Visualize a single reader devouring a novel, a group of people gathered to watch a concert or a family listening to tales from older generations over a meal. These scenes show the act of storytelling coming to life. Most often, we think about storytelling in the context of the audience – what they’re listening to, taking in and learning.
But what about the storyteller? What does the act of storytelling actually do for the one who’s doing the telling?
I’ve been considering these questions recently. And a friend came to mind. From his books and podcasts to his voracious reading habit, it was clear to me that there was no one better than my friend Neil Pasricha to talk about this topic.
I first interviewed Neil in 2010, about his then-new book The Book of Awesome. The book is based on his popular blog, 1000 Awesome Things, a genuinely fun and witty series that focuses on the small but awesome things in life we can all relate to like “going really fast over speed bumps in the back of a school bus, “the last couple hours before the weekend,” and “popping bubble wrap.” In addition to being a writer, Neil is also Director of the Institute for Global Happiness, which works to improve happiness levels inside organizations.
What I appreciate most about Neil’s storytelling is that it stays grounded in our day-to-day experiences of being human. Neil’s other books, including the best-seller The Happiness Equation and the recently-released How to Get Back Up are both conversational and warm, even when veering into more difficult subjects: failures, setbacks, unexpected losses.
In this most recent interview, Neil and I talked about the importance of telling our stories, why it’s so powerful to do it—for ourselves, for organizations and for communities—and how the act of writing our stories can offer unique insight and release from the things that challenge us the most.
LC: Your new book, How to Get Back Up, is your own very personal story of falling down and learning how to rise back up. Yet, it’s not just a story. It’s a how-to guide for other people. Why was it key for you to share what you’ve learned this way, rather than just focusing solely on the narrative?
NP: Well, the problem with the self-help industry is that it’s all about getting better! Improving! Losing weight! Making money! But I didn’t know a book, a story, that told people how to get back to the baseline. And, in my life, frankly, I don’t care about losing five pounds or making an extra thousand bucks. What I wanted to know, what I wanted to remember, was how to get back up when I inevitably veer of course. So, the book is a series of ridiculous flops, followed by the research I did to learn from each flop, and a model or system I actually use in my life today.
LC: I’m interested in how to empower people to tell their stories. When did you first understand the power and necessity of sharing yours? What are some steps people can take to overcome their doubts about the importance of sharing theirs?
NP: Probably when I did my TED Talk is when I realized how powerful it was to tell my story. My talk was called “The 3 A’s of Awesome” and I gave it in 2010. It was my first speech, like, ever, pretty much. And in it, I shared the story of my wife leaving me and my best friend taking his own life. In front of 1,200 people and, you know, a live videotape which would put it on TED.com forever. So, yeah. Kind of a big deal. But I was single, and I was alone, and I was lonely, and someone said, “you know, you may not want to bottle this up.” And I didn’t know what else to do with all these emotions, so I spent two months writing that TED Talk. I practiced it every single night till I memorized it, and I tried really hard not to break down on stage. (As you can tell, I almost didn’t make it past the first few minutes.)
LC: You’re not only a writer, but a well-documented lover of books. What pieces of writing have shifted your perspective on something?
NP: It’s true, I’m a pretty voracious reader (I’ve even got a book podcast and a book club…I really, really love a good story). So definitely, there a few books that totally altered my perspective.
First, The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida and translated by David Mitchell. This is the only book ever written about autism, by someone with autism. Naoki wrote this book with a Japanese alphabet pad and an assistant, one character at a time, and you can feel that slow tenderness and passion as he answers question after question. “Why do people with autism talk so loudly and weirdly? Why don’t you make eye contact while talking?” It completely expanded my perception of being human. It gave me an entirely new worldview.
Also, Braving The Wilderness by Brené Brown. Before I read this, I had no idea belonging was an issue. By the end I felt like it’s the central issue of our time. I committed to make changes in my life to fulfill my own deep-seated need for belonging. The takeaways are simple to understand, but hard to practice: “People are hard to hate close up. Move in.”, “Speak truth to bullshit. Be civil.”, “Hold hands. With strangers.”, and “Strong back. Soft front. Wild heart.” How’s that for bold and truthful?
And The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby. This is a first-person memoir written by the French Editor of Elle after he had a stroke and woke up twenty days later with locked-in syndrome. He had no way to communicate with the outside world, except through blinking one eye. He wrote this entire book with that single blinking eye (and a helpful nurse who held up an alphabet card for him). He died two days after the book came out. But this book is full of life: vivid, heartbreaking, life-affirming notes that redefine what it means to be human and to be alive.
And from a writer’s perspective, all of these authors have one thing in common. And that’s purpose. Naoki wanted others to further understand autism, and David, his translator, felt the same way. Brené has devoted her life’s work to researching giant, amorphous, complex topics like belonging and human connection. And Jean-Dominique spent his final days writing a book, which he blinked his way through.
I often talk or write about the importance of finding your “ikigai”, a Japanese concept which roughly translates to “the reason you get out of bed in the morning.” It’s the thing that drives you the most. These writers have found that, told these stories, and shown the beauty and humanity in the darker moments of life. To me, that’s what storytelling is all about.