Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Define Your Future by Mapping Your Past

How to create your own personal "auto-graph."

Key points

  • Creating a personal "auto-graph" provides a map of your life's journey.
  • This graph, including its highs and lows, may surprise you.
  • Reflecting on life's most powerful moments can help you thrive in the future.

We often sit and reflect on our past, or we relive moments over and over in our heads. They might be good moments or difficult ones. Imagine what might happen if we wrote them down and documented them in the form of a cold, hard graph.

What if your life was a corporation? There would be a massive paper trail of charts and graphs, statistics and risk assessments, successes and failures. You would see where mistakes were made and where your company excelled. The board of directors would map a strategic plan based on these documents.

Begin to define your future by mapping your past. Pretend for a moment that your life has been a traded commodity on Wall Street. Instead of a massive paper trail, keep it simple by drawing one chart. Have a little fun with your "auto-graph."

Draw a simple L-shaped graph. Along the bottom horizontal line, write each year of your life. Up and down the vertical line, place 10 equal increments. At the top of the vertical line, write “extremely happy.” At the bottom of that line, write “extremely sad.” At even intervals going up the line, write the numbers one through 10.

Now, as you go across the graph from left to right, simply put a dot at each year (or every two, three, or five years if it’s easier) depicting your level of happiness during that period of your life. Try not to think too much. Allow your emotions and unconscious feelings to quickly determine each dot.

Be certain to remember key points in your life. What accomplishments make you proud? When did you have the most fun? When were you unemployed or ill? Don’t forget births and deaths throughout your life. Pets are another important part of happiness. What were the things that brought you the most joy? When were you alone in a good way? When were you alone in a not-so-good way? When was your heart broken? When did the love start? Other than children or pets, what is your most prized possession, and when did you get it? Did you create it? Name something you created that made you proud. Have you mastered a specific skill or talent? What event has dramatically shaped your life? What was a turning point?

Don’t forget the times that you have been forced to make a change. Include graduations, employment, weddings, having children, deaths, accidents, illnesses, hobbies, crushes, and every other life-changing and life-defining event.

If you have experienced difficulties, such as abuse, neglect, or control in your childhood, and you have not worked through the resulting trauma, I strongly suggest that you seek help from someone who understands and can listen before working on this graph. When someone has not taken proper and sufficient care to treat trauma, the consequences often include a strong sense of feeling stuck. It is also possible that a current tragedy can reawaken old trauma. In that case, do not relive it alone. Please find a group or seek individual counseling.

If you are comfortable continuing, you can “connect the dots.” Once all the dots have been put on the graph, depicting your life up until now, connect the dots with lines. If you feel compelled, use colors, but don’t waste time choosing which ones. Simply pick one and draw.

Suddenly, the graph of your life’s journey is right in front of you. This is your new publicly traded corporation. You’re ready to sit back, take in its movement and flow, and enjoy it. Is it fairly level? See any extreme highs and lows? Are you surprised where it jumps up or down? Does it often jump way up after it is low or does it jump way down after it is high? It may be fun to explore the reasons for that.

Now it’s time to own it, so write your signature across the bottom of your “auto-graph.”

The graph will probably surprise you. It might look like a seismograph when an earthquake hits, with extreme highs and lows in a short period of time.

The wonderful novelist, Alice Hoffman, says that our lives are made up of equal parts sorrow and joy. Good fortune and bad luck are always tied together with invisible, unbreakable thread, and it is impossible to have one without the other.

What Were Your Most Powerful Life Moments?

What were the three best moments and the three most difficult moments of your life? Write three words to describe each of them.

Reflect on each moment. Feel them. It is important not to dismiss these powerful experiences with a simple, “Well, that happened.”

Pause and reflect.

These moments made you who you are.

Next, focus on the words you wrote to describe these moments. Why did you write each word? What did you learn? What did you accomplish? What changed? What is it that allowed you to thrive because of these moments?

That is the key to thriving, now and in the future. It is the lesson that will become vitally important to you. You have an inner ability to be resilient, and you have the capacity to allow happiness.

Let others invest in your new corporate future. Investors are the key to success. They can provide strength, hope, and courage. You have every ability to “go off the charts."


Hoffman, Alice, Survival Lessons, New York, NY: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC, Workman Publishing, 2013.

More from Psychology Today

More from Bill Kavanagh

4 Min Read
Fear is key to moving forward in life. Without it, one can never develop courage, which leads to the reward of excitement.
More from Psychology Today