Now it’s time for the second part in my series on storytelling. As promised, this week I will delve into the seedy underbelly of our affinity for stories. This is the Empire to last week’s A New Hope. Last time I talked about how prominent storytelling is in our lives; we use narrative structure to better remember the important events in our lives and connect to the world around us, but the truth--the same tool we use to help understand the things we experience--can also be used against us. Sometimes we even use it against ourselves.
One of the most important things I learned in school comes from a theory that examines organizations through their culture and symbols. The theory is called the symbolic frame (more info via this dry but informative lecture); its central idea is “action and meaning are loosely connected.”
So what does that mean? Think back to some of the most important events in your life--times when something happened to you, or you learned something that still informs who you are today. Odds are, your memory takes on a story life of its own that is far divorced from the actual content of those events, and is now imbued with narrative significance because of its importance to you. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I would argue that forming our memories into stories is something that enriches our lives and helps us relate to each other: we want things to be connected, so we connect actions and meaning. The problem is not how meaning is connected to actions, but what meanings are connected to actions, and by whom.
One of the low-down, dirtiest ways to exploit our narrative affinity is propaganda. I don’t need to tell you that some of the most horrific events in human history began with people telling themselves they were the heroes and their victims the villains. Examples like this seem so large and bombastically obvious that we think we could never be fooled by them, but it’s important to recognize that people just like us have been fooled before, and more are taken in by similar stories every day.
The very thing that makes human beings master storytellers also makes us master manipulators. If you’ve ever spent time around kids (or spent time around someone who will tell you all about kids with you even having to ask) you know that children are unrepentant liars. They will weave for you a ludicrous story in which they are not only innocent, but were in fact acting duly and righteously in a difficult situation. They’re really bad at it, so much so that it’s comical, and while we think that children eventually stop telling these unbelievable stories, the truth is that they just get better at it.
This is not to say that storytelling is simply lying; it’s much more complex than that. A story can contain a lie, sure, but it can also contain nothing but truth and still not be an accurate representation of real events or concepts. Take, for example, an annual report. The object of an annual report is to tell the story of an organization’s previous year in a way that is thorough yet digestible . Someone could put outright lies in that report to cast themselves in a better light, but if they were found out they probably wouldn’t keep their job for very long.
Let’s say the organization had a bad year; hypothetically, a completely objective person with all the information they could ever need and no stake in the organization (but for some reason a lot of interest in writing a good report) could write an annual report that tells the story of what went wrong the previous year, why, and what can be done to make improvements in the following year. Unfortunately, that completely objective person does not exist, and these reports are always penned by people who remember last year as a story they experienced. That experience is what will end up in the report. It could be a story that paints the CEO in a positive light, doing all she can in a down economy. Or the story told in the report could be an earnest account of the previous year’s failures but with a focus on the wrong problems and potential solutions because the people writing it remember the past year as an experience- a story -rather than a series of objective events. Diving deeper, we could also find this phenomenon in an annual report of a good year, a letter to a colleague, an exchange over lunch, even a childhood memory. Whether the truth or a lie, all re-tellings naturally take on a narrative form, and are subject to the same faults inherent to that form. Even the stories we tell ourselves are no exception.
I promised this week we would explore the dark side of storytelling, and no exploration of the darker side is complete without a long look into the self. It’s easy to sniff out someone else’s BS story, it’s harder to catch your own. You recall hundreds, maybe thousands of memories every day and each one is a small story unto itself. Over the course of our lives we write our own stories: we collect the events that led us to this place in our lives and we string them together so that they make sense. For every action, we can point to a belief or a series of decisions that led us to that very choice. Because we are the narrators, we live lives that fit into perfect narrative structures…
...Except we don’t. The pieces of our lives don’t fit together into a pattern because they’re not even really pieces--they’re snapshots; segments of a continuum that we can only take in so much of. The stories we weave from our experiences can make our lives understandable and even wonderful, but they can also drag us down into patterns we can’t even see in a story we don’t even realize we’re telling. Assigning a meaning to the events that make up your life imbues you with purpose, but it can just as easily keep you from seeing things that exist outside of your narrative.
I often see intelligent, passionate people bang their heads against the same problem in the same way over and over again, because they care too much to stop and they can’t see any other way to fix it. In their mind the problem becomes insurmountable, a thing of myth in its entrenchment and malevolence, their solution constantly impeded by the self-interested or the simply incompetent. The issues they pursue are invariably important, and their work noble, but they’ve built themselves a story that they can’t get out of. It can happen to anyone, at any scale. We can’t take a different course of action because all of our experience leading up to this tells us that we’re right. We’ve been doing something one way for so long that it doesn’t make sense to do it any other way. What I did was right, and I’d do it again.
We are the architects of our own stories, but they can imprison us.
Storytelling can be used for good or ill and is certainly used for both quite often. The best way to avoid falling prey to this darker side of our narrative form of communication is to be aware of it. The people communicating with you are most often not trying to deceive you (you can probably tell if they are), and you are certainly not trying to deceive yourself, but being aware that you are being told a story will allow you to approach it critically, and consider what is and is not being presented.
Next week we will emerge from this dank cave and step into the bright light of the sun, by which I mean I’ll be talking about how to tell the right stories to advance your organization.