The stories we tell ourselves

We all have stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world…

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

We all have stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world. Like movie directors, we cast our productions, our scenes around us, with “good guys” and “bad guys” with plots counter-plots and surprise endings.

We have themes or patterns that we hold as templates over the events of the day or the national headlines.

I have a friend for example, who has a very simple principle that to him at least, explains everything. It’s his universal framework for making sense of everything from business and emerging technologies to international geo-politics. And his guiding principle is as simple as it is universal; the larger feeds upon the smaller.

From fish in the ocean to corporate mergers and acquisitions, this principle holds true.

In our business world headlines, we see larger corporations absorbing smaller ones constantly.

And in our larger, global community, with one nation (or two sometimes) defined as “superpowers” and in the corporate world, with behemoths like Amazon and Apple, buying up any competition has become the first principle of growth.

But it has not always been this way, in fact I would argue that it is not now, or has ever been this way.

Oddly enough, the way I see it, in the case of corporate entities like Apple and Amazon, or even a superpower like the United States, the evidence, to me at least, proves the opposite.

Apple and Amazon for example, did not exist fifty years ago. Even as upstarts. Or even as ideas. Even as fantasies.

But other large corporations did. Back then, like now, a few large corporations dominated the economy and the news. GE, General Motors, IBM and Sears (and a few others) controlled every aspect of our lives from food to travel to the lights on in our homes and places of employment.

But where are any of those companies now?

If my friend’s principle held true, once on top, any company (or empire) should stay on top.

But that’s not how history (or business, or even religion) works.

Empires, political or corporate (or even intergalactic, as in Star Wars) do not last forever. Or even, it turns out, very long at all.

If a company lasts a generation or more (or if a national empire lasts a century or more) it’s an anomaly, not a guiding principle.

Political movements rise and fall with unnerving regularity. From populism to self-governance, political philosophies emerge and evaporate.

And in the business world, technologies emerge, markets change and financial pressures ensure a constantly changing landscape where giants fall and insignificant upstarts prevail.

As Margaret Mead put it many years ago: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Large corporations, and even global superpowers, might seem impervious, even eternal. But they aren’t. In fact they are very fragile, almost floating on popular support and common tastes and preferences.

Once those shift, collapse is irreversible if not inevitable.

This shift is a near gravitational force.

Popular tastes and preferences change. Sometimes abruptly.

In fact I would argue that my friend’s philosophy is exactly wrong.

It’s not the largest that consumes the smaller; it’s the smaller that most seriously threatens, and often consumes the larger.

The largest company (or empire) is an easy target. The current “king of the hill” is the adversary of all.

We love the David and Goliath story, where the upstart kid challenges, and conquers the most intimidating, if not impervious enemy.

Apple and Amazon, after all, started as barely funded visions. In garages. With only a few passionate believers and advocates. They were specks not even registering on the radar of their industries at the time.

And I would argue that the smaller the challenge, the more dangerous it is.

What is smaller, after all, than a virus?

And what has brought down companies, if not entire industries, if not a pesky, not even visible virus?

In fact I would argue that viruses, microbes and bacteria have had more to do with human health, progress, quality of life and misery than any human invention or development – and certainly more than the impact of the large animals in our world.

For another example of how something quite small can pack a big punch, see here for how mosquitoes have impacted human history:

My friend posits his premise that the larger consumes the smaller as an immutable force of nature. The odd thing is that it isn’t true there either.

On land or in the sea, this belief doesn’t hold. What do whales eat, for example? And bears, or lions? Or elephants?

Bears are omnivores (meaning that they eat almost everything from donuts to fresh meat, lions, like most, if not all, cats are super-carnivores (meaning that they are on an almost pure meat diet) and elephants are purely herbivores on a pure plant-based diet. (For the record, whales primarily subsist on plankton and tiny fish. Certainly not what you might expect at the top of the food chain.)

In summary, good luck finding a common dietary theme among these large mammals.

I would argue that the force with the most immense impact on humanity, civilization and even nature is the force that cannot be see – or foreseen – withstood or avoided at all, the most intangible force of all: time.

And time rules all.

Kingdoms, corporate or political, come and go.

Philosophies emerge, mature and wither away.

One philosophy that has dominated, if not defined, our culture and our economy is the concept of standardization.

We work to earn money (a standardized medium of exchange) to buy houses, cars, clothes, food and virtually everything else made in factories by people (or even machines) we will never see or know.

Very few of us buy (or own) clothes made specifically for us. We buy off-the-shelf everything – from food to vacations. Our life experiences are largely from an assembly line.

But under the surface of a pandemic, urban distress and economic constrictions, a revolution is simmering.

This is no armed insurrection or even a conscious movement, but like a virus quietly growing in the background somewhere, this value system is replicating and gaining strength.

This belief taking form is that standardization does not reflect (or some might argue, even allow) true and full individuality.

Llopis book cover, photo by Morf Morford

Llopis book cover, photo by Morf Morford

At least that’s the premise of “Leadership in the Age of Personalization” by Glenn Llopis.

Llopis (pronounced yo-pis) confronts several of our corporate-world icons (like diversity or business mission statements) and parses out how many (young people in particular) prefer, or even demand to live and work.

To put his argument simply, inclusion (recognizing and welcoming very different voices and perspectives) is very different from the quota mentality of “diversity” which tends to be more of public relations move than a respect for the unique (and often necessary) voice not often heard.

Mission statements, those succinct summaries of corporate identity are exactly that; a statement that defines for every worker under every condition what the company stands for.

The mission statement may be great- even inspirational. But the premise is that it subsumes every individual – their unique set of skills, passions and interests.

Llopis has a different, and, he claims, emerging premise; we as individuals have far more to contribute than corporations have thus far recognized.

His core question, for both individuals and corporations, is “what are you solving for?”

Corporations, he claims, (and certainly individuals) continually shift what we “solve for.”

Situations, passions, skill and ability levels continually define and re-define what the problem is and how it should be addressed.

Instead of a corporate mission statement, what are the unique contributions of individuals with very different life experiences, skill sets and passions?

Standardization made basics like cars, clothing even food far more affordable and accessible, and, you could argue, created a stable economy around the world as it rescued millions from poverty.

But Llopis insists that standardization has built a foundation and we, as individuals can now reach for a level of individuation never before possible.

No matter what the economy or the pandemic do in the next year or two, a far more individuated culture and economy is solidifying beneath us.

And that is a story we can all contribute to.