"What's your story?" is a popular question in the wake of the storytelling dreamboat cruising on all oceans, and one that constantly jumps in our faces in conversations, postings, magazine articles and blogs. The question is highly justified, even if it is most often not as well-intentioned as it should be. The answer is nevertheless framed with the usual phrase: "Good question!
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Those who ask "What is your story?" are usually interested in what is happening in practice and what should be in theory, in the ambitions and goals of the other person, and certainly also in his or her concerns: in other words, in what is now called the official purpose.
The bottom line, however, is that the question means the usual: "What do you want to achieve in your life?" Knowing this is important, interesting and necessary, especially for oneself.
Nevertheless, the answer does nothing for the matter, at least nothing for the original matter. For that, the "What do you want to achieve" story is good, but far too little and therefore not enough.
Everyone has two stories.
You don't just have one story, you have two. But not only you, but also your brand, your company - and yes, even every meaningful fictional story consists of two stories: the outer story and the inner story. The outer story is interesting, usually exciting, often spectacular, and it is carried into the world at all analogue and digital campfires. The outer story arouses interest and brings you attention, the inner story is actually essential for you.
The truth is, even if you are not aware of the inner story or don't really notice it: you have one, your brand, your company has one, and without it, the outer story would not exist at all. The outer story is the framework, the inner story is the image.
Are you confused yet? Good, then I'll add one more.
If someone were to ask Nike founderPhil Knight: "What business are you in?" and his answer was: "In the sporting goods business", the answer would be wrong from a story perspective.
Quite simply, when someone asks me what I do, I don't say I'm a keynote speaker, or an author, or a brand developer, or a consultant, or a story expert, or anything else. I say, "I'm a fire starter." After all, you should always stick to the truth, right?
Where is the difference?
The big difference between Story 1 and Story 2 is: the first is about the plot around the heroine, the second is about her transformation.
The first story conveys the plot, the second the meaning.
The first story says: who, how, what, when, where - the second asks: why? And, to borrow from Viktor Frankl: "He who has a why to live, endures almost every who, how, what, when, where."
Meaning in stories is pricelessly important to the person experiencing it and to all who hear their story. Meaning is another word for relevance. Only what is relevant gets through to us and catches on. This has always been true and is a thousand times truer nowadays, when the constant din of news, chats, posts and pings & pongs clogs our ears, twists our eyes, pecks our brains and hearts anyway, although the cacophonous, omnimedial basic croak even here confuses us twice over again.
On the one hand, do we really believe that something is important just because it pops up? And on the other hand, don't we regularly confuse new with relevant , even though we know better?
Because just because a story is told now, loudly and well, it is not automatically good, important and right; and certainly not relevant, so in sum no story at all. It is only inaudible, it spreads - ordinary story-spreading as the equivalent of manspreading.
This double confusion thus results in a double task for us story insiders and for all those who have understood that sharing stories is one of our most precious human abilities, because - used correctly - it makes us strong as people, brands, companies/NGOs and as a society. We all tell stories, but everyone wants to be heard.
- find our inner story and
- live and share our inner story.
As people, brands, companies/NGOs and as a society.
Because that is exactly what we are missing in our time, when we otherwise have everything rolled around double and triple: the inner story, the meaning. Many of us don't know that this is what they are missing when they ask themselves "What is the reason that individuals don't feel good, although we are all doing so well?" (© Maximilian Glanz/Helmut Dietl)
The second story is hugely lacking!
When people lack their inner story, not only do they themselves suffer from a terrible, insidiously toxic deficiency, but in sum this inflicts massive damage on a society that can lead to disaster.
Don't messages like "Change the world?" and "Make a dent in the universe?" reach you all the time? Two statements that look good in quote postings, sound super good and therefore have their well-deserved stage appearances at all founder festivals. But who would be helped by someone changing the world?
Adolf Hitler also changed the world and made a hefty dent in the universe - one that we still haven't dented. He even knew his inner story, and many millions of people did not survive his outer story. From a story perspective - I am convinced of this - a decisive lever for its evil effect started there in those dark times. The Nazi story met with a multitude of people who lived in their first story and were therefore willing to adopt a second one because it - apparently - nourished or improved their first.
Story works in every direction, the bad guys in our story are the good guys in theirs, in which we are the bad guys.
Does that remind you of anything? Of our time, for example? Donald Trump, AfD, FPÖ, Erdoǧan, Putin, Brexit - you name it? The normal madness - even though almost all of us are doing so well ...?
People who know their inner, their second story, usually also realise very quickly that this story cannot come to life in a fight against others, with envy and resentment, but at best in competition with others; but in the best case, in which the story of the individual nourishes that of the others. Independent people in a strong community in which everyone learns from the others and thus gradually transforms into the best version of themselves. Some even succeed, for others their lifetime is not enough. This, too, is the power of stories that has shaped societies ever since Homo sapiens developed his instructive myths as storytelling humans, as Homo narrans.
Here we have the pasta salad.
Have you seen As Good as It Gets? The great screenplay by Mark Andrus was adapted by director James L. Brooks in 1997 and is one of my all-time favourites. Whenever I come across the film, I watch it again and again. The screenwriter in me sighs admiringly every time: "Wish I had done that ...".
"Besser geht's nicht" tells the story of several transformations, especially that of the compulsively neurotic New York success writer Melvin (Jack Nicholson), who finds his way out of his messed-up misanthropic world through contact with the waitress Carol (Helen Hunt) and, against all prognosis, transforms into the socially tolerable, even lovable guy who is already inside him.
Through his bestselling romance novels, Melvin is perceived as an empathetic, sensitive person; the truth experienced with him is the complete opposite. He says in cynical social diagnosis: "Some of us have great stories ... pretty stories that take place at lakes, with boats and friends and noodle salad. Just none of the people present. But a lot of people - that's their story - good times and noodle salad. And that's what makes it hard. It's not that we have it bad, it's that we're pissed off that so many have it good."
What is it about Melvin that makes him feel uncomfortable, even though it is ...? Does he write about himself like any author so that he can explain the world to himself, but does he still eternally fail to understand it and himself?
But via the interlinked events of the external story, he steadily comes closer to himself, discovers his own lovable core that finally wants to come out, and is finally able to embrace this side.
In addition to Carol, his neighbour Simon and his cute dog Verdell also help him. At the beginning of the film, Melvin throws the dog down the rubbish chute, saying, "This is New York. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere." Later, he loves the dog more than anything and the dog loves him - even more than his owner Simon. Yes, Simon is right when he says: "If you watch someone long enough, you discover their humanity."
Brands also have two stories.
This masterfully created work of art (leading actor Oscars® for Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson, by the way) is also a wonderful example of the "opening image/closing image" technique: In a real story, the first image of the film is the opposite of the last. Not only in terms of the external circumstances, as in "Cinderella", for example, but above all in the consciousness and emotions of the main character.
In "Besser geht's nicht" we see the neurotic Melvin at the beginning, scurrying through the streets of Manhattan, careful not to step on any of the joints between the paving slabs, as he weaves his way through the crowds with the warning cry, "Don't touch! Don't touch!"
He ends up sitting outside the Brooklyn house in the early hours of the morning with Carol, and they are a couple because he is now the opposite of untouchable. Melvin, the misanthrope, transforms into one who craves the closeness of another human being. Carol touched Melvin and thus nudged his second storyline. Now he is the best version of himself for the time being - it doesn't get any better than that ...
Brands also have two stories. The first is about the company itself. It tells of its origins, its history and the transformation of the founding dream into a successful corporation. In this first story, the brand itself is the protagonist and heroine. The second story brings the magnetism of the brand to life for the audience.
Not even admired hero brands like Apple, Nike or Red Bull are the protagonists in their second story. They are not heroes themselves, but mentors - in pure culture. They support their customers in becoming heroes; in realising their dreams; they give courage, show perspectives. The common concern of the mentor and the hero of the story, the common longing, is their strong connection. This creates relevance and generates meaning. From a brand perspective, this is often called purpose.
Two stories - two mountains.
And so we don't find Nike in the sporting goods business, but in the enhancement business, in the support business. Whatever your sporting ambition is - to finally escape your inner bastard by at least a few steps or to win Grand Slams in a row - Nike will support you, with first-class products anyway, but above all with the common spirit of you and Nike: "Just do it. The most important step is always the next step. - Excellent brand stories can sometimes even be experienced first-hand. Hooray!
What that can feel like in the course of a lifetime is described by The New York Times columnist David Brooks in his fabulous book "The Second Mountain". This book was recommended to me by the equally fabulous Harald Katzmair, to whom I will be grateful for the rest of my life. Rarely does a book fit the times as "The Second Mountain" does ours.
It is a (non-fiction) book that reports on the inner upheaval in the life course, an upheaval that follows a phase of massive efforts for the classical material goals of life: Family, wealth, career. This is done earlier for some, later for others, so it does not necessarily have to do with the calculated, usual midlife, but in particular with a psychological, an inner caesura.
The external story has been told, the climb to the summit of success has been achieved - and then? Afterwards, many end up in a valley full of question marks on a thorny cushion on which "Why?" has been embroidered with glowing thread. Then it is time to climb the second mountain, to tread the path to one's true destiny, to where the flag of one's own truth flies at the top.
The bad news: this mountain is probably much steeper than the climb to the first one already was. The good news: the view from the top of Second Mountain is far more uplifting and fulfilling. So: Let's go!
In our disturbing times, more and more people are taking up this task, more offensively than ever before. And many companies are also - fortunately - actively dealing with the question of the usefulness of their actions, beyond the production of goods and services. More and more companies are even being founded for the motive of usefulness. I have the privilege of accompanying some of them in an advisory capacity, and I notice that an inner change is also taking place in the founders or the managing directors, in which they are personally reorienting themselves.
"The Second Mountain" - an enlightening work about the personal hero's journey, which not only leads to the well-known mountain peak visible from afar, where the outer successes are to be had, but which then leads straight back down into the dark valley and now really gets going, via the arduous path up to the second mountain, to where you yourself are at home.
I read the book by all the rules of the art, that is, I ploughed it with my pencil, dog-eared the very most important pages (in truth, I folded the book over altogether at the bottom right) and planted it in my heart.
After I passed on this recommendation as repeated emphatic reading orders, many people approached me about it with great gratitude. This shows me not only the undoubtedly inconceivable genius of my reading command, which is actually stolen from Harald Katzmair, but the deep longing of many for their second story, which is in fact their first, the decisive one. Because the second story really tells us about ourselves. It shows us ourselves where we have grown and it shows us the best way to get there.
Whether you are running a business, a brand, a team, a movement or your life, you are always telling two stories. The first story is about what you achieve, the second, the most important, is about what you realise.
Your first story creates your work, your second story creates impact.
Your first story shows what you have succeeded in, your second story shows whether you have succeeded.
Your first story tells what was, in your second you experience your truth.
In your first story you have realised something that is important to you, in the second story, the important one, you have realised yourself - transformed into yourself.
That's what Story does for and with us. That's why story makes us strong - when we find it, recognise it and share it. Story is telling. Story is being heard. Story is sharing.
So when someone asks you, "What's your story?" and says, "What do you want to become?", there's only one right answer: "The real me." The value, the values you stand for, stand up or sit down like Greta did on Friday. It doesn't get any better than that.
Regardless of whether it's a global corporation, an SME or a heroic lone fighter as an EPU: every person, every brand, every company has and needs at least one archaic value and the - second, inner - story that it activates and around which everything revolves. If you don't have a magnetic value as a living theme, there is only one other thing left: the price, the struggle, the question mark.
So to all those who say, "It doesn't apply to me and it certainly doesn't apply to my brand!", I would like to recommend the words that my grandmother, old Story Dudette, tattooed on the deep valley between her two unmissable mountains: "No Story. No Glory."