The Journey Beyond Fear (2021) is a guide to overcoming fear and reaching your full potential. During his 40-year career in Silicon Valley, Hagel has identified three practical tools that anyone can benefit from. Here, he explains exactly how to use them, so you can make the most of exciting new opportunities in your professional and personal life.
Introduction: What’s in it for me? Three tools to achieve your full potential.
The pressure is real, and so is the fear, but aim to move beyond.
Find motivation in personal, opportunity-based narratives.
Institutional narratives matter too.
Find your passion, and integrate it with your working life.
By working together on learning platforms, we can unleash limitless potential.
About the author
Table of Contents
Video and Podcast
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview
Motivation, Inspiration, Entrepreneurship, Career Success, Business Culture, Business Motivation and Self-Improvement, Motivational Management and Leadership, Business Management
Introduction: Three tools to achieve your full potential.
We’re feeling the fear, and the pressure. As a business strategist in Silicon Valley, working with successful people across all fields, Hagel has seen just how fearful many of us are. We’re often overwhelmed by the competition, and the pressure to perform.
Fear holds us back. It prevents us – and our organizations – from making the most of opportunities, and achieving our potential.
Through decades of experience, Hagel has identified three simple tools that can help us to move beyond fear, transforming our lives and careers. And it all starts with a story. Well, sort of . . .
In this summary, you’ll learn
- why certain kinds of passion are so powerful;
- how a simple slogan can have a wide-reaching impact; and
- why businesses should take inspiration from World of Warcraft
The pressure is real, and so is the fear, but aim to move beyond.
If you feel like you’re under pressure, you’re not alone. All of us – individuals and organizations – are under increasing pressure. These are hard times.
During his 40-year career in Silicon Valley, the author has noticed the pressure rise and rise. You see, Hagel’s background is in management consultancy, specializing in tech and business opportunities. He’s seen the human impact of globalization and digital technology – the dark side to the revolution.
Years ago, he spotted a billboard by the highway, right in the heart of Silicon Valley. On the billboard was this simple question: “How does it feel, knowing there are at least 1 million people in the world who can do your job?”
It feels stressful, right? With globalization, people across the planet can compete for your job.
And now, with rapid advances in technology, machines are your competitors too. Today, the billboard might read, “How does it feel, knowing that there are 1 million robots who can do your job?”
No wonder so many of us feel under pressure. We may even feel afraid – afraid of the competition. Or we’re scared that we may not be able to achieve our goals. The fear is there when we go to work, and often when we come home, too.
Fear can be a powerful motivator. But is it a good motivator? Well, not really. Just look how a person acts when they’re under pressure, or feeling afraid. Their whole perspective changes. They focus on the short term, and start to believe that rewards or resources are limited.
Once the person believes this, they worry about who’s going to “win.” They start thinking, “For me to win, someone else has to lose.” And as a result, rivalry increases, pressure mounts. It’s a vicious circle, which has a profound emotional impact.
Also, emotions can be contagious. Fear spreads from one person to another, increasing in intensity. It affects whole communities and organizations.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Fear isn’t the only motivator. Hope and excitement can motivate us too. Isn’t it better to be driven by a sense of excitement, rather than a fear of failure?
Let’s be clear, though – we’re not talking about living a life completely free from fear. It’s an emotion we all experience from time to time.
But we don’t have to be defined by our fears. And we can find motivation elsewhere.
Think of your life, or your career, as a journey – a voyage across the sea. You are the vessel, right in the midst of this journey. And the journey is worth making, because there are so many exciting opportunities out there. It’s worth navigating stormy seas.
But in order to get to your destination, you’ll need motivation. And you’ll need some tools.
During his life journey, Hagel has experienced a difficult childhood, two divorces, and career challenges. Along the way, he’s identified three tools, which have helped him to keep going.
These are tools that anyone can use. They’ll motivate you, guide you, and get you safely to your destination. They’ll help you achieve your potential, no matter what.
Next, we’ll look at these three tools – what they are, and how to use them. That way, you’ll be ready to set off on the next part of your journey – a journey beyond fear, leading to a land of opportunities.
Find motivation in personal, opportunity-based narratives.
So, we’ve seen that fear isn’t such a great source of motivation. We need something else – a positive force that inspires us to set sail.
Hagel’s advice is to find a narrative. That’s the first tool you’ll need.
Keep in mind, a narrative is not the same as a story. There are a couple of key differences.
First, unlike a story, a narrative is open-ended. There are opportunities, but no resolution yet. Also, a narrative is a personal call to action. It’s about us, and what we do. In a story, we’re a passive observer, while in a narrative, we’re an active participant.
A narrative could be based on fear, or on opportunity. Obviously, Hagel recommends the latter.
The best thing is to seek an opportunity-based narrative, which is focused on your ability to make a positive impact. That positive result could be business-related, like generating economic value. Or it could be social, like creating a supportive community.
Obviously the possibilities are endless, but let’s start by focusing on personal narratives. This kind of narrative can be hugely motivational – a source of inspiration at any point in your life.
It took a while for Hagel to identify his personal narrative, but there were signs early on. In third grade he did an aptitude test, to see what kind of career he would be best suited to. He wasn’t convinced by the results, which suggested that he become a priest or a social worker.
But the test was right about something – Hagel had a strong drive to help others. In college, he got involved in political movements, such as protests against the Vietnam War. Later, he started working as a management consultant, helping executives to deal with significant challenges.
Helping others – this was Hagel’s narrative, and his source of motivation. It’s remained a constant theme throughout his life and career.
Now, as a business strategist, Hagel often helps clients to identify the narratives that are shaping their lives.
You can do it too. Here’s how to find your personal narrative, in relation to your career, or your life more generally.
Start by asking yourself some questions. How do you see the future? Do you see it more in terms of fear and threat, or excitement and opportunity?
Next, think about your expectations of others. What kind of collaboration do you want from the people in your life? Consider their motivations, too. Is there a good reason for them to collaborate with you?
Then, reflect on the choices and actions that you’re facing in the near future. Think about what you’re likely to do, and what that says about your motivations.
And finally, work out what support you need. Not just collaboration, but actual help from others. It doesn’t matter how self-sufficient you think you are. You’ll have a better chance of succeeding if you ask for the right help from the right people.
This kind of self-reflection will help you to better understand your narrative. As you dig deeper, you might discover some interesting truths. Maybe your career choices have been driven by fear more than opportunity. Perhaps something’s been holding you back for years.
But it’s never too late to change. And you can expect your narrative to evolve throughout your life. It’s an ongoing process, so keep reflecting on your motivations.
That’s the first step to achieving your potential, and finding fulfillment.
Institutional narratives matter too.
Narratives aren’t just for the individual. Institutions use them too.
Take Apple, for example. One of the company’s early slogans was “Think Different.” But it wasn’t just a slogan – it was a powerful narrative that spoke to so many people.
The concepts of individuality and creative expression resonate deeply. “Think Different” goes beyond buying a product. You could think of it as an invitation, or a call to action.
Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs both knew how to “think different,” and they knew that this narrative would have appeal. Not just with customers, but with the kinds of people they wanted working at Apple, such as application developers.
This is why narratives matter. A strong institutional narrative can draw people to the company, and become a source of both loyalty and learning.
Through its inspiring narrative, Apple created a diverse network of developers, who created a range of innovative applications. And as a result, everyone benefited – the company, the collaborators, and the customers.
So, to sum up, a good institutional narrative attracts people, and it’s a call to action. As well as Apple’s “Think Different”, it’s Nike’s “Just Do It.” Or Airbnb’s “Belong Anywhere.”
But before you go off to brainstorm slogans. There’s a bit more to it than that.
As we’ve seen already, working with narratives requires a lot of introspection. That’s the same whether you’re identifying your personal narrative, or crafting one for your organization. It all starts with asking yourself a series of questions.
In this case, obviously your focus should be on your company and its customers. Start with the following question:
“In the next decade, who will be our most important customers and stakeholders?”
And then, consider the opportunities out there. Ask yourself, “What opportunities can we help customers and stakeholders to address?”
Finally, reflect on the actions that they’ll need to take to pursue these opportunities, as well as any challenges they may face. How will your organization inspire them to overcome difficulties?
If you’re still not completely sure what your institutional narrative should look like, here’s an example.
For a healthcare provider, the narrative might go something like this:
“We’ve always focused on treating disease. But now, with advances in medical technology, we have greater insight into our health. There’s an increasing range of digital devices that allow us to closely monitor physical health conditions.
That means we can be more proactive, and look after ourselves. So, instead of illness, let’s focus on wellness.”
That’s a meaningful institutional narrative. And it’s focused on opportunity, rather than fear.
Think about that when you’re developing your own narrative. Make sure the narrative is clear, powerful and inspiring, so it really resonates with the people you’re trying to reach.
Find your passion, and integrate it with your working life.
So, your journey has begun. You’ve set sail, motivated by your narrative. But as you journey on, you’ll need something to sustain you. Food, fuel, or . . . passion.
Passion can be the fuel that keeps you going.
Of course, “passion” is a pretty broad term. Let’s narrow it down, and look at the most useful kind of passion. Hagel calls it “the passion of the explorer.”
One of the defining qualities of this kind of passion is commitment to a domain. The domain could be an area of knowledge, like astronomy, or an industry, like manufacturing. Whatever it is, an explorer is excited to be involved in the domain, making an impact.
Another key characteristic of passionate explorers is their attitude toward unexpected challenges. When a challenge arises, explorers get excited, because they see them as opportunities. Challenges are a chance to do something new, something better.
Also, explorers don’t travel solo. When they’re faced with a problem, they reach out to others – people who might share their passion, or have expertise. Passionate explorers connect with others.
This kind of passion is so powerful. When you’re dealing with a challenge, isn’t collective action better than isolated passivity? Fueled by your passion, you can make change happen while working with others. And crucially, you’re acting not out of fear, but out of hope and excitement.
All of us can become passionate explorers, and achieve our full potential. But of course, you have to know what your passion is first, and then cultivate it.
Maybe you’ve already found it – you know what excites you in life. And if you’re not sure yet, that’s okay. You can find your passion at any point in your life.
Narratives can be a great tool for identifying passion. They’re a catalyst for self-discovery. So keep reflecting on your personal narrative, using the questions we looked at earlier. Think about other kinds of narratives, too, and work out which ones excite and inspire you.
You might be inspired by a company’s call to action. Remember Apple’s narrative about unique identity and creative expression? Or you could take inspiration from Nike’s “Just do it” – an invitation to become an active participant.
There are all kinds of exciting narratives, and not just in the world of business. Religions and political movements have narratives too, and so do nations – just think of the American Dream.
So find a narrative that resonates with you, and use it to find your passion.
Then, all that’s left to do is integrate your passion with your profession. Hagel recommends taking small steps. Find elements that excite you in your existing job, and then look for opportunities to build on those elements.
For instance, one of Hagel’s clients was a salesperson at a car company. She was good at her job, but she wasn’t finding it that fulfilling. Sales was too transactional.
As the woman thought about her passion, she realized that she was more interested in addressing people’s unmet needs. On reflection, designing marketing programs was a much more exciting opportunity.
So she grabbed that opportunity. She didn’t even have to quit her job. Instead, she talked to a marketing executive in her company. He was so intrigued by her ideas and her passion that he moved her into his department.
Now, Hagel’s client is excited to go to work every day. That’s what happens when you identify your passion, and integrate it with your job.
By working together on learning platforms, we can unleash limitless potential.
So far we’ve looked at two of the three tools that will help you overcome fear, and achieve your potential – narrative and passion. Both of these things are crucial.
But as you continue your journey, they’ll only get you so far. To reach your destination, and your full potential, you’ll also need something else – help from others.
This is why the third tool that Hagel recommends is learning platforms. He’s such a passionate advocate for learning platforms, he’s even in the process of creating his own.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a moment to define the word “platform”. It probably sounds a bit vague.
We’re talking about platforms as governance structures. These structures have certain protocols for interaction, which make it easier for members to connect and collaborate. LinkedIn is a platform. It’s a structure with guidelines that allows people to interact in groups.
But what we’re interested in is something more specific – learning platforms. These kinds of platforms help users to learn together, through action. Sometimes, the best way to learn, and to solve problems, is through crowdsourcing.
This probably isn’t the example you were expecting, but the online video game World of Warcraft is all about learning. As you enter this amazing virtual world, and take part in interplanetary battles, you’re actually using a learning platform. It’s an environment where you learn through active participation. And, as it’s a multiplayer game, the learning is accelerated by interactions with others.
Strangely, there aren’t that many learning platforms in business. But a good example is the online forum created by the software developer SAP many years ago.
This online forum was a place for application developers to get help from each other. Whenever a developer had a problem, they could post on the forum, hoping that someone else had the solution. The platform soon became incredibly popular, attracting more than two million members. Everyone learned from each other, and SAP application developers became much more productive.
The bottom line is that learning platforms help us to harness network effects. As people learn together, they learn faster. And that leads to significant improvements, both for the individual and the organization. Using these platforms is the ideal way to achieve your potential, and, ultimately, make a difference in people’s lives.
That’s why Hagel has been inspired to develop his own learning platform. At the moment, it’s still a work-in-progress. But one day, the platform will bring people together through workshops and impact groups. The aim is to help people to develop their narratives, cultivate their passions, and make a real impact.
In Hagel’s words, it’s the “journey beyond fear.” With the right tools and support, it’s a journey that all of us can make.
You’ll get so much more out of life if you can overcome your fear. To do this, find motivation in your personal narrative, and identify what really excites you. Then find ways to collaborate with others, ideally through learning platforms. That way, whatever your calling in life, you can achieve your true potential.
And here’s some more actionable advice:
Use cellular organization.
When people are working and learning together, small groups are often the most effective. Hagel recommends creating “cells” of around 3 to 15 people who meet regularly. It’s easier for small groups of people to form trust-based relationships, supporting each other and learning from each other. You can see this kind of structure everywhere – in churches, political movements, and even Alcoholics Anonymous. If you want to make more of an impact, try adopting cellular organization in your workplace or community.
About the author
John Hagel III is an entrepreneur and renowned business strategist. He served as a partner at McKinsey & Company, where he helped open their Silicon Valley office and launched two new practices, including the firm’s Electronic Commerce Practice. At Deloitte, he established and ran the Center for the Edge, a global research center which identifies emerging business opportunities that should be on the CEO’s agenda. He has been on a journey beyond fear in his own life, a journey that led him to Silicon Valley where he has lived the last 40 years, although his work takes him to all parts of the world. He is also a prolific writer; this is his eighth book.
Table of Contents
THE ROLE OF OPPORTUNITY-BASED NARRATIVES
1 The Power of Narrative: How It Pulls People to Act, Innovate, and Learn
2 Personal Narratives: Overcoming Isolation
3 Institutional Narratives: The Power of Leverage
4 Geographical Narratives: Drawing People Together
5 Movement Narratives: Mobilizing People for Change
6 Narrative Alignment: Getting the Most Out of Your Narratives
THE PASSION OF THE EXPLORER
7 Why the Passion of the Explorer Is So Powerful
8 Finding Your Passion
9 Integrating Passion and Profession
THE ROLE OF LEARNING PLATFORMS
10 The Pull of Platforms: Achieving More Together
11 Addressing the Untapped Potential of Learning Platforms
Conclusion: Transform Pressure into Passion
Conquer your fear, achieve your potential, and make a positive difference in the lives of everyone around you
Whether you’re running a business, building a career, raising a family, or attending school, uncertainty has been the name of the game for years―and the feeling reached an all-time high when COVID-19 hit. Even the savviest, smartest, toughest people are understandably feeling enormous pressure and often feeling paralyzed by fear.
The Journey Beyond Fear provides everything you need to identify your fears, face your fears, move beyond your fears―and cultivate emotions that motivate you to pursue valuable business opportunities, realize your full potential, and create opportunities that benefit all. Business strategy guru John Hagel provides an effective, easy-to-grasp three-step approach:
- Develop an inspiring long-term view of the opportunities ahead
- Cultivate your personal passion to motivate you and those around you
- Harness the potential of platforms to bring people together and scale impact at an accelerating rate
Never underestimate the power of fear―and never underestimate your ability to conquer it.
With The Journey Beyond Fear, you’ll learn how to move forward in spite of fear, take your career and life to the next level, improve your organization and your broader environment, and achieve more of your true potential.
Video and Podcast
“The global viral pandemic is mirrored by an epidemic of ‘zero-sum’ fears, false narratives, and plummeting social trust. In The Journey Beyond Fear, John Hagel offers an antidote: cultivating our passions within narratives engaging us with people, platforms, and purpose beyond ourselves. It’s full of inspiring ideas for those feeling isolated in their working lives, and practical tips for those already tackling complex ecosystem challenges that our societies face.” – Byron Auguste, CEO of [email protected], former National Economic Council Deputy Director and economic advisor to President Obama
“In this brilliant book, John Hagel clearly proves that the greatest challenge facing us is fear. But more importantly, he shows that there is a way out of that fear by harnessing the passion of the explorer. While other books have described growth mindsets and other upward looking approaches, John’s book goes much further than that. By laying out the path to harness the power of narrative, John empowers us not just to describe the journey in a way that brings others, but to help motivate ourselves deeply, and in doing so unlock the explorer in us all. I am an explorer and I find myself excited and at times challenged by my nature. For explorers who have ever asked, ‘Why am I doing this?’ you’ll find John’s book to be both vulnerable and insightful as you transmute pressure into opportunity for all.” – Nichol Bradford, executive director and co-Founder of The Transformative Technology Lab and Lecturer at Stanford University
“In The Journey Beyond Fear, John Hagel masterfully draws on insights from his dynamic career in Silicon Valley to demonstrate how institutions and individuals can beat fear and leverage optimism to create thoughtful social innovation. You will be glad you read this book.” – Arthur C. Brooks, professor, Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School, and New York Times bestselling author
“The growing challenges in our world are very real, but we need to resist the tendency to become overwhelmed by them. Don’t pass up the opportunity to read this inspiring book—it can help all of us to craft an exciting and richly rewarding journey.” – Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar and retired president of Walt Disney Animation Studios
“Fear often disrupts the potential to move people forward. John Hagel brilliantly shows us how to use the power of a good narrative to get over the fears that hold too many individuals and business teams back and prevent them from achieving more impact. This thoughtfully rich book is sure to be essential reading for anyone trying to lead forward.” – Beth Comstock, author of Imagine It Forward, and former vice chair of General Electric
“Our mindsets are the most important tool we have as entrepreneurs and leaders and they are powerfully shaped by the emotions within us. John Hagel’s brilliant book The Journey Beyond Fear urges us to focus on our emotions and to recognize that fear is becoming a growing obstacle for many of us. Hagel masterfully guides us to shift our emotional energy into an ‘Abundance Mindset,’ one that empowers us to solve problems and see them as opportunities rather than fear them.” – Peter H. Diamandis, MD, founder of Singularity University and XPRIZE, as well as New York Times bestselling author of Abundance, BOLD, and The Future is Faster Than You Think.
“John Hagel has spent decades discovering new opportunities at the edges of organizations and markets. Drawing lessons from psychology, social movements, gaming platforms, innovative companies, and more, Hagel shows us how we can identify the passions that will motivate us to venture into new territory, overcome fear and self-limitations, and inspire others to join us in transforming institutions and society.” – Roger Ferguson, president and chief executive officer of the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA) and former vice-chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System
“John Hagel has done it again! From the depths and breath of his own experience, he gives us keys to a psychology that activates needed growth in self and society. This book is on the frontier of a conceptual evolution that brooks no whiney nay saying, but creates the ground for a dynamic transition into a Renaissance in thought and enterprise.” – Jean Houston, PhD, author of more than 30 books on human development, chancellor of Meridian University, and chairman of the United Palace of Spiritual Arts in New York City
“It’s easy to retreat with fear, but this timely book persuasively suggests there’s another option: we can cultivate our excitement about exploration and learning to pursue the opportunities that are all around us. This book will help you realize far more of your potential and adapt to a rapidly changing world.” – Scott Barry Kaufman, professor of psychology at Columbia University, and author of many best-selling books on psychology, including Transcend
“Reading this thought-provoking book is like having John Hagel as our own personal executive coach, helping us move beyond our fears, craft a new personal narrative, and pursue the passions that enable us to have more positive impact. Part call to action, part cause for deep reflection, the book is one you’ll be thinking about long after finishing the final chapter.” – Tom Kelley, author of Creative Confidence and partner in the design consultancy IDEO
“Fear can either paralyze you or propel you forward. This book shows you how to push through it, and serves as a reminder that it doesn’t take big moves to make big impact.” – Alison Levine, team captain, first American Women’s Everest Expedition, author of the NY Times bestseller On the Edge.
“This is a must-read book for those who are seeking to increase their impact in the world around them. Sharing lessons from his own personal journey and broader research, John Hagel urges us to recognize the expanding opportunities that can be addressed once we find ways to overcome fear.” – John Mackey, founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market and author of Conscious Capitalism
“The Journey Beyond Fear demonstrates that our success is more than strategic rationality–our passion and our fear are measurable, concrete determinants of life outcomes. Importantly, John moves beyond myths of “you’ve got it or you don’t” and presents an extensive vision for how to learn passion.” – Vivienne Ming, theoretical neuroscientist, entrepreneur, author, and co-founder of Socos Labs
“Fear is visceral but not sustainable. Joy, community, and love provide lasting motivation, passion, and success in all areas of life and are essential to our survival. In this brilliant book, John Hagel describes why, and how—which have never been more timely or needed.” – Dean Ornish, MD, founder and president of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and author, UnDo It!
“John Hagel draws on his considerable experience and intellect to tackle a topic most organizations never confront: fear. With sharp insights and compelling cases, he shows how to move past fear to improve performance and deepen meaning. In a business world that often resists talking about emotions, this book is badly-needed guide to enlisting psychology in the service of your strategy.” – Daniel H. Pink, author of When, Drive, and To Sell is Human
“John Hagel sets himself a near-impossible task in offering to guide his readers “beyond fear,” yet he delivers. The book pulls together many themes and insights that readers may think they already know, but will suddenly see in a new and useful light. Most important, Hagel’s emphasis on the critical importance of “learning platforms” is spot on, a dimension of how personal journeys can become collective journeys that is only beginning to be appreciated.” – Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America, contributing editor of the Financial Times, and author of numerous best-selling books
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview
As a child, I lived in a world of paradox. My globe-trotting father swept our family from Venezuela to Turkey and beyond, providing my sister and me with invaluable experiences. We learned multiple languages, were immersed in exotic cultures, and developed an inclusive, cosmopolitan perspective that was decades ahead of its time. But my childhood was far from perfect. I often felt alienated and lonely; worse still, my parents were deeply unhappy, and my sister and I bore the brunt of it.
As an adult, I live and work in a world that is no less paradoxical and troubling. A globalized marketplace and quantum leaps in computing power have speeded up the flow of knowledge and vastly improved productivity, but these same developments have shortened product cycles and heightened the competition for markets and jobs. Our world is filled with exhilarating opportunities but also with a debilitating pressure to perform, which leads to fear.
Opportunity and pressure, hope and fear—the tensions between these opposing forces shaped my life, sparking a passion that has sustained me for decades, connecting me with people from all walks of life who have helped me learn and grow. But they have also caused me no end of sorrow and struggle. All of us are living the same paradox, feeling on the one hand a sense of nearly limitless potential and on the other the fear of being left behind.
Our challenge is to respond to this pressure in ways that build hope and excitement, allowing us to seize the opportunities before us and make the most of them. Don’t underestimate how difficult this is. Our instinctive responses to fear can easily erode, if not obliterate, those opportunities. Instead of grasping them and moving forward, we can just as easily withdraw, hiding from each other behind walls.
Think of your life as a journey by water. You start out with a vessel—yourself—that is more or less seaworthy, depending on your particular strengths and weaknesses. To reach your goal, you will need a powerful motivation (what I call a narrative) to impel you to set out from the safety of land; food and fuel to sustain you along the way (what I describe as passion); and perhaps most critically, help from others (via the learning platforms you can create to mobilize them). Narrative, passion, and platforms are the three pillars of positive emotion. Everyone’s journey is unique, but we all need those three pillars if we are going to reach our destinations.
I’m in the midst of that journey myself, and whether you know it or not, you are too. Your career path is a part of it but by no means all of it. Your ultimate opportunity is to develop your own, your organization’s, and ultimately all of humanity’s potential in the fullest possible way.
In the pages that follow, I will tell you a lot more about narratives, passion, and platforms while sharing what I’ve learned on my own journey. This is not a memoir; my goal is to help you transform your own journey into one driven by hope and excitement rather than fear. But it is necessarily a personal book, because you can’t fully tap your potential without confronting the emotions that stand in its way. Also, I’m going to resist citing the extensive literature and research that support my perspective. I know that will be frustrating to some readers (especially academics), but if I tried to include everything, the book would be at least twice as long as it is.
OPPORTUNITY AND PRESSURE
Both of my parents grew up in small towns, but they were driven to move beyond their comfort zones to explore and learn. My father, an executive at Mobil Oil, loved international assignments. My earliest memories are of a life filled to the brim with adventure as we moved from one far-flung place to another. I truly had marvelous opportunities, and I tried to make the most of them. Looking back, I am deeply grateful to my parents for providing me with them.
But there were challenges, too. As soon as I started to feel comfortable in a place, my father would announce a new assignment in a different country, and we would be uprooted. The next thing I knew, I’d be starting all over again in a new school. When I did make friends, I knew I’d have to leave them in a year or two when we moved again. All of this was before the internet and social media. Once we left, I’d quickly lose touch with my friends, no matter how close we’d become.
That would have been pressure enough. But my biggest challenges were on the home front. My mother, who’d survived a difficult childhood of her own, was filled with anger. Like my father, she became the first in her family to attend college. She went on to earn her master’s degree, intending to pursue a career with the State Department, which was quite an accomplishment in the 1940s. But then she sacrificed her ambitions for my father’s. Frustrated, she lashed out at the daily challenges of life.
If you had met my mother outside the home, you would have found her to be warm and kind. At home, she was very different. One of my earliest memories is of her shouting that she wished I had never been born, that life would have been so much simpler and easier without me. Another very early memory is a tirade about how selfish and inconsiderate I was and how I should be focused on the needs of others, rather than my own. My mother never raised a hand to us, but she didn’t have to. Her words were devastating enough.
My strong but gentle father loved her dearly, but her rage proved too much for him, and he gradually withdrew. His preferred escape was to his study and his stamp collection. As my sister and I became teenagers, he sought further escape in alcohol and pharmaceuticals—pain pills that numbed his ability to feel. He was not there for us when we needed him. No one was. Our extended family was back in the United States, so they couldn’t see what was happening, never mind intervene.
Afraid of my mother’s immense anger and desperate to win the kind of love I needed from my parents, I focused on getting top grades in school, since my parents respected academic achievement. That won me their praise, but I did not succeed in breaking through to the love I was seeking. Though I went on to earn multiple degrees and pursue a challenging career, it took me a long time and two failed marriages to realize I was on the wrong path.
I don’t tell you all this to blame my parents. Looking back, I now realize they loved me deeply and in the best way they knew: they showed me the world and provided for all my material needs, including wonderful homes, extraordinary meals, and great schools. For that I am grateful, but they were not able to love me in the way I needed. My inability to receive that love shaped the path I pursued as a young person, a path that led to professional success but obscured what was meaningful to me.
OPPORTUNITY AND PRESSURE IN THE WORLD TODAY
Eventually, I landed in Silicon Valley, where I’ve lived for almost 40 years. Almost as soon as I arrived, the rapid and sustained improvements in digital technology that had begun there in the 1950s reached critical mass, unleashing a full-blown revolution.
Until then, powerful computers had been accessible to only the government and a few very large organizations that could afford mainframes. In the 1980s, they were becoming available to everyone. Today computing, storage, and networking technologies continue to advance at exponential rates, radically altering virtually every aspect of our lives. Biosynthesis technologies, 3D printing, and materials to build “smart” houses are transforming such diverse arenas as medicine, manufacturing, and construction. As with innovations throughout history, there is a significant lag between the introduction of new capabilities and the knowledge of how to harness them for good, but we’re getting there. Thanks to wireless networks and drone technologies, for example, farmers in developing countries can connect with international markets, giving them better opportunities to sell at a fair price. And people with a wide variety of disabilities are benefiting from advances in implants and prosthetics. In some cases, these products also can augment the capabilities of healthy human bodies—for example, providing “exoskeletons” that can help warehouse workers move heavier objects without straining their muscles.
But here comes paradox again. All this opportunity has a dark side, which is gathering force at both the individual and institutional levels. As I discussed in my book The Power of Pull, these forces are reshaping our global economy and society. Digital-technology infrastructures are intensifying global competition. Customers can much more easily access vendors, regardless of where they are. New companies can find customers more quickly, wherever they are.
These digital-technology infrastructures are also increasing customer power. As consumers, we can quickly identify a broad range of vendors that might be available to address our needs, gather information about them and their products, and shift our business from one to another if our needs are not being met. Rather than settling for standardized mass-market products, we as customers are increasingly demanding products that meet our specific needs and tastes and that will evolve as they do. An early example of this is the rapid growth of craft beer and craft chocolates that address narrower and narrower segments of markets that large incumbents used to dominate with just a few offerings. Where once Americans would drink the same few pale lagers from a giant brewer and indulge a sweet tooth with milk chocolate from a giant candy company, today they might seek out a particular pumpkin stout or a fair-trade chocolate bar with 60 percent cacao.
The paradox arises because we are customers in one part of our lives but employees in another. The trends in globalization, technology, and customization are intensifying the pressure on our employers. The way employers harness these trends and meet the challenges often threatens jobs and consequently our livelihoods. The result of all this change is mounting pressure, for individuals and institutions alike.
The pressure on individuals was perfectly captured by a billboard I used to see beside Highway 101, which runs through the heart of Silicon Valley. The billboard asked a simple question: “How does it feel to know that there are at least 1 million people around the world who can do your job?” A few decades ago, the answer would have been obvious: It doesn’t matter; I’m here and they’re there. But now it does. More and more people are competing for our jobs, regardless of where they are on the planet. And in a world that is changing this fast, it matters less what our college degrees or professional certificates are or what we accomplished in the past. What matters is what we are learning today and, even more importantly, what we will learn tomorrow.
Besides competing with each other, we are competing with machines. Indeed, if that billboard came back today, it might read, “How does it feel to know that there are at least 1 million robots around the world who can do your job?” Automation is not just affecting low-skilled workers. Digital technology is carrying out tasks that used to be done by lawyers, journalists, and research scientists, and it’s doing them faster, cheaper, and more accurately.
That’s a lot of pressure at the individual level. But the pressure is also mounting for organizations. Many are slow to adapt and thus ripe for disruption. At Deloitte’s Center for the Edge in Silicon Valley, the research center I founded and led for 13 years, we studied the long-term forces reshaping our global business landscape. We came to see that we were in the early stages of a Big Shift that has been transforming our global economy since the 1960s, when digital technology first became a significant factor in the business world.
We wanted to understand how companies were performing during this Big Shift. For our measure of financial performance, we selected return on assets (ROA), which essentially compares profits earned (reported on the income statement) with the assets required to support business activities (measured on the balance sheet). In our view, this was the best measure of the fundamental performance of a business. Many analysts look at returns to shareholders or return on equity, but the problem there is that many companies have found ways to manipulate these returns through financial engineering—for example, increasing dividend payments, increasing debt on the balance sheet, or buying back stock from shareholders. While this financial engineering can improve returns to shareholders in the short term, such returns are not sustainable. In contrast, ROA keeps the focus on the fundamental performance of the business.
When we looked at ROA for all public companies in the United States from 1965 to 2019, we saw something disconcerting. Over this period of more than five decades, ROA has declined by a whopping 75 percent. What’s more, this long and sustained erosion shows no signs of leveling off, much less turning around.
When we first released these findings, some skeptics suggested that the erosion in performance might be concentrated in one or two industries. So we segmented all public companies into 13 different industries and found that the steep erosion was occurring in 11 of the 13 industries. The two exceptions were aerospace/defense and healthcare, and even there we found long-term erosion in performance, just not as severe as in the other industries.
While some companies performed better than others in all industries, their ability to sustain this superior performance was declining. The “topple rate” of companies falling out of the top quartile of performance was significantly increasing over time. This widespread and long-term erosion of financial performance is a striking indicator of mounting performance pressure. Twenty years ago, if you launched an amazing new product or service into the marketplace, you had a few years in which you could sit back, catch your breath, and in not a few cases, retire. Now if you launch an innovation, you immediately face a pair of questions: What do you have next? And how quickly can you get it to market?
We’re not just in danger of losing our market share and our jobs; even our lives are at risk. Thanks to global connectivity, a small event in some faraway place can quickly cascade into an extreme event, whether it is a financial catastrophe, an act of terrorism, or the COVID-19 pandemic. It used to be that some core things in our world were constants we could rely on for support when we confronted unexpected situations. Those are few and far between today.
This growing pressure is intensified by an increasing disconnect between the way our institutions are run today and the way the world around them is changing. As we will see later in this book, our institutions will need to be fundamentally redesigned to overcome mounting pressure and target the expanding opportunities generated by the Big Shift.
HOW WE RESPOND TO MOUNTING PRESSURE AND ACCELERATING CHANGE
Human beings react to pressure and change in predictable ways. We tend to become risk averse, magnifying our perceptions of what can go wrong and discounting our perceptions of potential rewards. For instance, most of us are now comfortable with driving a car, but when something new, like autonomous vehicles, comes along, they sound terrifying to many people. That fear response takes the place of a side-by-side comparison of the risks and rewards of driving oneself versus using a self-driving car.
We also tend to shrink our time horizons, focusing more on the short term. With a mindset focused solely on the moment at hand, we believe that the rewards—or resources—available to us are strictly limited. The only question is who will get them—me or someone else. This drives us to adopt what economists call a zero-sum view of the world, in which for me to win, you have to lose. No win-win scenario is possible; there is no sharing of rewards. That mindset actively erodes trust. You may seem like a nice person, but at the end of the day, only one of us is going to get these resources, so I can’t afford to trust you. It can easily create a vicious cycle in which we behave in ways that intensify rivalry, ratcheting up the pressure even more.
Pressure affects more than our cognitive biases and mindsets; we need to go one level deeper and explore its emotional impacts. During my travels around the world over the past several years, I have witnessed growing fear among people at every level of society. For example, when I spoke with senior executives in the privacy of their offices after taking the time to build some trust with them, I would inevitably discover that they felt enormous fear. They were acutely aware that the average tenure of a senior executive was significantly declining. Executives were getting removed if they missed their numbers by even a small amount. With accelerating change and growing uncertainty, they were afraid they would soon be out of their jobs. They might not have been willing to acknowledge that fear publicly, but the people around them could sense it.
Emotions have an interesting network effect: Once a critical mass of people feel a certain emotion, it tends to spread exponentially, both in terms of the number of people who feel it and in terms of the intensity with which it is felt. As the emotional cascade takes hold, it becomes harder and harder to resist.
Although I have worked as a business strategist for most of my career, I have come to believe that psychology is as important a factor in performance as strategy. If we don’t understand the emotions driving our choices and actions, we’ll never be able to get people to have more impact. A conversation with Dee Hock, the founder of Visa, brought this home to me. I was rambling on about the importance of risk and reward as motivators when he stopped me midsentence. “John,” he said, “you’ve got it all wrong. It’s not about risk and reward, it’s about fear and hope. That’s ultimately what motivates people to act.”
My hope in writing this book is to help you become more aware of the emotion of fear and introduce you to the tools that can help you replace it with a sense of hope and excitement. As more and more of us do so, the same emotional network effect will take hold, only in a positive way. Of course, our fears can never disappear fully, but the key is to find the motivation to move forward in spite of them.
THE JOURNEY AHEAD
I felt deep fear as a child, but I tried to cope with it on multiple levels. First, I withdrew. When my mother erupted, I retreated to my bedroom and shut the door to block out as much as I could. Second, I used books. In particular, I escaped into science fiction, which allowed me to visit foreign worlds, not just the foreign countries we lived in. Happily, the science fiction from my childhood was generally optimistic, as it tended to show humans achieving unimaginable feats on a galactic scale.
This escape—actually a survival mechanism—turned out to be a healthy one, as it helped me cope with my fear and avoid the negative mindset that is a natural human reaction to pressure. It focused me on the amazing opportunities that would be available in the future and gave me confidence that our resources are not limited but capable of infinite expansion. And it convinced me that, by trusting each other and working together, we could accomplish awesome feats.
But reading science fiction couldn’t fully protect me from the toxicity of my environment. My journey to recovery was not straightforward, and with the benefit of hindsight, I can see I could have pursued a different path that would have speeded up my healing and allowed me to transform the pressure I was feeling into opportunity. That is the path I’m going to tell you about in this book.
As I mentioned earlier, to succeed in your journey, you will need three essential tools: narratives, passion, and platforms—the three pillars of positive emotion. As you will see, I define them in a very particular way:
- Narratives are the catalysts that help you see the need for a journey. From my perspective, they are about something in the future that has not yet been achieved, and they provide an explicit call to action.
- Passion is the fuel that moves you ahead, helping you overcome the inevitable roadblocks and obstacles you will inevitably confront along the way. The specific form of passion I will be exploring involves a commitment to making an increasing impact in a domain that excites you.
- Platforms are how you connect with other people on similar journeys. They are accelerants that help you to move more quickly and achieve more impact. Platforms explicitly designed to help participants connect and learn faster together are particularly powerful.
In a digitally connected, globalized world, people and companies need to learn how to find and tap people and resources wherever they find them—something I’ve called the power of pull. The highest level of pull is the ability to draw out more of our own potential from within ourselves. If we look deep within ourselves, we all have a strong need and desire to achieve more of our potential and to help our loved ones achieve more of their potential as well.
We can achieve more of our potential when we find ways to build relationships with others. Narratives, passion, and platforms are key enablers of that highest level of pull. In fact, the ultimate goal of our journey is not what we can do for ourselves, but for our personal transformations to lead to the transformation of the institutions and the broader society they are embedded in, which grew out of a very different set of opportunities and constraints than the ones that define our world today. The results from our analysis of US public companies’ return on assets are just one indication of the growing disconnect between the institutions we have today and the institutions we will need to create to address our expanding opportunities.
Our large institutions today—companies, governments, schools, and nonprofits—are organized around models of scalable efficiency, in which work consists of tightly specified and highly standardized routine tasks. These institutions are risk averse and discourage anyone from improvising or deviating from their assigned tasks. They tend to feed the fear of their participants, suggesting that participants are at increasing risk of losing their jobs if they fail to deliver as expected.
While we need to begin with ourselves in the journey beyond fear, we also will need to reach out and connect with others to find ways to drive the broader changes we need. If we focus only on ourselves, our institutions and broader society will hold us back. Conversely, if we focus on changing our institutions and broader society without addressing our own emotions and behaviors, we won’t get very far at all.
For decades now, a robust and growing human potential movement has sought to help us thrive as individuals. Numerous movements for institutional and social change also are working to create environments that will be more supportive of people. But these movements rarely interact with each other, much less integrate their agendas for change. We need to bring them together so they can drive sustainable and scalable change across the board.
This is not just an opportunity. It’s an imperative. The seas we are navigating are becoming more and more turbulent. It is no exaggeration to say that our future is hanging in the balance. We could be sailing toward a future whose wonders would amaze even the science fiction writers I read as a child—or we could founder along the way.
As we make this journey, we will inevitably confront some core questions:
- How can I move beyond fear and find ways to cultivate hope and excitement?
- How can I connect with others to make this journey together?
- How can we amplify our impact in the areas that really excite us?
My goal in writing this book is to bring us together to answer these questions, so we can start to build a world driven by hope and excitement rather than fear.
THE ROLE OF OPPORTUNITY-BASED NARRATIVES
This book has three parts, one for each of the pillars of positive emotion. In the first, we will explore narratives and how they can become a powerful catalyst to help us move beyond fear. I use the word narrative to mean something different from what most people think of when they hear it, so I will begin by clarifying the term and explaining why narrative in the sense I describe can be so powerful.
The rest of this part focuses on specific levels of narratives. Chapter 2 is about our personal narratives, which provide us with motivation to act. Chapter 3 discusses institutional narratives—the narratives that all institutions have and that represent a call to action they issue to their stakeholders and customers. Chapter 4 ventures up to a higher level and investigates geographical narratives. Chapter 5 looks at the role that movement-based narratives have played in mobilizing people to come together to achieve significant change. Finally, in Chapter 6, I make the case that we will be most successful in overcoming fear and achieving impact when our narratives at every level are aligned.
THE POWER OF NARRATIVE
How It Pulls People to Act, Innovate, and Learn
Everyone talks about the importance of story and narrative. Big brands and their marketers do. So do politicians. But they use the terms story and narrative loosely and usually interchangeably, as if they have the same meaning. I make a critical distinction between those two words—one that plays a key role in our journey from fear and pressure to opportunity and unleashed potential.
THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN STORIES AND NARRATIVES
Stories have two key attributes. First, they are self-contained. As Aristotle observed, they have a beginning, a middle, and most importantly, an end. For all their twists and turns, they resolve.
The second attribute of the stories we read (or hear or watch) is that they are not specifically about us. They can be about the storyteller. They can be about other people (or made-up characters if they are fiction), but they are not about us. We can use our imagination to place ourselves in them vicariously, imagining how it might feel to be one of their characters, but in the end, stories are about other people.
Stories are powerful because they excite our imaginations and draw out deep emotions. They can teach us in nonthreatening ways by immersing us in situations that create and resolve conflict and open up new worlds. They can provide us with deep insights into how to respond to particular challenges and opportunities. Their greatest value is that they move beyond our minds to tap into the emotions and spirit that ultimately shape our views of the world and the actions we take in it.
Narratives differ significantly on these two attributes. First, they are open ended. There is no resolution, at least not yet. Some significant opportunity or threat exists in the future, but it has not yet been determined whether the opportunity will be successfully addressed or whether the threat will be overcome. Second, the narrative is about us. It is a personal call to action, because its outcome depends upon what we do. We are not just passive observers but active participants in it.
To be clear, some narratives do resolve, but the resolution is out in the future, and the nature of the resolution is uncertain. It will depend upon the actions taken (or not taken) by those who are called to act. Suppose a narrative is focused on a potential threat: an invasion by an enemy country. That threat may become a reality if we choose not to act, it may be averted if we build strong enough defenses, or it may continue to exist indefinitely, requiring us to remain constantly vigilant.
Companies may seek to motivate action from their customers by calling attention to a big threat they face. A healthcare company might focus customers’ attention on life-threatening diseases and seek to motivate action through their fear of death. A better, more powerful type of narrative is opportunity based. Opportunity-based narratives focus instead on the ability to achieve a positive impact for yourself or for those you care about by doing something previously thought impossible. These opportunities can take many different forms. They may be business opportunities, in the sense that they generate and capture significant economic value. They may be personal opportunities, like the ability to help children grow and develop in richer ways. Or they could be social opportunities, like the ability to foster communities whose members are committed to helping each other in times of need. Whatever their context, the key is that they identify opportunities that can inspire and excite people in ways that will help them to move beyond fear and achieve more meaningful impact.
High-impact, opportunity-based narratives should focus on opportunities that will not be resolved for a significant period of time, so they can motivate and mobilize large numbers of people. One example is the opportunity to ensure that everyone in the world has access to potable water. If all the right people mobilize and work together toward its fulfillment, we may someday fully realize this opportunity, and the narrative will come to an end (at which point it will become a story). Of course, there could be progress along the way. Someone could find a creative approach that delivers water to certain villages in Bangladesh. This could then inspire local entrepreneurs to do the same for other villages, in even more cost-effective ways. The broader opportunity—bringing high-quality water to everyone—would still be unresolved, but we could now tell a story about how success was achieved in Bangladesh and use it to inspire others to take action in other parts of the world.
Threat-based narratives can be reframed as opportunity-based narratives. Take the example of the healthcare company. Rather than focusing on the danger of life-threatening diseases, the company might focus on our opportunity to live healthier lives. This could inspire us to take broader and more sustained actions to cultivate our well-being, ultimately reducing our risk—and our fear—of disease.
Some opportunities are unlikely to ever be fully realized but are noble and irresistible quests, so they provide the foundation for enduring narratives. Take the example of a narrative that focuses on the opportunity to achieve more of our potential. If you believe, as I do, that our potential as humans is limitless, then this narrative will continue to unfold indefinitely.
Narratives have played major roles throughout history. Every major religion is driven by an opportunity-based narrative. Christianity, for example, teaches that we are born in sin, but a savior came to earth to redeem us. Salvation is not guaranteed; we must first accept that savior and live by his teachings. Buddhism doesn’t involve a personal savior but offers a path to happiness through meditation and renunciation. Islam requires its followers to surrender to the will of Allah. Salvation, nirvana, and surrender are never fully achieved; their pursuit becomes a way of life. Beyond one’s personal redemption, religions offer their followers opportunities to help others by encouraging them to make the right choices. As such, they become the bases of communities.
Successful political movements are driven by narratives as well. The Marxist narrative, for example, has had tremendous impact in many parts of the world. It offers an opportunity to build a fair society in which everyone prospers. But first, workers must mobilize to overthrow capitalism. Their actions determine how the narrative will resolve.
Stories are effective because they engage us emotionally. I would argue that narratives have even more power. Throughout history, they have motivated millions of people to work and struggle against seemingly impossible odds and even to make the ultimate sacrifice. Consider the Christian martyrs or the Bolsheviks who died in the Russian Revolution, driven by the opportunity to build a socialist society. Or look at the early Jewish settlers in modern Israel, who were willing to fight and die for their promised land. The willingness to make that ultimate sacrifice is a power that few, if any, stories can inspire. What makes narratives so powerful is their explicit call to action—the message that their successful resolution depends upon what we do.
I’m not suggesting that narratives should replace stories. Narratives and stories reinforce each other in powerful ways. The story about bringing water to those villages in Bangladesh strengthens the credibility of the larger narrative about bringing water to the whole world. Individuals and companies will be more motivated to join the effort when they see that others are making progress. On the other side of the coin, a story gains more power if it can be positioned in the context of a broader narrative. What happened in Bangladesh was not just a one-off event but part of something much bigger: the yet-to-be-achieved opportunity to bring water to everyone. Narratives describe the journey and why it’s worth the effort, while stories help us to understand the steps along the way and the impact that can be achieved.
Here’s a business example. A car company crafts a narrative urging us to broaden our horizons by exploring the world, venturing into areas we have never visited. The narrative might suggest that the opportunity is to discover our passion in unexpected areas. The company then reinforces that narrative by telling stories of people who explored new areas and made discoveries that ignited a long-term passion.
Narratives without stories are too abstract, and stories without narratives can have limited impact. When I was growing up, stories were extremely important to me, but they only provided me with a temporary escape. They inspired me with hope, but they didn’t provide me with a sense of agency—a call to action that could change my life—because they were about other people. I needed a narrative that would motivate me to improve not only my own life but also the lives of others, inspiring them to join me in the same quest. It wasn’t until many years later that I found it.
In a world of mounting pressure, we have a natural tendency to become passive. Overwhelmed, we begin to lose the hope that we can make a difference. The power of narrative is that it moves us from observers to active participants. It helps persuade us that what we do matters.
Narratives help us overcome our fear-driven passivity by giving us a sense of a future that is worth striving for today. By focusing us on an inspiring opportunity, they help us avoid the risk of simply becoming reactive to whatever is going on at the moment and spreading ourselves too thinly across too many fronts.
Narratives also provide stability, and in a world of accelerating change and uncertainty, this is critical. We become disoriented and anxious when we lack something to hold onto. Perhaps this is why one of the most significant global trends over the past 50 years has been the growth of fundamentalist religions, which emphasize rules, precepts, and codes of behavior that never change.
Narratives don’t have to last an eternity (although some do have that potential). But they must pull us out of the present and persuade us that something significant lies ahead, providing us with a North Star that gives us a long-term objective, rather than an anchor that holds us back. In short, narratives have the power to do four things:
- Focus us on the future. Narratives help us overcome our natural tendency to hide away when we are consumed by fear. By defining some compelling opportunity or threat in the future, they help us look ahead, motivating us to invest the time and effort necessary to achieve something that has not yet been achieved.
- Focus us on action. Narratives point to actions we can take today to address the longer-term opportunity or threat, helping us to overcome the passivity that often grips us when we are driven by fear. Action then drives a powerful form of learning that is different from what we can learn by listening to a story. When we learn through action, we gain insights into what kinds of actions have the greatest impact, allowing us to evolve them in real time.
- Focus us on others. Narratives help us overcome our fear-driven sense of isolation. They bring us together, so we can amplify our impact and learn even faster than we could on our own. The shared commitment helps build trust and a sense of deep connection that motivates us to take even bolder actions.
- Catalyze passion. As I’ll develop further in later chapters, narratives can be catalysts for a specific form of passion, the passion of the explorer. This passion shifts our reaction to unexpected challenges from fear to hope and excitement, motivating us to overcome whatever obstacles we might encounter in pursuit of our long-term goals.
DIFFERENT LEVELS OF NARRATIVES
Narratives can be defined and pursued on multiple levels: personal, institutional, geographical, and movement based. Chapters 2 through 5 will explore each of these in greater depth, but here’s an overview:
- Personal narratives. Although the term personal narratives may sound like stories about you, these narratives actually are designed to help you gain support from others. Instead of explaining what you have done in the past, they describe what you want to accomplish in the future, why others would want to join you, and what would motivate them to make that effort.
- Institutional narratives. At the institutional level, narratives connect people who do not work for the institution with opportunities related to the institution’s mission. A bank might have a narrative that focuses on what we must do to ensure that our children lead even more fulfilling lives than we have. If people respond by doing more long-term financial planning, the bank could attract new customers, increase the loyalty of its current customers, and potentially expand the array of services it offers them. But the call action is not “subscribe to more of our services.” The narrative should reveal a deep understanding of what the customer needs, inspiring them to seek it out themselves.
- Geographical narratives. Powerful narratives have emerged around cities, regions, and even countries, contributing to their success at different points in history. These geographical narratives draw people to a place and align them so they can achieve something meaningful. At the turn of the last century, Vienna had such a narrative, which was about the opportunity to move beyond the narrow focus on reason in the Enlightenment and to explore the complex motivations that shape human behavior to develop a much deeper understanding of what it means to be human. This made Vienna a magnet for talent in many different disciplines. Today Silicon Valley has a narrative about the opportunity to change the world with digital technology.
- Movement-based narratives. Religious, political, and economic movements utilize narratives to address a significant opportunity or threat. For example, the abolitionist movement in the 19th century brought people around the world together to seek the emancipation of slaves. Movement-based narratives are largely independent of geography or seek significant change within a geography, as in the case of a liberation movement in a country ruled by a dictator.
Narratives have the greatest impact when, at a minimum, the first three levels are aligned. In contrast, if our personal narrative is not effectively aligned with the narratives of our institutional and geographical settings, we will grow frustrated and find it difficult to seize the opportunities we desire.
The story of my life has in large part been an effort to align my evolving personal narrative with both an institutional and a geographical narrative. At one point, I began to evolve a personal narrative of venturing out beyond well-established areas and exploring emerging “edges,” but at the time, I was involved in institutions that were risk averse and had narratives that encouraged people to follow well-established paths. My personal narrative didn’t achieve real impact until I ventured out to institutions and places that embraced the desire to explore the edge.
I should pause here to explain what I mean by “edge,” since I will be using this term frequently. Edges are areas that provide rich opportunities for learning in the form of the creation of new knowledge. Edges can be new domains, like new waves of technology, new generations of people coming into our economy and society, or economies around the world that are rapidly developing. Edges can also be the boundaries between existing domains, like the borders between two very different communities or the walls that separate academic disciplines, like economics and history. When we venture out onto edges, we are likely to move beyond our comfort zone, but we are also likely to learn a lot faster than if we remained in the areas we already know well.
OPPORTUNITY-BASED NARRATIVES HAVE MORE POTENTIAL THAN THREAT-BASED NARRATIVES
As noted earlier in this chapter, narratives may be either opportunity based or threat based. Which type of narrative you choose to pursue will have a significant impact on your mindset, emotions, and actions.
Threat-based narratives—those that tell you a significant threat is approaching—tend to reinforce a negative mindset and a feeling of fear. Threat-based narratives magnify our perception of risk, shorten our time horizons, cause us to fall into a zero-sum view of the world, and make it difficult for us to trust others. In sum, they exaggerate the perception of pressure and amplify all the natural human reactions we have to it. They move us to act but in very narrow and often unproductive ways.
The political environment in the United States is increasingly driven by threat-based narratives. We’re under attack, the enemy is coming to get us, we’re all about to die (or at least lose everything we hold dear) unless we move quickly to fight the enemy. The enemy differs, of course, depending on your political beliefs, but the message from both sides of the aisle is clear: we are in imminent danger. Is it any wonder that these threat-based narratives feed our fear, accelerate our loss of trust, and shrink our time horizons?
Opportunity-based narratives, in contrast, help us overcome our natural human reactions to threats and fear. Think of the “I Have a Dream” speech that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, during the March on Washington for Jobs. What made his speech so inspiring was the opportunity it described for all of us to come together and live as equals.
Because opportunity-based narratives move us to act in positive ways—to seize a future opportunity—they help minimize our feelings of fear and strengthen our feelings of hope and excitement. Opportunities in this kind of narrative tend to be ones that can be more easily achieved if others join the quest, and they expand with the number of participants. So we are no longer dealing with a zero-sum view of the world with a fixed set of resources, but with a positive-sum view of a world in which new resources can always be found and opportunities are continually expanding.
By highlighting the potential rewards available to the many, opportunity-based narratives encourage us to collaborate, leveraging each other’s capabilities so we can move faster and with greater impact than if we were acting alone. As we shift to a positive-sum view of the world, we become more willing to trust others.
One especially beneficial aspect of opportunity-based narratives is that they can pull in people we might never have met otherwise. Such serendipitous encounters can be hugely valuable in your journey. Some historians have suggested that the origin of the modern feminist movement in the United States was the serendipitous encounters between women who were drawn into the civil rights movement, who then hatched the idea of a similar movement dedicated to creating more opportunities for women.
As we will see later in the book, the Silicon Valley narrative has inspired people from all over the world to come to Silicon Valley to start businesses that leverage digital technology. One of the keys to its success is the serendipitous encounters that occur in meeting rooms and social gatherings, connecting people who otherwise would have never met. The conversations that result from these encounters often generate new ideas and approaches to the challenges entrepreneurs confront as they seek to bring new technologies to market. As one example, Sergei Brin was the student who took Larry Page on the tour of the Stanford campus when Larry was applying to graduate school there. This chance meeting led the two founders of Google to connect and come up with an idea for a company to help people more readily access the vast array of information being made available on the internet.
Opportunity-based narratives also accelerate learning and drive innovation. Look back at John F. Kennedy’s inspirational challenge to Congress and the nation in 1961 to come together around the opportunity to land a man on the moon within the decade. The unprecedented opportunity he framed brought many groups of scientists and engineers together, not just at NASA but also at universities and scientific institutions around the country.
More recently, an entrepreneur named Peter Diamandis created an opportunity-based narrative about the commercial potential of space travel. He made the opportunity much more tangible by offering a $10 million prize to the first privately financed team to build and fly a three-passenger vehicle 100 kilometers into space twice within a period of two weeks. The resulting contest motivated 26 teams from seven nations to invest more than $100 million. Eight years later, an entrepreneurial team won that prize. But the opportunity framed by the narrative was much bigger than that one prize and helped to catalyze a new multibillion-dollar industry.
As their number expands, the participants in a narrative tend to cluster into small groups and try different approaches to achieving the opportunity. Everyone gets to observe the impact of these approaches and integrate aspects of the successful ones into their own activities. By moving in parallel and continuously reflecting on what they—and others—have done, they learn much faster than any one person could on his or her own. Opportunity-based narratives thus harness the power of “pull”: they pull out more of the participants’ potential by accelerating learning.
I need to stress something here. The distinction between threat- and opportunity-based narratives is not black and white; the reality is more complex. Narratives that are primarily focused on a future threat may also make some reference to the opportunity that awaits if the threat is defeated. However, those narratives focus more on the threat because the consequences of failure are so severe. Opportunity-based narratives likewise acknowledge the challenges and obstacles. In fact, an awareness of challenges and obstacles is essential for these narratives to succeed. If there is no challenge or problem to solve, the narrative will be less likely to motivate people to act. As Kennedy said in his moonshot speech, we choose to accept the challenge not because the things we will have to do “are easy, but because they are hard.”
WHAT ABOUT METANARRATIVES OR “GRAND NARRATIVES”?
You may also have heard of another kind of narrative, called a metanarrative or “grand narrative.” These are a popular topic in the academic world. While definitions vary, metanarratives or grand narratives typically offer a comprehensive explanation of how the world works. For example, the grand narrative of the Enlightenment was that rational thought and science would inevitably improve the human condition.
Today, many grand narratives compete for our attention. The globalist grand narrative says that the more connected the world becomes, the greater the prosperity for everyone. The urbanist grand narrative declares that more and more people will come together in ever larger and more prosperous cities, and that those who don’t will be left behind.
Grand narratives are very different from the kinds of narratives I describe, as they tell us how the world inevitably works. Because of this, they tend to foster passivity. Whether for good or ill, this is how things are, they say. We can’t change that; we can only accept it and act accordingly.
WHAT ABOUT VIDEO GAMES AND VIRTUAL REALITY?
Many of my techie friends have pushed back on the distinction I make between stories and narratives. They point out that video games and, more recently, virtual-reality platforms are not self-contained. That’s true. Although some video games have an end and declare winners (and losers), others can be played endlessly with ever-increasing levels of challenge and reward. World of Warcraft is one of the best-known examples of an endless video game. Drawing us into an incredibly complex virtual world that involves warring groups on fantasy planets, it offers us the opportunity to shape the outcome of the battles that will determine who ultimately wins the war. We are most definitely not just passive observers.
The rise of simulated-reality platforms takes it to another level. With those, we are drawn into environments where, unlike video games, few rules or even guidelines define the actions we can take. Take the example of Minecraft, which has amassed over 126 million active players worldwide. There’s the challenge of staying alive in dangerous environments, but the real attraction of Minecraft is the opportunity to collaborate on creating awesome structures, including forts, schools, and supermarkets. We explore and create the environment, rather than just passively observe it.
While these games and platforms don’t meet my criteria for stories, they aren’t narratives either. They might inspire action in the real world, but that isn’t their primary objective. Their goal is to draw us out of our current environment to explore some imaginary worlds. This will be even more true as virtual-reality experiences become more broadly available. A true narrative provides a call to action now and in the real world. Perhaps we could classify video games and simulated-reality platforms as “virtual narratives”? This would acknowledge that they are different from stories and don’t meet the criteria for true narratives. But it doesn’t allay my concern that these virtual narratives can foster passivity in the real world. By providing us with such rich alternative realities, they can motivate us to withdraw from reality.
Of course, technology will continue to challenge the classic boundaries between reality and virtual reality. I’m particularly intrigued by the potential of the augmented-reality platforms that overlay virtual elements onto the world we interact with daily. The global craze for Pokémon Go in 2016, in which players attempted to “catch” the virtual creatures on street corners, restaurants, and in their own bedrooms, suggests how popular they may become. Games like that certainly motivate us to venture out into the real world in search of opportunities. But again, the opportunities are virtual rather than real. We are not motivated to change the world, but simply to use it as the context for an imaginary quest. This could, and likely will, change over time. We already have early augmented-reality tools that can be used by workers to get more information and insight about their environments. For example, there are headsets for surgeons that provide real-time information about their patients.
I can imagine a growing range of simulated-reality, virtual-reality, and augmented-reality platforms that will help participants seeking to address longer-term threats or opportunities in the real world. It’s not hard for me to imagine a narrative crafted around the opportunity to “grow” human organs in the laboratory so we no longer have to rely on donated ones. Augmented-reality devices could be very helpful in assessing the viability of organs and could help surgeons transplanting them. But such devices would be tools that support a narrative, much as online discussion forums and search tools do today, rather than representing the narrative itself.
WHAT MAKES A STRONG OPPORTUNITY-BASED NARRATIVE?
From this point on, I will focus exclusively on opportunity-based narratives; I will only mention threat-based narratives to highlight how they differ from those that focus on a big opportunity in the future.
Through working with dozens of individuals and companies to craft their narratives and crafting my own, I have found that the most powerful opportunity-based narratives have the following qualities:
- The narrative is aligned with broader forces shaping the global landscape. If the opportunity you have framed does not align with current social and economic trends, no amount of effort will help you accomplish it. An opportunity needs to be achievable. If the forces of the world are conspiring against it, you will have a hard time mobilizing and sustaining the support you need. For example, if your narrative focuses on the opportunity to shift from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources, it will be aligned with the broader technology trends that make it feasible. If you believe the opportunity is to return to wood-burning fires as our primary source of energy, that narrative is not likely to get much traction.
- The narrative invites open-ended participation. Powerful narratives frame opportunities for action and impact at a very high level but leave enough room for individuals or small groups to be creative. By remaining at a high level, they can evolve to accommodate changing circumstances (and will have to, since the opportunity framed by the narrative is likely to take a long time to achieve). Framing the opportunity as the development of alternative energy sources needn’t lock a company or person into a specific source, nor must it specify the technology that will be required to harness its full economic potential.
- The narrative defines the opportunity with enough detail and context to motivate and focus participants. To justify a significant effort by participants, the opportunity needs to be credible (although not inevitable); it must have enough detail and context to ensure that participants will operate in complementary and reinforcing ways, rather than fragmenting into less effective camps. For example, various movements seeking to promote “social justice” have floundered because the opportunity is so broad and subject to so many interpretations that it has been difficult to mobilize enough people in a sustained way. Movements seeking to promote the rights of specific ethnic groups or women have had much more impact.
- The narrative defines an opportunity that appeals to many participants. If the opportunity affects only a small group of people, it will likely have far less impact than one with a much broader appeal. Of course, context matters here. If this is a personal narrative or a narrative for a small community, the number of people drawn to the narrative may matter less than if it is a narrative for a large institution, country, or movement.
- The opportunity amplifies other opportunities. A challenging but important principle is that, wherever possible, it is helpful to show how the opportunity that is the focus of a narrative connects with and amplifies other opportunities. If your personal narrative is focused on the opportunity to cultivate awe-inspiring gardens, it would be helpful to explore how this opportunity could support other opportunities that excite others, like helping marginalized people find productive work or helping to capture carbon from the atmosphere. This will help bring others into your cause, even if it’s only a small subset of people.
- The narrative defines an opportunity with deep emotional appeal. A good narrative shouldn’t be simply rationally attractive. It must tap into people’s hopes, aspirations, and excitement to sustain them on their quests, given how many challenges and obstacles they are likely to meet. Remember the previous example of a bank whose institutional narrative is helping our children lead more fulfilling lives. If that narrative had been framed in purely financial terms, it would have had far less impact.
- The narrative is realistic about challenges and obstacles. A strong narrative excites people about the opportunity while also alerting them to the risks. Yes, there’s a fine line here. You want to avoid threat-based narratives. But the message needs to be that the opportunity is not a given or predetermined. Achieving it will take effort, because the obstacles and roadblocks standing in the way of its completion are not trivial and cannot all be predicted.
- The narrative presents positive-sum opportunities. A strong narrative creates incentives for many people to come together to address the opportunity. If we’re in a zero-sum world, where either you win or I win, it is much more difficult for us to collaborate. In contrast, if we’re in a positive-sum world, where we expand the rewards by working together, we are much more motivated to collaborate with each other—and to invite still more people to work with us.
- The narrative provides tangible and relatively quick benefits to early participants. Powerful narratives reduce barriers to entry by delivering results to early participants, without requiring them to invest a significant amount of time and effort. For example, a narrative that focuses on the opportunity to develop alternative energy sources can focus on deploying some of the viable technologies that already exist, even though there is a long way to go before they can fully replace fossil fuels.
HOW DO YOU CRAFT A POWERFUL OPPORTUNITY-BASED NARRATIVE?
As we will explore in more detail in the chapters ahead, narratives are not words on a page. You can’t create a narrative just by writing it down. Narratives emerge from action—action that is sustained over time. They can start with inspiration, with individuals or groups acquiring some sense that a significant opportunity exists—for example, for the clients of a bank to help their children to lead more fulfilling lives—but these narratives take shape and evolve through action.
Action is also key to both credibility and learning. If we’re not taking action to help our children lead more fulfilling lives, we’ll never really understand what actions have the greatest impact. If an individual or small group sees an opportunity and does nothing beyond writing it down, they will be far less credible when inviting participants to join that narrative. They would be more successful if they put their words into action. If the key executives of that bank are not helping their own children lead more fulfilling lives, no amount of marketing is going build trust and credibility in the narrative. When participants take action, they sharpen their view of the opportunity and generate insight into how they can most quickly seize it. As others join in, the learning expands.
It is often helpful to step back and articulate the narratives, whether they were conscious or not, that got you to the point where you are today. In doing so, you may find that your call to action focuses on an opportunity that is not the most meaningful to potential participants or that it is not framed in a way that can really motivate them. By looking at the impact (or lack of it) you’ve achieved in the past, you may discover opportunities to achieve far more.
You might also benefit from reflecting on the ways you have participated in other people’s narratives in the past. Was the opportunity they were framing truly meaningful to you? Perhaps you should embrace someone else’s opportunity as your own or work to help them reframe their narrative so they can achieve even more impact. You might also reflect on whether the actions you are taking are the most impactful ones you could be doing. These reflections could be helpful for a broad range of narratives that are relevant to you: your personal narrative, an institutional narrative, and the broader geographical and movement-based narratives you are contributing to.
Here’s a piece of good news: we now have at our disposal an increasingly powerful set of digital technologies that can help us assess the impact of our existing narratives while simultaneously drawing more people to join us. To understand what marvelous tools digital technologies are, think of the great narratives of the past. To penetrate society, they had to transcend the confines of their existing communications media. Major religions often relied on core texts at the outset, and of course, proponents of the religions could spread the word through inspiring speeches. Then they evolved their approaches as the available media did: they moved into art, music, theater, and later radio, film, and video to spread the narrative. But that was just the beginning. The most successful religious leaders and teachers today leverage the full range of new technologies, like social media and instant messaging.
Moving to a business setting, imagine the resources a healthcare company could harness to communicate a narrative around the opportunity to improve consumers’ wellness. It could use printed texts and videos to provide an initial call to action, but that’s just the beginning. It could convene small groups of people interested in wellness to meet on a regular basis. These groups could then connect into larger online communities.
Digital technology allows anyone to define and communicate their narratives in rich and textured ways that supplement conventional text-based forms of communication. These methods often have much greater reach. As one example, look at the success of “Kid President” (Robby Novak), who when he was 11 years old did a YouTube video in which he shared an inspiring narrative about the opportunity for all of us to come together to create something that will make the world an amazing place. The video went viral and reached more than 30 million views. Certainly, Black Lives Matter and other contemporary political movements have found ways to engage a larger number of people by using social media and online platforms. We have the tools; we need to put them to good use as powerful new narratives emerge.
Finally, let me be clear that narratives themselves are tools. When I talk about the power of narrative, I am talking about its power as a tool. It is up to us to use them in ways that unleash that power.
Narratives are a powerful tool to help us on our journey beyond fear, but they must be understood and applied in a very specific way.
- Narratives are very different from stories: they are open ended, without a resolution, and have an explicit call to take action to make a resolution possible.
- Narratives that focus on opportunities in the future have the greatest potential to help us overcome our fear and motivate us to take action. Threat-based narratives tend to feed the fear and should be avoided if our intent is to move beyond fear.
- Narratives are not just words on a page. They emerge and evolve through action. The most effective narratives bring people together to pursue action together.
- Narratives can be developed at multiple levels, explored in more detail in Chapters 2 through 6.
- Strong opportunity-based narratives have certain characteristics that can be helpful to understand as we craft our own narratives.
Fear is a natural reaction to the mounting performance pressure that increasingly characterizes our world, and it has predictable consequences. It magnifies our perception of risk, shrinks our time horizons, and causes us to fall prey to a zero-sum view of the world that leads us to distrust others. Inevitably, we find it harder to build deep and enduring relationships, and we become more and more isolated. The more isolated we become, the more pressure we experience. As the pressure mounts, the feeling of isolation intensifies, adding to our sense of helplessness and fear.
How can we break out of this vicious cycle? As with all emotions, the answer begins with us as individuals. We need to look within and reflect on our view of the future and the roles we are asking others to play in it. In other words, we need to reflect on the personal narrative shaping our choices and actions.
IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT YOU
Despite the descriptive term “personal,” your narratives are ultimately not just about you, but about the call to action you issue to others you are trying to reach and motivate. This use of narrative is quite different from the large and robust school of human psychology that focuses on the concept of “personal narrative.” Their view of personal narrative, to put it as simply as possible, is more in line with what Chapter 1 describes as stories. From this psychological standpoint, a personal narrative is an individual’s construction of the story of their life. It’s used in therapy to look backward, exploring the past to gain insight into why you have lived your life the way you have. Such an exercise certainly can be valuable.
The kinds of personal narratives that I describe emphasize the future, rather than the past. They are about your perception of a big opportunity or threat in the future—one that can shape your choices and actions. Your view of your past will influence your choices and actions, but your view of the future will have a greater impact on how you will act.
There’s another difference. Psychological narratives tend to focus on individuals and how they have lived their lives. What I call a personal narrative is really about your call to action to others—what you want other people to do to help you address the future opportunity or threat you see. This connects you with others in ways that pull you and them out of fear-induced isolation, providing mutual benefit.
Few of us have given much thought to how we would articulate our personal narrative, let alone reflected upon whether doing so can truly help us achieve more of our potential. I didn’t do that until fairly late in my life, and it changed my whole trajectory. Looking into our past can give us insights into how we evolved our current narrative and whether it has achieved the impact we desired. But the focus ultimately needs to be on our view of the future and the role we want those around us to play in it.
CRAFTING YOUR PERSONAL NARRATIVE
To help you to think about your personal narrative and how you might craft one, I’m going to share the evolution of my personal narrative. When I did finally sit down to reflect on it, I began by focusing on my life as a child and young adult. The chief lesson I took from my family experience was that my own emotional needs were irrelevant. My mother had clearly communicated to me that life is challenging for everyone and that my role was to try to be aware of the needs of others (especially hers) and serve them as best I could.
That provided the foundation for the threat-based narrative that shaped my choices and actions through much of my early adulthood. Of course, I never put it into words, but if I had, it would have gone something like this: “Our world is full of challenges. Tell me the ones you are facing, so I can help you find ways to address them.” The call to action was to use me, especially if your needs involved thinking or analysis. Even at a very young age, I can remember offering to help my friends with their homework. I was most comfortable with intellectual problems, because I had come to believe that emotions were dangerous, as the ones I was most familiar with from my childhood were anger and fear. I had learned that the best way to avoid them was to retreat into the realm of the mind.
On reflection, this narrative led me to transactional interactions, rather than deeper, more sustained relationships. Since my family never stayed anywhere very long, shorter-term transactional interactions were much safer and more effective for me than more meaningful relationships that would inevitably be disrupted.
This orientation had been recognized early on by, of all things, an aptitude test my third-grade class took to find out what professions we were most suited for. When I got my results, I was surprised and puzzled. The careers I was most suited for, it said, would be the priesthood or social work. Given that I had no religious inclination or particular desire to work with the poor, I believed it had missed the mark. Many years later, I realized that it had correctly identified my drive to help others with significant challenges—a drive that priests and social workers certainly have as well.
As it turned out, a new profession emerging at the time had not yet registered on the test developers’ radar screen: management consultant. The role of a management consultant is to respond to the needs of executives facing significant challenges and help them with data and analysis. (Of course, there’s more to management consulting, but this is the dimension most relevant to my personal narrative.) Therefore, it makes perfect sense that I would have gravitated to that career, starting at the Boston Consulting Group and then spending sixteen years at McKinsey & Company and thirteen years at Deloitte.
Although this personal narrative was far from optimal in terms of achieving my full potential, it did help to focus me on where and how I could have impact. While my narrative focused on threats facing others, it framed an opportunity for me, because helping executives helped me escape the dangerous quicksand of potentially hurtful emotions. It helped me survive and find meaning in a stressful world. It told me I could make a difference—but only by helping others, not by acknowledging or addressing my own needs.
This early personal narrative drove me to learn as much as I could outside of school, since I found school very limiting, while accumulating as many academic credentials as I could (three graduate degrees). It also drove me to write. I started early, at my high school newspaper. I wrote my first two books when I was still in graduate school and have written five more since (not including this one) while contributing articles and other content to a growing array of outlets, including a personal blog. I discovered that writing was a better way to fulfill my personal narrative than waiting for others to seek me out on a one-on-one basis, as it enabled me to be helpful to far more people while keeping me at an emotional distance from them.
Then, as an undergraduate, I became involved in movements. The war in Vietnam was at its height, and I helped organize resistance on my college campus. I was also drawn into the libertarian movement. (My early experience with my mother had left me with lifelong issues with authority figures of every kind.) These experiences challenged my belief that I could help people just by focusing on the mind. I found myself getting more and more drawn into the emotional lives of my movement comrades, as well as those of the people we were trying to mobilize.
A few years later, when I was working at the Boston Consulting Group, I recognized an unmet need in the business world. People were beginning to see how computers could help them in their businesses, but they were unable to get the help they needed from computer companies. This was in the late 1970s, when large mainframes were still dominant. When businesspeople spoke to sales reps, they were drowned in technobabble. What they needed was someone who could clearly communicate the benefits of computer technology to non-engineers. In 1980, I left the comfort and security of my job, moved to Silicon Valley, and with a team of three others launched a startup that helped physicians in small private practices use microcomputers to handle back-office functions like billing and insurance claim processing.
Make no mistake about it, the urge to do this was driven by my personal narrative to help others with my mind, but I couldn’t do it on my own. By the time I sold the company, it had become the largest value-added reseller in its market segment, with 100 employees, all of whom were integral to its success. This experience highlighted a key limitation in my personal narrative. My call to action had been directed to those who needed my help; it didn’t include people who could amplify my ability to help. As such, it inherently limited my ability to fulfill my narrative.
REFLECTING ON YOUR PERSONAL NARRATIVE
The value of this kind of self-reflection comes through in the journey of one of my clients. A doctor in her mid-30s, she practiced at one of the leading hospitals in the United States. As she had never really thought about her view of the future and her call to action, we spent some time exploring them. The answers she came up with were revealing. At first, she articulated an opportunity-based narrative: she had wanted to be in a financially rewarding profession that also helped others. But when we dug a bit deeper, she realized that her parents, who came from modest backgrounds, had been more focused on threat than opportunity. This led her to understand that she was not so much pursuing an opportunity as seeking to avoid a threat. The fear of a low-income future had driven her to seek refuge in a well-paying profession, even though the profession was not something she was passionate about.
She gained even more insight when we turned to the question of what call to action her personal narrative issued to others. She didn’t have a call to action. Influenced by her parents’ fear, she had come to believe that depending on others is too risky. As a result, her narrative did not call on others to support her efforts to become a successful physician; it was all on her shoulders. Worse still, she saw the people who could have helped her as potential threats, who might go after her job.
By all external indicators, my client was successful; she should have been happy. But like so many of us, she had let her fear consume her and dictate her choices. Instead of helping her rise to the challenges awaiting her, her narrative fed into her sense of fear and her pressure to perform, exacerbating both of them. As she reflected on her narrative, she began to realize that she was missing an opportunity to do more exciting and meaningful work with much greater impact.
This realization prompted her to think about what gave her the most fulfillment. She definitely felt good about helping people who were sick, but what gave her the most satisfaction was helping people stay well. This led her to frame a very different opportunity: helping patients avoid disease and improve their wellness over time. Ultimately, this motivated her to establish an independent practice whose focus was coaching people on wellness. A broad array of professionals support wellness, including meditation teachers, fitness coaches, and nutritionists. This led her to expand her personal narrative to include a call to action to others who were motivated by the same opportunity and could support her in her quest. She soon evolved a growing network of experts, which allowed her to achieve much more impact. She has now begun to recruit other physicians and coaches into her practice.
It’s important to make your personal narrative explicit, because when you reflect on it, you come to understand how it might have been holding you back. You may have to evolve it before you can move past your fear and achieve your full potential, whether in your career, your life, or in the world at large.
First, ask yourself some questions to draw out your narrative. Is your view of the future driven more by an expectation of threat or opportunity? In other words, are you more concerned that the future could undermine what you have already achieved, or are you focused on an opportunity to achieve much more? Of course, we all foresee a mixture of threats and opportunities, but the key question here is which predominates: Do you feel more threatened or more excited about what’s ahead?
Next, reflect on your call to action to others in this future. What role, if any, are you asking them to play? What kind of collaboration are you seeking? Perhaps most importantly, is there a compelling reason for them to act in ways that can help you and themselves address the threat or opportunity ahead?
Resist the temptation to be too conceptual or to frame what you think others would want to hear you say. Be true to yourself. Don’t let your fear limit or dictate your ability to achieve more of your potential. To do that is to let fear win, which defeats the whole point of crafting a narrative. Often, we frame the opportunity too narrowly to match our true potential. Everyone’s potential is ultimately unlimited; we owe it to ourselves to challenge ourselves to achieve more.
We take the first step on our new journey when we recognize the extent to which fear has shaped our narrative and the ways our narrative is reinforcing our fear. We need to shift our attention to the big opportunities we could be addressing and how much we are sacrificing by giving in to our fear. Creating a narrative is about thinking and dreaming big and preventing that nagging voice in your head from limiting your ability to accomplish your goals. Reflect on choices and actions you are facing in the days, weeks, and months ahead. Which are you likely to make, and what does that tell you about what is driving you?
Next, ask yourself what support, if any, you are seeking from others as you pursue those choices and actions. Many of us aspire to be completely self-sufficient. This limits what we want to accomplish, because we are each just one person. Don’t let your fear hold you back; think about how much more you might be able to accomplish if you could motivate and mobilize others to participate in your quest. The fact is, no matter how smart and strong you are, you can achieve more of your potential if you work with others to create more effective approaches to the opportunities you want to address. You’re also more likely to stay on course if you have others who support you and hold you accountable to your goals. So, are you asking for the right kind of help from the right kinds of people?
If you do have a call to action for others, reflect on whether your narrative motivates them to commit the time and effort required. Do you really understand what motivates others? Are you framing the threat or opportunity in the most inspiring way?
When I reflected on my own narrative, I saw that the pattern of placing my own needs below others’ continued in my relationships with women. Toward the end of my second marriage, I experienced deep hurt and sadness, but it led me to find the strength and inner resources to be true to my needs. Asking for a divorce forced me to reflect on my narrative, to ask myself what my needs truly were. After a difficult period of self-examination, I realized I had already begun to evolve an alternative narrative, without being aware of it.
As I looked at my experiences in college and later in life, I saw that my actions had not just been about serving the needs of others. I was also addressing my need to explore new arenas and to create platforms that would help all of us—myself included—to achieve more of our potential. In the antiwar movement, I had joined a group of people who were venturing out beyond mainstream politics and creating a platform to drive significant change. Then there was my experience building a startup. I had worked not just with my founding team and our employees, but also with the network of experts we relied on and with our clients to develop a new market. When I joined McKinsey & Company, I was similarly drawn to new arenas within the firm. I helped launch two new practice areas within McKinsey and was a member of the team that founded its first office in Silicon Valley.
As I reflected on what had motivated me to participate in these initiatives, I realized I had been seeking to achieve more of my potential by venturing into uncharted territories. This led me to craft a new personal narrative that went something like this: “Let’s overcome our fear and venture out onto promising edges that have the potential to change people’s lives for the better.” The call to action was shifting from those who needed help (“Tell me your problems, so I can help you”) to those who were motivated to help (“Let’s change people’s lives for the better”). My personal narrative’s call to action now focuses much more on the people who can come together with me to craft platforms that can help others achieve more of their potential. There’s still a secondary call to action for others to use the platforms as they are deployed, but the narrative’s primary focus is on those who can help me to co-create those platforms.
As we’ll see in Chapter 8, the opportunities I was pursuing crystallized even more as I began to discover my passion of the explorer.
LESSONS LEARNED IN SHAPING PERSONAL NARRATIVES
Working with clients to reshape their narratives has led me to four important insights. The first insight, as I already mentioned, is that threat-based narratives are inherently limiting. Of course, threats are real and pressing, but the best way to address them is by translating them into opportunities that can be expanded over time. For example, many of us are driven by the fear we will be ostracized if we don’t fit in. That’s a powerful fear. But what if we shifted our focus to bringing people together in ways that allow them to complement and compound each other’s unique capabilities? When we address that opportunity, we not only reduce our risk of being abandoned or ostracized but also develop much more of our potential.
Second, there’s power in leverage: we can have much more impact if we can mobilize a broader and more diverse group of people to address the opportunity we have identified. We not only will have more resources but also will learn a lot faster as we come up with a wider variety of approaches to address the opportunity. Calls to action should not be one-on-one; they should address a larger group.
Third, our calls to action will achieve much more if we move beyond short-term transactional relationships and build long-term, trust-based relationships instead. Sure, we can be helpful to each other in the moment, addressing opportunities and challenges as they arise. But deeper relationships cultivate a much deeper understanding of who we are, what our respective limitations and capabilities are, and what can really motivate us.
Finally, our personal narrative will have much more impact if we can frame the opportunity at its core in a way that shows how it supports and enhances a broader range of opportunities. We need to keep our personal narrative tightly focused on the opportunity that excites us the most, but we should explore its connections with others. In my case, the opportunity of venturing out onto edges with the potential to change lives for the better connected to opportunities to transform institutions in ways that would help people learn faster, create more inclusive and prosperous societies, and cultivate more sustainable ecosystems that better support the planet.
Whether we know it or not, we all have a personal narrative that is shaping our lives, our careers, the causes we dedicate ourselves to, and all the other opportunities we pursue, for better or for worse. There’s enormous value in examining the key choices and actions in our life to make explicit the narrative that has driven them. As you reflect on your personal narrative, here are some key questions to ask:
- Have I identified a big enough opportunity?
- Does the opportunity really excite me?
- Am I issuing a call to action to the people who can be most helpful in accomplishing it?
- Have I framed the opportunity in the best way to motivate others to take action with me?
Remember, the key focus of a personal narrative is a call to action issued to others. When we address a big enough opportunity and motivate and mobilize others to join us in our quest to address it, we can achieve much more of our potential.
The Power of Leverage
Narratives are not just for individuals. Institutions also can increase their impact and address significant emerging opportunities by creating effective narratives. This is true for entrepreneurial and incumbent businesses, nonprofits, government agencies, and schools. The whole issue of institutional narrative is a big, unaddressed space, and the institutions that find ways to craft meaningful narratives will enjoy powerful advantages over those that don’t.
As we will see in Chapter 6, personal narratives and institutional narratives are even more impactful when they are aligned. The personal narratives of institutional leaders can become the seedbeds for inspiring institutional narratives, which can help other individuals catalyze their own narratives in turn. But first, this chapter helps you recognize, understand, and craft institutional narratives.
THE “PSEUDO-NARRATIVES” OF INSTITUTIONS TODAY
Like individuals, institutions have implicit narratives but rarely take the time and effort to make them explicit. This may not be a bad thing, because most institutions’ narratives are embarrassingly narrow minded and self-centered; they show very little understanding of who their stakeholders are and what their aspirations and challenges might be. Instead, it’s all about them. For most, the call to action essentially reduces to “Buy (or use) my products or services.” This may be one of the reasons why trust levels in institutions are declining globally.
When I speak to executives about the concept of narrative, they often respond, “Of course we have a narrative. We started in a garage; we overcame enormous obstacles and accomplished amazing things. And the narrative is open ended; there’s a lot more to be accomplished and great opportunities in the future.” Yes, it’s open ended, but what is the call to action to those outside the corporation? “Watch in awe as we accomplish more amazing things”? It’s all about the institution and what it hopes to accomplish.
WHAT MAKES AN INSTITUTIONAL NARRATIVE EFFECTIVE?
An effective institutional narrative focuses on opportunities that are meaningful for the organization’s customers or, in the case of nonbusinesses, the people they serve. While the opportunity ultimately bears some relationship to the organization’s products and services, it needs to be framed much more broadly so that it speaks to the aspirations and needs of the people being addressed. Based on a deep understanding of their needs, the narrative should identify an inspiring opportunity for them and an explicit call to action they can take to address it. That action should go well beyond buying products or services.
Not many institutional narratives illustrate the potential of narratives as I describe them, but some do. A good example is Apple’s early slogan “Think Different.” Unpack it, and a very powerful and inspiring narrative emerges. Apple’s marketing campaign celebrated bold, undaunted, and creative “crazy ones” like Einstein, Picasso, Bob Dylan, and Muhammed Ali—great individuals who stand in stark contrast to life in the world created by the first generation of digital technology. Early computers and automation replaced our names with numbers, stuck us in cubicles, and made us cogs in machines. But Apple’s institutional narrative indicated that things have changed. A new generation of digital technology has placed the most powerful tools we can imagine at our fingertips, giving us the opportunity to express our unique individuality and creativity. But that opportunity isn’t guaranteed; it requires us to think and act differently. Are we prepared to take up the challenge? It’s up to us to pursue it.
This narrative speaks to a deep and aspirational quality in many of us, and it came at a critical moment in time, when the counterculture era was ending and a new era of corporate conformity was beckoning. Because Apple tapped into our cherished sense of individuality, its narrative resonated deeply. Critically, the narrative was not about Apple per se. It was about all of us. Yes, the company had some products that could help us express ourselves, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that we had to act.
And this narrative wasn’t just a script crafted by a PR firm. If you wanted to see two people who thought and acted differently, you could not find two better examples than Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. Neither of the Steves told their own stories, however. Instead, the commercial flashed images of iconoclasts like Martin Luther King Jr., Maria Callas, Mohandas Gandhi, Amelia Earhart, and Frank Lloyd Wright. The point wasn’t that they would have used Apple computers if those had been available. Rather, it was that they were able to achieve enormous impact by thinking differently in many different domains. Individual