You are your own personal spin doctor, constantly telling stories to yourself about the way things are. They’re just not necessarily true stories. Don’t feel bad, we all do it. It’s a hazard of being human. Our big brains weave stories in an attempt to make meaning out of the vast volume of data streaming at us at all times. Life really is a “choose your own adventure” genre. How you perceive the world and make meaning out of it has far more bearing on your lived experience than does “objective reality,” whatever that is.
I want to talk about storytelling. About how the stories we craft for ourselves shape our experience, how the stories we consume impact us, and how we use stories to connect with one another. Above all, I want us to wake up to the fact that we are always telling stories. Consciousness of this fact is what will allow us to regain control of the storytelling mind. I don’t consider this an intellectual or imaginative exercise. I wholeheartedly believe that getting in charge of our minds (and keeping our hands on the reins) is crucial to living a good life and to finding success in whatever endeavor we apply ourselves to.
Crafting: The unavoidable storytelling impulse
In recent posts, we explored the functions of the mind and the cognitive drive for order and simplicity. We are forced to distill and simplify our experiences; we cannot attend to or recall every moment we experience. Construing meaning gives us a tool with which to cut a swath through the noise. We gauge what is important and what we can safely disregard based on what is meaningful. Stories are so appealing to us because they are manageable, memorable, and meaningful packets of information. This impulse to tell stories is so strong, in fact, that we make them up out of the clear blue. In one revealing study, researchers showed participants a brief video of various geometric shapes moving around on the screen. But that’s not what people saw at all – no, they saw a drama unfolding! “The big, mean triangle is chasing the poor little circle! Luckily the small triangle heroically saved her!” We impulsively and unconsciously craft stories to make meaning from experience, because understanding allows us to make predictions, and our ability to predict future events helps keep us safe, secure, and successful.
In our daily lives, we also make these leaps and associations where they may not exist – we impose story lines on loosely related data points. If you eavesdrop on your own inner dialog, you’ll at first be aghast to witness the constant stream of fiction you’re scripting. Most often you are probably replaying past events or mentally rehearsing imagined future situations. The incessant and unconscious quality of the babble is unsettling to observe. Even our memories aren’t factual representations of the past, but fictional creations of the mind. Each time you retrieve a memory, you change it a bit, so that after mulling over the memory for a while, the next time you retrieve it what you are actually recalling is your memory of the memory, or your memory of a memory of a memory. Over time you’ve reorganized the story of your own “reality.” Think about an early childhood memory – do you really remember it, or do you remember the story about the event? It’s hard to tell, isn’t it? Our minds aren’t as adept at discerning what is “real” versus unreal as they’d have you believe.
We tell ourselves stories constantly about who we are, what others are like, and the nature of the world we live in. It is cognitively efficient to not have to see every situation anew, certainly, but like with the cognitive short cuts we’ve discussed in previous posts, there are downsides. In one past post, we talked about how the language and metaphors we use shape how we experience and respond to the events in our lives. If there mere language of our inner dialog shapes our experience, imagine how the story frames we use do so. What character are you in your stories – the unsung hero, the victim? How do you cast those around you? What kind of drama is this, anyway? Our stories about the way things are matter so much because they deeply and unconsciously impact the way we perceive the world and the way we respond to it. Our stories are told internally again, and again, and again – and become beliefs. When situations arise, we map on the storyboard and react accordingly. And every time we use that story frame again, we build confidence in it.
Consuming: You are what you feed your mind
We accumulate storyboards across our lives. We learn by watching our parents act them out, then our peers, and by consuming stories through countless media – books, movies, the internet in different guises. We are voracious consumers of story in all its forms. Arguably the best explanation for our predilection for stories is because they allow us to learn vicariously. The content we consume changes us and effects how we behave. One example of this is research showing that people who read fiction are more empathetic and have better social skills, because through “practice” they have honed their ability to take on others’ perspectives, to see through others’ eyes. Stories can inspire us, break down barriers, and allow us to experience facets of ourselves or the world that we could never actually experience in real life. Stories give us access to sages and ages that deepen and expand our experience as humans.
But, back to that downside. Our behavior is more moved by compelling stories than hard data. Consider for a moment the affect that news stories have on people’s estimation of risk. Crime rates have actually decreased in the past two decades, and yet we are more fearful than ever. Stories of other people’s catastrophes can now be readily and rapidly delivered to our door, our TVs, our phones. Our hyper-vigilant amygdalae love a good horrifying story, because learning from disaster will keep us alive longer than a feel-good love story or a list of facts – this is why media has a negative bias (it sells). We won’t let our children out of our sight for fear of kidnapping, an exceedingly unlikely event, because of the gut-wrenching stories we hear in the news, but are unmoved by statistics showing that car accidents are actually among the leading cause of death among children. Our beliefs about the intrinsic safeness and goodness of the world are gradually shaped by these stories, which then influence the choices, both small and large, that we make every day.
Another thing about our stories is that we just keep strengthening them. As more comes in, we assess how it fits with our existing framework, often cherry picking what agrees with us and leaving out the rest. We desire a consistent, easy-to-digest narrative. For this reason, we tend to consume stories that fit our existing beliefs and avoid ones that don’t. What we take in becomes the content of our minds, and the format becomes the pattern for the stories we tell ourselves.
Connecting: The story of us
While our incessant internal storytelling has bearing on our personal experience, stories also have interpersonal and social functions. At the social level, stories, myths, and legends both reflect and direct social mores and structures. Whether we are talking about Grimm’s fairy tales, Native American folklore, or Leave it to Beaver – these stories entertain us but also serve a purpose, which is to get us on the same page. They teach us rules of engagement, about what is acceptable and what is not, and they elucidate what we value. In social groups of all kinds, we have the tendency to tell and re-tell our histories. These stories are akin to a neuronal connection that we strengthen over time with retelling. In a way, relationships are also a “story of us.” Relationships are an agreement to be in a story together, and they function most smoothly when we are telling the same story and when we agree on our respective roles.
Personal stories, too, have a way of greasing the wheels of a social system. When you interact with someone, usually there is a fair bit of story swapping. How are things? is another way of saying, tell me a story about you. In this way, conversation can be seen as a collaboration, a story that you co-author with another. Sharing our stories cultivates trust and rapport, and encourages us to develop shared frameworks. Hearing other people’s stories allows us to see the parallels and resonances between their experiences and our own, which enhances cohesion. Bonds are also deepened when we share stories about emotional experiences. Telling a story about a difficult situation takes you out of it momentarily and allows you to exist in the others’ experience of it for a time, while simultaneously bringing them closer to it. Sharing stories is a way to connect people in a meaningful way.
Consciousness and Control: Be the author
We cannot escape the storytelling impulse, but we run into problems when the storytelling mind runs amok unchecked. With awareness, we can direct the story of our lives proactively. We need to be insightful craftsmen and consumers of stories so that our stories serve us instead of bully us, and so that they are used to connect instead of divide us.
Consider the contours of your inner narrative. Does it really work for you to cast yourself in a martyr role again? Is the world really a dark place where people only look out for themselves? Do you always need to be the same character (the class clown, the baby of the family, the tireless servant, the lone wolf, the starving artist)? Can you let people be more complex selves instead of casting them in some narrow role? How would you perceive, believe, and act if you questioned these deepest perceptual frames? Objective reality is out there, what story are you going to tell about it? How can you arrange the details into a coherent experience that fits with the larger narrative of your life experience? If you want to take charge of your story, start by listening in on the ongoing chatter in your mind. When we are busy spinning stories, we absent ourselves from what is actually happening. Consciousness minus spin-doctoring is mindfulness. By observing as the watcher, we don’t just experience the story, we witness the weaving. From there you can look at the story of your life from a bird’s eye view. What is your purpose, your vision for your life? What kind of character do you want to be? Is that the same as the role you unconsciously assume day to day? Take charge of writing your own story.
We all tend to drift to the same kind of stories. Just like I always order the same thing from the Indian restaurant down the street, I tend to read a certain genre of fiction, get news stories from the same news sources, gravitate toward the same kind of movies. I even have go-to stories I share at cocktail parties. It’s a convenient short-cut. But in the same way that eating vegetable korma every Friday night is going to get old fast, you’ve got to be willing to expand your repertoire or you, too, will get stale, boring, and narrow. Reading, watching, listening to a breadth of stories enriches you and your own stories. Challenge yourself to read an article outside of your field, or watch a news clip outside of your political persuasion. Talk to someone who is not at all like you. Read a completely alien genre. Stretch, grow.
Anyone who has spent a few minutes on social media has witnessed extremes of faith espoused along social and political lines. Everyone is sure they understand why one side is abhorrent and the other is above reproach. Both sides consume vitriol from one perspective only and cannot bring themselves to question the stories they consume, because it is also now their story. Identity gets enmeshed in the story. The result is a stark division between us and them. The more deeply we connect with the story, the greater the gulf between us and whoever has been cast as the bad guy. This story, too, is as old as human’s ability to tell a story. Awareness of this tendency is what will allow us to rise above it and use story to connect instead of divide us.
Stories in organization life
All of this is as true for organizational life as it is for larger human systems. We don’t stop being human at work. The stories we share at work tell us about who we are, collectively. What are we like? What is it like here? What is our purpose? Leaders who care about culture implicitly tap this human predisposition toward story. Organizational leaders eager to cultivate engaged employees need to think about the story they’re offering. People do not want a list of values and vision statement – they want the story about where we are going together and how we are going to get there. They want to have an important and valued role in the story. They want the excitement of drama, compelling characters, and sense of purpose in the grander scheme of things. We also have to be careful about how the tendencies of the human mind urge us to create in-groups and out-groups. A lot was talked about in recent years about “breaking down silos” in organizations. In a vacuum, people will make up their own stories of us. Leaders need to proactively use story to get people excited about the collective Story of Us.
As individuals, we need to be willing to look closely at how we cast ourselves at work and evaluate whether it works for us. You delegate a project to a direct report who drops the ball, and you end up cleaning up the mess. Because this is a story about how you have to do it all yourself or everything goes to hell. Frank, your coworker, asks for your help at the last minute on a project you’re not even working on. You heave a great sigh, put your own priorities on the back burner, and resentfully pitch in. Because this is the story about how everyone always takes advantage of you and it’s why you never get ahead. You’re embarrassed and devastated because you are blindsided by the fact that someone else was promoted into the position you thought you were being groomed for over the past year. Because this is the story about how you’re a loser and never catch a break. Are these true stories? Do they have to be? The story will never change unless you change it.
Storytelling, at is best, allows us to transmute information into wisdom. It sets our own small lives on a grander stage and lends meaning and magnificence to our daily toils. Stories allow us to forge and deepen connections with one another and develop strong, healthy groups. But the unchecked storytelling mind is nothing short of dangerous. Who’s in charge of your story?