At the very simplest, a story is:

  1. A character
  2. Who wants something
  3. Overcomes obstacles to get it

An epic story is

  1. A character
  2. Who wants something massive
  3. And is willing to risk everything to get it

The real depth of any story is not whether the character achieves the goal but who they become as they face the obstacles along the path.

Photo Credit: umjanedoan via Compfight cc
Photo credit: umjanedoan

How to Develop a Story

From a writer’s perspective, a story has to first develop a character that we care about, and we wonder what will happen to them.  Donald Miller, in his book A Million Miles in a Hundred Steps says that the character must “save the cat”.  The character must do something charitable that shows there is a decent human inside.  Rocky always does 3-4 charitable things in the first 20 minutes of each film that follows the boxer.

Step 1: “Save the Cat” – our main character does something that gets us to love him

Once we care, then something has to happen to force the character to show their hand.  In real life, we don’t change unless we are changed by events.  In the words of Soren Kierkegaard “the only precursor to change is crisis”.

So story step number 2: a crisis.  Something that forces the character to commit to the goal. In Star Wars, Luke returns from the desert trip to find his aunt and uncle have been murdered by Imperial Stormtroopers.  He commits to travel with Obi-wan to space.

Step 2: The Inciting Event – something external kicks our loveable character off of the sofa

We are now on the journey.

Joseph Campbell speaks of this moment as the Portal to Adventure.  Often the character will have approached this portal a few times in the past, only to turn back at the last moment.  Something happens to push them over the edge.  It might be a mentor that says “things will be ok for you”.  It might be a love interest who says “do it for me!”  It might be a coincidence that the hero reads as divine message saying “it is you”.

The adventure begins.  Often a few easy victories give the hero (and the readers) a sense that this is going to work out well.

In an interesting story, there are positive turns and negative turns.  In Homer’s Odysseus, the hero makes amazing progress towards his home using the magic of the wind that the Gods gave to him in a bag.  Joy.  Progress.  Then, the crew open the bag to see if they can get home even quicker.  Opening the bag is a negative turn.  The uncontrolled wind escapes from the bag and blows the ship way, way, way back far, far, far away from home, even further than from where they had begun.

The positive turns allow us to keep the reader engaged and hopeful of the final outcome.

The negative turns allow us to develop the character of the hero.  Kurt Vonnegut says “Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

Step 3: Positive Turns, Negative Turns

The trials and tribulations, hopes and dashed dreams continue for a while.  We are watching the hero gather resources, make friends, identify enemies, trust those that are not worthy of trust, disobey those that should really have been obeyed – make a mess out of easy situations, and just pull it together to make it through the difficult challenges.

Then, the novelty wears off and the hero realises that they don’t feel like they are making progress.  I am reminded of the feeling when I sail between the coast and an island.  When I set out from the shore of Australia to sail to the Whitsunday islands, at first the coast behind me got rapidly smaller – I felt like I was flying out to sea.  Then comes the interminable middle.  The coast is no longer shrinking, but the islands don’t seem to be getting any bigger.  All I know is that wave after wave is hitting my boat.  I stay in this state for hours.  Then, all of a sudden, the islands rapidly grow larger and larger.

In the interminable middle, the hero must find a way to overcome self doubt as well as the many obstacles that block the path to the goal.

We then reach a point of disillusion.  This is the point of abandon.  The hero is tired, has lost sight of the original goal, feels like they are making no progress.

The hero wants to give up.  It feels pointless to go on.

Again, in good story, we need an external cause that pushes the hero to one last push.  It might be a friend that reappears and supports.  It might be an evil enemy doing something that is double the despicable of anything he has done before.  It might be the loss of the hero’s closest ally.  It might be the death of the hero’s mentor (remember Obi-Wan sacrificing himself to Darth?).

The hero, this time without hope for themselves, having lost their own ego reason for taking up the original mission takes one last push – and this push is enough to break the deadlock of the interminable middle and open up the return home.

Step 4: Disillusionment and the Point of Abandon, The Final Push

The hero has achieved the original goal.  Prometheus achieves stealing fire from the Gods and returns to the world.  Luke and his allies blow up the Death Star with a last, final, spiritually enhanced missile (“just like shooting swamp rats back home!”).

The hero returns to his village, to those that knew him before his journey.

Sometimes the return is the most challenging.  The hero has become a very different person though the obstacles they have overcome, but their mother and father, their brothers and sisters still see the old version of the person.  It takes tremendous effort to get the old friends and family to see the new person and let go of the old person.

In a movie, we leave the cinema with a sense of closure, that a full cycle has finished.  In a book we finish with a sense that the universe has been restored to a new point of equilibrium.  In real life, we realise that this epic story is just a tiny sub-plot in a bigger and bigger story.  In real life, the meaning is not designed into the events by an author, it is we ourselves who must create the meaning that can fit the events of our lives and give us the feeling that it is worth waking up again and experiencing more tomorrow.

Step 5: The Return

This then, is a story:

Hero + Goal + Obstacles + Resources + Friends + Enemies + Learning and Growing to become the person that can succeed

 

Further Resources on Story

pablo (23)I often use an exercise called The Lifeline in my teaching.  I found a good summary of the exercise here.  In the exercise people reflect on the important positive and negative experiences of their life.

Something that has struck me after all these years of watching groups work on the exercise – it is the hard times in life and how we dealt with them that most inspires.  We are inspired by the struggle more than the end point.

“Life is a series of experiences, each one of which makes us bigger, even though sometimes it is hard to realize this. For the world was built to develop character, and we must learn that the setbacks and grieves which we endure help us in our marching onward.” Henry Ford

I guess if an inspirational speaker came and gave a speech that went: “I had this idea to climb a big mountain, so I went there and I climbed it.  It wasn’t too hard and the view from the top was lovely.” – it wouldn’t be too inspirational.  It is what she had to overcome, the unexpected obstacles, the discovery of previously hidden strength – that I want.

This reminds me of rule number 6 from Kurt Vonnegut on rules for telling a story: “Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

“All life demands struggle. Those who have everything given to them become lazy, selfish, and insensitive to the real values of life. The very striving and hard work that we so constantly try to avoid is the major building block in the person we are today.”  Pope Paul VI

Photo Credit: Grant MacDonald via Compfight cc
A worthy struggle? Photo: Grant MacDonald

The Opposite of Fragile

What is the opposite of fragile?  I hear you saying “robust”, “strong”, “durable”, “flexible” or even “unbreakable”…  but these words are not the opposite, they are the zero point on the line from breaks under pressure to grows under pressure.

A wine glass when dropped on the concrete floor will smash.  It is fragile.  A plastic glass when dropped on the concrete floor will not smash.  It is “flexible and robust”.  However, there are some systems that when dropped, they come back even stronger.

Nasim Taleb coined the term “Antifragile” for things that grow under stress.  Evolution is a process by which species become stronger when stressed.  When I go to the gym, I actually damage my muscles – but they grow stronger as they repair.  A broken bone will heal stronger than the surrounding bone.

“When we long for life without difficulties, remind us that oaks grow strong in contrary winds and diamonds are made under pressure.” Peter Marshall

We humans are “antifragile”.  We learn and grow faster in the struggle than in the garden.

Take a moment and think about the people you know well.  

Who is the most psychologically resilient of your friends or family?  

Who would cope the best with major setbacks?  

Who would be able to keep their heads while all about them are losing theirs?

Resilience, my own photo (that’s my thumb…)

Dealing with Failure: Resilience

I was at the FC Barcelona football game last night with 2 friends, Jordi & Andre.  Barca beat Getafe 4-0.  Leo Messi made his return from injury.  He played for 20 minutes, and scored 2 impressive goals.

My friend Andre was excited because he has just published a book.  It is available in spanish.

His book is called “He fracasado, y que?”  In english: “I have failed, so what?”  He writes about his life as an entrepreneur, his ups (big) and his downs (big) in the journey of the last 20 years building businesses.

Andre is resilient.  He remains himself, independent of the challenges of the moment.  I have known him as he sold a business for €7M and I have known him in the worst moments of watching servidores.com fall into bankruptcy.  He brings the same energy and discipline to each day, independent of the challenges of the day.  What is it that he does to allow this resilience?

Here’s a short list of Personal Habits of Resilient People, based on my personal experience of meeting many of them, interviewing them and writing about them:

Personal Habits of Resilient People

  1. Constantly Building Relationships – they care about others and how others are doing.  They listen deeply because they have a curiosity for learning about life in all its ways.  Victor Frankl spoke about this in “Man’s Search for Meaning” – living to serve others is a mission that allowed survival of Nazi concentration camps.
  2. Never Share Victim Stories – there are hero stories (I am responsible for the situation, I must change if I want the situation to change) and victim stories (“the traffic made me late”, “my boss won’t let me”, “nobody listens to me when I speak”).  I don’t hear many Victim Stories from resilient people.
  3. Forgive Themselves Quickly – they understand that the “me” of 2 years ago took the best decisions that the “me” of 2 years ago was capable of taking – I didn’t know then what I know now.
  4. Forgive Others Quickly – they understand that everyone is on a difficult journey of their own and face challenges that I am not aware of.  Often someone angry at me may have a sick parent, or a tough financial situation.
  5. Take Decisions Quickly – they don’t wait for perfect information. They take a decent decision with the information available and move on.  They understand that you can take another decision tomorrow – even reverse today’s decision if necessary.
  6. “Thank you” – to waiters, to investors, to toll-booth staff, to teachers, to cleaners…
  7. Reframe Constantly – They reflect upon their life and re-examine past experiences based upon today’s wisdom.  I find that my view of my childhood and 20s changes because I see frustrations, challenges and hard work differently now than I did when I was 25.  Back then I thought “I am gifted and I deserve success”, now I think “all meaningful work requires suffering”
  8. Forward Looking – the first instinct is to ask “what can we do now?” when faced with a setback, rather than “who’s fault is this?”
  9. 5 Pillars in Life – Pillars in life can be work, family, tennis, teaching, gardening, writing…  Resilient people have multiple deep interests.  They don’t live 100% for work or 100% for family.
  10. Separate “State” and “Person” – They understand that the state does not make the person – a state of bankruptcy is not a failed person – it is a momentary point on the journey.  Charles Barrington, the Irish climber who first summited the Eiger mountain in 1858 – was at the lowest point of the mountain at 3am and on the summit at midday – he was the same person at 3am and midday.  A resilient person understands that climbing mountains is not always uphill.

Read more on Resilience & Mental Strength

What else works for you?  What else do you see in the people who you would call “resilient” around you?

Loneliness and Aloneness are different.

Photo Credit: Camil Tulcan via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Camil Tulcan cc

Loneliness is an emptiness and the desire to fill this space with another person in the hope that the emptiness will be filled and removed. Loneliness is to be unhappy alone; and leads to misery together. Loneliness leads to a possessive relationship that is not love. It may begin with the chemistry in the brain we often call love, but it will be slowly transformed into misery as we adapt to the presence of the chemicals in the brain and it becomes less passionate.

Aloneness is an acceptance of myself.

A relationship is a mirror. It reflects. If I am happy and creative and attractive, the relationship can mirror these qualities. If I have nothing to show, the mirror will reflect nothing.

Learning to be happy Alone

There are 2 emotional orientations:

  1. Internal and
  2. External.

Internal emotional orientation is about the enjoyment of my own personal progress in understanding, improving, learning from the action.  If i love golf because I enjoy my level of mastery and am absorbed in improving my own short game then this would be internal emotional orientation.

External orientation is that I judge the success or failure of each action by its impact on my status, on how it compares with my friends, on how my friends view me.  If I love golf because my friends envy my ability at golf, this would be a external emotional orientation.

I am sometimes internally oriented (searching for meaning) and sometimes externally oriented (what do “they” think of me? is this useful? will it help someone?)

I switch between the two.  I can find that I spend a week where I am working hard on a document that is meaningful to me and in “flow”… and then something happens and I get distracted and spend 2-3 days paying more and more attention to what other people think, how many “likes” on fb, how many retweets.  Then I have a crisis moment, reflect and switch back to mode 1.

I guess they are both there because they serve a purpose.  The challenge is that great art can only come from mode 1, but a lot of useful learning comes from mode 2.  I can learn faster in mode 2, but at a certain point I need to leave behind mode 2 and fully live in mode 1.

Do you switch between the 2?  What makes the switch happen?  Why does it happen?  What do you do to be conscious of your mode?

How do you respond when a person says “Tell me about yourself?”

Photo Credit: just.Luc
“Tell me about yourself?”, Photo Credit: just.Luc

It might be called confidence, it might be called belief – do you let others see the best version of you, or do they see a dull, low-intensity, passionless version of yourself?

Why do we find it difficult to sell ourselves?

I spent the first 3 years of my entrepreneurial career selling insurance over the telephone in the spanish language. I picked up the phone 20 times each day and worked through my script. 3 years of this taught me 2 things: the spanish language, and zero fear of a “No”.

I got to practice hundreds of times how I present myself.  I got pretty instant feedback whether my way of presenting myself engaged the other person into a conversation, or got a quick hang up on the telephone.  Time and time again I learnt that “Hello, I’m Conor” was not a great start (to somebody who doesn’t know Conor).

At an Entrepreneurs’ Organisation retreat last month, the facilitator asked everybody to introduce themselves following a specific structure:

  1. What I want you to know about me is _________
  2. What I expect from these days is _________
  3. My biggest dream for myself is ________
  4. My name is ________

It made such a difference to the standard introductions.  The standard version that I hear day after day is something along the lines of: “My name is John…  from London.  I’m glad to be here.  I work as a lawyer.  Ahh…  I guess that’s it…   Oh yeah…  I am married.  We have 2 kids.  Yeah, that’s all.”

By the time John has finished, he has managed to bore himself about his own life.  He certainly won’t be someone I’d think of asking questions about life, business or his hobbies.

On my online course, Speaking as a Leader, the first big lesson is about how to answer the question “Tell me about yourself?”.  (You can sign up for the free course here).  You will hear this question hundreds of times.  Instead of John’s response, what would be the 100% version of your potential version?

What’s your answer to “Tell me about yourself?”

A few weeks ago I was in the audience with my friend Manuel listening to Kilian Jornet share his life story.  At the age of 26, Kilian projects the profound wisdom of a Zen sage.  The mountains are a powerful teacher.

Kilian will run up and down Everest in 2015.  Yep, run up it.  He has already set the world records for running up and down 3 of the highest mountains in the world.

Everest is not the most dangerous mountain in the world (that is probably K2 – 1 climber death for every 4 who have reached the summit).  Everest is not the most difficult mountain in the world.  It is the highest.  It is dangerous – if you climb it today there are approximately 200 dead bodies along the route (source).

There is a saying that an alpine climber is not a true alpine climber until he could turn back at 10 meters from a summit because the weather is not right.  I certainly do not have that discipline in my climbing of mountains.  I don’t have that discipline in my other field of endeavour: entrepreneurship.

photo credit: e-nfocs
View of Mount Pedraforca, photo credit: e-nfocs

5 years ago I was with my friend Jordi on Mount Pedraforca.  We reached 300m from the summit when the weather really began to change.  Dark clouds moved in, thunder and lightning surrounded us – many of the lightening flashes visible not above us, but down in the clouds below where we were resting.  We discussed heading back and not achieving the summit, but the call of the summit was too much.  We climbed up.

We made it back down.  However, it was a case of the emotional desire to reach summit being stronger than a completely objective analysis of our options.

What does it take to reach this level of objective detachment in my decision making?  When do you know that the best decision is to walk away and let the business fail?  When do you know that the right decision is to keep waiting for another opportunity?

  • “In nature there are no rewards or punishments, there are consequences.” Mick Halligan (Tweet This)
  • “Mountains have a way of dealing with overconfidence.” Hermann Buhl (Tweet This)
  • “Mountains are not fair or unfair, they are just dangerous.” Reinhold Messner (Tweet This)
  • “It’s a round trip. Getting to the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory.” Ed Viesturs (Tweet This)

My Professor of Decision Analysis during my MBA at IESE Business School was Manel Baucells.  He said that you must define the criteria for walking away from a project before you begin and you must commit to walking away when those criteria are met.  I know he is right, but we need to work on the emotional attachment that we will gain because of our nature as human beings.  Microsoft Excel can clearly see “sunk costs”, but human being me is not so good at discounting them from the decision.

I’ll finish with a beautiful quote on how mountains clarify: 

“Climbing is the lazy man’s way to enlightenment. It forces you to pay attention, because if you don’t, you won’t succeed, which is minor — or you may get hurt, which is major. Instead of years of meditation, you have this activity that forces you to relax and monitor your breathing and tread that line between living and dying. When you climb, you always are confronted with the edge. Hey, if it was just like climbing a ladder, we all would have quit a long time ago.” Duncan Ferguson.

What have you done to detach emotionally from decisions?

Quotes taken from http://www.gdargaud.net/Humor/QuotesClimbingSerious.html

You can’t begin to improve at something until you are “knowingly bad”.

If you are not aware of the lack of something, you haven’t got “taste” yet.  If you think you are the best blogger in the world, two things could be true:

  1. You really are the best blogger in the world
  2. You are blind to the real criteria for what makes a great blogger

Taste is the beginning of Knowingly Bad

Photo Credit: RobertCross1 via Compfight cc
You got Taste? Photo Credit: RobertCross1 

The development of taste is the beginning of “knowingly bad”.

Taste is the ability to tell what is good.  Taste is what you develop as you progress that actually grows your disappointment with your results.  As you go through development, your talent grows slowly, but if you are going to be good, your taste grows rapidly.

As taste grows, the disappointment grows.

Ira Glass says “For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.  But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this.”

Don’t Quit at Disappointment

When you have posted your 8th blog post and you feel it is going downhill, your posts are getting worse, your progress feels like it is backwards…  do not be afraid.  This is the beginning of “Taste”.

I know 2 types of anxiety-free public speaker.  Type 1 has never developed “Taste” and so has no capacity to concern himself that he could do poorly.  He is blind.  He makes no connection between the audience’s use of email on their phones and the bad-ness of his speech.

Type 2, if you are interested?  Type 2 cares so much about the message that the speech is not about him or herself.  The message is so important that his own performance doesn’t even enter the equation.  The message is so important that he has given the speech 100 times, over coffee, in airport lounges.

If I want taste in writing, I have to read a lot. I have to know why one author is better than another, and specifically what that author does that I am not yet able to do.

If you are writing and and not satisfied with the paragraph you are producing: Great! You have taste.

If you are speaking and are not satisfied with your quality of impact on the audience: Great! You have taste.

If you are leading a team and are not satisfied that you are a good enough leader: Great! You have taste.

If you are a parent, and are not completely satisfied that you are doing it well: Great! You have taste.

The Role of Teachers

Great teachers focus on developing taste as well as developing talent – because with taste, you can grow beyond the teacher.  If they don’t help you with taste, you depend on them.  I spend more and more time these days helping the participants in my seminars give structured feedback on themselves than I used to.  If I tell them what to improve, that’s ok… but if I help them develop that ability in themselves, they are getting “Taste”.

“But, is this normal?”

Why am I so fixated by normal? What about optimal? Wouldn’t optimal be a better aim?

Is my life normal? Some of it, yes. Some of it, no. But it adds no direction to my journey to the future me.

Is my life optimal? Is my running posture optimal? Is my blog writing process optimal? Is my current way of dealing with the blows of life optimal? (It is often normal, but far from optimal).

What is optimal seems to be a much better question than what is normal.

“But, is this blog post optimal?”

At the end of every course I teach at IESE Business School, all participants give extensive feedback on their experience of the course, the facilities… and on my role as a teacher.

When the summarized feedback reaches me a couple of weeks later, I open the pdf in a state of nervous tension.  I am preparing myself emotionally for the news contained in the report.  If the report is positive, I start to relax and enjoy the feeling of professional competence.

Photo Credit: Ben Heine
Photo Credit: Ben Heine

However, the last few quotes on the report are always the “areas for improvement”.  I get tense again, and start already to justify myself before I even start reading.

I love positive feedback.  I hate “developmental” feedback.  I pretend sometimes to appreciate it, but I resist it fiercely inside my mind.

I am pretty sure that I am not alone.

I rationally know that it is the developmental feedback that can most help me improve, but I find it very hard in the moment to accept it and work with it.  I feel it as a personal attack, not as an objective opinion of a friendly student who wholeheartedly wishes to see the institution of IESE Business School improve with their advice.

What do you do to “accept” developmental feedback?  Are there any things that have changed your willingness to be open to and even seek out developmental feedback?

 

Good speaker?
Writer?
Dancer?
Singer?
Runner?

How do I become one? How does the whole thing come together? How will I know if it really is my thing? Will it be worth it?

There is only one way to find out. There has really only ever been one way.

The way to mastery in the past, the way to mastery in future… And the way to mastery today:

Start.

Take a single step.

Do it now while you are rubbish.

Don’t wait to feel “ready”. Don’t expect that you will ever feel that you have finally reached excellence. The moment you achieve something, it immediately becomes something that you can achieve – and no longer special.

Einstein didn’t feel like “Einstein” while he worked and thought – he felt like you, like me- not quite “there” yet, slightly unsure… But willing to keep moving anyway.

I wonder often why our minds are so rigged up to stop us beginning important work. Is it an evolutionary beneficial tendency? Perhaps it is the “cowards” that survive. The coward gene has been evolving for many, many, many generations.

Mere survival for a lifetime might be what your genes want, but it is not what your spirit wants.

This then is the daily war between the spirit that wants to change the world, and the genes that want you to hide beneath the duvet covers.

Who will win?