Let’s talk about stories, the all-important narratives that help us make sense of everything that we do, and everything that we are. And yet, we underplay its importance and think of stories as mere entertaining episodes that we read in the books, or watch in the movies, completely forgetting that stories are much, much more than that.
As Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens points out,
“The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mysterious glue that enables millions of humans to cooperate effectively. This mysterious glue is made of stories, not genes. We cooperate effectively with strangers because we believe in things like gods, nations, money and human rights. Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. You can never convince a chimpanzee to give you a banana by promising him that after he dies, he will get limitless bananas in chimpanzee Heaven. Only Sapiens can believe such stories. This is why we rule the world, and chimpanzees are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.”
However, stories are not just collective understanding of the world, they are also the means and ways of processing information and understanding ourselves (read more here). At the end of the day, we become who we believe we are. Often this story is made in bits and pieces, and over the years we borrow our identity from the many different phases of our lives (and sometimes even from others).
I have done that myself. For a very long time, my identity was based on who the society believed I was, who my parents wanted me to be, who my experiences made me feel I was, and then it was also based on personalities of people around me who influenced me. It was later when I began researching human behaviour, mentoring and studying about it, that I became aware of the power of the stories that we tell ourselves. It was fascinating and scary at the same time to see how our narrative could change who we became eventually. And I saw examples.
Over the years, I met extra-ordinarily talented, intelligent individuals who believed that they were not good enough, and I also met the not so-talented people who believed they were extraordinary. Interestingly, their confidence levels matched their opinion about themselves, and it had less to do with their ability. Having followed their stories for years, I can tell you that those with positive narrations somehow did better than the talented ones. Also, they were happier. Years after years, I saw these examples, and marvelled at the power of the story that we told ourselves. A young women I had mentored was often told that she was, “good for nothing,” when she was younger. Probably, the adults who told her that didn’t mean it, but that became her narrative. The words would come back to haunt her till it became her truth. She manifested it. So, stories, are not just what we read in books and see in movies. Stories are us. Stories are who we are.
Story has become a focus for me now. I understand situations in a story format. I perceive behaviour through stories in my head, and I write based on storylines. I am also glad to be able to use the power of stories in the workshops and mentoring sessions that I conduct. Stories have the power to link many different ideas and complexities of life. They not only help us understand things better, but they also help us understand ourselves better. When we become aware of a story, especially our own, we become empowered to change it for the better. Over the years I have realised that most stories are similar at its centre, its core. However, the layers surrounding the core are often varied. They need patient peeling off.
My involvement in programmes that use stories for impact has been an intensely rich experience. And many changed narratives later, I can vouch for the power of stories even more. In my line of work, I have seen people who don’t match the stories that they have created around themselves. But then, I have also seen transformations, once they take charge of their storylines. Humans, you see, have great potential for change. This power of changing for the better is what makes us special.
We are the stories that we tell ourselves. Are you aware of yours?