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By Maria Carolan
Editor, MindEdge Learning
If you’ve recently been diagnosed with “main character syndrome,” don’t worry—you’re not alone.
The term swept across TikTok last year and quickly became social-media shorthand for the tendency of users to identify as the protagonists in their own life stories. It snarkily implies that sufferers are delusional, self-obsessed, and worthy of derision. Yikes!
Well, guess what? We all suffer from main character syndrome. It’s a universal affliction that springs from our desire to make sense of life’s seemingly random series of events. The television show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend sends up this impulse wonderfully in the song “The End of The Movie.” For a laugh at our narrative gaffe, check out its music video here.
Main character syndrome is chronic to the human condition—but it’s far from fatal.
Human beings’ search for narrative truth is what makes us myth crafters and myth lovers. Because we perceive our own lives as heroic journeys, we champion stories about individual quests for noble causes in the face of great odds. For proof, look no further than classic films, like Do The Right Thing. Well, you could look further, and find Jesus’s story in the New Testament of the Bible. Or you could squint way back to the life of the Buddha—you get it. These are timeless tales. So what if their leads exhibit textbook signs of main character syndrome? What’s wrong with that? Nothing. And there’s nothing wrong with you, dear protagonist.
In fact, viewing your life as an ever-unfolding story can help you overcome unexpected obstacles, master challenging concepts, and enjoy learning much more than if you don’t engage your imagination in the effort.
When you are driving the action, your story becomes a lot more fun. According to therapist Kate Rosenblatt, “When you view yourself as having agency over your life, and [feel] that your choices are really up to you, this can feel powerful and ultimately contribute to enhanced self-worth, self-esteem, and self-confidence.” Basically, if you believe in your ability to do the impossible—vanquish a foe, turn around a presentation in record time, get out of the DMV in 45 minutes—you just might summon the energy to do it.
Learning is inherently difficult, requiring heroic focus and strength. The task can be made easier by imagining the concept at hand is a dragon, and you are the one to slay it. Employing the qualities of the classic heroine, as defined by Harvard scholar Maria Tatar, can also help us learn new information more easily. Tatar’s heroine-istic characteristics—curiosity, empathy, and a desire to arrive at the truth—are traits that we all share, and which we should access when applying our minds to new subjects.
Narrative learning makes the leap for us by threading abstract concepts into compelling story paths for learner-protagonists to navigate. Presenting subject matter in narrative form highlights connections between topics and empowers learners to make critical decisions. A narrative course, such as a simulation, contains checkpoints at pivotal moments that ask learners to decide how best to proceed. We are all better decision-makers when we are personally invested in the outcome. In narrative learning, the very futures of our fictional selves are on the line. And, as in life, the decisions we make as protagonists in narrative courses tend to produce mixed results. We can’t make a choice that’s optimal along one metric without negatively affecting another. In this way, narrative courses remind us that every decision is a trade-off.
Story is our natural framework. No matter what happens, you can count on human beings to spin a yarn. And the story is always changing. According to Tatar, “One of the things story tells us is that things keep evolving… that the story is dead if you don’t keep making something new out of it.” We’re constantly re-weaving the narrative to insert ourselves into it. We can’t help it—and nor should we try. Telling our stories lets us process our experiences, and hearing others’ stories lets us learn from theirs.
Storytelling is the ultimate learning tool because it teaches us what it means to be alive.
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