a world-class composer, but he also wants to do right thing for the students that have been entrusted to him. And if that’s not enough, the movie quickly shows us that there are two key intimate opponents. Mr. Holland and his wife are blessed with the birth of a son but it is quickly discovered that the son is deaf. Imagine being a musician where hearing is everything to you and now you are presented with a child that cannot hear. Mr. Holland and his wife now have a son that is going to require a great deal of additional time to raise. I suppose you could say that this is how the plot thickens as Mr. Holland has to deal with some pretty challenging intimate family relationships which can be seen as opponents to Mr. Holland’s desire or goal.
Can you identify with the idea of external, internal, and intimate opponents in your life? It’s not unusual that the biggest part of a movie, or the story of your life, to get caught up in the drama of dealing with opponents. In fact, as the opponents become more and more clear, we could say that the next phase of the story is rather obvious and is often simply called “The Battle.”
Rarely do opponents just cave in without a conflict. And it’s often this struggle with various opponents that connects us to a story. There might now be a chase scene or a toe-to-toe fight between the good guy and the bad guy that is almost cliché in movies, but there has to be some form of what might be called conflict resolution. In other words, how is this story going to turn out? What’s going to happen? Is Mr. Holland going to write his opus? How is he going to deal with the challenges with his wife and the fact that he now has a deaf son that needs special care? And how might Mr. Holland’s story of overcoming challenges relate to you? How are you going to overcome your problems and deal with your opponents?
I find that most people get stuck in the battle phase of their own personal stories. Isn’t that true? Talk with someone about their life and see what they talk about? More often than not, it’s the challenges. Of course, there’s nothing in and of itself that is bad about that unless you get stuck in your battle. But at some point, you have to do what all great movies do, you have to move beyond the battle. Although let’s face it, battle scenes can make a movie! But what’s next? Don’t things need to get resolved?
So how are things going to get resolved? It wasn’t easy for Mr. Holland. He had to learn to deal with his external opponents by making decisions about what was most important and setting new priorities. But, of course, this required battling himself from the standpoint of what to do about writing that opus that he thought was so important. And his wife wasn’t going to allow him to avoid his son or not develop the kind of relationship that he was capable of having even though his son was deaf. None of this was easy but watching him deal with all of this makes the story really come alive.
My apologies in advance for giving away the ending to the movie but I just can’t help myself. At the end of Mr. Holland’s career as a music teacher, he finds himself looking back on what he’s accomplished, or as he sees it, not accomplished with a sense of failure. The one thing that he set out to do — i.e., become a world-class composer — hasn’t happened. And what’s worse, the music program is now in jeopardy of being cancelled because of a lack of funding. As Mr. Holland clears out his desk with his wife and son accompanying him, he hears something going on in the auditorium of the school. Of course, his wife and son know exactly what is going on. As Mr. Holland gets to the auditorium and opens the door, he sees it’s filled with past and present students. Hundreds of people that have been touched by him and his gifts as a music teacher, and they are there to thank him for his life’s work.
Interestingly, an early clarinet student who was just one of the many students touched by Mr. Holland’s unique gifts as a teacher, had become Governor of the State, and she was now serving as the master of ceremonies for this special surprise event. During her speech, she says something that brings what we’ll call “The Resolution” clearly into focus. She says these words:
“Mr. Holland had a profound influence on my life and on a lot of lives I know. But I have a feeling that he considers a great part of his own life misspent. Rumor had it he was always working on this symphony of his. And this was going to make him famous, rich, probably both. But Mr. Holland isn’t rich and he isn’t famous, at least not outside of our little town. So it might be easy for him to think himself a failure. But he would be wrong, because I think that he’s achieved a success far beyond riches and fame. Look around you. There is not a life in this room that you have not touched, and each of us is a better person because of you. We are your symphony Mr. Holland. We are the melodies and the notes of your opus. We are the music of your life.”
Mr. Holland breaks down in tears as this point and finally understands what his life has been about up to that point. He has clarity. He understands something he didn’t understand before. He has resolution which opens things up for the final part of any great story or movie, “The Celebration.” In this case, Mr. Holland gets to hear what he has composed being performed by his students. There is much more to the movie than I’ve outlined here, but you probably get the idea. Mr. Holland is not a failure, he has discovered a greater success than he would have ever imagined for himself through the lives he has touched. He never realized until this moment that he had such an amazing teaching gift, and he certainly never realized the extent to which that gift had reached out into the world and really touched me people so deeply and profoundly.
And this brings us back to you. What about your life and your story? Where are you in the process of your story? Are you stuck dealing with an opponent? Have you been spending too many years in a battle? Are you learning that maybe the desire you started out with isn’t the best one for you and there is something much better?
More importantly, how do you want your story to end?
Or how about this? Nowhere is it written that you can have only one story. Maybe the present story you are living needs “The Resolution” and “The Celebration” so you can create a new story. As the credits rolled for Mr. Holland’s Opus, I found myself thinking that instead of retiring, Mr. Holland had plenty of time to become a composer if he still wanted to pursue that dream. But I also found myself thinking that sometimes what we get is better for us than what we might have wanted in the first place. Life is interesting that way. Sometimes we don’t get what we want but we get what we need.
Maybe a fresh look at your life and the story you are living could give you a new perspective. How about viewing your life as a story and seeing where that leads you. Just take the 7 elements we’ve discussed and apply them to your life thus far.
Is what you have been chasing really want you want? Is “The Desire” the right one for you?
Are the problems you are facing really that bad or are they serving you in some way? Is “The Problem” holding you back or getting you to grow?
Is your plan producing good results or do you need a different approach? Does “The Plan” appear to be working or is it time to consider another strategy?
What about those people that you view as opponents? Are “The Opponents” maybe your greatest gift because they are forcing you to grow?
Are you stuck in a battle that maybe it’s time to resolve? Is it time to realize that you can end “The Battle” at any time that you wish?
And finally, what lesson is life trying to teach you? Often all you need to resolve a situation is a new level of understanding which can come at any time. “The Resolution” just needs you to recognize the lesson so you can move on to that last element.
Whatever you do, don’t forget “The Celebration.” It’s like the icing on the cake. But do me a favor. No matter where you are in your current story, remember that you don’t have to wait until the end of it to have a party. Make your whole life a celebration. I think you’ll find it’s more fun that way.