Ever since Joseph Campbell wrote it (1949), The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the hero has grabbed the collective imagination. Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke used “Journey Beyond the Stars”# as a working title for the screenplay that would become 2001: A Space Odyssey.
But, what if this way of organizing story is wrong? What if the stories we tell could be more interesting and captivating? What if the stories we buy are wrong for us?
Stories aren't what they used to be
We like stories, we like to summarize, and we like to simplify: to reduce the dimension of things. Nassim Nicholas Taleb says, “the fallacy is associated with our vulnerability to over-interpretation and our predilection for compact stories over raw truths.”
Campbell was writing after World War II. The world was ready for simple tales. Nations were keen on prescriptive tools. Monomyth looked attractive. A more global view of myths made the book even more interesting.
But a flatter and individualistic view of story comes at a cost: context. High-context traded for low-context. Community and history are necessary ingredients for a three-dimensional view of human experience. Loose context sinks companies. You end up sounding like everyone else.
Strong story is arbitrage.
Companies invest in branding because it works. Great branding is not just packaging. It's the culling of high-context into simple visuals and words. It takes tons of experience to appreciate and work through the nuance of a company's story.
I've seen the effects on product demand, service pricing, and even company value. In my corporate years, I was able to replace undifferentiated and old stories with the exciting and new. The trick is that there's no trick. Because customers and employees know what is true.
And when something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. The wrong story—whether you're selling or buying—is a broken promise. It's hard to build communication and marketing that works well on top of it. Because it only displaces the problem to customer, partner, and employee experience.
Why we need new ways to argue
Social media has created two big problems. The sharing of a polished and highly edited image of oneself and the use of controversy for attention create one-dimensional caricatures. Then you end up living there. With many consequences.
One, nobody is perfect. Heroes had warts. If you think about it, what you end up loving the most in a person is their quirks. Because that's what you miss when they're gone. Imperfection is supremely attractive. All happy companies are different.
Two, disagreement is central to progress. But we shy away from it. Wrong context is a problem. There's no incentive for social media to create a better one. The tools are built for scale, not intimacy. Offline is where true dialogue can happen.
Conversation is a sense-making tool. We're born with it. Ancient orators knew that arguing was an art that led to better outcomes. Modern society has lost this high-value skill. But learning how to argue well creates real advantage.
In Conflict, Ian Leslie explains why we need new ways to argue. People confuse a task conflict with a relationship conflict. You can learn to be hard on issues and soft on people. Saving face is safe space in conversations.
When you listen, you can learn so much about how people see themselves, what they care about, and how they see you. Research demonstrates that divergence in views are a strength in relationships as in companies.
Challenge helps you think more deeply. By forcing you to acknowledge or consider other perspectives, it can make you more creative.
Is your story toxic?
A flat and monolithic view of story could be toxic. Because heroes also hurt people. Achilles prayed for his people to die. His honor was bruised. Herakles went mad and killed his wife and children. Which he later paid in labors.
It is not enough to put the heroic narrative through a diversity, equity, and inclusion workshop. Its structure itself assumes a particular worldview as dominant and casts socially derived personalities as “natural.” Campbell’s hero is ruggedly individual; it uses weaker people as instruments; and it has no room for collective action, for families, or for bodies that fail to conform: the aged, the disabled, the sick.
The same is true for company stories. Remember the spectacular rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos? A story that was too good to be true:
In Silicon Valley, where entrepreneurs are prone to aspirational statements about how technology can improve lives, there’s little reason not to exaggerate or lie to raise money if there aren’t serious repercussions. That’s the message prosecutors are sending by seeking to put Holmes and Balwani in prison. Evidence in the case shows they made audacious promises about their blood-testing machine that belied reality.
Few companies had as dramatic a rise and fall story as WeWork. But this is yet another cautionary tale about a heroic leader. WeWork was supposed to be a community place for entrepreneurs and free agents. They bought into their own story, and they oversold it:
Through a combination of egomaniacal glamour and millennial mysticism, the Neumanns sold WeWork not merely as a real estate play. It wasn’t even a tech company (though he said it should be valued as such). It was a movement, complete with its own catechisms (“What is your superpower?” was one). Adam said WeWork existed to “elevate the world’s consciousness.” The company would allow people to “make a life and not just a living.” It was even capable of solving the world’s thorniest problems.
Heroes just for one day. It's not enough to want something badly for it to be true. But ego and the social media echo encourage upping the ante. Too many companies are still words to a story that doesn't reflect reality. If your story is not grounded in reality, it's toxic.
Myths can be helpful. They can tell us a lot about human nature. After all, that's how the Greeks conceived them to be in conversation with their traits. But we need to be careful of not buying them wholesale.
Reality distortion is a dangerous game. And from my twenty plus years of working with companies stories I can tell you that you and your company are much more interesting as you are. You just need to be curious about what makes you interesting. (I can help)