Updated: Feb 5
If I asked you to identify the most powerful thing human beings have ever produced on planet Earth, what would it be? Nuclear weapons? Global warming? Penicillin? Nanotech? The internet? You could certainly make a compelling case for any of these.
But I would argue that it is something much simpler. Simpler, and yet radically more complex. Something capable of creating entire communities or undermining the strongest of nations; of giving hope to billions or threatening to destroy life as we know it; of driving people to acts of mad violence or life-transforming kindness. Something that exists all around us, all the time, but which we almost always overlook until someone points it out.
In fact, so ubiquitous is it, so woven into the patterns and interactions of our everyday lives, that bringing up its importance can be as challenging as trying to explain water to a fish. How do you point at it and say "there it is!" when it's so much a part of us it literally lives inside our heads?
But I'll try anyway. What I'm talking about is story. Think about it. Everything we've ever created, everything we've ever built, everything we've ever thought about, felt, imagined, done, invented, destroyed, loved, hated, fought and killed for, or worked together to save, began with a story.
Every political aspiration, every religion, every business venture started with a story. An idea. A "what if...?"
Money is a story.
The notion of a middle class (and class itself) is a story.
Every joke is a story.
Every conversation is a story.
Every relationship is a story.
What we think about ourselves (and what others think of us) is a story.
Everything ever invented started with a story.
Science tap existing stories and create new ones.
So are our hopes, our dream, our sense of possibility - all of them are rooted in stories.
Our ideas of how life is supposed to work (and why we should bother) is a story. Every news report, every ad, every Instagram pic, every blog post (including this one) is framed in terms of story.
If I asked you how your day went, what would your natural instinct be? Unless you dropped the standard perfunctory "good", you would probably start telling me a story: “It was crazy! I took the bus to work today and of course it was raining and of course I forgot my umbrella, and so this guy gets on one stop before mine and starts singing ‘Hallelujah!’ at the top of his lungs, and…” We can’t help it.
Next to eating, sleeping, and making babies, telling stories is something we humans have been doing longer than anything else. Before homo sapiens could put two intelligent words together, we were already sharing stories on cave walls and acting them out around community fires to instruct, warn, entertaining, inspire, and unite. And the types of stories we tell can literally make or break our world.
Case in point: Do you believe that all people are worthy of equal respect, opportunity, and protection regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, orientation, or ability? If you live in the western hemisphere, there is a high likelihood that your answer is “yes”. In fact, our belief in universal equal rights is so fundamental that we would probably describe those rights as obvious, inherent, inalienable, and automatic.
But are they considered automatic and obvious to everyone in the world? Not by a long shot. In fact there are entire countries and regions of the world that, at least officially, flat-out reject the idea of fair and equal treatment of all persons. Even here in North America, the supposed birthplace of modern democracy, we're still struggling to get it right.
Here's my point: the only reason we believe in equal human rights is because we’ve been telling each other that story for the past few hundred years and it's become an embedded part of our thinking. To be clear, I like that story. I like it a lot. I like it so much, I'd be willing to put my reputation, my big life dreams, even my life on the line to make sure that story never stops being told.
But it's not the only story out there.
After all, Adolph Hitler had a story.
As did Mahatma Gandhi.
Martin Luther King had a story.
So does Donald Trump.
ISIS has a story.
So does New Zealand PM, Jacinda Ardern.
Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, had a story.
And so does Elon Musk.
All of their stories have shaped life as we know it. And that’s just the last century!
Given the right conditions, the right opportunity, and the right marketing, the story of just one person can tilt the cultural, social or political axis of the planet one way or the other. In short, stories make the world.
But here's the really exciting part: if story is really that powerful, you know what that makes us storytellers, right? Magicians, shaman, agents of change. Encouraged, nurtured, trained, and released into the world, we and and the stories we tell can change lives and build a better, richer, more fulfilling tomorrow.
The world needs good storytellers more than ever. Stories make the world. Time to tell yours.
Wishing you brilliant success!