Where Have You Been?

Talking about our past is key to determining our future.

“The biological (if not the aesthetic) value of remembering is not that it allows one to reminisce about the past but that it permits one to calculate coldly about the unknown future.” — Colin Blakemore, 1976

Everyone loves an origin story.

From the first book of Genesis to Bruce Wayne witnessing his parents’ murder, we find satisfaction in knowing how people got where they did. Origin stories give us a raison d’être — a purpose for being.

Your own origin story and the origin of your company are important aspects of building a cohesive culture. They give your team a sense of where you came from, why you do what you do, what you stand for, and where you’re going.

I’ll give you an example of this in action.

Augie was an unlikely leader. His father died when he was four, his mother remarried, and his stepfather had no use for him. So poor little Augie was sent to live with his grandmother. At the age of 12, he had to give her eulogy.

Augie suffered from a delicate constitution, so he struggled to accompany his uncle on various business trips as he learned the trade. His uncle died, leaving the family business to Augie, who had just turned 18. A young age for such responsibility.

Naturally, his uncle’s business partners and competitors saw a weakness and an opening, so they vied for their control of the fortune. Given Augie’s past, many people were surprised when this neglected and frail youth put up an impressive fight for what was rightfully his.

Bit by bit, he won over many of the employees and stakeholders of the firm, creating allies in his dispute with the one remaining business partner of his uncle, who would not relinquish his claim.

It took Augie the next 13 years — until he was 31 — to ultimately gain victory, as he waged war in courts of law and courts of public opinion, marshalling every resource he had for full control over his family’s empire.

And “empire” is an accurate word to describe the family fortune. For Augie — that is, Augustus — had a internationally-renowned uncle who controlled most of the known world: Uncle Julius Caesar.

“One form of loneliness is to have a memory and no one to share it with.” — Phyllis Rose, 1991

Now, that’s an impressive origin story, right? It pales in comparison to the origin story Augustus eventually created as the Roman Empire flourished under his reign.

Until then, Rome was forever in the shadow of Greece, that bastion of civilization and philosophy. Romans were more engineers than philosophers, creating the infrastructure that allowed cities to thrive (We Classics majors have a saying: “The Greeks had the brains; the Romans built the drains.”). And Greece had its origin story in the Iliad — the classic tale of the Trojans kidnapping Helen, and the vicious dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles.

The secret to every good organization is an origin story.

That epic poem was known for centuries throughout the Mediterranean. Every Greek and Roman citizen knew its content and its significance. And Augustus knew that the secret to every good organization is an origin story.

So, what did he do? He commissioned the poet Virgil to craft a national epic that would speak to Rome’s illustrious beginnings, make the connection between Augustus and the gods, and serve as a common point of pride for all Romans. Thus the Aeneid was born.

The Aeneid was a powerful set of stories that picked up at the close of the Trojan War, followed Aeneas to the shores of Carthage (Rome’s archenemy), Jupiter’s command to found a new city, his marriage to the daughter of King Latinus, and the eventual prophesies of Rome, Augustus, and his ancestors.

In sum, it was a great piece of propaganda for Rome, giving it a founding father (Aeneas) at the same time another founding father (Augustus) was making drastic improvements to the empire.

So, with that bit of history behind us, let’s look at four powers of stories that bring us together.

The Four Powers of Stories

Virgil was able to put into 12 books of the Aeneid the facts (okay, they were presumed facts) about the founding of Rome. With any story, we’re trying to get a point across. That is, we want to convey something about ourselves to someone, whether it’s part of our origins or making them aware of something new. Rather than just blurt out a series of specs or features, if we put a story around them, we make it more likely that someone will retain those facts. Stories carry information for us.

The delays, challenges, and victories that Aeneas experienced would have been relatable to Romans. They probably even knew some of the scenery of his travels. When we tell stories, we do so in a way that captures the essence of a scene, action or person. The better we are at being descriptive, the more likely we are to simulate actual events and make someone else feel something. And when you provoke feelings, you’re easier to relate to. Stories create an emotional connection with others.

If anything, Virgil laid out the national culture of the then-modern Roman Empire: a prophesy as dictated by Jupiter himself, victorious despite many challenges, and embodied in the current leader. The stories we choose to tell over and over create a unique aura about us, showing others what matters to us and why we’re different. This is how culture is set, and culture essentially is the result of stories we tell about ourselves. Stories help create and showcase our culture.

History can seem like a jumble of facts. But put it into a series of harrowing tales and derring-do, all in dactylic hexameter, and you’ve got a blockbuster on your hands. If you’ve ever been bored to tears at a business presentation or a family gathering, you know how unlikely you are to want to attend again. But think of how pleasantly surprised you might be if the presenter or dinner companion told you a series of riveting or raucous stories. Suddenly, getting you to attend another is more likely. Why? Stories provoke action through enjoyment.

So, as you think about the culture you’re creating, consider your origin story. Does it convey one or more of the four powers above? More critically, are you telling the story regularly?

The more we share our history, the more we can build our future together.

This essay originally appeared as part of the Timeless & Timely newsletter. Sign up for weekly updates: timelesstimely.com.

Strategy, comms & leadership advisor, helping build better leaders, communicators & humans. I value #Integrity & #Decency. Newsletter: http://smonty.co/Timeless

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