Humans are wired to learn through stories and allegory. It’s been the way we’ve communicated and shared information from the beginning of time.
Why don’t more people use this fact in everything they do? Why is this not the basis of every lecture, every classroom, and even every bar room story around?
Stories help us relate and personalize information. They act as little packets of self-contained information. Give someone a list of data, and give someone else the same information contained in a story or narrative, and ask them to read it and memorize it. Guess which one is easier to remember? The story connects the dots and both creates linkages between the data points as well as provides a context, making it much easier to store in our brains, where the list does none of this. (This is why one of the more effective memory strategies is to take a list of , say, vocabulary words, and write a story containing them all-or take a list of objects, and imagine yourself placing them around a room- and you learn them faster and more accurately than you ever would off a regular list.)
Stories are more than entertainment, however. There’s meaning, examples, and lessons to be learned from these stories as well. Case studies in business and the Case method in law school all rely on being able to tell a story about what happened, and then look at what’s happened in other, similar cases, to make a decision about what should happen next in the case at hand. This complicated, graduate school level coursework is, at its essence, sharing stories. Of course, it also tells us the reasons why we have societal and business rules in place, and to help us make decisions about the course of action you should take. The “rules” we make up from the stories are there to help us avoid problems and mistakes others have made, so we can try to ensure success by trying some new way, rather than repeat past mistakes.
We love stories. This is why Us, and People and the National Inquirer sell so many copies every month. We want the next installment about the Kardashians or Paris Hilton or what LiLo has done now. We want to see where their story is going. What I think we fail to realize, and perhaps the stars fail to realize as well- is that they are in charge of their own personal story arc. They can decide what happens next in their story- they don’t have to follow the story arc the media is creating for them. Are they people or just characters in a never ending societal soap opera?
The magazines know that they have created and casted the over-arching drama and story for our entertainment- Jennifer Aniston get to be the girl next door we can’t wait to see settled down and happy. LiLo gets to play the rebellious teen and young woman who can’t seem to get her life together. Will Smith got to go from Playboy to grown up respected business man. Glen Beck gets to play everybody’s slightly loony neighbor. Pick out a character in the mainstream media world, and think of what you think you “know” about them, and you’ll see there’s a narrative and character role assigned to them by the media, who is happier to have a cast of characters to write about than to actually report facts, which are not nearly as interesting as the ongoing psychodrama.
Think about story arc as you think about your life. What are you doing with your script? How have you cast yourself? Are you ready for a break out role? Are you ready to re-write your story and become someone new? Who would that new character be? What do you have to do to start to think, act and look like that character? Just like an actor prepares to “become” someone else and live bits of their lives on screen for our entertainment, you can decide who you want to play in your own life, and then do what you need to do to become the person you want to be. You just have to be able to write the story, change the script and make it so.
Follow your own story arc. Make it something exciting to watch. Make your character something special. And make your story one we’re all dying to tell each other for years to come.