Narratives have great power, but their power increases dramatically when building on other narratives.
What does that mean in practice? It means that we need to be thoughtful and deliberately make choices about where we choose to pursue our narratives. Context and location are critical to enhancing the power of narrative.
I’ve made a distinction between stories and narratives here and here. Briefly, I’ve suggested that stories are self-contained (they have a beginning, middle and resolution) and they're about the story teller or some other people, they're not about the listener. In contrast, narratives are open-ended, they are yet to be resolved and their resolution depends upon the choices and actions of the listener. As a result, they're a powerful call to action, emphasizing the agency that we all have to make a difference.
Start with your personal narrative
Now, let's pull back and explore how these three levels of narratives can be connected to achieve even more impact. We need to start by reflecting on and refining our own narrative. Few of us have taken the trouble to articulate our personal narrative, much less reflect on it.
Yet, if we look back on the major choices and actions in our lives, there is an implicit narrative, even if we weren'tt aware of it at the time. We owe it to ourselves to draw out that narrative and reflect on its usefulness in helping us to have the kind of impact we want in the world.
Many of our narratives are limiting or even self-destructive. We have an opportunity to achieve much more of our potential if we evolve more effective narratives that tap into what we are really trying to achieve and that more productively engage others in helping us to achieve greater impact. It doesn’t matter where we are; if our narrative is limiting, we won’t be able to take full advantage of the resources that our environment provides.
But, if we are pursuing a more effective narrative, then location and context can make a big difference. Remember, narratives are ultimately a call to action for the people around us. If the people around us are pursuing very different, and perhaps even contradictory narratives, we’ll be much less effective than if we can connect with people who are pursuing complementary narratives. Yes, I know, digital networks can help to connect us, wherever we’re located, but I continue to believe that face to face relationships in physical space are ultimately the most powerful form of connections.
So, what should we do? Well, once we’ve reflected on our existing narrative and determined what personal narrative would have the greatest ability to achieve more of our potential, perhaps we should start reflecting on relevant institutional and social narratives. I mean, start taking a hard look at the narratives of the institutions and societies where you are currently spending your time. Are they consistent with the personal narrative you're seeking to pursue? Do they offer the potential to amplify the impact of your personal narrative? Or, do they undermine and subvert the personal narrative you're pursuing?
Explore relevant social narratives
The best place to start is with relevant social narratives. What city or region do you live in? What's the narrative of that city or region? How does it map to your personal narrative? If it’s not consistent with your narrative, perhaps you might consider moving to a city or region that more closely maps to your narrative. Then you’ll be more likely to find and connect with people who can support and amplify your personal narrative. If the narrative of the city or region you live in is hostile to, or incompatible with, your personal narrative, you’ll find yourself constantly swimming upstream and drained by the effort, rather than energized.
And, by the way, if you don’t live in a city, perhaps you should consider moving to a city with a compatible narrative. As I’ve indicated elsewhere, cities can be a powerful accelerator of learning, especially if the city has a narrative that's consistent with your personal narrative. Unless your personal narrative requires you to live in a rural area, you’re much more likely to be successful in pursuing your personal narrative if you live in a city.
Take a hard look at relevant institutional narratives
Once you’ve resolved that, the next question is what institution are you most closely affiliated with? If you’re working as part of a larger group, does the company or group you work with have an institutional narrative that supports and amplifies your narrative? If not, you’re likely to encounter the same issues I mentioned earlier with urban or regional narratives. You’ll be far more successful in pursuing your personal narrative if you're located in a city/region and organization that supports your personal narrative.
I know we don’t always have the luxury of being able to make choices on these two fronts, but I’ve become convinced that we'd be well advised to make sacrifices when possible to get better alignment between our personal narratives and the urban/regional and institutional narratives around us. At a minimum, we should explore the potential to join together with others in the relevant institutions to evolve the insititutional narrative in a direction that's more compatible with our personal narrative.
My journey to Silicon Valley
How does this work in practice? Let me share a bit of my personal journey. I’ve discussed the evolution of my personal narrative here and here. As I’ve indicated, my personal narrative has evolved to something like: “let’s overcome our fear and feel the excitement that comes from exploring new frontiers on the edge together so that we can provide others with platforms to achieve more of their potential.”
I grew up outside the U.S., living in a different country virtually every year, so I had no strong roots anywhere. I went to college in the northeastern part of the US and England, two areas that are not particularly known as edgy. But, during a summer in college, I had the good fortune to spend a summer in the San Francisco Bay area. I fell in love with the area immediately. I knew this was the area where I was meant to live.
It took me about 15 years to finally make the move to this area but, once I did, there was no looking back. Even though I had not yet started the process of articulating and evolving my narrative, I instinctively knew that this was an area full of edge frontiers to be explored. I was deeply moved by how friendly people were out here and how willing they were to connect and support each other in exploring frontiers together.
I moved to the San Francisco Bay area with a couple of friends to do a start-up in the computer industry. At the time, I knew nothing about computers but I learned quickly by diving into the deep end of the pool. It was an intense and deep immersion into an exciting frontier. The more I learned, the more I became convinced that this technology was an extraordinary platform to help all of us achieve more of our potential.
It was my first exposure to Silicon Valley, a region that has grown and evolved over decades, driven by a compelling narrative: “for the first time, we are in possession of a set of exponential technologies that have the potential to change the world but it won’t happen on its own. Will you join us so that we can explore this digital frontier and change the world together?” It has drawn people from all over the world who share a commitment to changing the world through technology innovation. It drew me and has held me captive for almost 35 years.
I couldn’t imagine a more perfect alignment with my evolving personal narrative. Over the years, I’ve met a dazzling array of people who, in one form or another, have joined me in exploring some very exciting frontiers on the edge of strategy and technology.
My journey through institutions
Over this exciting time in Silicon Valley, I've participated in many institutions, including start-ups, senior executive positions in tech companies and leading consulting firms. Although it wasn’t explicit at the time, I've moved from one institution to another when I felt there would be an opportunity to have more impact on the edge frontiers that I was exploring. In each case, an institution with a complementary narrative provided me with far more leverage than I ever could have achieved on my own. When our narratives started to diverge, I knew it was time to move on.
For an extended period of time, I was on my own, pursuing strategy consulting and business research as a free agent. It was a wonderful and very rewarding time, but I missed the leverage that I achieved when I was able to participate in an institution that had a complementary narrative.
When I was approached by Deloitte eight years ago to set up an independent research center that came to be known as the Center for the Edge, I saw an opportunity to build an institution with a narrative that would reinforce and leverage my personal narrative. I’ve been able to gather a team of extraordinary people who have deeply bought in to our institutional narrative and who work together every day to achieve the opportunity that we see by engaging others in our journey.
One could say that I’ve been very lucky - serendipity has certainly played an important role in my life. But, on reflection, I would say that ny effort to make my own narrative explicit and then to evolve it in a more promising direction also played a significant role. And, even more importantly, I’ve sought and found alignment between my personal narrative and relevant institutional and social narratives.
When these three levels of narratives are aligned, small moves smartly made can indeed set very big things in motion. On the other hand, when these three levels of narratives are not aligned, even heroic efforts may only achieve marginal impact.
Don’t just focus on your personal narrative. Be aggressive in assessing the narratives of the institutions and cities/regions where you're most active.
Start by asking the questions that I posed in a previous posting regarding your personal narrative:
- Given the choices I've made and the actions I've taken throughout my life, what's the personal narrative that has led me down this path?
- Is this personal narrative one that can help me to achieve the things that I really want to achieve or is it inhibiting me in some significant ways?
- How could others help me to achieve even more impact and what's in it for them?
- What specific choices can I make and what actions can I take in the next day, week and month that will start to evolve my narrative in ways that will help me to achieve more of my true potential?
Once you’ve addressed these questions, then ask a similar set of questions for relevant institutions and and cities/regions where you're most active:
- What narratives emerge from the choices and actions of these entities over their relevant history?
- Are these narratives consistent with the personal narrative I would like to evolve for myself?
- If they are not consistent with the personal narrative I'm seeking pursue, what can I do to shift towards institutions and cities/regions that more closely align with my personal narrative?