Category Archives: Storytelling

Unstorytelling

Our default way of experiencing the world is through stories.

Whether they come from the latest Good Wife episode, the companies we purchase from, or the theater of our minds, stories are safe-to-consume simulations about how things were, are, will be, or could be.

I love stories, and they can do many good things:

  • They entertain us.
  • They help us contemplate what we would do in unfamiliar situations.
  • They help us act.
  • They make abstract concepts relatable and human.
  • The create order out of apparent disorder.
  • They bind communities together.
  • They make us smarter by either challenging or reinforcing our existing ideas.
  • They sharpen our pattern recognition skills.
  • They help us restore self-control.

That said, even the best stories lie. They replace reality with an edited version. And sometimes even, they’re dead wrong.

Resilient individuals and organizations therefore balance storytelling with unstorytelling.

Here’s how to do that:

  • Use stories to time travel, but always come back to the here and now. The brain has two modes: our “narrative circuitry” which essentially turns all incoming data into a story and “direct experience” which takes in sensory data without an interpretive filter. The narrative circuit is our automatic mode and takes less energy to run, which means that we have to deliberately focus if we want to savor the moment we’re having, or pick up on details that don’t fit our pre-conceived stories. The two modes engage different regions of the brain, but by creating rituals for switching between them, over time we’ll be able to pause and reflect more easily before we’re caught up in a story.
  • When push comes to shove, choose reality over a story. We all make the mistake of applying our narrative circuitry to not just our external reality, but our internal one as well. We turn ourselves into a story. From earliest childhood, we are building a narrative about how the world works and how we fit into it. Over time, these stories become self-reinforcing—we typically do not give up our essential narratives about ourselves, and directly experience who we are without overlay, except under extreme duress. In her wonderful book Wired for Story, Lisa Cron points out that novels feel unsatisfying if the protagonist has a big epiphany without going through hell to get there. Life is often like that too.

Luckily, there are shortcuts: practices like Byron Katie’s The Work can help us recognize flaws in our personal narratives before they become a crisis. Like scientists, we can lower our thresholds for noticing that an existing story isn’t working out. We can also choose to act congruently with a new story even before we’re ready to give up the old one.


Unstorytelling

Our default way of experiencing the world is through stories.

Whether they come from the latest Good Wife episode, the companies we purchase from, or the theater of our minds, stories are safe-to-consume simulations about how things were, are, will be, or could be.

I love stories, and they can do many good things:

  • They entertain us.
  • They help us contemplate what we would do in unfamiliar situations.
  • They help us act.
  • They make abstract concepts relatable and human.
  • The create order out of apparent disorder.
  • They bind communities together.
  • They make us smarter by either challenging or reinforcing our existing ideas.
  • They sharpen our pattern recognition skills.
  • They help us restore self-control.

That said, even the best stories lie. They replace reality with an edited version. And sometimes even, they’re dead wrong. Resilient individuals and organizations therefore balance storytelling with unstorytelling.

Here’s how to do that:

  • Use stories to time travel, but always come back to the here and now. The brain has two modes: our “narrative circuitry” which essentially turns all incoming data into a story and “direct experience” which takes in sensory data without an interpretive filter. The narrative circuit is our automatic mode and takes less energy to run, which means that we have to deliberately focus if we want to savor the moment we’re having, or pick up on details that don’t fit our pre-conceived stories. The two modes engage different regions of the brain, but by creating rituals for switching between them, over time we’ll be able to pause and reflect more easily before we’re caught up in a story.
  • When push comes to shove, choose reality over a story. We all make the mistake of applying our narrative circuitry to not just our external reality, but our internal one as well. We turn ourselves into a story. From earliest childhood, we are building a narrative about how the world works and how we fit into it. Over time, these stories become self-reinforcing—we typically do not give up our essential narratives about ourselves, and directly experience who we are without overlay, except under extreme duress. In her wonderful book Wired for Story, Lisa Cron points out that novels feel unsatisfying if the protagonist has a big epiphany without going through hell to get there. Life is often like that too.

Luckily, there are shortcuts: practices like Byron Katie’s The Work can help us recognize flaws in our personal narratives before they become a crisis. Like scientists, we can lower our thresholds for noticing that an existing story isn’t working out. We can also choose to act congruently with a new story even before we’re ready to give up the old one.


One book, one idea: The Caryatids

The Caryatids coverBruce Sterling’s The Caryatids is one of the most delightful and educational near-future sci-fi novels to come out in the past few years, sharing company with Rainbows End, Makers, Little Brother, Daemon, and World Made by Hand. Set in 2065, it’s essentially the fictional version of Sterling’s earlier and excellent Tomorrow Now, where all the forecasts of that earlier book come to pass and hybridize. It’s dizzying and smart. And, although I often recommend it for its business relevance, it’s also a cracking good read.

One of my favorite details from the book: in the world of The Caryatids, the nation-state has collapsed except for China, and the world has divided itself into two mega-tribes: the hippie collectivist Acquis and the optimistic, capitalist Dispensation. The latter is epitomized by the ex-husband of one of the novel’s heroines, who arrives at an ecological recovery operation in Croatia and says without a trace of irony, “I’m from Hollywood, I’m here to help you!”

The Acquis/Dispensation polarity throughout the book delights me, in part because the future of the nation-state is one of my passion topics. (In addition to Sterling’s writing, check out Dmitry Orlov, Dani Rodrik, and Jacques Barzun.) But the uneasy conflict between the Acquis and Dispensation is also just absurd enough to help me see many real world, current dualisms in a new light: mainstream vs. fringe innovation, old buildings vs. new ideas, the Marina vs. the Mission, Power vs. Love. The truth is neither camp gets it all right or sees itself clearly—we never can. Despite their different value judgments, ideological convictions, and self-protective stories, ultimately they need each other.

An implicit and hopeful message of The Caryatids is that even though things might be going to hell in a hand basket, the world is a lot weirder and more fun once you really engage with it. That’s good advice.


Location and dislocation — March 2011 gathering

The Next Us hosted a gathering at Fabric8 in March with three terrific speakers: Chris Carlsson (local San Francisco historian, author, and co-founder of CounterPULSE), Abby Falik (founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year), and Chip Grant (founder and artistic director of Urban Opera).

The theme of the event was “Location and dislocation.” I know for me, it can be all too easy at times to disappear into my head or computer screen and forget where I am. And of course, it’s useful to be able to cultivate inner stability regardless what life throws at you. But the three speakers at our March gathering had a different kind of wisdom that comes from a deep and felt sense of place.

As expected, I learned a lot at this event, and not just from the speakers, but from the many conversations that bubbled up before and after the talks.

Chris Carlsson:

Abby Falik:

Chip Grant: