No Problem = No Story

My friend Al said, “isn’t it funny that something you’re told right at the start of a new job can still be stuck in your head years later, while something you’re told today, even if it might be 10x more relevant and meaningful, can enter one ear and go out the other?” We both wondered if how impressionable we are always goes into secular decline – and, more importantly, does it have to?


In Jonathan Gottschall’a book, The Storytelling Animal, he says when there’s no problem, there’s no story. At the beginning of a job, when everything is a mix of new, scary and exciting, we’ve got a million problems. Flash forward to when we have some experience (i.e. we’re more set in our ways), and we think we’ve got a pretty good idea of which problems to focus on.


For a story to stick, it has to attach to a problem and bring about some resolution. When there are infinite problems, stories just emerge from the chaos, but when we start to tune out the noise, we’re more inclined to notice what is or isn’t solving the specific problems we’re most worried about. Kind of like a lint roller that starts off picking up everything but slowly loses its stick so goes our openness to new ideas. Our only option is to rip off that outer layer and get back to rolling up the chaos.  


Clients can be the same way. When things are new, they’re impressionable. But, over time, habits and patterns develop. When a story isn’t clicking, we should look for a novel problem to attach it to. Like the full lint roller, we have to point at the cat hair on their sleeve and show them how to peel off a layer of tape. Who knew lint rollers could be so Homeric?


At the heart of Al’s comment is one final point – what’s the impact of stagnation? Despite the comfort that comes from tamping down the chaos, what’s the opportunity cost of walking past a potential 10x idea?  In order to invest in searching, we have to believe that our time spent searching will justify the cost. To avoid stagnating, we have to invest, and to invest, we have to believe.


Stickiness is about stories and stories are about problems. Nobody wants too much cat hair in their lives, but cat people still need their cats. Life is just full of these types of tradeoffs. For us to learn new stories, and maybe even some 10x ideas, we have to be open to encountering new problems. Our story depends on it.