A slightly deeper look at Storytelling

While doing my masters degree at Schumacher College, I took part in the Transition Towns movement in Totnes, and spent time with the Transition Tales team, a small and pioneering team who formed part of Transition Towns Totnes, the first Transition Town in the world. One of the aims of this project is to raise awareness within Primary and Secondary School children of the transition solution of community led response to the twin challenges of Peak Oil and Climate Change by creating positive stories. This is done in partnership with local schools in the Totnes area, either as part of class time, or in after-school clubs.

I have written up the history of Transition Tales, how they formed, and how they worked with schools. You can read my essay here which was also published in the on-line journal Energy Bulletin.

Maria and myself with Clarence José de Matos

Both Maria and I have a deep interest in education, and yesterday we visited her old teacher and friend Clarence José de Matos (co-author of the book História do Brasil) who had invited Maria to give some talks to sixth form students about the future of work and careers at the school where he teaches history.

This reminded me a lot of when I was working at BT Laboratories in their Human Factors Unit doing cutting-edge work on user-centered design which nowadays is referred to as design thinking. As a young member of the innovations division which was home to BT’s futurologists, we used to visit schools with a number of other major companies to do presentations on technology and IT to help develop an interest in science in teenagers.

Old school virtual reality kit

I used to do a presentation using a virtual reality headset and glove (technology which still hasn’t taken off just yet) but the one problem was that the glove was starting to wear out. There was one demo I did in front of teachers where the middle finger got stuck due to a worn contact. Everyone could see what the one pupil trying the kit could see on a large computer display, and to my desperate embarrassment all that the disembodied hand would do is “show the finger”. The teenagers of course all thought that this was hilarious but I was dying a death at the time.

I also appeared some years later, maybe around 1999 or 2000 I think on a schools television programme on Channel 4 called My Brilliant Career. My own career was taking off in the dazzlingly sexy world of mobile internet, and I was there as one of the young web wizards talking about wap phones. This was before java phones and before Apple stampeded into the mobile and music industries. It’s quite funny to watch now, given how fast the industry has changed.

Here is another video from around the same time, March 2000 when I was on Sky News discussing the future of music on mobile phones. Again it is quite funny to see how basic the technology was and our vision of what the future would hold.

As I watch these videos, it does feel to me that Brazil is experiencing this same sense of excitement and vibrancy that we were experiencing back in the mid 90s and early 2000s. There is though one thorn in the size of Brazil, and that is education.

While at the two schools yesterday it was interesting to see all the students with the latest ipads and other tablets. Some were listening to music on their ipods, and others regularly checked their smart phones for messages (one or two surreptitiously) throughout Maria’s class. This was one of the highest quality private schools in São Paulo. Superficially all looked well and perhaps these classes would contain one or two future Brazilian web wizards from the new generation.

As we were leaving Clarence revealed one shocking story to us. The students had been preparing for their mock exams prior to entering university. One of the exams had included a written text which the students had had to read and then answer questions. But many had complained that the text was too long for them. How long do you think this text was?

I will tell you. Seven lines long.

So here we have a top private school with students who are unable to analyse a piece of text seven lines long. So on the one hand we have writers and journalists and gurus discussing story telling but on the other hand we have to ask ourselves not just in Brazil but around the world what are we actually teaching our children and are they becoming too reliant on technology and losing vital skills in literacy? In the UK many employers are now having to give new recruits remedial lessons in English so this is not just a problem affecting Brazil (although it does have a chronic issue with education which is now coming up to bite it on the rear as it emerges as a new economy but has a phenomenal lack of qualified employees with the requisite skills needed).

That’s the bad news. The interesting and much more positive news was that both Maria and I found that the students really did engage with her presentations which discussed how sustainability and the search for prosperity as opposed to growth are going to be challenges which these young people will face when they enter the world of work.

Maria began her talks, as she often does, with a mediation on the Blue Marble, the first photo taken of the earth from space. She always asks people to reflect on their own feelings and thoughts on looking at this picture.

The reflections of the students were fascinating, many talking about seeing their hopes and dreams for the future. Adults can often be much more pessimistic it seems, only seeing limitations and fears for the future. Unlike my generation, these students also have classes and an awareness of sustainability. One of the huger challenges is the fact that we are living on a finite planet but our mental economic models are ones of unlimited growth. Maria showed my Consumed by Consumption slide and far from reacting against this slide, the students engaged and talked about conscious consumption and taking care of the planet instead.

This is encouraging given how intense the advertising is in Brazil (as of course it is everywhere). Advertising is an area of business which has always embraced storytelling and mythology, where each advert casts the product as the hero vanquishing what ever challenge we face in our sad and empty unfulfilled lives where everyone is having more fun and sex than us because they are using Brand X. Here is one current car advert running in Brazil. You do not need to speak Portuguese to understand the message. You consumer, you person of zero worth, are so literally nothing without a 2013 Fiat Brava that you will fade away unless you buy one.

Here is a very different advert also currently showing, Johnny Walker Keep Walking.

This is dramatic for Brazilians since it features the legend of the giant, said to be sleeping in the mountain Pão de Açúcar in Rio de Janeiro. This giant of course, which features in the Brazilian national anthem, represents the giant Brazil itself. Brazilians for decades if not centuries have always told themselves that Brazil was the country of the future, but no longer, the day has come when Brazil is now the country of today.

Before I tie all of these threads together, there is one final slide I wish to show you, which comes from Rob Hopkins, one of the founders of Transition Towns. I have presented this slide many times to business students and at other lectures, and it always creates a huge amount of debate. This slide collates many different studies on the stories we tell ourselves about the future, and shows that in general people tell themselves one of four different stories.

Slide credit: Rob Hopkins

The four scenarios are

  • Techno-fantasy: Technology will solve our problems and allow us to continue to grow infinitely
  • Green-tech stability: Green technologies will enable to continue our current levels of consumption
  • Earth Stewardship: Rather than consumers of the earth’s resources, we become guardians of the earth and learn to lower our consumption to sustainable levels
  • Mad Max Collapse: We descend into chaos so that our world becomes like that depicted in the film Mad Max (or perhaps a more current analogy would be The Hunger Games)

Before we begin to tell other people stories, I do feel that we have to explore the stories we tell ourselves. This for me is where businesses and organisations can begin to learn to use story telling at a much deeper level. If you read my report on Transition Tales, it shows how careful we have to be in the stories we tell others, so as not to scare people into a negative reaction, a reaction which can spiral into even more levels of consumption as we unconsciously seek to comfort ourselves and become even more materialistic.

You may not find the videos of me interesting, but it is an interesting historical record I have of myself, where I was living in a techno world with no mindfulness of sustainability. My world changed and my stories transformed completely, but it is by no means a simple process to go through this, and I am therefore extremely sensitive to the needs, emotions and psyches of others when I approach this whole topic.

Many articles on story telling discuss the Hero’s Journey as brilliantly described by the late Joseph Campbell, perhaps one of our greatest academics of mythology.

Credit: buildingheros.org

This epic cycles has been much used by writers and artists, the most famous example being Star Wars. This diagram above shows an interesting distinction between our normal reality and the venturing into lands of supernatural wonder where supernatural forces are to be overcome. There is much in common with the notion of liminality in rituals which are designed to break down all sense of order and meaning, identity and time, out of which the initiate emerges.

I would consider myself to have experienced something akin to the liminal state, both spontaneously and also in controlled settings, both in India when I was studying yoga, meditation and mindfulness, and during my time in the Amazon rainforest. I have had many experiences which are not easily spoken about, especially as it is still not common in western society to explore indigenous cultures and practices, although we are maturing as a society I feel. However, I went though a huge series of experiences starting in 2001, and this led me to completely question my current world views and mental models of reality.

Studying the dynamic growth of the tree with Margaret Colquhoun at Schumacher College

The outcome of all of this was me deciding to spend a year, starting in 2009 doing my masters degree at Schumacher College. This is one of the most advanced learning institutions in the world, the reason being that it enables the student to fully explore and enquire about the world not just from an intellectual thinking point of view, using abstract language, symbols and models, but from a point of view which also embraces sensing, feeling and intuition. The environment for the masters student is one of full immersion and phenomenal intensity, and because of this students are fully supported emotionally since a large component of the teaching can result in a break down of previously held mechanistic convictions of the world before one enters into a new relationship with the world, where relationship, process and meaning are seen as more primary than solid material and subject-object separation.

Schumacher College

So here we come full circle. On Thursday I will be giving an evening talk at Sustentare Business School titled Making Sense in a Complex World. I am now helping other people start their learning journeys, and I will be following my talk with a two-day module on understanding chaos and complexity and how this can help inform and develop business strategy. The next step is to actually take business students to Schumacher College in March where they can experience the life-changing teaching for themselves, discussing the future of enterprises. These students will then come back to Brazil where the teachings will be integrated and perhaps developed further.

The Brazilian giant has woken up, and now it is time not only for the giant to walk but run, fly and soar. I do not see Brazil as having challenges any worse than any other country. We are all interconnected and the challenges of one country and the challenges we all face. We need to really embrace story telling, not now just to sell more useless plastic junk, or electronic gear which will be thrown away within months as the latest shiny thing which promises to make our lives better is launched. The students we spoke to at Brazil are trying to make sense of their lives, and now it is time for us all to step up to the challenge. I have my own stories of the past and ones I tell myself about the future. How about you?

Read more

Enterprising Futures: A new partnership between Sustentare and Schumacher College

Making Sense in a Complex World

Guest Blog: Alan Moore – The Radical Re-Design of Business

I was going to continue this article with a discussion of hermeneutics, phenomenology and the dynamics of meaning in texts, but the article was becoming too long. So for now I will just include this article about the lack of Portuguese t-shirts in Brazil. It makes a deeper point about the dynamics of meaning in language (or rather I can sense where I could have taken this article, but just kept it humorous) so at some point I will write a follow up article on these themes in order to go deeper still into meaning, language and dynamic aspects to texts.

Onde estão as camisetas escritas em português? (Where are all the t-shirts written in Portuguese?) This article is written in both English and Portuguese.

5 responses to “A slightly deeper look at Storytelling

  1. Pingback: Making Sense in a Complex World – The Bibliography « The Transition of Consciousness·

  2. Pingback: Making Sense in a Complex World – References « The Transition of Consciousness·

  3. Pingback: Science, Intuition and Gaia: Stephan Harding’s Animate Earth, 2nd Edition « The Transition of Consciousness·

  4. Pingback: The saying of what you meant to say – a deeper look at Storytelling « The Transition of Consciousness·

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