Story

INNOCENT LITTLE DATA POINT: A new definition of Story in your daily life.

In a class I recently taught on storytelling and personal branding, I asked the group "What is a story?" I only heard crickets at first as everybody totally overthought the question. I did not want to assuage their anxiety so I let the silence continue. Eventually three answers were called out:

"Something that happens to a character."

"Has a beginning, middle, and end."

"A glimpse into somebody's life."

All of those are correct. But the definition could be distilled even further. I intentionally oversimplify the definition of a story to "a data point". That is all it is. Plain and simple. A data point. Sit with that for a second. Does it make sense to you? Does it confuse you? Or does its simplicity anger you?

It should not. Here is why.

The three answers that the students shared were correct because a story is in fact an event that occurs with which someone interacts, it has a sequential structure to it, and the way in which someone reacts to the event says something about who they are. But these events can be huge (like a bomb going off) or teeny tiny, like me turning my head to look out the window a second ago. Interestingly, a lot of people I have taught and spoken to confuse story and narrative. I have found that they often think of story as a large grandiose recount of a period of time but, even though stories do involve an amount of time passing, they are not necessarily large.

What adds magnitude to them, however, is how events affect our lives. Very small things can dramatically affect people. A smile from a stranger on the street, hitting all green lights on the way home from work, catching that perfect sunrise at that perfect moment.

Now think even smaller than that. Me typing this post, me moving my fingers, my thoughts changing from one sentence to the next, what other thoughts come to mind and distract me. Even the act of telling you what a story is is a story. It gets super layered from there but every little thing that occurs, every way we look, every tiny action we make, is a story that contributes to our day and subsequently how we feel about that day and then how that day affects tomorrow, and so on and so on. This is why I call them data points. These miniscule-all-the-way-up-to-enormous events in a given day are bits of information that collect and impact a future.

Think about a classic scatter plot you learned how to make in grade school math class. You plot little dots on the graph and see what sort of trend it makes overall. This is a perfect example:

Each dot = a story

Ultimate trend and overall layout of the data = the narrative

On its own, a data point does not inform anything. It is simply a piece of innocent information. An event that occurs. It contributes to a narrative, though, because we react to it and apply our own meaning to the event based on emotional biases. That is how an event lingers with us longer than the event itself lasts. That is why someone's death affects one person so much more deeply than someone else (sorry for going dark). I alluded to this last week about how meaning that we assign to actions and events make them live on endlessly in the future. Our subjective assignment of meaning is just that, subjective. We have debates and arguments about events and stories that we experience, but our arguments are only ours. We each experience events in our own very unique ways only because we attach our own unique meanings to them. But without the meaning we attach, an event is just an event. 

Just a data point. 

Think about this for yourself. Think about every little teeny tiny thing that has happened for you and to you today and to which you have reacted. Really think about it. If you are doing it correctly, you ought to feel overwhelmed pretty quickly by how many things actually occur in a given day. 

Here is an example. A few minutes ago, I watched a gentleman on the sidewalk get out of a cab with six different pieces of luggage. One normal sized suitcase, a carry on rolling suitcase, a tiny rolling suitcase, and three messenger bag-like briefcases. The briefcases he piled on the large suitcase, looping their handles on the suitcase handle. Then he proceeded to stack the tiny suitcase on the small suitcase and methodically try to match up the handles so that one finger could hold the tiny suitcase in place while the majority of his hand could guide the small suitcase. The whole event lasted thirty seconds and was rather humorous at first (clown-car status) but two things made it less like a circus act and more of a seriously impressive endeavor: the man was impeccably dressed in suit, tie, and trench coat and the man's face conveyed nothing more than straight determination. No distress, no visible embarrassment.

Okay, scene set. Now story time. In that thirty seconds:

  • I stopped typing because I saw that this was no ordinary taxi exit,
  • I observed his dress and mannerisms,
  • I reacted with laughter first and then intrigue,
  • my eyes narrowed watching his hands dance around the suitcase handles,
  • I felt self-conscious that I was staring for too long,
  • I realized he could so easily look up and see me at the window eavesdropping on his adventure,
  • I consciously decided to keep watching,
  • I picked at a fingernail in anxiety for the man's struggle,
  • I felt surprise by his stalwart focus and composure,
  • I felt joy when he figured it out and started moving,
  • and I was left with immense curiosity for where he was heading...and why he owned so many small pieces of luggage...

See? A lot of stuff happened in a tiny amount of time. I have no idea where that man is but I am still curious about his journey and where he was going with so many bags. I want to know his story. And that event was significant enough for me to spontaneously decide to include it in this post, which took more time, which may have eliminated the possibility to do something else with that time, and the ripple effect continues from there for my day and week. 

It was just an innocent event that has now affected my day. And every bit of that story and my interaction with that event is its own story as well. Its own data point. Just like my students said, the Event of the Gentleman and the Suitcases had a beginning, middle, and end, it is something that happened to a character, and, most importantly, it presented the tiniest glimpse into his life. At the same time, my interaction with that event had a beginning, middle, and end, it happened to me - I experienced it - and it gives a little glimpse into my life by how I react to random moments.

ALL WE HAVE ARE STORIES: how our life paths have a lot to do with the stories we tell

I first connected with a friend in California who travels to new parts of the world apparently every week (FOMO much?) when I stumbled upon her beautiful Instagram account a couple years ago. Above her contact info, the only words were "We are just visitors, all we have are stories" - words that I totally fell in love with and about which I had to cold-message her.

Every day when I am not immersed in a client session or in restful solitude at home, I am constantly thinking about the overwhelming chaos of human movement. Strangers walking, driving, bussing, stuffing themselves into trains, they all have their own reason for being right there in that exact moment. People driving in traffic are distracted by their unique thoughts and emotions at that time when they nearly hit the car in front of them at a light or they are frustrated enough by their own unique triggers that they express themselves by honking at a pedestrian. 

You know what I see? I see stories. I see thousands of storybooks walking, driving, passing by every day. It overwhelms me because I am equally entranced by my ability to help people tell their stories and daunted by the sheer number of stories out there. So I take a deep breath and remember the quote: All we have are stories, and that is okay.  

It is so true. That is all it is. We are filled with stories and experiences and events and images that have affected the evolution of our personalities. That is great that we acknowledge what makes us unique, but then we have to share those stories in order to learn what to do with it. We build communities through stories, we make friends through them, find love through them. We start religions and businesses because of stories. 

In college, I took a 99% worthless anthropology class that consisted of three months of my professor bragging about her own research, but the 1% value I pulled from the semester was learning for the first time about Ethnography, which is defined as the scientific discipline that "describes the customs of individual peoples and cultures."  A powerfully broad concept I pulled from this section of the class was the way that ethnography studies how history is simply a process of storytelling. In the beginning of civilization in the middle east, tribal elders would gather round a campfire and tell their life stories and the stories of their tribe to the youth in order for the youth to know the significance of their own lives. Even the point of school is to catch us up on what has already happened or that others have learned. 

Stories are all that we have to offer one another. Explaining something at work, telling your spouse about your day, teaching your child how to wipe for the first time are all stories based on stories we have heard and expressed in ways that we have learned to express them. 

This is also true of stories we tell ourselves. You say you rock at cooking, you hate your job, you love your family first above all else, but what do these stories say about your personality? Why are these stories that you tell yourself? And how do they affect your daily life?

If we are only made up of stories, then we are extremely sensitive to them. Emotions underly the stories we tell ourselves. As soon as the stories become verbalized, they are then made real-er and presented to the world for feedback. The way that others react to those stories then close the feedback loop and affect the way we feel about ourselves in the world, new emotions are created, and the cycle starts again. 

Pick a story for yourself that you notice keeps replaying in your head and in conversations. For a lot of people, it is that they hate their job. Whatever that story is that you come up with, how do people react to it? If you keep telling the story and do nothing about it, what does that mean about your life right now? How can you adjust the wording of that story? Or do you not want to change the story?

Every story that comprises us has served a purpose and precedes the many more stories that have come and are still to come. Perhaps you are content with the stories you are telling, good or bad, but all I am saying is think not what your stories can do for you but instead what you can do for them.