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“What's the best way to give myself an ulcer?”
If you asked this question to the average doctor in 1983, he would tell you that the easiest way would be to find a highly stressful job. (He would probably also admit you to the nearest mental hospital just for asking this question.)
For years, the prevailing wisdom was that "stress" caused ulcers. But in a remote corner of Australia, an obscure doctor named Dr. Barry Marshall thought he had found the true reason. That it was bacteria named H. pylori that caused ulcers. (Don't look, but all of us have H. pylori in our gut. But in some, this leads to ulcers.)
No one paid attention to his attempts at publishing papers on the topic. As Marshall put it,"to gastroenterologists, the concept of a germ causing ulcers was like saying that the Earth is flat."
In the end, one fine day, Marshall made a heady broth of concentrated H.pylori and drank it up. Soon enough, he developed an ulcer. And cured himself with a simple course of antibiotics.
This story got picked up around the world. There were headlines about the mad Aussie doctor who gave himself an ulcer. One thing led to another and in 2005, Marshall shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine with his colleague. More importantly, patients around the world have been spared painful surgery and useless treatment. He managed to replace the status quo.
The power of the Story
Now, that was an extraordinary story, wasn't it? Drama, a high purpose, the ultimate 'skin-in-the-game' scientific experiment. Chances are you won't forget this story soon.
There's a reason for it: our brain is a sucker for stories. For various evolutionary reasons, humans have become story-telling machines. We see stars, light years apart, and tie them into mythical figures. We hear about patterns in Big Data and believe that beer cans move off the shelves when paired with diapers.
Stories provide coherence. They help us simplify and make sense of a crazy, unpredictable world. They hack into our attention, turning us into babies looking at shiny objects.
But then we do something silly: we forget all about the power of the Story.
Make Love (via Stories), not War (via Bullet Points)
In recent times, many professionals have been taught 'Storytelling'. A way to engage audiences, raise money from investors, and (gulp!) make presentations more palatable. Great, so far. The problem is that we don't teach ourselves to spot stories around us. The little legends, the failures worth retelling, the tiny tales of triumph. It's all right if they don't lead to Nobel Prizes. But they help build culture, they help transmit the idea of "this is how it's done here", and they help pass on signals.
The big advantage of local stories is that they'll have more resonance and authenticity. However, we tend to overlook them in favour of the grand, but ultimately unrelatable story.
Learn to capture these little stories around you. Find the narrative that connects the dots in your own life and career. Learn to tell those stories well. Then, to illustrate how to break the status quo, you won't need to tell the story of a man from Australia.
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