The Dangers of Imagination or How A Story Can Strengthen Your Family

I asked him one question and his reply filled the rest of the hour. Talking to one of my clients by phone, I was sitting in my home office, sipping coffee, my UGG slippers keeping my tootsies warm and he was in Fort Worth, Texas (I presume wearing a cowboy hat and sitting under an American flag) giving me an ear full.

One of the more important and standard parts of my consulting work is the diagnostic interview phase. It gives our firm an opportunity to learn about the business, the organization’s inner workings, and to validate that the answer to their organization’s questions lie less in the consultant’s mind but more in their own expertise.

When I begin one of these calls I have a page full of questions to ask. I never get through all of them but this call was an outlier – I only asked 2 questions in 60 minutes. The first question was straightforward. “Given that your organization is trying to adapt to changing market conditions, how would you articulate your organization’s strategy?”  He was quiet at first, stuttered, and clicked like an engine that won’t turn over. Then he warmed up and said “Well, it feels like I hear about a different strategy every day” Then I asked question 2, “And why do you think that is?”

I listened to 54 minutes of verbal diarrhea. He claimed the organization had no vision because the senior leaders were tired of running the company and were planning on vesting their shares and quitting together.  Strategy was changing because the board of directors was incompetent. Because the last consultants sucked. Because the guy that delivers the sandwich platters is having an affair with the front desk lady. Because they replaced casual Fridays with casual EVERYdays. This man who clearly cared about his company was more clearly without any good information. He did not have an explicit understanding of why the strategy changed and so he made a bunch of stuff up.

I never do that. Do you? Naaaaa.

Science is showing us that it’s not just my cowboy client who does this but all of us. You and I (unconsciously) rely on our memory to take all of life’s randomness and thread it together into a cohesive story. Recent scans of the brain show that the hypocampus, the area that is responsible for storing our memories, is not just a repository but also the engine for our imagination. Thus research has concluded that when we lack the explicit memories needed to make sense of life we use the same part of our brain to imagine details and then we treat those imagined details like facts.  When we cannot see reality we grow confident in its mirage.

For a more personal look at how we do this, take for example the 21-year-old college student who does not know why his parents got divorced when he was tee ball age. Without explicit memories of what his parents fought about or how they did or did not work to smooth things over, he is left to draw his own conclusions. The conclusions that he draws are that his parents never should have married and that had they not had children, perhaps all of their differences would not have surfaced. He then lives his life like this is the truth. While those reasons are a possibility, there is likely a more nuanced and difficult reality that he is without. But what’s wrong with believing in the mirages and not knowing? According to research not knowing may be costing us strength when we need it most.

Research done by Bruce Feiler claims that the key to resilience – in love, work, and play – is to know your family’s narrative.  In a recent summary of his work in the NYT he says,

The ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient – meaning they could moderate the effects of stress. The more children knew about their family’s story, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.

This research is saying that we are who we are because of what we have experienced and what we have been told about those experiences. And if our self is deeply informed by what we are told of our experiences, the more we are told about them (good and/or bad) the more control we feel we have to create our own story. It seems that the unknown company strategy, family history, or politician’s past creates an anxiety within us. The more we have to use our imagination to fill in the gaps of the story, the less confidence we have and the easier it us for us to abdicate responsibility for creating a better story.

If you are a teacher, an entrepreneur, a parent, a spouse, a therapist, a boss, or a leader of any kind who wants to build resilience and productivity you must start telling your story – not for your own good but for the good of others.

I am grateful for a first hand experience of this.

Last week my wife and I endured 12 hours of travel with a sassy one year old to get to rural Ohio for a family reunion of sorts. On our second and final night there, I sat on the ground, my one year old in my lap, as my Grandpa opened a white box. The contents of the box were passed around the room. All 28 family members received a copy of a spiral bound document. My Grandpa, nearing 80, decided it was time for him to tell his family more of his own story – his struggle with his disability, his feelings of futility, and his indebtedness to his wife and his Creator.

As I read the Kinkos bound document I learned about the center from which he wanted to live, the values he hoped to instill in his children and grandchildren, and the way he wanted to make a difference in his town and world. In those pages, I understood more of who my Grandfather was, who my Mom was, and ultimately who I was.  I learned pieces of my story that I never knew were there. And for that I feel gratitude and strength to continue to live that story.

________

We (often individuals in leadership or power) withhold information because we want to protect others or because we don’t think that it’s important. Parents don’t want children to know about their debaucherous 20s, executives don’t want their organization to know about the missteps that cost them millions, and pastors believe that more information will just cause more drama. This is not protecting anyone but is in fact weakening them.

When you withhold your story you withhold the key to others living a great story.

It definitely takes a level of foolishness to explore and share our stories and to let go of our imaginations that may be protecting us (and certainly causing us stress). But this foolishness actually frees us!  So do we have the courage to learn our stories? Do we have the strength to tell our stories? To believe that knowledge frees us? And then do we have the audacity to live our stories?

I’m not sure that I always have this courage, but if my grandpa is any evidence, then perhaps I do.

Jarrod

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