Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Why the stories we tell matter

To change the world, first shape the story 

The other night one of my housemates invited a group of friends over to watch a documentary about the war on drugs.  It was heart-breaking. So many people are living behind bars for relatively small offenses, separated from children and parents. 

It would be one thing if it worked, but despite our highest incarceration rate in the world, drug use hasn't declined. Each year we spend the equivalent of Uruguay's GDP feeding a system that's leaving poor communities still poor and broken families still broken and no one any safer.

Minority communities are impacted disproportionally. Not because they use more drugs, but because they get caught more often. Black Americans represent only ~13% of crack users, but they make up ~90% of crack defendants in courts.  Which leaves me wondering, where the heck are all the white crack users? In their corporate offices?

Shockingly, today there are actually more African Americans under correctional control or in prison than were enslaved before the Civil War. 

There are times when the brokenness of our world hits you and you wonder, WHY? I'd like to think that most of us are generally well-intentioned. And I'd like to also think that our policy-makers are trying their best.


At the risk of making a complicated problem sound simple, I propose there are two main underlying forces at work:  our  stories and our systems.

To understand someone's actions you have to first understand their beliefs. And to know what they believe you have to listen to the stories that they tell. Then it's important to look at the external system around them to see what behaviors it rewards and punishes and the chain reactions that result.

Together stories and systems shape so much of our identities, our policies, and our communities. They are bigger than us, yet often invisible.

In this post, I want to talk about one of these forces: the power of story.

Four powers of stories

#1: The power to create order out of chaos

What is a story?

A story is our summary of reality; it's the picture we use to help us put life's puzzle pieces together.

In every story there is a protagonista mission, and the enemy.   Stories shape what we think of as right or wrong, good or bad.  Stories galvanize us to action by framing the problem and thus framing the goal.

The war on drugs evolved out of a story. It began about drug users as the victim protagonistand has become about drug users, the enemyIn the 19th century, drug abuse was primarily seen as a health concern. Drug abuse was a problem of the middle class and addiction was treated with doctors rather than prisons. 

Then immigrant and minority populations started using drugs - Chinese laborers used opium, Southern Blacks used cocaine, Mexicans used marijuana - and beginning in 1870 drugs became a criminal concern and these "job-stealing" groups were targeted.

Today, we've inherited the story that drug users are the enemy, but we've forgotten the context that it came from. We've sidelined facts that don't fit this story and we've let it shape our policies.

When good people do bad things it's often because they throw out the puzzle pieces that don't fit their picture or they can't see the other pictures that are possible. Stories are essential to our sanity, but to keep us from unintentionally hurting other people we need to mindfully practice breaking them down and reconfiguring them to see new perspectives and opportunities. 

#2. The power to stick

For better or worse, our brains are wired to remember what is good or bad much better than what is true or false.

Stories usually start out as a set of facts arranged against an emotional backdrop that gives meaning to these facts, including defining what is good and bad. This backdrop is what makes stories far more sticky than a list of cold hard facts. 

Their stickiness means stories tend to live beyond their expiration dates. Over time, the facts may change and dissolve, but the shell of the emotional backdrop remains and gets passed on.  

In the war on drugs, we've held on to the emotional back-drop that drug users are bad. Yet we haven't updated our stories with new evidence that structural problems are the worse enemy.

Nazis became Nazis because their story had expired. They were no longer victims, and yet they continued to live out of their victim story in their new position of power, becoming oppressors.

If we aren't careful, men in the U.S. may soon face a new form of inequality as they attend college less and have no paternal rights over fetuses. 

If we don't step out of our stories to assess where we are and check the new facts, we risk pulling too hard and dragging our enemy through the mud in our tug of war.

#3 The power to give purpose

Many years ago a group of Americans, who saw themselves as helping, began transporting large quantities of second-hand clothing to a poor community in Central America. The local textile industry, however, couldn't compete with the free clothing and eventually closed, laying off workers. Sadly, the charity took a long time to adjust its strategy because in their minds, they were the heroes. 

The Christian Right has been criticized for imposing faith on politics, but it began because a group of Christians in the government felt they were living closeted lives. They decided they wanted to be more open and authentic about who they were. They saw their religiously motivated policies in light of this goal.  

In nearly every story, we see ourselves as either the moral hero or the justified victim. Stories give us purpose and boost our egos by framing our role in a positive light.

But we must remember that even stories with noblest missions can have the worst consequences and even stories with the worst consequences can have the noblest mission: e.g. generosity or authenticity. 

Good people can do bad things if they don't take time to consider the broader consequences of their good intentions.

#4 The power to build community

Stories are like tuning forks that take the world's cacophony and create resonance. We are fundamentally social creatures and we like being part of a group; stories are the notes and rhythms that mark a group and keep it in sync. 

But to keep us in sync, stories have to be continuously repeated.

As a result, communities are forever reiterating their stories. Students stand and say the pledge of allegiance. Church groups sing familiar songs and recite creeds. Battles are reenacted and history lessons are taught. Families remind their children of their values and their roots.

If your story is full of hope and progress, you may go to college without even thinking about it. You show hospitality and kindness, because that's just what your community does.

But stories focused on defeat or revenge can lead to a cycle of pain.  Inner city kids get into drugs and drop out of school. The Middle East continues its never-ending wars.

Often our most powerful stories are our most subtle ones. They are the water the fish doesn't notice or the glasses we forgot we were wearing but that shape everything we see. The reason so few people fought slavery hundreds of years ago was not necessarily evil intent but rather lack of attention. Today, I'm very likely supporting child labor or some other evil because it's not in my community story, I'm not aware.

Stories are fueled by the almost hypnotic and reinforcing effect of the communities that live and repeat them. 

Good people do bad things when they fall into the trance of these powerful stories and lack the courage to sing a different note.

How do we create a better story?

Framing a story is much more than media spin. A story is about the fundamental way we view a problem. 

To re-frame a story you have to first change yourselfYou must step out of your story and see that there are other possible valid stories. Secondly, to change other people, you have to uncover what others care about and re-frame the story around their values.

Job #1: Change yourself
Perhaps the most critical human skill is the ability to pause and temporarily step out of yourself. It's what my former professor, Ron Heifetz of Harvard, called "going up to the balcony."

When you go to the balcony you ask yourself - what story am I living? What story is shaping how I interpret world events and other people? What mission directs my actions and what standards have I been using to judge if I'm right or wrong?

We will always be blinded in some way, but the more we can practice "going up to the balcony" the more we can free ourselves from being trapped by stories that may not be helpful and may need refreshing.

Stepping out of your story takes work. It takes listening to other people. It takes learning your trigger buttons. It takes examining evidence and testing your views against something outside of yourself and your community. 

It also takes holding onto your core - the goal is not to become a chameleon nor to try to live in a vacuum free of stories. Stories are also why people are motivated to do good things.

Rather, the goal is to live more mindfully. By temporarily stepping out of your story you strengthen your capacity to choose your actions and beliefs instead of simply defaulting to your past or to your culture. 

Ironically, the first step in making the world a better place is becoming self-aware enough to realize that 


Job #2: Change others
Secondly, if you want to reframe the story you have to convince other people. 

To do this you must reframe the story around one of their deeply held values. 

Here's an example:

Last year, This American Life ran an episode on the environmental movement. They wanted to know - why is it that Conservatives are still failing to champion environmental policies despite the strong evidence of climate change?

With candor and insight atypical of a politician, a Republican suggested it was because Liberals had grabbed the issue first. If Liberals were for it, Conservatives were going to be against it because (a) you can't trust Liberals and (b) you have to be different to win elections. Conservatives went on to portray the environmental movement as being overblown, bad for the economy, and infringing on personal freedoms. 

But consider if Conservatives had claimed the issue first. Might they have framed the story entirely differently?  Could the story have been, "We must protect God's creation, it's our biblical duty"? Today, some environmentally conscious Christian groups are indeed trying to change hearts and minds by reframing the story this way. 

To change someone else's story, first understand what fundamental value they are trying to defend, e.g. the economy. Second, open yourself up to considering this value; they may be addressing valid concerns that you have not adequately accounted for in your own story. Third, help them see how their story imposes upon one of their other equally important values, such as the biblical directive to carefully manage the earth.


The War on Drugs is starting to change. The story is starting to portray drug users not just as enemies but also as victims, not just as cause, but also as effect, leading to policies that focus on structural issues and prevention. People, like me, are becoming more educated and as a result, politicians are finding a little more courage to not tow the party-line of being "tough on crime" and instead be fair on crime. No doubt, we'll need to continue to revise our story as we test new solutions and understand the drug problem from different perspectives.

Stories are like ever swinging pendulums. We never frame them quite right - we usually swing a little too far right and then a little too far left. But the important thing is that we realize when we are off the mark and that we never stop trying.

The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander
The House I Live In, Documentary
List of Countries By Incarceration Rate, Wikipedia
Hot in My Backyard, This American Life 5/17/2013 episode

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