A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller— 5 Key Ideas and 4 Quotes

10 min readMay 15, 2021


Photo by S O C I A L . C U T on Unsplash

The book continues as Donald Miller finds more about stories while working on a movie based on his best-selling memoir. He applies those ideas to tell a better story with his own life.

Looking at life as a story we all are going to tell — and using the same principals that make a good fictional story to tell a better story with our life is the main idea of this book.

A story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.

Here are the 5 Key Ideas that I learned from reading it the first time:

1. The Point of a Story Is Transformation, Not the Achievement. and Transformations Rarely Happen Through Joy

IF THE POINT of life is the same as the point of a story, the point of life is character transformation.

The idea is similar to ‘enjoy the journey and not the destination’ but seemed more meaningful to me.

But I also wondered if he wasn’t right, that we were designed to live through something rather than to attain something, and the thing we were meant to live through was designed to change us. The point of a story is the character arc, the change.

This understanding can help us continue through the journey to reach the destination — because though in most cases the only way is through, even if we were somehow transported to the destination — we won’t deserve it.

The pain (of hiking) made the city (look) more beautiful. The story made us different characters than we would have been if we had skipped the story and showed up at the ending an easier way.

Moreover, it gives us patience to keep going when the story turns out to be longer than what we expected. We can keep going without worrying because transformation being the reward — is provided at each step and is not something that is waiting for us at the end.

The first part happens fast. You throw yourself into the narrative, and you’re finally out in the water; the shore is pushing off behind you and the trees are getting smaller. The distant shore doesn’t seem so far, and you can feel the resolution coming, the feeling of getting out of your boat and walking the distant beach. You think the thing is going to happen fast, that you’ll paddle for a bit and arrive on the other side by lunch. 
But the truth is, it isn’t going to be over soon. The reward you get from a story is always less than you thought it would be, and the work is harder than you imagined. The point of a story is never about the ending, remember. It’s about your character getting molded in the hard work of the middle.

And this transformation is not comfortable most of the times. Accepting that the transformation is going to be hard and outside our comfort zone is something we need to step out and continue going through the struggles. Because that’s the cost we pay for the change. And stories are all about how they change us.

“You have to go there. You have to take your character to the place where he just can’t take it anymore.” He looked at us with a tenderness we hadn’t seen in him before. 
“You’ve been there, haven’t you? You’ve been out on the ledge. The marriage is over now; the dream is over now; nothing good can come from this.” He got louder.
“Writing a story isn’t about making your peaceful fantasies come true. The whole point of the story is the character arc. You didn’t think joy could change a person, did you? Joy is what you feel when the conflict is over. But it’s conflict that changes a person.” His voice was like thunder now.
“You put your characters through hell. You put them through hell. That’s the only way we change.”

2. We Do Not Want Change. We Must Be Forced to Change.

A general rule in creating stories is that characters don’t want to change. They must be forced to change.The rule exists in story because it’s a true thing about people. Humans are designed to seek comfort and order, and so if they have comfort and order, they tend to plant themselves, even if their comfort isn’t all that comfortable. And even if they secretly want for something better.

This is probably the strongest idea — and something that despite being obvious was hardest to accept.

As quick exercise to verify this — try thinking about a few meaningful stories that have changed you and what triggered them. For me, every story started with me being in a situation where I just could not stay in the little safe and comfortable world I had.

And that comfortable place could be anything — something that we think is better than the unknown world out there. It could be an abusive relationship, an unhealthy lifestyle, or even a health issue we are too scared to get checked.

This is where we need an Inciting Incident.

Inciting Incident: It's just an event that forces your character to move.The inciting incident is how you get them to do something.... It's the doorway through which they can't return, you know. The story takes care of the rest.----Robert McKee says humans naturally seek comfort and stability. Without an inciting incident that disrupts their comfort, they won’t enter into a story.James Scott Bell says an inciting incident is a doorway through which the protagonist cannot return.

The best part is not all inciting incidents have to be as painful as a breakup or a heartbreak. You can create these doorways of no return — you just need something that you value enough to step out of your comfort and face your fears for.

You can create these making a promise to the person you are pursuing or telling it to someone you don’t want to disappoint and who will look forward to you going through the story.

I suppose I didn't have to get into shape, but if I didn’t, the story would be a tragedy. And nobody wants to live a tragedy. I’d found my motivation. I joined a gym the next day.----It came down to my last day, and I knew I had to do something. I knew I needed an inciting incident, something to make me jump into the story. So I sent out a text message to ten friends, telling them I was going to see my father, whom I hadn’t seen in thirty years. And the text messages flooded back: prayers, encouraging verses, digital support followed by forests of exclamation points.

3. To Advance in the Story You Need to Face Your Fears and Go Through Positive and Negative Turns

The biggest reason we stay in our uncomfortable comfort zones is because we are scared. We are scared of what would we get if we decide to give up what we have in search of what we think we deserve.

The most often repeated commandment in the Bible is “Do not fear.” It’s in there over two hundred times. That means a couple of things, if you think about it. It means we are going to be afraid, and it means we shouldn’t let fear boss us around. Before I realized we were supposed to fight fear, I thought of fear as a subtle suggestion in our subconscious designed to keep us safe, or more important, keep us from getting humiliated. And I guess it serves that purpose. But fear isn’t only a guide to keep us safe; it’s also a manipulative emotion that can trick us into living a boring life.

None of our story will be a clear straight line from start to end. It will be much more complex than we thought and we should be ready to accept positive and negative turns.

As real-life protagonists we can control only what we do and say, what choices we make, what words we say. The rest is up to fate. And so life has positive and negative turns. And you rarely see them coming.

Realizing that there are going to be positive and negative turns — and we can’t see them coming — allows us to identify them when we finally see them. We might not be prepared to handle those, but we would know better than giving up thinking it as an end of our story.

A story is made up of turns, Robert McKee says. Once an ambition has been decided, a positive turn is an event that moves the protagonist closer to the ambition, and a negative turn moves the protagonist away from his ambition. All stories have both. If a story doesn’t have negative turns, it’s not an interesting story. A protagonist who understands this idea lives a better story. He doesn’t give up when he encounters a setback, because he knows that every story has both positive and negative turns.

4. We Are the Responsible to Write and Work for Our Stories — Even if We Don’t Feel Like It

It was the conversation with Jordan that finally did it, that finally helped me understand how to tell a story with my life. It worked just like writing a book, you know. You just sit down and do the work as faithful as a plumber. You never feel like writing any more than a plumber feels like fixing a pipe, but just like him, you make a plan and start in on the messy work of making a story.

And it’s not always fun.

I READ A Ray Bradbury book about writing that said writing should be fun. I’ve never had fun writing a book. I’ve had fun promoting books, doing readings—that sort of thing—but the truth is I drag myself to the computer. I get up every morning, brush my teeth, and then go back into my bedroom to wake the writer part of me. He’s still in bed, snoring, slobbering all over the pillows. I rock him from the shoulders at first, and when that doesn’t work, I make some noise, and when that doesn’t work, I pull the covers off him and yell proverbs about how poverty comes to the sloth. That usually works, but it’s a stretch to call the process fun. I don’t know what drugs Ray Bradbury is on, but I’d like to.

Realizing that we are living in a story won’t give us all the motivation that was missing. The struggles will remain, but we’ll have a purpose and meaning to go through it.

I don’t think it’s any different when it comes to real-life stories. It would be easier not to try, not to get out of bed. I wish I could tell you I woke every morning and jumped into the thrill a character might feel inside a page-turner, but I don’t. I wake every day and plod through the next page of my story, both in words and in actions. I write thank-you cards for The Mentoring Project, I attend board meetings, I take my dog, Lucy, for a walk, I watch television a little. I spend a few hours working on my writing projects. Life doesn’t feel meaningless, though.

5. There Won’t Be a Climax to the Story of Our Lives. and We Should Stop Expecting Others to Bring It

An enormous amount of damage is created by the myth of utopia. There is an intrinsic feeling in nearly every person that your life could be perfect if you only had such-and-such a car or such-and-such a spouse or such-and-such a job. We believe we will be made whole by our accomplishments, our possessions, or our social status. It’s written in the fabric of our DNA that life used to be beautiful and now it isn’t, and if only this and if only that, it would be beautiful again.

It might sound negative or depressing thought at first.

But it’s all about lowering the expectations — or not having unrealistic expectations from events, objects, and people in our lives.

I realized that for years I’d thought of love as something that would complete me, make all my troubles go away. I worshipped at the altar of romantic completion. And it had cost me, plenty of times. And it had cost most of the girls I’d dated, too, because I wanted them to be something they couldn’t be. It’s too much pressure to put on a person. I think that’s why so many couples fight, because they want their partners to validate them and affirm them, and if they don’t get that, they feel as though they’re going to die. And so they lash out. But it’s a terrible thing to wake up and realize the person you just finished crucifying didn’t turn out to be Jesus.

It might be surprising, but having realistic expectations make us happier — because there are more chances of them getting fulfilled than the unrealistic ones. At least this is what makes Denmark the happiest country in the world.

I saw a story on 60 Minutes a few months ago about the happiest country in the world. It was Denmark.The reason Danes are so happy was this: they had low expectations.There is something in Denmark’s culture that allows them to look at life realistically. They don’t expect products to fulfill them or relationships to end all their problems.

This doesn’t mean we stop expecting eventful moments when we achieve our goals. But we should remember that those are sub-stories and the bigger story of our life will continue and have new conflicts that we will have to overcome even after those moments.

I don’t mean to insinuate there are no minor climaxes to human stories. There are....A girl can want to get married and feel euphoric when the man of her dreams slides a ring on her finger....But these aren’t the stories I’m talking about. These are sub-stories....the girl is going to wake up three months into her marriage and realize she is, in fact, still lonely, and so many of her issues haven’t gone away. And if both of these people aren’t careful, they’re going to get depressed because they thought the climax to their sub-story was actually a climax to the human story, and it wasn’t. The human story goes on.

He said, “Don, when something hard happens to you, you have two choices in how to deal with it. You can either get bitter, or better. I chose to get better. It’s made all the difference.”

I used to believe charming people were charming because they were charming, or confident people were confident because they were confident. But all this is, of course, circular. The truth is, we are all living out the character of the roles we have played in our stories.

A character is what he does.

(Not what He thinks, and not what he wants to do, and not what he wishes for, but what he does.)