Narrative and passion are becoming increasingly central to performance at all levels – individual, institution and ecosystem. But are they completely separate topics or are they related in some way? I believe they’re deeply related and that, together, they amplify performance improvement in powerful ways. Let me explain.
Let’s get definitions out of the way
Narrative and passion are terms that are widely and loosely used. I’ll start by clarifying what I mean by them.
For me, narratives are related to, but different from, stories. Stories are self-contained – they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Narratives on the other hand are open-ended – the outcome is unresolved, yet to be determined. Stories are also about me, the story-teller, or other people; they’re not about you. In contrast, the resolution of narratives depends on the choice you make and the actions you take – you will determine the outcome and you are therefore an integral part of the narrative.
This form of passion, most often found in arenas where there is sustained extreme performance improvement, has three primary attributes. First, there’s a long-term commitment to a specific domain. The commitment is not just to learn about the domain, but to make an increasing difference in that domain. The other two attributes are dispositions – orientations to take action in specific contexts. There’s a questing disposition – a tendency to seek out new challenges, to become excited by them as opportunities to get to that next level of performance and to want to move on to a new challenge as soon as one challenge has been successfully addressed. And then there’s also a connecting disposition – a tendency to seek out and work with anyone who can be helpful in addressing the challenges that are on the horizon.
OK, but how are narratives and passion related? Here’s the thing – narratives create the conditions that catalyze and draw out the three attributes that define the passion of the explorer.
Long-term commitment to a domain
Let’s take it one step at a time. Narratives are typically about a broad domain rather than narrow slices of experience. Think about famous social narratives like the Christian narrative, the American narrative or the Silicon Valley narrative. I’ve talked about institutional narratives like the Apple narrative or the Nike narrative – the former is about the role of technology in re-shaping our identity in society while the latter is about our ability to move from passive observers of sports to active participants in achieving exciting new levels of physical performance. Whatever the level of the narrative, it maps out a broad domain. And, because it calls us to make choices and take action, it helps us to move beyond simple curiosity to a commitment to make a difference.
But it does more than that, especially if it’s an opportunity based narrative. It identifies wonderful opportunities within that domain that are available to each and every one of us if we choose to pursue them. Narratives can help orient us towards a specific domain and encourage us to make a long-term commitment to that domain because of the exciting opportunity that awaits us there. But, it’s up to us. Will we make that commitment? Will we take the actions required to participate in that opportunity?
Nurturing a questing disposition
Now, let’s look at questing dispositions. Opportunity based narratives are not just about opportunities – they also typically frame the challenges that we’ll encounter along the way. It’s not going to be easy. To participate in the long-term opportunity, you need to take on and overcome the challenges that await you.
The dual focus on opportunity and challenges helps to draw out the questing disposition in us. Rather than trying to avoid challenges when they occur, narratives encourage us to seek out the challenges because we won’t be able to participate in the long-term opportunity until and unless we confront and overcome the challenges that stand between us and the opportunity.
Fostering a connecting disposition
And what about the connecting disposition? Narratives tell us that the opportunity ahead is not just for one individual; it’s available to many if not all of us. We’re not alone in this. These are not zero sum opportunities where one winner crowds out all of the others. We can all participate in the opportunity. That message encourages us to come together to help each other over the finish line.
The dissemination of the narrative itself helps to build up a community – or dare I say a movement? – of participants who share a common excitement about overcoming the challenges that await on the way to a big and transformative opportunity. It cultivates a larger and larger gathering of people who are united by a shared commitment to a domain and an eagerness to confront and overcome the challenges ahead. As we see more and more people who share our excitement, we are much more likely to reach out and collaborate with others in overcoming the challenges ahead.
The virtuous cycle between narrative and passion
So, opportunity- based narratives can be very powerful in catalyzing and amplifying the passion of the explorer. But there’s also a virtuous cycle here. As participants begin to acquire this passion of the explorer, they accomplish awesome things. The stories of their amazing accomplishments begin to spread and give additional credibility to the broader narrative – look at what others have accomplished, you can do the same or even better. Will you join us? Will you make the choices and take the actions required to pursue this exciting opportunity? The narrative is enriched by the experiences of others, spreads more broadly as others see the tangible evidence of what can be accomplished and acquires far more credibility.
Narratives as beacons
Now, not all of us will be drawn equally to any particular narrative. But narratives can become bright beacons calling us to reflect on whether the opportunity being framed is one that is meaningful to us as individuals. They are powerful antidotes to the institutions and practices we have today that discourage and ultimately squash passion in their quest for predictability, standardization and tight specification of all the actions we must take. They call us to re-connect with the passion we all felt as children and to move from the passion of the player that most of us had as kids to the passion of the explorer, motivating us to make a long-term commitment to a specific domain.
The dark side of narratives
Let me hasten to add that there’s a dark side to narratives. So far, I’ve been talking about opportunity based narratives. There’s another kind of narrative – threat based narratives. You know the kind – we’re increasingly surrounded by them. These narratives focus on an imminent threat – we’re under attack and if we don’t band together now, we’re all going to die or at least all the things we hold precious are going to disappear. Threat-based narratives are deeply conservative or even reactionary – they want to preserve what we have rather than explore exciting new opportunities.
These kinds of narratives tend to ignite a different form of passion – the passion of the true believer. In this kind of passion, the destination is very clear and the path we all need to take to reach that destination is tightly mapped out. In contrast, the passion of the explorer has no idea what the ultimately destination will be much less the path that we will need to pursue to reach that destination – the key is simply to get started and to craft our own path with the help of others.
Threat-based narratives and the passion of the true believer have combined throughout history to create many of the social movements that have wreaked havoc in our world. Nevertheless, even here the tight connection of narrative and passion helps to explain the power that these movements have exhibited.
Why does all of this matter? As I’ve explored in the Big Shift, we live in a world of mounting performance pressure – it’s not going away. In that kind of world, we need to find ways to draw out sustained extreme performance improvement. We simply cannot do that without deep and widespread passion, as I’ve argued elsewhere. The problem is that, based on our recent research into passion levels within the workforce, only 11% of the US workforce has passion about the work they do. If I’m right, narratives can play a key role in drawing out passion, both within each of us and within our institutions.
If we can’t find ways to re-connect with our passion as individuals, we’ll continue to feel mounting stress, become more and more marginalized and ultimately burn out and drop out. If we can’t find ways as institutions to tap into the passion of our participants, we’ll experience diminishing performance and ultimately topple out of existence.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Narratives can create a very different world, one where pressure evolves from a source of stress to a source of excitement, calling us to achieve even more of our potential, both as individuals and collectively. By drawing out the passion that lies dormant within most of us, narratives can help us to accomplish things that we would have never believed possible.