What We Learn About Life from Fairy Tales

Note: The following is an adapted excerpt of my latest book, The Art of Work, which is now available at the lowest price it’s ever been on Amazon.

At the beginning of every great story, before anything exciting happens, we see something that looks a lot like normal life. Long before the protagonist slays a dragon or the heroine embarks on a quest, we see her in some unsuspecting place, dreaming of something more.

fairy tales
Photo Credit: tbee via Compfight cc

In Beauty and the Beast (my personal favorite Disney classic), Belle sings of wanting more than “this provincial life.” In Star Wars, Luke can’t wait to escape the boredom of a farmer’s life. And in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy sings about life “somewhere over the rainbow.”

It’s easy to dismiss such people when we meet them in everyday life as dreamers or even downright crazy. But are they really? I used to get up early on Saturday mornings and write essays that I would then save on my computer and share with no one. I dreamed of publishing my stories somewhere, but for years, they never left the comfort of my living room.

I’m not alone in this, this dreaming of another life. This is the preoccupation of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life and the fixation of Walter Mitty. It’s the reason we sometimes daydream or stay up late watching movies. Our lives are haunted by the ghosts of what might have been.

Here’s the good news, though. This is where a story always starts — with an unrealized dream. A hope deferred. A life un-lived. Before a chain of events sets the hero on a course to his destiny, there is a sense that there should be more to life than this. But hopefully, that’s not where the story ends.

At an important moment, everything begins to make sense. This is what storytellers call the “inciting incident,” the moment when the character’s perspective changes and the tale of an average person living an average life becomes one of mythic proportions.

But something has to happen for any of this to take place: The character must choose to enter the story. Belle goes to find her father. Luke leaves home with Obi-Wan. Dorothy gets swept up in a tornado. In any great narrative, there is a moment when a character decides to be more than a bystander. That’s really when a story begins — with the decision to act.

This choice, though, is often preceded by a feeling of discontent. Which is why when people are called to some great task, they know it. They recognize the prompting to do something significant, something bigger than themselves, and then respond.

Why? Because they have been waiting for it their whole lives.

Frustration prepares you for your purpose

My friend Ben Arment says every dream begins with frustration, and I think that’s true. But that frustration must be funneled into awareness that leads to action; otherwise, it becomes bitterness.

You must be willing to do something, to step out into the unknown and see what happens. Until you make this choice, you’ll continue feeling frustrated, seeing other people succeed and chalking it up to luck or some unfair advantage. You’ll be jealous and critical and wonder, why not me? And in doing this, you will deceive yourself.

Because the truth is some do get lucky, and others have been born into privilege. But what are those things to you? You are still called. Chances come to us all, but only those who are ready recognize them.

So before you know what your calling is, you must believe you are called to something, even if you don’t know what it is yet. That nagging sense that everything is not as it should be, that you were meant for more than the status quo, is an important clue. And what you do with that is essential to how your story unfolds.

What this means is you don’t need some big plan. You just need to be a little dissatisfied with the way things are, to possess a premonition that something is amiss and you may hold the key to fixing it.

You don’t need some big lucky break or a golden opportunity. You don’t even need to “just know” what you’re supposed to do. You just need the willingness to begin. Only then can you dedicate yourself to the work required of you, and only then will you know what it’s worth.

Without this awareness, you won’t be able to recognize the opportunities that come. And they always come to those with open eyes.

Action is required

So what do this mean practically?

First, you must acknowledge the story that you’re in and recognize that your gift is needed. The world will not be made right until you see things as they really are.

Then, embrace the frustration that you feel and decide to do something about it. Committing to a course of action is essential to getting unstuck.

Finally, you must act, paying attention to the lessons you’ll learn along the way and stay flexible enough to change course as you discover new information.

All of this, of course, is predicated on doing something. Every great story begins with awareness but leads to action. You must enter the tale that is unfolding around you and choose to become a part of it. Otherwise, you’re just another dreamer, staring out into an open field or singing some sad song about a rainbow.

And stories are rarely made by those who only dream.

When was the last time you did something instead of dream about it? What did that reveal to you about the story you’re living? Share in the comments.

Note: This was an excerpt of my latest book, The Art of Work, which is now at the lowest price it’s ever been on Amazon. Check it out!

16 thoughts on “What We Learn About Life from Fairy Tales

  1. I loved how you used the Fairytale analogy to compare to real life and how there is nothing wrong with being a dreamer and being frustrated as long as you use this frustration to fuel yourself to do something about it. For me, actually starting my blog was the latest dream of mine that I finally did something about. Next stop, writing my own original novel!

    Emily | Always Emily

  2. “Stories are rarely made by those who only dream.”
    Thank you Jeff. I have read the book. But, this excerpt sounded like I had never read it before. Maybe I wasn’t ready to really listen.

    1. Well to be fair, I edited this quite a bit from the book to adapt to the blog (and because I’m a relentless editor of my own work). But maybe.

  3. You know something? At times my life *does* seem like a fairy tale:

    Chapter 1: A 21-year-old unmarried mother from the sticks gets a clerk job at a big-city newspaper, and eventually convinces an editor to give her a chance at writing. Meets and marries a reporter, keeps freelancing and uses those clips to get a full-time newspaper gig in Alaska when her husband does.

    Chapter 2: Sadly, the guy turns out to be abusive but she is unable to break free. Keeps writing, wins local and national awards. Freelances for magazines and other publications and writes a travel book. Sees her daughter through a near-fatal neurological disease (doing the final edits in the ICU and faxing them from the nurses’ station).

    Chapter 3: She gets a job at the Chicago Tribune along with her husband. About 14 months in she quits and goes freelance. Eventually is able to leave the marriage but goes broke during the protracted divorce.

    Chapter 4: She decides that if she doesn’t finish her education now she never will, so she walks over to the community college and says, “How do I do this?” Work-study and scholarships pay for the first year. At the same time stumbles into a new career (online journalism, with MSN Money).

    Chapter 5: She earns a full-ride scholarship to the University of Washington, where she earns a humanities-type degree with honors and doesn’t pay a dime out of pocket. Keeps writing for MSN and other sites and starts speaking at conferences (SaveUp, New Media Expo, Financial Blogger Conference, the upcoming Digital CoLab).

    Chapter 6: The happy ending! She finds midlife romance with an old friend who turned into something much, much more. The two are perfect for each other (“Geeks in love,” as he puts it) and are happier than anyone else they know. Each day is a gift, even the crappy ones. Now she freelances selectively, is a writing coach and recently created an online blogging course.

    Living this story was very, very hard, especially when I was working several part-time jobs and going to school in my late 40s/early 50s with what was eventually diagnosed as a thyroid disease. (CRAWLING through my days.)

    But it was also very liberating: I was finally able to direct the course of my own life instead of passively accepting what came my way.

    In other words, I didn’t wait for the prince. I rescued myself. How lovely that the prince did come my way later on, but until then I did what I needed to do to be able to live the life I was supposed to live.

    The end….Or IS it??? 😉

      1. Oh, life just gets more interesting all the time. Sometimes that’s as in the old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” And sometimes it’s in the “holy cow, I can’t believe I have this opportunity/challenge!”
        It ain’t over ’til it’s over, is all I’m saying.

  4. Jeff, I have read your blog and books for years. Thank you for contributing to my growth as a writer.
    Today, I finally did something instead of just dream about it. I created my first blog https://annriley.weebly.com and declared myself a writer! I followed your advice. Thanks. I mentioned you in my first post since you are such an inspiration. You made a difference in my life.

  5. I am new to your work and for some odd reason I feel connected. The last person I read/listened to that had this effect on me was seth godin and the book linchpin. Thanks to your article in business insider I’ve written a blog post everyday. I still make youtube videos everyday and I got a podcast in production. I’m spread thin, but I’m constantly doing something – I won’t stop. You’ve reminded me how much I love writing. Youtube and video makes it easier for me to ship so that’s my preferred medium. But writing will be my ticket, because when I combine them, everything comes out better. Thanks.

  6. “The character must choose to enter the story” I’m an very introvert person, I have been keeping my personal though alone all the time, sometimes, I ask myself why to have fun with a new people is very hard, now I think I must choose to enter the story of my life, I choose to begin it by writing on my new personal blog, it talks about communication and slice of life https://www.lastlounge.com

  7. I am so excited to say that as of this past Monday, I am actually doing this – “Then, embrace the frustration that you feel and decide to do something about it. Committing to a course of action is essential to getting unstuck.” I just started “doing something about it” on July 6th, my youngest child’s 21st birthday. Freedom for them to head into the rest of their life; freedom for me as a mom to let them live it and focus on me for a change. I have been so frustrated by forgetting simple daily disciplines that I want to work into my day – devotional time, weight lifting, eating a salad for dinner, taking a walk. Simple things, but every night getting ready for bed those neglected items gather into a ball in my mind and hit me like a 2 x 4, and disappointment in myself reigns. Frustration ruled.

    I’d had enough, and it was time to start putting into practice all the things I want to do in my day. I’ve started an unpublished blog and a handwritten journal and I’m titling the whole kitten kaboodle “My Intentional Journey.” It’s not the journey that’s intentional; it’s the being intentional that is the journey. I’m giving myself a year to see how God grows me and will be documenting it along the way. It’s that “be faithful in the small things” stuff that I’m working on, realizing the small things really can be the big things in life.

    Can’t wait to see where I am when my youngest turns 22!

  8. Wow, how insane is it that fairy tales are so related to the big dreamers of the world? It makes you wonder what comes first, the innate desire to stir things up, or seeing the dreamy ideal in a movie and then wanting to feel similarly dissatisfied?

    Anyway, this is my first time commenting on your blog. I came across your work through Self Publishing School and am already a big fan. Your story of how you became a writer is inspiring and I identify with it heavily. Thus I am taking you and your friend’s advice and am not only calling myself a writer, but am making the commitment to write every day and publish work on my blog. I feel amazing putting my new proclaimed identity into action, and I have you to thank for it.

  9. This. So good!! There are so many golden nuggets in this article. And huge bonus points for tying it around fairy tales, a personal favorite of mine :). I always enjoy your articles, Jeff, but this one really hit home! Thanks for the encouragement and inspiration!!!

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