A word about storytelling.
Stories have always played a central role in human development, especially in helping us recount our past and speak out our possible future. And while tons has been written on this theme, from the journals of anthropologists to the many books on screen-writing theory, I want to focus on something corporations call scenario planning. Not that I think present day corporations are the ideal model of wisdom, but they’ve tapped into a kind of story that moves whole groups of people together by speaking out what those groups can achieve, instead of just calling forth what the CEO wants. Scenarios do this by projecting and inventing the kind of world the story tellers want to live in. It’s not just sales projections or production output, a scenario speaks of the environment that will be, and how people will respond to or create in that environment. These kinds of stories project likely outcomes, following the red line of history, and then allow the tellers to implement ideas that will manipulate that line according to their will. The bummer is, this is used by corporations like BP instead of you and your crew. In 2001, BP changed their name from British Petroleum to Beyond Petroleum and are now investing $1 billion per year on developing renewable energy sources. They use scenario planning to determine the kind of world they want to sell energy into and then they make it so. So guess who’s gonna be selling you energy in 2025? In a very real sense, companies like this are controlling the fuel industry simply because they choose to. Which means you can choose other ways of getting around too, it’s just that they believe and act on their story while the rest of us react to theirs. Pisses me off.
Scenario planning is based on a set of values the group wants to develop. They take into account the world they’re working in, but they’re not controlled by that world. The correct world-view they’re operating from is that they were given a garden they get to develop. Their world is not a pre-determined one, but a place they get to shape. The results are often disastrous, as demonstrated by a greedy oil industry and its effect on the world, an effect the rest of us have to live with. Because sometimes, when larger groups use the power of scenario planning they end up planning everyone else’s lives along the way. But whose fault is that? And what can we learn from this world-view and its process?
Here’s what I get out of it.
Firstly, that the world around us is malleable. I get to shape it, and am in fact responsible to interact with it in a holistic way. Because if I don’t—if all of us don’t—then the bullies take over the sandbox because they fully get how things work.
Secondly, my story has to be based on my values, my identity, and my love for my neighbor as myself.
Thirdly, I need to work with the world as it is, but move towards how I want it to be, which will take time. The longer time-frame I can stretch my plans out to, the more effective I’ll be. By the way, this kind of thinking is typical for most people who aren’t enamored with ‘internet time’. For instance, a doctor will move from Karachi to London and take a job as a janitor if he has to, because he knows his son will get a good education and his grandson will end up in parliament... story achieved.
Fourthly, my story needs to involve a group. My family, my tribe, and my larger community need to be part of this growing narrative because I’m not an island, and I can only truly grow and progress as a team player.
The power of story
What I’m always looking for is the magic of story. That special thing that happens when you see or hear a story which moves you to action. What is it that taps into the depths of our soul? And why do we resonate with or get inspired by stories? If we can understand what stories do to us and for us, then maybe we can learn to use that power. For instance, a story connects our imagination with our soul. It ignites a kind of hope which says ‘if my soul can imagine it, maybe my identity could achieve it’. This hope inspires the ‘I am’ in us to commitment or action. An obvious example of this principle is how science fiction and inspired numerous ideas which became discoveries which became products.58 For instance, how the fictional Star Trek communicator eventually became the real iPhone (Dr. Martin Cooper, inventor of the modern mobile phone, credits the Star Trek communicator he saw on TV after tripping over a phone cord as being his inspiration for the technology. The 2.5 pound Motorola Dyna Tec he designed was a far cry from the supercool subspace broaches Lieutenant Uhura wore, but most flip-phones today still get their looks from Gene Roddenberry’s 1964 vision of the future.). The imaginative mechanisms of story are a primal force, woven into how we tick and exist, which inspire identity into action.
Another powerful aspect of story is the echo effect. We really resonate with stories that we know to be true in life or in us. This resonance gives validity to our ideas / selves so we can then proceed, knowing our part in that story. So, for instance, when you see a relational story where the guy who screwed up sits, waits, and sleeps on the porch for days, in the rain, until the girl can let him back into her home and life, you naturally relate to how humility and forgiveness forge an even better relationship. This is an echo—something inside you resonates with that and reminds you what you really want to be like... In vocational stories, you read of how the woman with the beauty product shop decided to buck conventional wisdom and pioneer fair trade instead of milking poorer nations, and how she ended up making bank and multiplying The Body Shop all over the world...59 You’re inspired by how being different can be a profitable life worth living. These echoes are essential because they give us permission to break out of our boundaries, and rise to our own story. They allow us to move past the confidence trap (‘I must be good at this now’) to exercise our identity’s authority (‘I get to be me now and become amazing over time’).
Finally, I think stories are super important because they project what we get to be like when we’re all grown up. If I tell a story based on who I am today, my stories are kinda wimpy. But if I think about 15 years of learning, relational development, and creative growth, I can tell stories about what my maturity can create over time. Instead of being a school teacher, I might see myself as a curriculum developer, or instead of being a graphic designer, I might see myself as a graphic novelist. Stories allow me to look at life over time, and how that time will effect me, and how I’ll affect the world. This is so freeing because instead of focusing on today’s limitations, you can project into tomorrow’s possibilities. This is especially important for those wanting to develop their entrepreneurial ideas. Having the goal in mind, taking baby-steps, learning and changing along the way, but always moving towards your story over time, is what usually separates the 5% of small business successes and the 95% of failures.