What’s Your Story?

How synchronous that just as I launched a blog on the power of questions, our local public radio station (WCBU  at 89.9 FM) should begin airing a new Public Radio International series called The Really Big Questions—or TRBQ for short.

Hosted by Dean Olsher, the series brings together scientists, philosophers and regular folks to tackle life’s biggest questions related to love, death, music and more.

(If you live in central Illinois, you can catch this compelling program on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. when the Peoria City Council isn’t in session. Or you can access a podcast any time at trbq.org.)

The Power of Story
A recent TRBQ offering called What’s your story?  asks the deeper question: “Why do stories have such a powerful influence on our beliefs and behaviors?” Olsher interviews Pulitzer prize-winning Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson who suggests “storytelling is far more fundamentally human than even human beings realize.”

Wilson says people constantly tell themselves stories, including planning various scenarios. We make choices about which stories to follow, he says, and that takes us into the future. His conclusion: “Storytelling (is) not just important for the human mind; it is the human mind.”

However, the human mind can be unreliable. Research shows we create stories about our lives and believe them, even when they’re not accurate. (Ever tell a story from your youth in front of siblings and learn they remember it quite differently?)

Good, Evil, Both?
And the power of stories, Olsher’s interviewees show, can be used for good and evil. Truth can be magnified. Lies can be propagated. And  the same event can be interpreted markedly differently depending on the experience of the storyteller.

Back in the 1940s, psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel made a simple animated film using basic shapes—two triangles and a circle—to tell a story. Then, in an experiment, they asked people to watch the film and share their interpretation of what they saw. You guessed it: Each person’s story was different, often tied to his or her own life experiences.

That simple film still has the power to create story. Not long ago, a middle school English teacher in Brooklyn, N.Y., showed it to his students. In the stories they created about what they saw, he heard everything from “the big triangle is beating up the small triangle” to “the big triangle was desperate for a friend.”

More recently, the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California showed the Heider-Simmel film to seven comedians and asked them to narrate the action. Their results are humorous, but just as linked to their experiences—whether their own or those depicted on television or in movies.

Create Your Own Story
Intrigued? You can create your own Heider-Simmel-like movie or come up with a narration for someone else’s using an online game created by USC computer scientist Andrew Gordon (another of Olsher’s interviewees). Gordon uses game data to refine a computer program algorithm he hopes one day will generate new human-quality stories.

So maybe one day captivating storytelling won’t be the sole province of humans. In the meantime, we are still the world’s greatest practitioners of the art.

Story Becomes Experience
In my work, I see the power of story every day. As a coach and facilitator, I see how old stories rerun repeatedly in a mind can create a strong belief about what is—and isn’t—possible, whether in a career,  negotiation or relationship. And as a writer, I see how the right story can crystallize a concept where “just the facts” fail.

What’s your story? Is what you tell yourself or others about you still true? Was it ever? What new facet of you has come to light that could flower into a new opportunity—if you only allow yourself to create a story of possibility?

Each of us has a running dialogue in our mind that tells the story of “me.” That story will become our experience. And that experience, over time, will become our life. So perhaps the best question we can ask today is, “What do I want the next chapter in my personal story to be?” Then get to work creating it.