Where do stories come from?

“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”

Muriel Ruykeser.

Ever since we were children, stories are where we go when we are confused. Stories make sense of things by taking random and often scary events and imposing some order and destiny on them in a few hundred pages, or better still, around a fire over an hour or so.

Right now, if we’re not confused, I suggest we’re not thinking enough. Day after day, we are showered with news and opinions designed to position us. At one end, we have the doom-mongers, and at the other, the effusive but hardly credible stream of how we are being presented with “unparalleled opportunities” in Asia Pacific, or how we are going to become, almost overnight, a “scientific superpower”. Meanwhile, we sit here wondering how our job will fare in the changes, how our children’s education will help them, or about our parents’ care. Much more prosaic, much more real, and the stories we are told don’t help. We are facing chronic story misalignment.

So where I wonder, do our stories come from? The ones we are regaled with are, I suspect, designed either in some PR agency or a deep, dank cellar somewhere in a dark, dark wood. These are not stories designed to engage us but rather impose the will of a small minority on us. (Leandro Herrero’s blog today covers this well)

The stories that engage and power us come from somewhere else entirely. They start with a few friends talking until, at some point, an idea joins them and that idea becomes a story. The story has a form, a path, and characters – protagonists, antagonists, dark nights of the soul, all wrapped up in a moral lesson, and they work. If you need proof, listen to your children or grandchildren making sense of the stories they hear as they talk with their friends or their soft toys. 

In business, though, we tend to destroy the good stories when they are still young. Good companies start with a few friends in conversation when an idea emerges and fuels the idea of a story. That story harnesses commitment, enthusiasm and investment, and with a bit of luck, the story takes form. 

Then, something strange happens. The joy and excitement that is a growing business gets replaced by process. Business models, scale projections and exit strategies replace the founders’ intimacy, craft, and enthusiasm as the soul of the idea quietly dies to be replaced by dreams of an IPO or trade sale and the money that goes with it. The story becomes a plan.

Right now, we need new stories generated by conversations between friends, not crafted in some story factory. Stories that resonate, offer uncertainty and danger to be overcome to pursue something worthwhile that celebrates the power of being human. Stories that inspire us to be better and do something worthwhile for others.

These stories do not start with goals, objectives or plans. They begin with curiosity, potential and the mutual trust of a small group of friends which gives an idea that surprises us somewhere to emerge and grow.

Right now, we need to take time out from the turgid stream created by professional storytellers with a plan and replace them with the raw material of future stories. 

Conversations between friends for the sheer joy of it. 

Build the conversation, and the ideas we are looking for (or which are looking for us) will turn up.

Technology and process are helpful, but they don’t dream. That’s what we humans do. It works well, and we need it right now.

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