What Gets Lost When We Fail to Live a Good Story

Donald Miller

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” -Maya Angelou

Every leader invites people into a story.

Thomas Jefferson invited the country into a story about democracy. Rosa Parks invited the country into a story about racial equality. Billy Graham invited the world into a story about eternity.

Could it be you were designed to live a great story, too? This is an important question because lives hang in the balance. What if the story burning inside you, if lived, could dramatically influence the lives of others? And what if that story could bring light into an otherwise dark world?

*Photo from BGEA

Because we are not involved in stories about justice, stories about injustice permeate the world.

At Storyline, we are committed to helping good people tell great stories as a way of positively influencing the world. And we are calling on you to tell a better story with your life.

I’ll never forget that season of my life when I realized I could positively affect the world around me. It was the summer before I wrote A Million Miles in a Thousand Years when some friends and I rode our bikes across America to raise money for wells in Sub-Saharan Africa. I learned on that ride what I did mattered, what I said mattered, and my actions could save the lives of many. It was that summer I got hooked on the idea of telling a great story with my life.

Since then, I’ve studied how telling meaningful stories overlaps with living a meaningful life.

Great stories overlap great lives in many ways. Here are just a few, appropriate in length for a simple blog. In great lives and great stories:

    1. The ambitions are clear.
    2. The external stakes are high.
    3. The philosophical stakes are high.

I’ll explain, piece by piece.

    1. The ambitions are clear: Without a clear direction, there is no story. A great leader points to a specific place on the horizon and says this is where we are going. Everybody within earshot needs to be able to understand exactly what the ambition is. Whether it’s a President talking about spreading democracy throughout the world, a CEO spelling out a specific plan for expansion, or a mother defining a clear vision for her children, the vision must be clear. And so we must ask ourselves, are our ambitions clear? And are they compelling? If not, we are likely not living a good story. And perhaps we are living no story at all.

    2. The external stakes are high: The term external stakes is often used by storytellers to help define what will be gained or lost if the ambition is not reached. Every leader must be able to explain the external stakes of their vision if not seen through. In the case of a President, this may involve war or a deeper recession. For a CEO, this might involve the loss or gain of jobs or a stock drop or surge. In your family, this could involve the demise of a marriage or character faults being ingrained in a child. External stakes are physical gains or losses that will take place depending on whether a vision is carried out. This is a very important aspect of leading people into and through a story. Can you list the external stakes for each of your ambitions? Can you communicate them clearly?

    3. The philosophical stakes are high: This one’s the toughest one, but it’s the most important. Many CEO’s cannot name the philosophical stakes of their corporate endeavors, and so employee engagement as well as client engagement suffers tremendously. Philosophical stakes can be as simple as good vs evil, or freedom vs tyranny. The philosophical stakes could be the individual vs the state or love vs selfishness. When we understand and can articulate philosophical stakes as they relate to clear ambitions, we are starting to learn to lead people into a story. And if we can’t, we must begin to wrestle with the overall importance of the story we want to live in the first place.

    Philosophical stakes is where we are failing. Most of the stories that interest us have little to no philosophical stakes. The internal and external stakes may be high, but if it’s not a good vs evil, freedom vs tyranny, love vs selfishness story, it likely will only have a temporary and futile impact on the world. And we will die having lived meaningless stories. And that is heartbreaking. We could have enjoyed the gift of life so much more.

If you ask me what the world is suffering for, I won’t answer food, water, shelter or dignity, though we certainly suffer for these things, rather, my answer will be stories. We suffer for better stories.

While we do see points of light, much of the tragic reality in the world today is happening because great stories have gone unlived. Who will tell a story about being a great mother or father? Who will tell a story about adopting a child? Who will tell a story about running an ethical business? Who will tell a story about starting a church?

Why can’t it be you?

What if God shares fate with you and has given you agency to impact the world?

Today, go back up to the three elements of a great story (and a great life) I outlined above. Are your ambitions clear? Do you understand and can you name the external stakes? What are the philosophical stakes? And can you communicate all of these clearly? Have you spent the days necessary to clarify to yourself and to the world the stories you are living? If so, you’ll lead the world and you likely should.

At Storyline, we believe there are very bad people in the world telling very bad stories. We’d like to crowd those stories out with great stories told by you.

*Photo by James Cridland, Creative Commons

Our goal, from the beginning, has been to equip one-million remarkable people to tell better stories with their lives. This matters because so many people want to have an influence but don’t realize they can. And when their stories save lives, they are truly emboldened. In living great stories, they bond with a God who is partnering with us to love a broken humanity and they feel a closeness with God they hadn’t felt before.

Thousands have already gone through the ever-evolving Storyline process. We want the next person to be you.

If you’d like to spend two days clarifying the stories you are living, join us in San Diego in one month. On February 23rd and 24th, hundreds of us will meet to gain a clearer picture of the stories we’d like to live.

I’ll be delivering five hours of lectures and we’ll have numerous inspirational guests to inspire you to lead a remarkable life. You’ll also connect with people from around the country with a common interest in telling a better story to the world. Plus, it’s San Diego, so you’re likely to have a lot of fun.

Early registration prices aren’t available for much longer. Register for Storyline in San Diego today by clicking here.


What is The Storyline Conference? Storyline is a conference started by Donald Miller that equips people to live better stories with their lives.

What happens at Storyline? When you arrive at Storyline, you’ll register, meet other conference attendees, then Don will walk through the steps to living a great story with your life. You’ll leave Storyline with easy-to-understand resources allowing you to create a life plan for living a great story. We will also watch Tom Shadyac’s film, I Am and hear an inspirational talk from Bob Goff, author of Love Does. There will be plenty of time to interact with each other as well.

What makes Storyline different? While Storyline is a lot of fun, there are no subwoofers, laser lights, or clowns making balloon animals. Storyline is about reflecting on your life using several modules, understanding what God is doing in the world and taking decisive action to join him. Storyline is a cross between a spiritual retreat and a life-planning workshop.

Who attends Storyline? Our attendees tend to be high-level thinkers and producers who are already achieving but want to sharpen their focus and their impact. At Storyline in San Diego, we will have between 500 – 700 attendees ranging from 20 years old to 75.

Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller has been telling his story for more than a decade, now he wants to help you tell yours. He’s helped over 1,000 companies clarify their message through the StoryBrand Workshops. For an introduction to what he’s doing now, check out the 5 Minute Marketing Makeover.