Narratives can create or destroy

The stories we tell ourselves and others don’t just explain the past and present.  They shape our future. Photo: umjanedoan (Flickr)

Narratives are powerful.  The stories we tell ourselves and others don’t just explain the past and present.  They shape our future.  Indeed, our stories can literally pave the roads we travel not just predicting but creating our life experiences.

The movie What the Bleep Do We Know documents scientific theory behind the power of narratives.  The person who develops an internal narrative that he is a klutz creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.  He imagines in his subconscious that we will, for instance, spill a drink at a dinner party and inevitably he does.

Bud Hunt, an educator I admire, reminded me in his latest blog post that the stories we tell about and to our children can shape their behavior.  His example is the narrative he and his wife have developed for their daughters.  They tell their girls they are responsible enough to help care for their newborn sister and the girls fulfill this narrative.  If Bud and his wife chose instead to tell their daughters, “You can’t handle the responsibility,” they would likely fulfill that narrative, too.  As Bud writes, “Funny how that works.”

Bud’s post is good food for thought for all parents and adults who work with children.  To what extent do our stories empower, inspire, encourage and support the children in our lives?  To what extent do our stories deflate or undermine their aspirations?  To what extent do our stories instill confidence or fear?  Important questions.

I spent time last night with a friend and music therapist who owns the business Creation Songs.  We discussed the physics of resonance.  My friend uses instruments known as singing bowls to amplify and sustain musical frequencies.  The physics behind amplifying and sustaining sound apply to stories, too.

When we adopt a narrative to explain how the world works we have a tendency to look only for evidence that reinforces the existing story.  We often ignore data and experiences that are contradictory to the story we’ve come to believe is true.  The prevailing narrative gains strength, it amplifies, as we add evidence to reinforce the story.  The narrative, as its power grows, begins to drive our expectations, our choices and perceptions of results.  The self-fulfilling prophecy takes shape.

Social narratives have a similar power as personal narratives.  Consider this common narrative:  Government doesn’t work.  How many of us would feel comfortable at a dinner party proclaiming to the group, “I think government works really well.”  What do you imagine would be the reaction of others sitting at the table?  Asserting that government works is so counter to the prevailing narrative that anyone who makes such a claim risks being seen as not “mainstream.”  Most of us like to be mainstream.  That’s why it’s called mainstream.

I can find evidence that government doesn’t work well.  I could tell you about an experience I had with the Colorado Department of Labor in which it took state employees nearly 18 months to straighten out a lost tax payment because their computer system did not report the same data to all departments.  The experience was frustrating and time consuming.  But, that’s really the only negative experience I’ve had with government.

I could tell other stories about government, too.  My trash has been picked up reliably for all of the fifteen years my wife and I have owned a home.  Our water and electricity are reliable, too.  We had a neighborhood disturbance recently.  My neighbors and I called 911.  The dispatcher was competent and a few minutes later the police arrived.  I feel safe where I live.

I feel safe when I travel, too.  And, I’m confident that I’ll receive help when I need it.  I slid off an icy road a few winters ago.  The highway patrol arrived soon to make sure I was safe.  I always feel safe when I travel by plane.  Yes, I find the security process to be annoying.  But, I’m confident the plane I’m on won’t collide with others planes because my friends and neighbors who work for Air Traffic Control here in Longmont, Colorado are watching the skies.

I could continue with more examples.  For instance, I received an excellent education from a state university that continues to serve me well.  And, my hometown of Atwood, Kansas has received many grants to build infrastructure - sewer systems and airport runways - that would otherwise be unaffordable for a small community.  You get the idea.

We don’t often tell the story that government works.  Instead, we tell and retell the story that government doesn’t work.  That becomes our expectation.  And, inevitably, our expectations are fulfilled.

Our state and federal legislatives bodies are currently dysfunctional.  We have no expectations that our legislators will find ways to work together, make tough decisions or make progress on the challenges we face as states or nations.  There is no accountability for legislators to do anything except to fight with each other and take no action.  That’s what we expect them to do.  Indeed, one could argue that our legislative bodies are highly successful.  They fulfill the prophecy of the prevailing narrative.

As my friend said last night, if we keep saying government doesn’t work.  It won’t.

Imagine if a different narrative took hold.  Imagine a narrative in which we tell stories of how government supports our aspirations for our communities, states and country.  What does that narrative sound like?  How might legislators strive to live up to this story?  How might regular citizens like you and me rise to the occasion to reinforce a “government works” narrative?

We need stories to explain the world.  The stories we tell can inspire and instruct.  They can rally communities to work together and help us avoid danger.  Narratives also can destroy.  They can give us permission to ignore real problems and throw up our hands in despair.  Our stories can cultivate hope and action or hopelessness and defeat.

Storytelling is one of the most important things we do and yet is something we give very little thought.  We would all be well served to take stock of our narratives to explain our lives and our world.  Are we telling the stories we want to tell?  Are we paving the roads we want to pave?

*    *     *

John Creighton writes on community life and public leadership at  He can be found on Twitter @johncr8on and on Facebook.

Photo Credit: umjanedoan (Flickr)

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John Creighton

John is a student of community life and public leadership. He does research, writes, speaks and advises public leaders on strategies to activate citizens to take action.

John's professional journey includes twenty years work with public-oriented organizations including the U.S. Bureau of Primary Health Care, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Kettering and C.S. Mott Foundations, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Demos Public Works Project and many Pulitzer prize-winning newspapers.  John is the former director and senior fellow with The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation.  As founder of Conocer, John designed a peer-to-peer learning network for forty-plus primary health care associations around the country.  He began his career working on the staff of two Kansas gubernatorial campaigns.

John is author or more than forty reports and articles. He has been a keynote speaker for groups ranging from the Western Governors Association, Nature Conservancy, National Association of Secretaries of State, Mid America Press Institute, Greater Midwest Association of Primary Health Care Centers, and the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

One of John's joys is the opportunity to interview Americans from all walks of life.  He has had the privilege to sit down with such diverse groups - in such diverse places - as executives in the World Trade Center; community health care workers in South Carolina; AME church members in Atlanta; ranchers in North and South Dakota; union members in Flint, MI; casino workers in Las Vegas; newspaper reporters in Baltimore; media pioneers in California, and countless others in 42 states.

John grew up in a small town on the Great Plains where he learned community is not a concept but a rewarding, and practical, way of life.  John is a graduate of the University of Kansas and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.  He and his wife Joni are raising three children in Longmont, Colorado where John serves on the school board.

Contact John Creighton


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