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Elizabeth Holmes, Theranos, and the Power of Stories

We’ve all heard the story of entrepreneurial superkind Elizabeth Holmes and her revolutionary healthcare company Theranos… which turned out to be a major scam.

jonwu.eth recently published a little anecdote that shows how much of the power of storytelling played a role in this debacle.

He got offered a job at Theranos after it was already public knowledge that this company was a big fraud—and yet his professor from Harvard Business School not just introduced him to Theranos, but strongly recommended that he’d take the job.

He describes the first encounter he had with Elizabeth Holmes as follows.

She walked in the room, fully confident, not defensive at all, and fully owning her mistakes… at least that’s the impression she made, and she pretended that her mistakes weren’t what the public perception was, but simply that she rushed to market too quickly.

Apparently she offered him a job and told him that she needs someone who believes in her and can help her to become the CEO she knew she could be. Very compelling. She made him feel special, as if she’d see something great and amazing within him.

If you think of personality falling on a spectrum:
One side being fully authentic
The other being fully anufactured
The spectrum curves around like a horseshoe, such that the ends look remrkably similar.
For the life of me I could not tell which end she fell on.

jonwu.eth

In the end, he didn’t accept the job, but he took away three insights. The other two, I suggest you read for yourself because the entire twitter thread is well worth reading (and literally just takes a minute), but for the purpose of this post, I want to focus on the final one, which is about the power of stories:

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Even the Meaningless Can Be Meaningful in Story

Few people would think that a visit to McDonalds or Starbucks deserved to be called a meaningful event. But events are only meaningful in the context of the person experiencing and telling them.

But how about this? You’re a little girl in Russia, just shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, you’ve experienced food shortages, and then, one day, the first McDonalds opens. That iconic brand you’ve heard about in movies and on TV. It’s a big deal.

Getting some fries, a milkshake and a burger was a big deal—in fact, for many people it was the equivalent of a week’s worth of wages.

And you’d stand in line for three hours waiting for your turn.

Imagine that. You can almost sense the excitement people felt, trying something for the very first time that you’ve never had, and yet that was one of the most popular “restaurants” in the world.

I personally don’t eat that crap—but I totally can imagine what it must have felt like back in those days. Eugenia Kuyda shared this story in an episode of Lex Fridman’s podcast, and it was just a beautiful example of even the most hollow and mundane experiences can make for deeply emotional and meaningful stories.

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Esther Perel on the Power of Stories

Esther Perel shared a great video on the power of stories—the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, the stories we tell others, and what role they play in our life.

What are the stories that embolden us?

What are the stories that entrap you?

My favorite part is really the takehome exercise towards the end of the video, which I’ve also written up at the bottom of this post.

You’ll find that sometimes a story might both embolden you in some situations, and entrap you in others.

  • 3:40 Our stories help us connect to others. They help us understand our past. Who we were then, who we are now, and who we could become in the future.
  • Love is a story. Heartbreak is a story. Our memories are stories.
  • Stories bring the world to us through bedtime stories.
  • Do you remember childhood stories that you wanted to hear again and again?
  • Stories find us while we get lost in them.
  • We tell stories to introduce ourselves to other people.
  • We like to tell stories of artists we’ve discovered. Social media is basically just stories, often very intimate ones.
  • Sometimes, stories supersede the truth.
  • Have you ever caught yourself making unfair assumptions about someone else? Unfair assumptions are a story
  • Do you often find yourself explaining why you are the way you are to someone who interprets your story as an excuse?
  • Ask yourself: What if you’re actually trapped in your own story?
  • Whether a story is true or not—does it serve you?
  • Example of mini-stories we use to justify our own behavior:
    • Because I’m so busy, I’m always late.
    • Because my brother stole my toys, I can steal from others.
    • Because I’m independent, I don’t need anybody else.
  • the stories we tell ourselves are often reminders and act as protection and prevention, they were often adaptive responses to a traumatic life plot. we came up with our stories for some reason.
  • our own narratives banish our helplessness and make us able and strong
  • if a date is late, we might immediately default to our story that “i’m not important”, but this sometimes prevents us from experiencing reality
  • writing new stories isn’t just about letting go of the heroes story that has led us to where we are now, it’s also about developing a new hero, to get us on a new journey
  • we can add to our story, edit it, refine it, lead it. it’s an creative act of agency
  • 15:15 How do you know when you’re trapped in a story?
  • For the first therapy session Esther conducts with a client, she always has 2 goals:
    • establish a connection, build an alliance
    • have the person come in with one story, and leave with the potential of another stories (or at the very least, pieces that have the potential for another story) – the potential for transformation. From being stuck, to movement, from repetition to change.
  • we are not in control of how life unfolds, but we have agency about how we structure and interpret it.
  • new interpretations give us options and liberate us, they can create hope and possibility for change

Takehome exercise to create new stories, and edit old ones

At 21 minutes into the video, Esther Perel then shares a takehome exercise. She provides a couple of prompts, questions to answer on your own:

  • How does anxiety talk to you? What does it say? How does say it? What does it want you to believe? How does it influence your interaction with others? How does it block you?
  • What do you say to yourself, when you want permission to try something new? How does that voice speak to you?
  • What is the dialogue between the part of you that fears the worst and the part of you that dreams about more? What’s the dialogue between the constriction and the expansion, between the fear and the boldness?
  • What do you want to say to the person who still looks at you with the eyes of the past and doesn’t see all the changes you’ve made? We all can encounter this—we meet people and they still talk to you as if you’re the 16 year old they once knew, even when you’re 45 now.
  • If you wrote the story of your life up to this point, what would the chapters be named? These chapters might be connected to the people who were closest to you, or they might relate to economic circumstances, or health, or simply chronologically.
  • If you wrote the story of your future, what would the chapters be named?

To me, this is a wonderful exercise, and well worth doing. In fact, you might look at this and think: Oh, that’s a good idea, I’ll do that sometime. I’d encourage you to do it right now, even if you have to squeeze it into five minutes, rather than taking a full hour to do it sometime later. (You’ll most likely won’t get around to it, even if you have the sincere intent to do so—but if you take 5 minutes right now, you’ll still get 80% of the benefit of doing the exercise)

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Storytelling master Robert McKee shared how he thinks about finding a characters inner flaw. Giving your main characters a flaw, even if it’s the protagonist and hero of the story, is key to making the character more relatable and believable. You give your character dimension through contradiction. (Otherwise, you end up with ridiculously dumb characters like the kind you find in Wonderwoman 1984).

His advice is simple: Look for

Step 1: Define what a flaw is? Now obvious, a flaw is a negative trait, but you want to be more specific here. One example is a person that’s unable to love—that’s an obvious flaw. But another example of a flaw is a person that loves so fully, so completely, and so easily that it renders them unable to live a productive life. That too can be a flaw. Which is why you want to define the nature of the flaw in the context of your story.

Step 2: List the positive qualities of your character. And then look at each of these qualities and ask yourself: What’s the opposite of that? For example, if the character is very intelligent and smart, then ask yourself: In what are of their life do they behave really stupid? What’s their blindspot? No matter what their IQ is, this one thing they just don’t understand and can’t quite wrap their head around. Name that. That can be your characters flaw.

Now this doesn’t work for every character and every positive quality, but when you make the list of positive qualities, and their opposites, you will come across some where you find they really could be in the nature of this character.

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“we do not wish to escape life but to find life, to use our minds in fresh, experimental ways, to flex our emotions, to enjoy, to learn, to add depth to our days”

Robert McKee, Story

When I read these words, they resonated the way deep and obvious truths resonate when you see them clearly for the first time.

For the longest time, I had this underlying notion that a good part of our craving for story is rooted in that desire to escape our current reality. But this, what Robert McKee addressed here, hits the nail on the head so much more.

Later he elaborates again on this:

To retreat behind the notion that the audience simply wants to dump its troubles at the door and escape reality is a cowardly abandonment of the artist’s responsibility. Story isn’t a flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence.

McKee, Robert. Story (p. 12).

Stories are this magical vehicle that takes our minds, but even more importantly our souls to a different place that we can’t quite reach by other means.

He also stresses the importance of honest, powerful storytelling:

as Aristotle observed twenty-three hundred years ago, when storytelling goes bad, the result is decadence. Flawed and false storytelling is forced to substitute spectacle for substance, trickery for truth. Weak stories, desperate to hold audience attention, degenerate into multimillion-dollar razzle-dazzle demo reels. In Hollywood imagery becomes more and more extravagant, in Europe more and more decorative. The behavior of actors becomes more and more histrionic, more and more lewd, more and more violent. Music and sound effects become increasingly tumultuous. The total effect transudes into the grotesque. A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling. When society repeatedly experiences glossy, hollowed-out, pseudo-stories, it degenerates. We need true satires and tragedies, dramas and comedies that shine a clean light into the dingy corners of the human psyche and society.

Robert McKee, Story

While personally I think that there still is plenty of great storytelling around (but who am I to judge?), there also is a lot of real bad, flat storytelling around. Wonderwoman 1984 anyone? It’s bad from minute 1, and downhill from thereon. Where can you find depth in that movie? Or truth?

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One of the best pieces of storytelling in movies I’ve recently seen is the movie White Tiger.

Director Ramin Bahrani spoke about the creation process of the movie.

There were two interesting things about the creative process in there that stood out to me:

The movie is based on the book by Aravind Adiga, and Ramin and Aravind have been friends who always talked about movies in college. Ramin actually read early drafts of the book before it came out, and Aravind has often been giving feedback on scripts Ramin worked on. So there’s a long history of the two of them jamming on stories together already, which is always something that I find beautiful.

When making a book into a movie, how do you decide what to keep and what to discard?

[Minute 4:40 in the video] This was one of the hardest parts of making this movie for Ramin. He liked the book so much that at first he just included everything he likes from the book and ended up with a 200-page script. A movie script is normally 90-120 pages long, so what followed was a painful process of cutting out parts of the story.

On team: “I don’t want them to just execute my vision. I want them to bring something to it, to make it more.”

[Minute 6:50 in the video] Trust your team. Typically non-Indians shooting movies in India bring a big crew with them, but he didn’t want to do this. He brought around five people of his own crew with him, and the rest of the team was Indian. His crew was 99% Indian. Passionate, dedicated, talented people.

Arrive with a detailed plan, but then change everything in the moment

[Minute 10:30 in the video] “The production allowed me to do what I really want, which is freedom on set. To be loose on set. I like to show up with a very detailed plan. I’m hyper-organized. And I have a very clear plan. But then I always show up and want to change everything. Because I see things in that moment that inspire me, and I’m challenging my actors to do whatever they want to do, not what I want them to do. And that means freedom. And the crew here gave me that […]”

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The 8 stages of story design by Robert McKee

According to Robert McKee, there are 8 essential stages every story moves through:

  1. Target audience = A meaningful emotional effect
  2. Subject matter = Balance
  3. Inciting Incidence = Imbalance
  4. Object of desire = Need
  5. First action = Tactical choice
  6. Reaction = Violation of expectation
  7. Crisis choice = Insight
  8. Climactic reaction = closure

He lays these 8 stages of story design out clearly in his book Storynomics. Here’s my summary:

Target audience = A meaningful emotional effect

Who is your audience? And how will the story make them feel and think?

Subject matter = Balance

What value is the protagonist’s life anchored in? What time, and in which physical and social world does he live in? While there might be minor ups and downs, overall the value it’s balanced, more or less neutral, it all evens out.

Inciting incident = Imbalance

What unforeseen incident upsets the balance of the core character’s life? It’s a radical change that puts the character under pressure. It can be a turn for the good or bad.

The object of desire = An unfulfilled need

How does the core character want to get his life back in balance? It’s the object of desire that the core character believes will help him accomplish this. The object of desire can be, but doesn’t have to be an actual physical object.

The first action = Tactical choice

What does the core character do to rebalance his life? How does he act in order to get a reaction from his world that will get him (or at least move him closer to) his object of desire?

The first reaction = The violation of expectation

What unforeseen antagonistic forces block the protagonist’s efforts? What’s the gap that cracked open between what he thought would happen and what did happen? How does this reaction move the protagonist farther from his goal?

The crisis choice = Insight

What does the protagonist learn from the first reaction? Now that he’s in even greater jeopardy of losing his object of desire, what second action does he choose? Note that this second action must be more difficult and more risky than the first action, but it’s the action that the protagonist believes gives him the best chances of getting him what he wants.

Climactic reaction = Closure

What climactic reaction happens that grants the protagonist his object of desire? How does it restore the core character’s life to balance, and end the story?

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What’s the core value of your story?

Every story has a core value, according to Robert McKee. With value, we do mean positive character qualities of a person like love, generosity, etc. In the context of storytelling, a core value is about the positive and negative charge of a binary:

  • truth / lie
  • love / hate
  • generosit / selfishness
  • hard work / laziness
  • loyalty / betrayal
  • life / death
  • courage / cowardice
  • hope / despair
  • meaningfulness / meaninglessness
  • maturity / immaturity
  • justice / injustice
  • any quality of human experience that can shift charge dynamically from positive to negative and back again

A telling may incorporate any number, variety, and combination of values, but it anchors its content in one irreplaceable binary—the story’s core value. This value determines a story’s fundamental meaning and emotion.

Robert McKee, Storynomics

He then proceeds to share some examples:

Suppose a story’s core value is love/hate. How and why a person moves from love to hate or from hate to love gives the events meaning. As the story moves back and forth between negative and positive charges, emotions flow, not only in the characters but in the audience as well. But if a storyteller were to extract love/hate from her characters’ lives and substitute morality/immorality, this switch in core value would evolve her work from a love story to a redemption plot with all-new meanings and all-new emotions.

If a crime story were to shift its core value from justice/injustice to life/death, it would stop being a crime story and pivot to an action tale—once again, new emotions, new meanings.

If a family story were to deemphasize the value of unity/breakup and instead emphasize maturity/immaturity in one of its children, the plot would radically change genre from domestic drama to a coming-of-age story.

Robert McKee, Storynomics

I’ve never really considered the core value of a story, and how a shift in the core value can transform a story into another, and change its entire meaning.

Robert McKee then proceeds to succinctly make a point:

The core value that pulses at the heart of a story determines its specific meaning and unique emotional impact.

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Like in many areas of life, in writing and storytelling, you get what you want by sacrificing something you want less. You make hard choices.

Writers hoping for a best seller want their stories to influence the largest number of readers or audience members possible, so they generalize, opting for a one-size-fits-all, rather than one-of-a-kind, world. This unfortunate step actually shrinks, rather than expands, their future audience or readership.

Robert McKee. Storynomics

You choose the one-of-a-kind world when you write. And then you let your readers’ imagination do the generalization.

The mind works best when it moves from the specific to the universal—not the other way around. Consider, for example, the phrase a piece of furniture. As you read it, a vague image blurs your imagination and halts your thoughts because your mind has no inclination to go backward to the particular. But if I say, “A wingback Duchess chair upholstered in blood-red leather,” a clear image glows in your mind. Instinctively, your imagination moves forward from this particular to the general, slotting the chair into the mental category “furniture.” This applies to all aspects of a story’s world, physical and social. Therefore, the principle: The more specific the setting, the more universal the story’s appeal.

Robert McKee. Storynomics

This is a great lesson. Whenever you’re struggling with how to approach writing a certain piece, how to express a certain idea, how to elicit a certain feeling—ask yourself first: What specific situation could trigger this?

If you write on the most general level about it, what you get is dull text-book writing.

And whenever you’re reviewing and editing your own work, ask yourself: Is this general or specific? And how could I move this more to the specific?

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Stan Lee on writing: Write for yourself

Stan Lee shared some advice on writing when he spoke at Google a few years ago:

  • Read a lot. The more you read, the better.
  • Write what you yourself would love to read. Especially in television, companies are always looking to write something that would appeal to 13-year-olds, or 20-year-olds, and that’s fine. But what you want to write is something that you yourself would genuinely enjoy reading. If you write something that you yourself enjoy to read, then it’s very likely that there are other people out there who’d enjoy reading it as well—because none of us is really that different from everybody else. Don’t try to write something that other people would want to write.
    The great writers wrote to please themselves. And that’s why their stuff was good. Be your own best critique.

You can watch the entire session here, but the advice on writing specifically can be found at 26:25.

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