A team can be heaven, a team can be hell: what makes the difference?
This is a story I shared a few months ago during the ACE16 conference at Harvard.
The story of Heaven and Hell
There’s a man that all his life he’s had one singular worry.
He wakes up every morning with this worry, every lunchtime has this worry. What he worries about is “how is heaven and how is hell?”.
Every morning he wakes and this is the first thing he wonders, every lunchtime, every moment that he has a bit of peace, every time he’s waiting in an elevator: “how is heaven, how is hell?”
Finally God gets a little bit tired of this incessant worry and decides I’m going to take him up and show him.
The man appears at the first set of gates. There’s some fire, little devils and rusted gates. The gates open and they enter a room.
They enter hell. In this room, the first thing that strikes him a wonderful smell of food. As he looks around the room he sees people holding their belly groaning, starving.
He sees that each person in the room is holding something in their hand.
He looks closer. He sees it is an enormous spoon.
In the centre of the room there’s a bowl. An enormous bowl. In that bowl he looks and he sees it is full of food. The people in the room are approaching the bowl, dipping their spoon into the food but the spoon is so large that they cannot eat. They’re starving.
God says “this is hell”.
The man says “Hell is not what I expected.”
They appear in front of some other doors. Little angels, harps, nice clouds… the doors slide open: they step into heaven.
Same smell, same room, same Bowl in the middle, every person in the room has the same spoon… but in this room room they’re reaching into the bowl, filling their spoon with food and they are feeding each other.
The difference between heaven and hell is who you choose to serve first.
More on the subject of creating teams that are more like heaven than hell…
On success, there is no one right answer: You cannot learn absolute rules from another person. You cannot take the life recipe of another person. You can learn from their stories, but only you will take what you take from a story.
Seek out Stories
Tribes, civilisations and families have found that life lessons are best communicated through stories. Stories have existed since words came to the homo sapiens. Joseph Campbell has identified common themes through the stories of every human society – clarifying the roles we play as human beings, the struggles we face in our lives and the search for underlying meaning to the bits and pieces that make up a life.
Stories connect to heart and to head, to reason and emotion. There is a truth to a good story that is deeper than the factual truth of the events. When a story resonates with you, it is not because of the objective truth of the story, it is because it connects with a subjective search for truth within you.
I tell many stories in my speeches. It always amazes me how different individual members of the audience take their own particular meanings from my speech. Sometimes one particular off-the-cuff comment has an oversized impact for one individual. Each person takes what they need from a good story.
Every person’s life experiences lead to answers in this moment for that person. We each live in two worlds, the outer world that we share with all others; and the inner world that exists inside us, and that will disappear from this world when we ourselves leave this world. Stories connect between my inner world and your inner world.
There is a small group of blogs that I always read. One is John Zimmer’s Manner of Speaking. This week he shared a video he found of Kevin Spacey (the actor) talking to an audience of online marketers.
Kevin Spacey talks about 3 ingredients of compelling stories:
Conflict – there must be obstacles in the path of the hero
Authenticity – the story must feel real
Audience – a speaker is not a speaker without an audience (just some crazy man shouting at a wall) – feed the hunger for wisdom, for real experience and for connection of an audience and you will have them.
Read more over at John’s blog:
Kevin Spacey’s Three Key Elements to a Compelling Story
Stories are important for almost any communication situation. Spacey’s advice to those in business or marketing?I think it starts with what story do you want to tell. And if you start with what story you want to tell, everything else will follow. … Begin very simply and then start to build the blocks toward telling that story. What’s the best and most efficient and most compelling way that I can tell that story?
I am currently reading “The Power of Story” by Jim Loehr.
In the introduction he puts a name on the widespread condition of “presenteeism“:
“Without investing high-quality, focussed energy in the activity before you, whatever it may be, setting time aside simply takes us from absenteeism to presenteeism – a condition increasingly plaguing American business, a vague malady defined as impaired job performance because one is medically or otherwise physically or psychologically compromised. Is a worker who’s too fatigued or mentally not there for eight hours really better than no worker? How about a parent? A spouse? Time has value only in its intersection with energy” Jim Loehr
Disengaged but Present
In what areas are you disengaged right now? These are the areas of life where you are doing the time, but distraction really has a hold on your conscious attention.
There are always good reasons that can explain your distraction:
too much work
challenging family situations
high maintenance team
debt and financial challenges
The Author of Your Life Story
Another lovely paragraph from his introduction:
“Funny: We enjoy the privilege of being the final author of the story we write with our life, yet we possess a marvellous capacity to give ourselves only a supporting role in the “writing” process, while ascribing the premier, dominant, true authorial role to our parents, our spouse, our kids, our boss, fate, chance, genetics, bad weather, or lousy interest rates.”
Are you planning the final story of your life? Or just letting it drift into tragedy or comedy or thriller or farce? Maybe better a romance, a heroic adventure, a dramatic epic tale of exploration, lessons learnt and other’s lives touched for the better?
The most important story is not the one you are explicitly or implicitly telling to those around you via your actions and words, it is the one you tell to yourself.
Here’s a very timely tweet that I came upon last night:
“The stories we tell ourselves can serve as straitjackets for stagnation, or scaffolding for transformation.” @sebpaquet via @skmurphy
“We think of stories as a wildly creative art form but within that creativity and that diversity there is a lot of conformity. Stories are very predictable. No matter where you go in the world, no matter how different people seem, no matter how hard their lives are, people tell stories, universally, and universally the stories are more or less like ours: the same basic human obsessions, and the same basic structure. The structure comes down to: stories have a character, the character has a predicament or a problem—they’re always problem-focused—and the character tries to solve the problem. In its most basic terms, that’s what a story is—a problem solution narrative.”Jonathan Gottschall
The 7 Steps to the Perfect Story
From structure and plot to heroes and characters, your story must have 7 elements in order to engage the audience. Here’s an infographic from the Content Marketing Association that visually defines the process of storytelling:
Click the image below to view a larger version.
Source: Visual Portrait of a Story, adapted by Ohler, J. (2001) from Dillingham, B. (2001)
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.
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