Why stories matter. And they matter.
It happens to everyone at some point in their life. You lay in bed at night, knowing in your gut that you’re in the wrong place. Maybe it’s the wrong career, the wrong relationship, the wrong city. Maybe it’s the noise of politics, social media, or the never-ending news cycle that doesn’t feel right. Whatever it is, you know deep down that you’re living somebody else’s story. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
“Students who learn through telling and reflectively processing their stories develop skills that enable them to link subjective and objective perspectives, capture the complexity of experience and bring about thoughtful change to self and practice,” says Maxine Alterio, an educator and researcher at Otago Polytechnic in New Zealand, who notes that storytelling enhances learning. “When storytelling is used as a robust mode of inquiry, student learning is enhanced in multiple ways.”
“Humans think in stories, and we try to make sense of the world by telling stories,” says Yuval Noah Harari, a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and author of bestsellers Sapiens and Homo Deus.
Stories, he wrote in Sapiens, are what allowed homo sapiens to dominate the hardier and apparently smarter Neanderthal species: “Cooperation between very large numbers of strangers” leads to “the ability to transmit information about things that do not really exist, such as tribal spirits, nations, limited liability companies and human rights.”
What Harari talks about is communal. But stories, we all know, are just as important at the personal level.
“Everything that I know, share and teach is from all that I make, all that I do,” writes Hanson Hosein, program chair of the Communication Leadership graduate program at the University of Washington, and a mentor to me. “So to remain relevant and credible, I must continue to make. And do.”
Which brings me to why we’re here at RealityNext. Our purpose is all about the story: the story that ties us to a learning subject, sure. But more so we’re about the story of how we work together toward a common goal, the story of how we find our passions. When we can bring a group of young learners together in a room and allow them to test different roles as creators and builders, that’s how they understand their life’s direction.
Paul J. Zak, an economics and psychology professor at Claremont Graduate University and founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, found that the brain releases a chemical called oxytocin “when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions.” According to Zak, with further testing his team found that “character-driven stories do consistently cause oxytocin synthesis.”
So why is storytelling as an idea important? For one, a story puts facts into context, allowing us to make sense of our lives and of those around us—they allow us to engage with one another.
“We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states,” Harari wrote. “Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives.”
A story of course needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. But it also needs a conflict, and that conflict needs a resolution. For instance, did you hear about that time I went to the football game and sat on the 50-yard line? You’re right. Boring. Who cares? But did you hear about the time I went to the football game? We almost didn’t make it when I realized after we’d paid 20 bucks for parking that we’d forgotten the tickets. So I rushed back home, found the tickets, and rushed back. I convinced the parking lot guy to let me back into my spot and we found our seats right at kickoff. And guess where they were? Right at the 50-yard line!
Interesting, right? Now do you care?
If we can help people see the benefits of learning through the art of making stories, they can shift the rote gathering of facts into something more personal: they can see their place in the world. That will spur action on climate change, or help people understand how a war hundreds of years ago has parallels to today. Our students have proven this in our workshops and brought home the importance of the subject in a very powerful way.
Storytelling is fun. It gets the point across. It tells you who you are and your place in the world. And, with a little luck, we all live happily ever after.