This week i am #WorkingOutLoud developing my work around Storytelling: today, some thoughts around how we are trapped in stories. How they may limit our thought, our action, even our identity and space of operation. This is not a negative view: it’s simply the flip side of a coin that we cherish: if stories are part of ‘belonging’, then logically they are also part of exclusion. If stories are part of culture, then logically they are also part of bad cultures. And if stories are part of the way that we think and learn, then it stands to reason that thinking and learning are entwined in storytelling, and perhaps cannot escape it.
We do not understand the world through stories in some abstract way: rather we are written into the narrative ourselves. Sometimes willingly, at other times not.
Some stories we climb into or draw around ourselves like a cloak for comfort, whilst others smother us and are tightened in their grip by other people, beyond our control.
In some sense, stories act upon both the external world and the internal one: on both our thoughts and our actions.
Stories are so pervasive that it’s easy for us to miss them in plain sight: everyday we operate in a world that is defined by cultural norms and ways of working and being. Every aspect of our community, our society, our organisations, even our beliefs, is held within stories. If you drive on the left side of the road, that’s because of a common belief, a narrative. If you identify as a particular nationality, you are subscribed to a story. If you hold a religious belief, you are entwined in stories. And if you hold none, you are also part of a broader narrative.
We learn in stories: partly by hearing them, and partly by constructing them. This process may he additive, evolutionary, or revolutionary: new learning can support, fracture, or depose a legacy.
This isn’t just about knowledge (although knowledge has a strong cultural component in some cases), but also about behaviour, which is also held within vocabularies and stories – of what is ‘normal’ or transgressive, as well as what is established or disruptive.
Whilst it may feel like i’m talking in abstractions, there is a very tangible and real consideration here: the things that we learn carry us into new spaces, to learn, to explore, and yet the things that we know may also trap us, blinding us to the possibility or existence of the new.
In this entrapment may also lie opportunity: if we learn through stories, within stories, and are also trapped by them, potentially we can use stories and storytelling to escape: perhaps fluid flows of narrative, both individual and co-created, can fracture the boundaries that surround us.
Maybe i am simply describing imagination: or collaboration. Or even ‘thinking’.
Words are one of the foundational tools to understand culture and society more generally: another of the foundational tools is ‘power’. Words and Power. No coincidence, as ‘power’ often develops or controls ‘words’ – from the ways that the conqueror burns books or eradicates language, to the ways that cultures and social movements, political movements, magnify and focus the meaning of individual words and phrases.
‘Final solution’ and ‘master race’ are both phrases with a close relationship to terrible narratives. The action contextualises the words, and the words created space for action.
So we dance: with words, within stories. Within stories held in words, but also behaviour, architecture, art, fashion, technology, within culture.
When i first developed the work on Social Leadership, i almost called the first book ‘The Storytelling Leader’, because we cannot disaggregate ‘leadership’ from stories. And to be a leader is to understand this: how stories work, how we are empowered by them, and trapped within them.
And perhaps to explore how we can use this knowledge to fracture stories, to build them, to witness them as they fly, and to challenge them as necessary.