No Surprise, No Story!!!!

No Surprise, No Story!!!!“When you over-prescribe, you under-surprise.”

When I think about the core of storywise work, I try to remember not to use the formulaic goal-path formula.  You know the script: What is your goal? What is real? What are your options? What will you willingly do. The old GROW model. Or its variations of   Find your Purpose and Start with Why!  Blah Blah…

But Why start with Why? And what is the Purpose of Purpose? Why are we so obsessed with GOALS. As if they are ever so clear that all we have to do is act to achieve them.  As if life was as simple as changing a tire.

What if your Goal is to find your GOAL? What  if your purpose is to find your purpose? What if the next urgent step is not to find your way but to get lost, and interrupt  this logical lock step which tries to make sense of  a system that at its core is a contradiction. Think Global markets, foreign relations, military threats, presidential elections, Wall Street. We impose our need for sense on the world, and we have not the patience for sense to emerge.  Our  obsessive need for an answer often leads to us asking nonsensical questions. We want Yes or No but what if both are wrong?  Watch a Presidential Candidate debate to see how many questions are asked for the benefit of who is asking.

When we as coaches get too prescriptive, where we ask people to tell us a story of an obstacle they overcame, or their greatest success,  we get what we asked for- its the story we want.  But Is it the story they want? There is no surprise. It is dead on arrival. Appreciative Inquiry is already leading the witness.  Don’t tell us the bad news. We must be positive.

But if I ask,

Tell me a story that contains the burning issue for you,

-Tell me the story that is dying to get a safe space to be told,

 Tell me a story that you had never dreamed of sharing till now.

Then you get sparks,  surprise, amazement. You as a coach are drawn into a mystery of revelation. The teller gets even more interested in their own story. How on earth did I tell that story? they say. Why that story now?  They amaze themselves.

Cultural and Political and Religious Stories soon  grow stale, become cliches, sound like dogma, and then they suddenly resurrect when their predictability dies on the altar of surprise. Jesus is a sexual being? Lincoln was a stand up comedian?  Obama enjoys basketball far more than politics? Donald Trump isn’t bald? When a story has no room for surprise, it is dead.

When you under- prescribe, you leave room for over-surprise.

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At a recent meeting of master storytellers in LA, we got a chance to share where we thought the frontiers of our work were. As folks would note from previous posts, I think the recent studies on memory are a game changer. Let me give you some examples.


Our fundamental assumptions about eye witness testimony in trials, for instance, have to be rethought. Memory does not work like a playback tape machine. Its reconstructive, which means its our internal storyteller. The more vivid our memories seem- to which we attach the stamp of reality- has little to do with how reliable they are. Memory is fallible and fragile and eminently corruptible. Legally, guilt is based on beyond reasonable doubt, but knowing what we know now about memory, reasonable doubt is the norm, its always reasonable to doubt. How then will we determine guilt? Should it be “beyond even unreasonable doubt?” Cases of eyewitnesses consistently identifying the wrong suspect speak to how their memory was created at the time of the incident, and recreated in testimony, plus the coaching and nudging, not to its accuracy.


The ordinary wisdom around trauma and critical incident debriefing, the idea that sharing hard stories is inherently healing, what I call the TRC myth (Truth and Reconciliation) is unsubstantiated in most cases. Research from 9-11 suggests that those who allowed time for the trauma to settle into a larger pattern of meaning fared better than those who were invited to share their pain in the midst of their pain. That only locked the disruptive and raw emotions into the creating of the memory so that it made it more traumatic later, not less. Next time there is a school shooting, what are the bus load of grief counselors doing? Offering support of course. But to create a memory that will support resilience, it might be best NOT to talk about how you feel and what you saw. What do we therapists do if we can’t ask “How do you feel?”!!!!!!


Lastly, studies of inter-generational memory are astonishing. Kids who know the story of how Great GranMa Tess came from Ireland after the famine, or Uncle Sid did time for bribery and Great Aunty Eileen ran in the 1936 Olympics, all go to giving kids a larger sense of the fabric of life, one that gives them higher resiliency scores than their peers who know nothing about their family saga.

Does that mean and the like are more than hobbies? That they provide an essential cultural therapy? Or imagine if every headline we read had below it what headline featured 25, 75, 50 and 100 years ago on the same day, would we be less anxious, less scare-able to know that in 1964, we were alarmed at Russia’s intentions too, or in 1932, veterans were not waiting for treatment but formed an army to march on Washington because they felt so aggrieved. That might take some of the Sound and Fury out of our modern day indignations that always feign the surprise of innocence, when we have to pretend it has never happened before. Russia threatening to invade, veterans getting a raw deal, USA turning isolationist after war defeats, what’s new???

Vanity of Vanities, they used to say. But news media depend very much on our forgetting and our culture of hype works against memory. but that is another essay for another day, if I remember it.

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When I first met my friend and pioneer of Narrative Therapy Michael White 25 years ago in Adelaide, I asked him about the origins of his approach. He said that first of all, he was taken with maps. Mike and I went to Australian schools at a time when for social studies exams, we had to draw the routes of Captain Cook and Burke and Wills and Edmund Eyre. Maps were part of our early learning. Michael’s last work-Maps of Narrative Practice has a compass on the cover. Its as if he returns to where he began.

Inspired by this, I offer below a short summary of how I see Maps and Stories working in tandem: It is about the borders of inside and outside and part of our new work on the New Geography of Change.

When we are outside something, or some issue or concern, distant, as an observer or critics, objective, cool, calculating, rational, unemotional, ( pick an issue where your opinion to experience ratio is 10 to 1, eg, Gun laws, or Middle East Peace, or womens’ rights)

Most times, we need to get inside, to know what it feels like for someone experiencing the issue at the point of where it matters most. For that, we need stories. We need to hear the authentic witness, because a story moves us from outside to inside. One minute we are listening to a veteran start to speak and next minute, we can feel the ache of his having to wait for treatment knowing he might die of the delay. We feel outrage, horror. We are no longer cool, objective, rational. For those issues distant to us, we need stories to move us from outside to inside. In our work with Israel Palestine, so dominated by ideologies, stories make the political personal. For example, When people know from the inside what its like to be a refugee, unearned opinions about the right of return drop away because they sound so cold and uncaring.

When we are lost inside something, or some experience of great pain or great trauma or perplexity that we don’t know much else other than the worry and the sleepless nights and the anxiety that our loved ones share for us, we know we need to get on the outside of it. Then we need Maps. We need to see the bigger picture, to see who else is struggling with the same issue, to see how far we may have come, to see who else is on hand to help. We also need to note the patterns that mark our journey that we cannot see when we are too close to it. Maps move us from the inside to the outside, to move us from “How we Are?” to “Where we are?” White did this when he externalized the problem, which meant- put some distance between you and your concern.


1) Are there issues or experiences you are immersed in right now, or your clients are grappling with, and where just dealing with the emotions saps most of the creative energy? They don’t see the trees for the woods, or you feel like the proverbial “child lost in the forest.”

Then you need to find a map, one that will show up what is invisible inside the experience, such as relatedness, proximity, context, the terrain around the experience, the gaps, the other witnesses who are silent or you cant hear. A map can defeat isolation, or a sense of stuckness because they can show movement and connection, and the goal-proximity of how close, how far.

2) Are there issues or opinions that you feel strongly about, that you know a lot about, and have all the expert research, and feel the rightness of your view more than being in touch with the experiences of those more closely grappling with the issues? Then you need to find some stories to get inside. A story opens up the emotional landscape, and you are no longer outside looking in, but inside looking out.

So many issues qualify. But can we imagine the VA scandal happening if the decision makers knew what delay in treatment means to families? Or if more members of Congress had kids on active service, would they tolerate what has been going on for a decade?

Maps and Stories, the Journey from inside to outside and taking the view of the map back into the story to make it more accurate, and taking the view of the story back into the map to make it more authentic. We need Maps of Narrative Practice and we need a Practice of Narrative Maps.

If anyone is interested in exploring more about the New Geography of Change, let me know- we are hatching plans for some workshops.



(Letter to the participants of NSL 2014)

The famous poet John Keats used the term “Negative Capability” to describe human beings capacity to step outside their boundaries and embrace new contexts for their learning. That is what we need from you as you all get ready for NSL, an experience of a lifetime.

Each of you bring your own set of expectations and assumptions, which is only natural. And we too as program founders and board members and staff arrive to the summer of 2014 with our own set ideas of what we expect. But by the time we are half way through, we hope that all of you and all of us will have moved way beyond that starting point.

What always happens is the golden surprise, the unexpected bonus, the thing that we could not possibly have planned for. That is not necessarily easy, or comfortable. It may the thing we all have to struggle with. But it is what stretches us. And when you think of the program in terms of stories, a story always needs a surprise to be interesting. NSL is a lot of things but it is definitely NOT boring.

That means that our firm set of expectations- of what the work place will be, the training, the host family, the team, all give way to a wider sense of anticipation- an openness to seize those opportunities that you and we discover together. Expectations are made to be disappointed, one way or another, but you replace them with something much better. An agile mind a generous spirit, and a courageous heart- to seize the moment, “carpe diem”, they call it. ( Watch the movie Dead Poets Society) What can the ten of you create this summer? We can’t wait to find out.

We can never promise that surprise, and you can never describe it in a program brochure, but its why we selected you- to create a unique chemistry to create something new, to start and live a new story of possibility. Now, that is hard to do. To let go of what you want NSL to mean for you, and what we hope NSL will mean for you, and to let you take the drivers seat- explore, get lost, find a new road together. You will make it meaningful by your own energy, your investment, your honest commitment. But you make meaning for you, we don’t make meaning for you. That’s what being a citizen means. That is what the narrative approach is essentially about.

Every year, I hear a few complain that NSL is not clear about its goals, what it wants to achieve. And I respond, yes, you get it. Our goal is for you to name and discover your own goals- to find what stories hold you back, (like always complaining, or feeling you have to ask permission, or have all your goals all spelled out for you by someone else.)

Your job is to find your voice in a powerful enough way to tell your own compelling story, and take back other areas of your life that you have given away to others to do your thinking or acting for you. You are here to discover parts of your self that have never been woken up. You are not here to talk incessantly about the conflict. We often state it thus :We refuse to let war be the defining story of your identity project. Life is so much more than than the sum of its hurts and hates. It is the sum of your hopes.

Change can only happen when people decide that they have a contribution to make that no one else can make, and decide to take responsibilities for their gifts. (hence the PFC) A wise man-spiritual adviser to Martin Luther King Jnr. in fact, was asked by a young activist, “How do we save the world?” And he answered, “Son-Stop trying to save the world, Find the things that make you come alive. Do them, and that is enough because the world needs more people to come alive than it needs people to save it.”

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Before one dives into an answer, sometimes it helps to explore the question behind the question.Otherwise the answer behind the answer is not the real answer because the question was not the real question. When we ask “Why don’t people do X?” we are presuming they don’t do X whereas they might do x in a way not seen but the question immunizes us against going and taking a deeper look.

Or such a question emphasizes “people” in a general way, whereas it might be specific people, or it may be a system of non-acceptance of systems thinking, and have little to do with people per se. But our question has singled out people.

And then the verb is adopt, which is strong, as against entertain, or be inspired by, or use in some way, or are influenced by, or provoked by. The question of “Why don’t the people adopt X?” where X is recycling, climate change, tooth brushing, seems to imply that X is more than worthy of adopting. it is the question that has the tone of the enthusiast, the convert, the disciple, Why don’t more people come to Jesus, why don’t more people join the Republican Party etc etc. sounds like “why don’t more people see the world the way I see it.” It’s an insider question that is looking out.

Perhaps the answer is to begin to ask the question differently. Turn the why into a how- or a where- Where do people or organizations entertain and use the systems way and where do they not use it or find it helpful? And what is the difference?


Where are we when we ask WHY? What direction in time are we drawn to? Not the future normally. “Why” is not found up ahead, though it might well be that we did what we did because of what we hoped would happen. But ‘why’ tells a different story. Its the story of behind or before. Even our dream of a future was in the past- where the WHY happened. WHY happens in a place, which is where we go looking for it -in The Territory of Why.

Why the recession?? This question points us to look at what comes before the financial crash, not after. Why did we have the wars? Because of what happened leading up to it. Why did she leave her family? Because she hated her life. It is the present interrogating the past. When we are obsessed with Why, why 9-11 or why the recession, or why war, or even Why me- we tend to be facing backwards,even if what we find might help us next time face more fiercely forward. WHY has us looking in a certain direction. It is positional.

Where are we when we we ask HOW? How did she manage to win the gold medal? How did Obama win the nomination? What direction in time are we looking at? We are focusing on the unfolding process, not the reason or motive behind or before. HOW wants to grip the workings of the plot within and go back to the present of that past- what was happening and what led to what. It has us looking with a certain focus which is also positional. HOW is also not normally found in the future, but in the territory of HOW.

Where are we when we ask WHEN? We want to mark the time, to put an event into some sort of sequence, or chain of events. When did he say he was leaving the company, before or after you wanted to fire him? When did you see the accused, before he left the nightclub or after? ‘When’ is a significant marker to be able to deduce what came before and what came after. In other words, its one more locative question. It gets asked for and asks from a position in time which is the territory of WHEN.

When we start to think of specific questions as markers of a certain territory, we start to see differences in the way meaning gets shaped, and how borders are drawn around knowledge. It might even help us understand the conflict between those asking WHY and those asking HOW and those asking WHEN.

They who ask WHY are going back to the past, for understanding or vindication. Fair enough. But a nation that is always asking Why tends to be always facing backwards until they flip the question to Why Not? In my own nation Australia, there seem to be so many commissions of inquiry into what happened and why that one fears that there is little oxygen or appetite left for the future. We get so upset at how we treated the refugees or aborigines back in the 1950′s that we don’t see that we are not doing much better now. If you want to stop a focus on the future dead, ask a WHY question about a tragic past. It happens in the Middle East all the time.

Those who ask HOW are the ones obsessed with the present, pragmatists who get it done and don’t worry why. HOW people address the task, not the telos. As Americans, we used to being problem solvers who didn’t waste time on WHY when clearly, what mattered was How. What is the problem? Lets solve it. We have seen it in Washington these past 5 years. The question has been: How do we reform health care, not WHY do we need health care reform. The HOW’s soon run out of patience with the WHYs. Why versus How tends to become the Past versus the Present.

Those who want to know WHEN are the ones who want to know the times, not why or how. At what point did it or will it occur.They are about what came next or what comes next, the future, as in WHEN will it be done by? When can we expect an answer? WHEN is another positional move directing our gaze to the stream of time- before, during, after. It sees events as contemporary, “with time” and wants an answer that relates what happened to when it happened. When did women get the vote? is probably as informative a question as Why and How. The Times, they are a changing, which means that WHEN picks up on that more than the WHY or the HOW.

If we map this on to Washington politics, we see more clearly into the impasse. It might be because of partisan rancor, but what if its because people are asking different questions-The Why’s
(Republicans) are fed up with the How’s (Democrats) while the When’s (we the People) are impatient with both because nothing is happening, for lack of know why and know how.

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Something I find Interesting

My colleague, Madelyn Blair, is the expert in the Stories inside Words, and here is one I fund fascinating. “Interest” comes from inter and esse, the Latin means- between and being. What is interesting is of interest because it is in between being, being this and being that. That makes a lot of sense in the geography of change around placement and timing and even finances. Interest grows on the deposit over the time you invest and the time you pull it out.

What anything means depends on what it is in between? A Middle means that which it is in the Middle of. Are we in the middle of a storm or a hurricane? Are we in the middle of a headache or a heart attack? It certainly matters to know, it is of interest, inter esse.

This period of time could be the end of the affair or the beginning of a new phase of a relationship. It earns interest because of what it is in between. Hence stories that grab our attention are those that plunge us into the middle of something that is still being worked out. What are you in the middle of right now? What makes it interesting to you?

If you name a B- as beginning and an E-as ending, you better notice the species of the middle you name yourself to be in. The trick is to swap them around-play with meaning and see how it moves. Yes, this could be the middle of the end of a marriage or a career, or it could be the middle of a transformation. To name it the second creates a different field of energy than the first. Or it could be the middle of Time Out when you badly need a holiday.Occams Razor reminds us that every headline does not have to be a deadline- simple is usually better than complicated. Interest resides in that space in-between.

What if it all boils down to your theology???

I had a fascinating chat with a bright student from Wesley Theological Seminary this morning, working on his thesis on the topic of the theology of peace-making. ( my description, not his) Matthew made the claim that many in the peace-making game who come from a faith tradition do not declare their theological agenda. The message being, its not the economy stupid, its the theology, and that reminded me of this post that I repost to homor Matthew and his explorations. good Luck Matt.

A natural disaster like a hurricane rolls in from the ocean and destroys a town, a city, floods a whole region. It used to be called an ‘Act of God’ because no one could prevent it-but nowadays, its called an Extreme Weather Event and Disaster Relief or FEMA are called in with the expectation that the Government can make right what God has wrought. If that fails, we blame President Obama rather than God the Father. But President Obama didn’t create the storm.

What about a man made disaster like the BP Oil Spill that spreads a murky slick across the Gulf of Mexico, and kills natural life and ruins the local bay industries? Where were the regulators, we ask? Who gave them the easy license for unprecedentedly deep drilling?

It used to be put down to Human Fallibility because humans who meddle with nature are always overstepping the limits of their knowledge or pushing natures’ tolerance. Nowadays, its called Crisis Management. The expectation is that humans are not allowed to make mistakes this catastrophic anymore. The company must do public confession and penance,  and together with the Government, we believers expect, no- we demand, that they make right what human pride and greed have made wrong.

A new President is elected on the promise of changing America. He pledged bi-partisanship and reform in energy, health and education, and sounded determined to overhaul the economy and turn it around.  Enough Americans believed in the promise then, but now, three years in, the mood is that Obama is not the Messiah after all, because even though he has reformed health, education and finances, he has not saved the country. We still wait for the miracle, for the epiphanic moment when angels will write in clouds across the northern sky for all to see, “Mission Accomplished. Hallelujah.”

The ‘Glen Beck- Come back to God’  Tea Party are raging about Government invading every aspect of our private lives, but what might surprise them is that what has gone wrong is not the economy-stupid, but the theology.

Once we believed in Providence, what George Washington called that ‘all powerful and inscrutable dispensation.” Now we expect the Government to play God, to provide, to be the final rainbow of hope after the flood, the drought, the fire and storm, the eternal  evangelist of Good News when jobs die and houses are repossessed. We don’t blame God or ourselves anymore. No.  We blame the Government. And hence, our politics has become drenched in a heresy that used to be called Pelagianism, that man is able to do it all without God.

Meanwhile, the  mainstream Churches seems to have abdicated the field of common concern-no voices are raised or if they are, none are heard that say that perhaps our crisis is less of debt and inflation, and more of greed and hubris, where like the original Babel, we thought we could build our towers  and condo’s to populate the heavens. And then, when it all seems to come crashing down, instead of Jonah convincing Niniveh to repent, we are all gearing up to vote these fakers out of office and demand they repay us what we lost. It was all their fault, we say. They did it for the banks and for the car companies, paid them our taxes to make up for their sins so that their debts could be  forgiven. So it should be  for us. It is what we pray about every day, “forgive us our debts as you forgave those who were indebted to us.”

Though we don’t want to start another witch hunt, Christine O’Donnell not withstanding, someone needs to get on a pulpit here and there and start thundering that “Judgment is near.” We are trapped in the heresy of thinking God’s emissary on earth is not the Pope but the Government, and that Providence is now a matter of  public  policy, and being full of  grace is when the GDP goes up by 4%.  When November 6th rolls around, we should all be praying: ‘lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’, and realise that its God we are talking to, not the Government. Amen.




Don’t worry, be happy… or unhappy? Your choice!

“Explorers did not seek for the cause of the Nile but its source. So while Science wants to find the cause, Soul wants to find the source. “



I have just come from an inspiring Storywise colloquy with long time colleagues Mary and Phil.  The conversation moved to the question of Mapping the Soul, and the difference that language invites us to consider between cause and source.

Yoga and other such practices, Mary tells us, speak about source, or core, while our public life and politics, Phil remarks, is obsessed with finding a cause, and thereby someone or something to blame. What if we made the switch from cause to source? Now there’s a thought.

What if the coming election was less about finding and fixing the cause of our recession, and more about reclaiming the source of our vitality as a nation and a people? Would that mean we would  be looking for the sources of new life, rather than haggling over our ailing body politic.

It might boil down to a simple and yet fundamental existential dilemma. Do we want to find the cause of our unhappiness? or do we want to find the source of our happiness, our life-energy? Put another way, do we want to excavate our despair or unearth the  foundations of our hope? Do we create  life energy consuming our past or creating our future?

Some would argue that this is all too simple,  that you can’t answer the second without answering the first. But what if like the indeterminacy principle, our brains were not wired to do both. What we most pay attention to inadvertently shapes our intention. The quest behind the question  reveals whether we are determined on happiness or unhappiness. As a nation, the “pursuit of happiness” is hardwired into our governance.  The founders might wonder what happened to that? We seem to have turned it into the “pursuit of unhappiness.”

On a more practical level, when floods, fire or storms hit, what is the question that fosters resilience? Is it, How are we ever going to get through all this? Or, “What is it that we have that no storm, fire or flood can destroy and that we need to connect to now? And in the aftermath, how much energy gets wasted in “finding who caused the failure of rescue or warning?” instead of tapping a different energy by asking ” We did get through it, so how do we keep doing that?”

Two questions, two paths-What is the cause? creates a very different life economy than asking What is the source?  After a Katrina, we can look back and say “Never again” or we can look forward and say,” We can even get through worse than this.”

The media and government policy seems focused more on survival and less on resilience. Why? Because stories best chronicle our unhappiness perhaps, and that patient endurance does not win many headlines. But headlines are hardly happiness. No one expects to read “New Orleans happy again.”

So, we ask ourselves, if life is that proverbial river like the Nile, what is the sense of finding the cause when what we really seek to understand is the source.  We can only fully understand the flood when we truly understand the flow.


Story-smart, Story-competent, or Storywise? Our 2012 Manifesto

Everyone can learn to tell a good story.  A lot of great courses and great teachers will train you how, and no wonder they are popular.  But not all of them offer the same thing.

Storytelling 101 is surely a good basic skill to have. These introductory courses  aim to make us story-competent. It will help us at our daughters wedding or our son’s bar-mitzvah when we have to give a speech.  We will deliver that staff report with more panache and even get people laughing at our jokes. Who wants to be story-incompetent anyway? One doesn’t have to be boring or collapse in  a feverish sweat every time we have to speak in public.

Next, you can pay a lot more money and sign on to the real masters of the story-craft who not only teach you the skills, but take you across the bridge to the world of branding and marketing. These are the high powered consultants who will teach you as a leader or as a company exec to make your story stand out, to be clear, to be resonant, to be memorable, to be sticky, to have buzz, to  delight clients, to create attraction, to set up force fields of attention, to be a purple elephant, to be a springboard, to be fresh and current.

These are all what I call the add-ons that promise to make us story-smart. And who wants to be story-dumb?  Products like cars nowadays are seen as stories on wheels. That is what you are selling, stories.  Strategic plans are no longer turgid point A-F memorandums but Future Stories, Visioning, Dreams of Possibility.

We go to a seminar and get inspired to chase that budget allocation to bring your staff and executive team away on a story retreat. Getting them story-competent and story-smart promises to  transform your organization.  That’s the story at least. Right? But will it?

What if no matter how powerful these shiny new set of tools are, that you have missed what most practitioners have missed-about the real power of story that lies beyond its sheer instrumentality.

Something essential is missing from the thriving story-expert industry right now. We give you a  user’s  manual on how to use stories, but no bible of why, when, or to what end?  What we don’t teach is the most obvious thing about stories.  Stories are dangerous!

Stories cause wars. Stories bring famines. Stories  protect dictators. Stories abuse women.  Or to put it another way. Anti-semitism is the result of a well told story.  Think Protocol of the Elders of Zion or Mein Kempf. Racism is the result of a time-tested story.  Think Birth of a Nation. Homophobia is the result of a compelling story. Think Sodom and Gomorrah.  Sexism is the result of a macho story. Think Playboy. Even the economic recession is the result of brilliant stories told to us by all those highly sophisticated story competent and story-smart people at Lehmann brothers and AIG and the Fed.  Watch the old AIG ad , for instance, about the kid who can’t get to sleep and his Dad tells him, “Buddy, we’re with AIG.” We bought this bill of goods because we thought being story competent and story smart was enough. But clearly it wasn’t.

Stories are not some bright new, shiny, faddishly fascinating bundle of tricks for the board room, or the marketing team. No, they are the oldest and most lethal weapons known to man.  In ancient times, someone could put a story curse on you, and you would shrivel up and die. Today, they call it character assassination, and who needs to point a bone when you have Facebook or Youtube to expose you to the world?  It is not vodoo, its stories.  World wars start because  a leader buys a deadly story that he sells to his people, Predictably, a story will start World War Three. We live in dangerous times made even more dangerous by dangerous, out-of-control stories.  What we most need to learn is how to resist their seductions, to  discern, to decide, to become storywise.

As valuable as it is,  we don’t all have to be great tellers of tales. To fail as a fabulist is not fatal. We don’t all have to be marketing gurus, the seth godins of our tribe. Sometimes, just making a good product that speaks for itself can be a successful strategy.  We might be story-competent,  and that is good. We won’t be boring anymore. We might be story-smart, and that is great, because people will buy our product, our ideas, our bundled sub-prime mortgage packages.  But the survival of the human project demands much more than that right now. We have to become storywise.

Our planet, our species , even our culture itself is poised on the brink of enormous change.  Technology can broadcast a million stories a second.  Advocates and lobbying groups assault us with competing arguments that so contradict and confuse us that we end up overwhelmed. Climate change, vaccinations and autism, cell phone radiation,  diet supplements,  gas pipelines, Toyota cars,  Israel and Palestine, you name it, there is a compelling story on one side as compelling as the story on the other side. It is no longer an issue of knowledge, not even an issue of competence. At the end, it boils down to wisdom; making the wisest choices about what story to buy, rather than the easiest, cheapest, or the most popular.

If we are not storywise, we end up being storystupid. That means being totally vulnerable to all those other motivated people out there who are paying their big money to learn how to be story-smart and story-competent. All these graduates are being taught how to use their stories on us! Stories are their most effective tools for selling, to persuade us that someone is a friend, someone else an enemy, like those WMD’s in Iraq- a great story! Or to cajole us to vote for their brilliant  presidential candidate,  like John Edwards! Now wasn’t he so handsome and charismatic! Or stories told so we will believe that  women need men to decide their reproductive rights, or that God will smite us down for same-sex marriage , or that some ethnic minority from across the border is bad, mad, and stealing our jobs.

We are story consumers far more than we are story creators. Hence what we need most of all is some consumer protection, the protection that only becoming storywise can provide.  What does it mean to become storywise?

I am glad you asked. Stay tuned for the next few columns in the Republic of Stories where we will we explain our narrative philosophy, one we have been applying for the past 17 years at the Center for Narrative Studies. We want to  give you some practical examples,  tell you the results of our applications of this Storywise method to politics and peace around the world. We also want to offer you some affordable chances for training and coaching in the coming months.


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