With COVID-19 changing the way we live and view our lives, we felt it appropriate to dive into the world of personal narratives. Now is a good time for all of us, marketers included, to rethink meaning. Here’s John Hagel to help us orient our selves.
John Hagel is the founder Beyond Our Edge, LLC. Previously, he was the co-founder of Deloitte LLP’s Center for the Edge with over 40 years of experience as a management consultant, author, speaker and entrepreneur. He is the author of numerous books, including “The Power ofPull,” “Net Gain,” “Net Worth,” “Out of the Box” and “The Only Sustainable Edge.” Before that, John was Global Leader of McKinsey’s Strategy Practice and Electronic Commerce Practice (which he founded and led from 1993-2000). John holds a B.A. from Wesleyan University, a B.Phil from Oxford University and a J.D. and MBA from Harvard University.
John, what is a personal narrative?
My view of personal narratives is very different from the conventional view that is prevalent in psychology and other domains. When psychologists talk about personal narratives, they are referring to the stories that we tell ourselves and others about where we have come from – it’s about us as individuals. and it’s about the past.
I view personal narratives through a different lens. For me, personal narratives are about our view of the future, not the past. The starting question is whether our view of the future is primarily driven by our perception of threat or opportunity. Which is it? But then an equally important question is: what is our call to action to others in terms of helping us to address this opportunity or threat? Is there a call to action to others? For many of us, we feel we need to make the journey alone. For others, we are seeking help. The question here is who are we seeking help from and what is our call to action in terms of how they can help.
How did you adopt this different lens?
Our view of the future is more likely to shape our choices and actions than our view of the past. Our view of our past is certainly relevant and worthy of reflection, but ultimately the question is: what is pulling us forward? It’s about the power of pull, rather than the power of push.
Also, the call to action is key. Ultimately, our ability to achieve more of our potential hinges on our willingness to collaborate with others and our ability to motivate them to collaborate with us. If we are driven to make the journey alone, we may be able to make some progress, but it will be only a small portion of the progress we could make by traveling together with others.
Why is that the case? Well, it has to do with learning and the motivation to learn. In a rapidly changing world, if we’re not learning faster, we’re likely to be increasingly marginalized. What kind of learning is most effective in a rapidly changing world? It’s learning in the form of creating new knowledge, not just sharing existing knowledge.
And, no matter how smart we are, we’ll do that a lot better if we are acting together with others, rather than acting in isolation. We can benefit from diversity of perspectives and experience to help identify the actions with the greatest potential for impact. That’s why calling others to action is so key in driving faster and more effective learning.
So narratives build community?
By framing a “shared view” of the threat or opportunity, a personal narrative can help to leverage that diversity to drive action to focus on a shared outcome. We may differ in terms of how to get there, but we share a common commitment to the outcome that matters.
But that’s not all. We need to be motivated to learn. Learning requires effort and taking risk. Why would we do that?
That’s where the framing of the narrative as threat based or opportunity based becomes so key in a personal narrative. Threats and opportunities can be motivating, but in different ways. If we’re focusing on a threat out in the future, our motivation for action and learning is likely to come from fear. On the other hand, if we’re focusing on an opportunity out in the future, our motivation for action and learning is likely to come from hope and excitement.
In a world of mounting performance pressure and accelerating change, we are much more likely to be driven by a threat-based view of the future that instills fear. While fear can certainly be a motivator for learning, it is not the most effective motivator. If we’re driven by fear, we tend to become more risk averse and less trusting of others. That inhibits our potential for learning.
On the other hand, if our view of the future is shaped by a really inspiring opportunity that can help more of us to achieve more of our potential, we are much more likely to be motivated by hope and excitement. That’s a very powerful motivator for learning. We’re much more willing to take risks, and we are more motivated to collaborate, because the opportunity is something that we all can benefit from.
Even if we’re acting in a world that is driven largely by fear, the fact that we are acting with others who share hope and excitement will help to shield us from the fear surrounding us.
So personal narratives are driven by fear or hope…
Is our view of the future shaped primarily by a perception of threat or opportunity? And, if it’s an opportunity, have we framed the opportunity in a way that is not just inspiring for us, but inspiring for others who would then be motivated to join us in our quest? Opportunity-based personal narratives can be powerful motivators for learning faster through acting together.
That’s where the role of a personal narrative becomes so central.
As powerful as personal narratives can be, I am struck by how few of us have taken the time to articulate our personal narrative, much less reflect on its potential for impact. Even if we haven’t articulated our personal narrative, it is there and shaping our daily actions. We owe it to ourselves to pay more attention to our personal narrative and to commit to find ways to evolve our personal narrative in ways that can help us to achieve more of our potential.
I understand you’re teaching a class on personal narratives?
I’ve created a 9-week course at the Significance Learning Center called Harness Your Personal Narrative. If you’re interested, please enroll here. I’m limiting the class to 40 students to maximize the interaction I’ll have with each person in this live-taught works-shop style course.
We need to come together and find ways to evolve opportunity-based personal narratives. I organized my class around the three most important steps:
- Reframe YOUR Personal Narrative To Transform your Life: Identify your current personal narrative and then go through a process of evolving it to an ideal version that’s based on deep clarity
- Take Action On Your Evolving Personal Narrative: Gain the tools and the support you need to begin actively using your personal narrative to transform your life, from “pressure to passion”
- Power-Up Your Personal Impact: Learn the power of building meaningful collaborations and supporters in order to maximize your personal impact and fulfillment
I also find that meeting one-on-one with students makes a big difference. That’s why I make sure to spend time with each student working with them to unlock the power of their individual narratives.
Thanks for your time, John.
INTERVIEW by Christian Sarkar