My new book, The Journey Beyond Fear, suggests there’s a significant untapped opportunity to be addressed with narratives. It explores the role that narratives can play in helping us to move beyond fear and cultivate emotions that will help us to achieve more impact that’s meaningful to us.
But, to address that opportunity, we need to embrace a very different definition of narratives. And we need to craft narratives at multiple levels – for individuals, institutions, geographies and movements. We can make progress at each level, but it’s only when we find ways to align narratives across all these levels that we will unleash the full opportunity.
What is a narrative?
Most people view narratives and stories as synonymous – they mean the same thing. I believe there’s an important distinction that can and should be made. Stories are self-contained – they have a beginning, middle and end. Also, stories are about the story-teller or some other people, real or imagined, but they are not about you in the audience.
In contrast, the way I define narratives, they’re open-ended. There is no resolution yet. There’s some kind of big threat or opportunity out in the future and it’s not yet clear whether it will be addressed. The resolution of the narrative hinges on you – the people being addressed by the narrative. Your choices and actions will help to determine how the narrative plays out.
Why are narratives so powerful?
By looking out into the future, narratives can play a powerful role in shaping our emotions and actions today. Threat-based narratives feed our fear. Opportunity-based narratives, in contrast, help to cultivate hope and excitement about the future and motivate us seek out the opportunity. The most powerful opportunity-based narratives become catalysts for finding and drawing out our passion of the explorer. As I discuss in my new book, the passion of the explorer ultimately holds the key to helping us turn mounting performance pressure into exponentially expanding opportunity. We need to do whatever we can to unleash that passion and to pursue it.
Narratives also are powerful because they are a call to action to others, so they bring people together. If it’s a threat-based narrative, it brings people together in fear, and amplifies the fear in each person. In contrast, opportunity-based narratives bring people together who share excitement about the opportunity ahead. Collective excitement draws out even more excitement, and we are encouraged to act even more boldly in our quest for the opportunity. That’s why I focused on narratives as one of three promising pillars that can help us to make the journey beyond fear.
In a world that is increasingly enveloped in fear, we need to become much more active in crafting opportunity-based narratives that will help us to move beyond fear.
Personal Narratives. Narratives can be crafted at multiple levels, starting with each of us as individuals. Personal narratives are about our view of our future and they are about our call to action to others. We all have personal narratives that are shaping our lives, but few of us have made the effort to articulate this narrative, much less to evolve it so that we can have even more impact.
To address the untapped opportunity of personal narratives, we need to ask ourselves some difficult questions:
- Is our view of the future primarily about threat or opportunity?
- Are we really focused on an opportunity that is the most exciting for us?
- Are we calling others to join us in addressing this exciting opportunity?
In my book, I share how my own personal narrative has evolved and how it has helped me to move beyond fear. We all have a need to do this.
Institutional Narratives. Beyond personal narratives, institutional narratives also represent an untapped opportunity. Few institutions at this point have crafted a compelling narrative. The key in these narratives is to focus on framing a really big, inspiring opportunity that is meaningful to the customers or other stakeholders of the institution – it requires expanding horizons beyond opportunities for the institutions and focusing on opportunities for others. And it also includes a call to action to these customers or other stakeholders – what actions will they need to take that will be most helpful in addressing the opportunity?
One example of the power of an institutional narrative is provided by Apple back in the 1990’s. It condensed the narrative into the slogan “Think different.” The narrative indicated that digital technology in the past had taken away our names and given us numbers and made us cogs in a machine. Now, for the first time, there was a generation of technology that could enable us to express our unique potential and individuality in the future. But it wouldn’t happen automatically – we needed to think different. That was the call to action.
Institutional narratives, properly framed, can draw out significant excitement from customers and other stakeholders and pull more and more people in to address the opportunity. At a time when we all have a hunger for hope and excitement, this can become a catalyst for those emotions.
Geographical Narratives. Moving up the stack, there’s another level of narratives – narratives for cities, regions and even countries. I’ve lived in Silicon Valley for over 40 years and I’ve come to believe that a key to its continuing success has been a geographical narrative that focused on the opportunity to change the world by harnessing the exponential improvement in digital technology. It has been such an inspiring opportunity that it has drawn people from all over the world to Silicon Valley. Few people realize that the majority of successful entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley were not born in the U.S., much less Silicon Valley itself. It’s a key reason why Silicon Valley sustains a culture of optimism – everyone is excited by the opportunity.
My book looks at the role of geographical narratives in helping to build the growth and prosperity of cities, regions and countries around the world. Unfortunately, again, these opportunity-based narratives are few and far between.
Movement Narratives. But there’s more. I’ve studied movements for social change throughout history and in many different parts of the world. Despite significant diversity in these movements, the most successful movements have one thing in common. You guessed it! Opportunity-based narratives.
The classic example is provided by Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC. These narratives focus on the amazing and wonderful things that can be accomplished if we all come together and act together to address new opportunities. Yes, they certainly acknowledge the challenges and obstacles along the way, but the focus is on a really big and inspiring opportunity. That motivates people to come together and act now because now they are tapping into hope and excitement that enables them to move beyond fear.
My book explores the potential that current movements have to achieve much greater impact by crafting more inspiring opportunity-based narratives.
We all need to focus on crafting and evolving narratives that can help us to move beyond fear and cultivate emotions of hope and excitement – and ultimately unleash the passion of the explorer that exists within all of us, waiting to be drawn out and nurtured. If we make this effort, we will tap into exponentially expanding opportunity.
But, there’s a challenge. If the narratives at all the levels I’ve covered are not aligned, we’ll limit our potential for impact. If we’re able to evolve a more compelling personal opportunity-based narrative, but we work in institutions that are driven by threat-based narratives and we live in geographies that are driven by threat-based narratives, the fear of others around us will limit our ability to achieve more of our potential.
What we need are movements driven by opportunity-based narratives that can become catalysts for the profound changes we need in all of our institutions and our communities. If we all come together around opportunity-based narratives, the sky’s the limit in terms of what we can achieve.