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What's Your Story?
In the movie Amistad, John Quincy Adams, played by Anthony Hopkins, states that winning an argument or a lawsuit boils down to just one thing: “The side with the best story wins. So, what's their story?”
- Eight-year-old Bruce Wayne witnessed his parents' brutal murder. Vowing retribution, the traumatized boy became the comic book superhero Batman. That's Wayne's story.
- The founders of Uber experienced a futile wait for a taxi on a snowy night. When no cabs drove by, they came up with the idea of ordering a private limo through an app and Uber was born. That's their story.
- After shuttling back and forth between her divorced parents' households, 17-year-old Oprah Winfrey earned a full scholarship to Tennessee State University. When she was a freshman, the local CBS affiliate offered her a job. At nineteen, Winfrey became Nashville's first African American co-anchor. Today, Winfrey is among the most admired and respected people worldwide. That's her story.
These types of tales are known as Creation Stories. They represent the most common form of myth and are found in all human cultures.
Moses crossing the Red Sea. The life of Jesus. The Buddha's awakening. The founding of the United States of America. Alexander Graham Bell saying, “Mr. Watson come here, I want you.” Steve Jobs' calligraphy courses.
All of these are creation stories.
What's Your Story?
Creation stories are cultural, religious, or traditional myths that depict the earliest beginnings of the subject. While not always accurate, a creation story typically conveys profound and universal truths.
And it's not just cultures, celebrities, corporations, or comic books that craft these stories, either. Examine the story of your life. Whether you explore the narrative of your career, religious beliefs, political views, or your family's journey, you'll discover a rich and meaningful collection of origin stories explaining how you arrived at where you are now.
My erudite friend, Ed Wasserman, even has a story about creating these stories.
Ed told me that during college, he had a professor named Charles Lindblom who wrote an article titled The Science of Muddling Through about something he called Incremental Rationality. According to Lindblom, decisions and outcomes achieved without a plan or an overarching theme tend to be quite effective because there is rationality in making decisions based on the best available information at the time.
Ed found this comforting even though it contradicted the narrative coherence and clarity most people insist on when discussing their own creation stories. That clarity is based on a script we tell ourselves in hindsight because we all want to be the hero in our own movie.
But these stories, no matter how impressive they may seem now, didn't feel that way when we were muddling through life. At the time, we were making educated guesses based on who we thought we were, who we wanted to be, and what that entailed. We were trying to make those around us happy and align our actions with what we thought we wanted. Above all, we were making decisions with only a dim, imperfect understanding of the actual consequences of our choices.
What's Your Story?
Take a moment to revisit a time when you made a decision, along with a list of the pros and cons involved. Looking back, you'll realize how little you comprehended the consequences of your choices. For example, you might have taken a job because you believed it would propel you in a specific direction, only to glance at the desk next to you and fall head over heels in love with the person sitting there. You end up marrying that person and completely altering your life. Looking at it this way, you realize that you didn't fully grasp what you were doing—you were making the best choice you could at the time.
That brings us back to Hopkins' question:
If “the side with the best story wins,” what's YOUR story?