The other day Mister Fox and I dropped in on the Little Prince’s planet to have a talk with Fox. You remember, the one that wanted to be tamed, became the Little Prince’s friend, but then became sad when the Little Prince went away. Fox reminded the Little Prince of his responsibility to all that he’d tamed, and memorably said:
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Mister Fox and I are interested in that, because it sometimes seems that a lot of people’s hearts are blind. I’m always surprised by how some people can see stories all around us and some can’t. How some see the opportunity in hacking at society’s stories and some don’t.
Because there are some very strange stories that lots of people confuse with absolute, rock-solid truth. Stories like “You can tell if the world is getting better or worse by looking at whether the stock market went up or down.” Or more basic stories like “Monday.” Or “Money.” Now I know this gets deep, but really, those are all things that don’t actually exist in nature. Monkeys aren’t happier on Friday, Giraffes don’t get the Monday blues. We’ve not only forgotten that those stories are not real, we’ve forgotten that we made them up. That we shape our daily lives with stories about what’s possible and what’s not, what’s right and what’s not. That we have the power to change them. Think of the story of money — our consensual agreement about what represents tradeable value, and how fundamentally that millennia-old story is being challenged by BitCoin and an entirely different story of how value can be determined by a crowd rather than a bank.
Stories are invisible and powerful, like ghost puppeteers that waggle their fingers, pulling spider silk threads that make people march, or dance, or sing, or vote, or buy. They shape people’s expectations of how the world works, of what’s true, and how they themselves should behave.
“Example?” asks Mister Fox, leaning against a tree and brushing a butterfly from his nose.
Filtered cigarettes were once considered lady-like, and a brand called Marlboro was struggling to survive dismal sales. Along came a storyteller, Leon Burnett, who created a character called the Marlboro man, a rugged, non-conformist cowboy. It was soon the best-selling cigarette in the world, and filters became completely acceptable for men. Millions of people would die of lung cancer because of that story. In the days when I smoked, my inner smoker and inner non-smoker were at war, daily. My inner smoker would saddle up and just look with disdain at my inner non-smoker, who wore a lab coat and heavy black-rimmed glasses patched at the nose with a band-aid. He carried around a clipboard, charts, and graphs about lung cancer. No matter how good the lab guy’s facts, the Marlboro man would just lean down from his saddle, give me a light with his Zippo and say “pay no attention to that pencil-necked geek: we’re outlaws, outside the mainstream of society, making our hobo coffee by a brook as the moon rises over the rockies and the coyotes sing. Tipping our hats to the ladies in the streets of Deadwood, where, sure, people die fast.”
It was no contest. Burnett told a romantic story about that cigarette that I desperately wanted to not just believe, but inhabit, and breaking free of that story’s grip took years of effort.
But that was story designed to sell cigarettes. What if we put that kind of creativity into stories designed to save the world?
For the last two years, I and a pirate band of colleagues have been teaching storytelling as an activist tool. Today I’m beginning a series of articles about what we learned, what we got right, what we got wrong, and why I’m convinced this is seriously strong magic for world-changers, and why story has more potential today than at any time in history to change the course of the future.
If you’d like to follow along, you can subscribe here to get new entries via email. Or follow the bouncing mouse:
This entire journey began with one book: Jonah Sach’s Winning the Story Wars. If you want to get to the heart of story as theory of change, that’s a great place to start.