Are you sitting comfortably…
While visiting NASA I bought a book “How NASA builds teams” by Charlie Pellerin. I was struck by the fact the author was the project manager of the team which launched the Hubble Space Telescope with its flawed mirror. And also the man who managed the project which launched the correction mission. I thought this experience must surely have delivered some enlightenment. Youtube has an interview here.
One part of the book has had a profound effect on me: the discussion of the ‘story lines’ we believe about ourselves and others. In the book Charlie Pellerin uses this idea to discusses the shared beliefs that one team holds about another team, and how these beliefs can hinder or help partnerships. But, it is not the role of this idea in industrial relations or project management which interests me.
Gore Vidal has expressed the view that ‘the story’ is the fundamental mode of human knowledge. When I first heard this I thought it was nonsense, but now I firmly believe it to be true. Vidal spoke about how for many millennia before written texts, humans told each other stories in which were embedded a mixture of factual and cultural knowledge. Indeed entire cultures would once have been transmitted orally as stories. As a result, we have evolved to both remember even long stories, and to grasp their ‘the gist’. Consider how easy it is to remember long stories where each step follows easily from the preceding step. In contrast, lists of un-connected facts are almost un-memorisable.
The concept of ‘story as mode of knowledge‘ is very appropriate to scientific explanations, where out of a mountain of data we want to find out ‘what’s happening’ – what is the (hopefully simple) ‘story’ which makes sense of all the facts. Once we know ‘the story’, we feel that we understand the phenomenon and the data then just become a story-teller’s embellishments.
At Universities’, the basic plan for communication is really nothing more than collective story-telling: we call the key events ‘lectures’. But students ache for lecturers who will tell them ‘the story’ that makes sense of the facts of their particular subject. A dull lecturer is one who recites the facts but omits the connecting narrative.
And in our own lives, the idea that ‘something is happening’ is essential for mental health. It is important to believe that our lives are part of an evolving narrative – a bigger story. Fracturing that belief can be personally devastating, and not knowing the significance of the events of one’s life can lead to depression and even death. In contrast, belief that the story of our life is meaningful can transform a person’s experience of even objectively difficult circumstances.
So I think Charlie Pellerin, is onto something in seeking to understand and challenge the stories we believe about ourself and others. So good luck to him. The book caused me to reflect on my own life and make me wonder: What is the story line that ‘makes sense’ of my life? Like most people, I feel too busy just living my life to pause to consider that question. But I hope it’s a good story, and that, despite all the odds, it has a happy ending. Sweet dreams.