Does the World Need New Storytelling?

Does the World Need New Storytelling?


“If all you offer is money, all you get are mercenaries,” says Frederik Gieschen. Incentives shape behavior. Wall Street may indeed need new storytelling.# Michael Lewis says the system is stale and needs a breath of new imagination. When a story gets stale, the business attached to it is stuck.

Perhaps Wall Street's story is stale. But “the game of markets is as interesting, challenging, and alive as it has ever been.” The “work has become more challenging and interesting because the world is more complex and the game much more competitive.”

Perhaps its the whole narrative that is stale. Replace “new alpha factories” with new super-heroes, and you have society's dilemma—the persistent focus on exceptions, the one person, the perfect individual—and you see how we're stuck. Because the world is indeed more complex, and we could have more interesting questions to explore.


Slaying the myth of a solitary hero

Can we retire the myth of a solitary hero already? To Gieschen's

Just consider the hubris of anyone setting out to test their wit and will against the market’s collective wisdom. Imagine the odyssey of their career as they set sail. Put yourself on the deck of their vessel as they steer through storms in search of treasure. Contemplate the many ships they watched sink to the bottom of the sea. There is no way their adventure won’t spawn good stories.

I say hubris, wit and will are weak prompts. Willpower may have become the thing that distinguishes us from each other, as Kelly McGonigal says,

People who have better control of their attention, emotions, and actions are better off almost any way you look at it. They are happier and healthier. Their relationships are more satisfying and last longer. They make more money and go further in their careers. They are better able to manage stress, deal with conflict, and overcome adversity. They even live longer.

But this area of your brain is the smallest and has evolved more recently. Which is why “Organized common (or uncommon) sense — very basic knowledge — is an enormously powerful tool.” While the capacity for creative thought and quick understanding is useful, Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett counsel to go beyond that.

The market's collective wisdom is indeed a powerful force, and it's presumptuous to think oneself better. Collective contribution, team effort is how's it was done even in Ulysses' time. Were it not for his ship mates to tie him to the mast, the Greek hero would have followed the sirens' song to his demise.

This is what I call the paradox of our age. Each generation stands on the shoulders of the previous one. The metaphor of “dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants” (Latin: nanos gigantum humeris insidentes) expresses the meaning of “discovering truth by building on previous discoveries.”

Its most familiar expression in English is found in a 1676 letter of Isaac Newton#:

If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

In modern times, Stephen Hawkins' On the Shoulders of Giants is a curated collection of the “momentous discoveries that changed our perception of the world with this first-ever compilation of seven classic works on physics and astronomy.” It shows how each scientist built upon the work of his predecessors.

Even Marvel got there with Avengers. But the series, though an improvement on the single hero, is still promoting the myth of a few, chosen ones, over the rest of society.


What does new storytelling look like?

Wall Street may (or may not) need new storytelling. But we do as a society. Mainstream narrative continues to promote focus on one leader or special person who saves the day. Why so much focus on select few, when there are so many who contribute to the success of a business, including customers?

The 'hero does it all' or 'hero saves the day' story line hides a more dangerous problem: passive dependence required by everyone else. Part of this dependence may be the result of a constant bombardment of bad news. Have you checked out? The temptation is there, isn't it?

Plus, consider how our brains freeze on red alert. Red alerts, which is why everyone's using them: they've become many and constant.

Not only can unrelenting crisis story lines take a toll on our mental health, but we sometimes grow numb to them. That numbness can potentially make it harder for us to distinguish between true crises and trumped-up ones.

Passive and confused. Social media and phone prompts are part of the problem. The flood of information, all of it promoted with screaming and otherwise exaggerated headlines is numbing us and hiding the real issues under an avalanche of pop-up windows.

A sea of crisis narratives takes a toll on discernment and well-being. 

If this is you, take control of your digital life.

Tun off all or most app notifications, delete unnecessary apps from your phone (better yet, if you never install them), and check email and chat channels only at planned times. Curate the information by source: people you trust, people you know and can question, sources willing to explain their mistakes.

I use a feed aggregator and am ruthless with unsubscribes. Not one news organization made the cut. Too many headlines, and too little yield. Unless I'm on a specific assignment, I don't need to be up-to-the-minute on news. Analysis and long-form explainers, preferably with historical perspective, are a better choice.

When I don't understand something, I find the best ways to get there is trying to write about it. That forces you to learn more. Go beyond doing your research online. Talk to people in different parts of your network to reason out loud about what you're thinking. There's always something you miss and I rather enjoy intelligent discussion.

'Intelligent' is something you're not getting from an algorithm. AI is mastering language, says some. “Should we trust what it says?” Like Kevin Kelly, I pointed out we should be careful about the language we use. Only, I did it more than a decade before Stephen Berlin Johnson wrote the column.

Which is why playing with headlines in media and playing with words in business is problematic. Consciousness sits with imagination as a powerful human trait. And in our psyche, there's a certain understanding about words. The path to AI might be 'mindless,' but what happens when a few lines of code can explain things better than you?


Here comes everybody

Here comes everybody is not quite the new storytelling. It was the early days of technology.

We saw the promise, didn't predict the drawbacks. We know that 1 percent of participants write, 9 percent edit, 90 percent read only. Hence why what we read (and how we read it) is so important. But also note how who writes is critical. The stream was thus engineered, rather than to connect with action.

11 years ago, I gave two talks that started a new phase of my work:

  • One at Ignite Austin on Uploading Humanism which holds the reason why perpetrating the story that women need their own clubs because men have theirs holds us back. Key message: Technology and humanity need to connect with better terms for humans.
  • One solo talk on the SxSW interactive stage on Influence (I updated the deck for SMX) which holds the reason why focusing on the type of person leaves so much opportunity untapped. Key message: A story that resonates, the ability to spread it, and doing something meaningful are the three core ingredients to get it right.

Good articles, books, and papers are out there. It just takes work to get to them. Which is why when you find sensible curators, you should hold onto them. How do you evaluate if someone is good? They look for both quality and novelty: Not your run of the mill article, not your usual take.

That's why on my AI wish list, I said,

Make AI's stupidity work for human intelligence — that is doing the heavy lifting where it does better, but integrated with people where our brains do better. This should benefit everyone with costs amortized by society

There are still a few of us out there who have eclectic taste and curate information with a purpose to float all boats, not just line our pockets. According to how others see my work, it looks like I'm one of them.  Here's where everybody comes in: subscribe, support, share the work of these people.

That's how we tip the scale in favor of new storytelling.

Story by story, we can weave a new narrative.


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