On Michel de Montaigne’s 38th birthday, the French nobleman and amateur philosopher retired from the Parliament of Bordeaux, moved hundreds of his beloved books into the tower of his family castle, and sat down to write. He planned to spend the rest of his life in self-exploration, drawing his portrait with a pen.
Over the next 20 years, Montaigne meditated and mused on the meaning of life through his personal exploration on topics such as vanity, anger, sorrow, passion, friendship, fear, and the resemblance of children to their parents. He called his writings “essais,” which translates to “trials” or “attempts.” Just like that, a new literary genre was born.
His final essay, “Of Experience,” creates a conversation with readers about what he’s learned firsthand and provides an honest assessment of a life well-lived. He writes, “The life of Caesar has no more to show us than our own; an emperor’s or an ordinary man’s it is still a life subject to all human accidents. Let us only listen: we tell ourselves all we most need.”
Not all of us hail from French nobility like Montaigne, who could dedicate two decades to deep personal reflection, but all of us can write life stories. There are many valuable lessons to learn from our own lives and the lives of others. It’s a great gift to share our hard-won wisdom, and an even greater gift to give others the chance to share their own.
Robert Rubinstein, who taught anthropology at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, suggested that these shared experiences are of utmost importance. “We can’t understand anything else that people are telling us without understanding their life story,” he said.
Perhaps you have a parent or grandparent who lived through the Cold War who could tell you about crouching under wooden desks during duck-and-cover drills and what it was like to live through the fear of nuclear annihilation. How did that shape their outlook on work, family and the future? Does it continue to shape yours today in subconscious ways?
Maybe your family owns a business that survived the Great Depression or, in more recent history, the Great Recession. How and why did they keep the doors open? What are the most important skills to weather the storms of life?
Or maybe you’re a first-time parent, navigating the simple yet profound moments of parenthood—from baby’s first breath to the “terrible twos”—and would like to document what you’re learning along the way to share with your son or daughter someday when they have children of their own.
These are all stories worth telling because they build a bridge between past and present, between parents and children, between business owners and loyal customers.
But first, we must be willing to look at ourselves, to ask the questions and, like Montaigne, give honest answers. You don’t have to lock yourself in a castle for 20 years to find meaningful moments in life. You can start right where you are.