A man that I trust and respect once told me that we always go from specific to general in our heads, but we want to go from the general to the specific in our lives. He was speaking about the process of creating something new, but I think it applies to nearly everything I do. In my head, I tell stories, make specific connections and relate to the minutiae of a situation. In my working life, I seem to want to generalize about everything and then iron out the details later. I speak in absolutes and generalities but the only things that have ever really meant anything to me are the details. I do not remember a general good feeling about my achievements, rather my mind focuses on specific moments within those achievements that seem to represent those good feelings.
My wedding itself I can speak about in platitudes of good fortune, but I remember the way my little brother in law jumped from flower pedal to flower pedal down the isle with our rings bouncing around on the pillow the whole way. I can convey the fact that I love my children, but if I really want them to know what I mean, I have to retell the story of my daughter sitting with my wife and relating just how she believes that cells work according to their pictures in my wife’s textbook. I have to relate to someone else on the specific level, the one that brings about a passionate reaction. It is in the specifics of how many times I got up with my son on a nightly basis to put him back to bed that I am able to connect to other people. It is in the recounting of the time I put away dishes in our first home while my sick (pregnant) wife kept me company on a palette of sofa cushions on the kitchen floor.
The specifics matter.
And that is why it is getting harder and harder for me to tell people that I have a particular field of interest. It is why I have a harder time prescribing to the general ideals of a particular organization or job. It is why my passions don’t run toward keywords that you can punch into Google. And yet, all of our outward facing experiences, the kind that are required for introductions and business meetings are based upon this ability to generalize and synthesize. It is based upon whether or not we can pitch experiences as sound bytes rather than for the character-driven developments that they are. So, what should I do in situations that require the impossible: the general standing in for the specific?
What I hope to tell people in the future is that my field of expertise is and always will be in stories. It is in the drilling down to find a single image to capture the imagination. It is in finding a single argument that an entire program or course can be based upon. It is in crafting an experience for an individual so that they can know what it is like to speak with urgency and conviction, to create conversations that continue as long as they are valuable. It is doing one thing well and then telling that story until the next thing that needs to be done reveals itself.
And that is how I think that we can get beyond ego. It is how we can move into a place where everyone is capable of confident discourse and respectable work. It is the way that we will all become sticky and relevant. If we were all storytellers (and admitted to being so when asked), we would never have to justify our passions and our accomplishments. We would never have to prove our overreaching generalized purposes. We could be who we are with one another and create businesses and schools that edify the specific.
So, here is what I propose:
- Rather than beliefs on the walls of corporations, let’s put up stories or situations that demonstrate those beliefs. Let’s tell each other just how we accomplish what is that we seem to value. Let’s figure out what our one word codes really are based upon, going from specific to general.
- Rather than letting students choose a major, let’s have them write the stories of what they would like to achieve. Let’s have them revise this story over time and see how it shifts and transforms. This way we won’t have anyone who needs to change their major just to fit their current passions; they will be able to represent their entire selves within every edition of their story.
- Rather than doing 5 year plans that include virtuous goals, let’s outline the stories of how people will interact with us and our products throughout those 5 years. Let’s not set goals that are measurable, let’s write stories that are relatable. If we can take those stories from fiction to non-fiction, we have achieved our goals.
If we go from the specific to the general, we won’t have to worry about who is doing the small stuff and who is going to see to the details. We will all see to the details and nothing will get left behind. And the end of the day it is about this: I want my kids to tell me a story about their day. I want my boss to tell me a story about how he thinks I could improve. I want my wife to tell me a story about her dying mother. This matters. that is why I am going into the field of storytelling, not in the abstract English teacher sense, but in the concrete and human sense that we are all born storytellers. It is only the abstractions of life that take us away from this.
So, tell me a story.