The Paradoxical Power of Narrative

I love paradox. Paradox is fertile ground for generating new insight and progress. As we think about what we as human beings want in our brief journey through this world, there’s a core paradox that can be a challenge for all of us. The paradox

We all want to belong. None of us want to feel excluded, none of us want to feel like we’re “outsiders.” That need to belong is ever expanding. Sure, we may feel like we belong in our family, but if we feel excluded or isolated from our local community, we’re likely to feel frustrated and alone. And, it doesn’t stop with our community; we all want to feel a part of our broader communities. There’s nothing more frustrating than feeling that our community is excluded or isolated from the countries we live in. Taking it yet one more step, no one wants to feel that their country stands alone from the rest of the world – we all want to be part of something bigger, something much bigger.

Of course, if we do feel excluded or isolated, we seek comfort in the belief that the problem is with “them,” not with “us.” We’re the victims and we need to mobilize to resist the bad folks who are excluding us. We become prey to an “us vs. them” view of the world. That view may help us to cope with our perceived reality, but it doesn’t reduce our unmet need to belong to something bigger.

So, we all want to belong. But here’s the paradox: at the same time we all want to be different. We all sense that we’re unique human beings with a distinctive set of capabilities and feel great frustration if we’re lumped together with everyone else in a nameless mass where everyone is viewed as exactly the same. We don’t want to be a cog in a machine or an anonymous face in the crowd. We want to be recognized and celebrated for who we are and for what makes us different. We want to stand out and not be part of the crowd.

And we don’t want to just be different, we want to make a difference. We want to contribute to the broader community that we are a part of in a way that is unique to us. We want people to look back and say that we did something meaningful that reflected our unique capabilities. Again, we don’t just want to be a cog in a machine, doing something that anyone could do.

There you have it. Isn’t this a wonderful paradox? We all want to belong, but we all want to be different. I can just hear the rationalists among us getting frustrated and saying “you’ve got to choose. You can either belong or you can be different but you can’t do both.”

Resolving the paradox Well, yes, you can do both. In fact, you need to do both. Here’s the thing. We live in a world that’s more and more rapidly changing and where we all experience mounting performance pressure, as individuals and as groups. I call it The Big Shift.

In that kind of world, you can’t just stand still. You need to be accelerating improvement of your performance. And you can’t stand alone. No matter how smart and accomplished you are, you’ll get better faster as part of a broader group, a group that will challenge you to get better but also be there to support you when you confront the inevitable frustrations and failures that can be discouraging. So, you need to belong, and the larger the community you belong to, the more you’ll be able to tap into the network effects and increasing returns that will help you to get better faster (although the most powerful way to learn faster as part of a larger and larger group is to adopt the cellular structure of “creation spaces”, but that’s a whole other topic). You need to belong to get better faster.

It’s not just you who needs to get better faster. Communities need to get better faster as well. And the best way for them to get better faster is to cultivate diversity. Rather than trying to get everyone to fit the same mold, they need to embrace cultures that encourage everyone to be unique and contribute unique perspectives and capabilities to the performance challenges they are facing. There’s more and more evidence that diversity helps larger groups achieve more creative outcomes and improve performance. So, the best way to belong and to make a contribution is to be different.

Now, admittedly this is a big shift from where we are today. We’re segmenting into communities that value conformity. If you want to be a part of the community, you need to learn how to “fit in.” At one level, this is understandable – we have a natural human tendency when we experience pressure to connect with others like us. But that’s not what’s going to help us to move from a defensive mindset to an opportunity-driven mindset.

The role of narrative

So, how do we get from here to there? Well, this is where I think narrative can play a powerful role. As many of you know, I’ve written extensively about a concept of narrative that’s very different from the way it’s used in most discussions today. For those who haven’t been following this, I gave an opening salvo almost seven years ago here and I have more than 14 other posts here at Edge Perspectives exploring various dimensions of narrative the way I define it and why I believe it has so much power.

In brief, I believe narratives are open-ended, there is no resolution – there’s some kind of significant opportunity or threat out in the future and it’s not at all clear whether or not it will be achieved. The resolution of the narrative hinges on those it is addressed to – it’s a call to action that says that each of you can make a difference, each of you needs to make a difference, without you, this will not be achieved. For reasons that I’ve developed elsewhere, I believe that opportunity based narratives (rather than threat based narratives) have the greatest ability to help us achieve more of our potential.

Opportunity narratives have the ability to bring us together by emphasizing that any of us individually will not be able to address the full opportunity that lies ahead. If we’re inspired by the opportunity, we begin to feel a connection to others who are also inspired by this same opportunity and we’re motivated to build on that connection to find ways to come together and collaborate in our efforts to address the opportunity. As we work together, we develop deep, trust-based relationships with others since we’re all motivated by the same opportunity. We feel more and more connected with those who share our commitment.

The most powerful opportunity narratives are those that frame an opportunity that’s really big and that requires the collaboration of many across the globe. Opportunity narratives can help to coalesce local communities, regions and even countries, but some opportunities span beyond national borders and require collaboration of a growing number of people everywhere.

The challenge with opportunity narratives is to strike an effective balance between specificity and openness. On the one hand, the opportunity needs to be tangible enough to be credible and inspiring. If it’s too vague, it’s hard to motivate people and support effective collaboration. Even if you can motivate people, you run the growing risk of fragmentation as everyone begins to develop a different view of what the opportunity really is.

On the other hand, if it’s a really big opportunity, it needs to be open enough to invite lots of local initiatives that can begin to try new approaches and learn what’s most effective in targeting the opportunity. The ultimate power of these kinds of narratives is that they invite experimentation and exploration to discover how to achieve better and better results. And, most importantly, they provide space for each of us to express our unique individuality and perspectives so that we can unleash the diversity that will help us to learn faster together and accelerate performance improvement.

In this way, opportunity based narratives embrace the paradox that I introduced above. We all have a desire to belong but we also have a desire to make a unique difference. These narratives create a context to cultivate a sense of belonging but they also call on us to make a unique difference.

So, what are examples of these kinds of expansive opportunity narratives? We actually have very few today – that’s one of the reasons that we’re seeing more and more evidence of fragmentation and conformity as we fall prey to threat-based narratives that focus on enemies that are threatening our way of life and our well-being. We certainly have opportunity based narratives around aspirations like space travel or curing disease but these are narrowly focused in terms of who can actively participate (other than perhaps contributing some money to those who are participating).

What’s an opportunity based narrative that can invite active participation from more and more people around the world? I don’t have an answer – yet – and I would welcome help in thinking about what such a narrative might look like. My instinct is that it has something to do with fostering communities (both physical and virtual) that will help all of us to cultivate our unique individuality and bring us together in ways that will make it possible for us to achieve more and more of our unique potential.

Bottom line The best way to belong is to make a contribution. The best way to make a contribution is to belong. Narratives can help us to achieve both.


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