engineer + builder + leader
Humans are Storytellers
May 17, 2023


The power of stories - Avatar the Last Airbender (Fair Use)

In some sense, telling stories is what makes us human. This is the unique way in which we interact with our fellow humans and embed ourselves in a particular social lattice. Stories serve a number of purposes: a way of strengthening bonds, making sense of the world around us, and imparting lessons or warnings. I think nearly everyone can think of a story that has deeply affected the way they move through life - and, ironically, even this way of thinking about ourselves is a story.


Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on the connection between our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It is based on the premise that our thoughts influence our emotions and actions, and so by changing our thoughts, we can improve our well-being.

In CBT, a therapist helps the individual become consciously aware of their thoughts and beliefs, particularly those that might contribute to distress or problematic behaviors. By challenging and replacing irrational or negative thoughts with more realistic ones, CBT aims to alleviate their psychological symptoms.

For example, if you have high anxiety in social situations, your therapist might help you become aware that your anxiety is driven by the thought that “Everyone at this party hates me.” By challenging that thought - “If everyone hated me, why would I have been invited?” - you can reduce your anxiety.

Meta-analyses have generally found that CBT is as effective as medication for treating a huge range of psychiatric issues.

The power of cognitive behavioral therapy rests on the key insight that humans are storytellers, and the most important stories we tell are the ones we tell about ourselves to ourselves! These stories are powerful enough that the differences in them have the ability to cause or cure depression or anxiety.


I find this to be true on teams at work as well. One way of thinking about culture is the set of stories or narrative you have about why you are where you are. What does it mean for me to be an engineer at this company? What do I tell my family, my friends, and myself about the job I do every day? These stories have the power to affect individuals on the team in either a positive or a negative way - a sort of cognitive behavioral therapy for the organizational egregore.

If the narrative that someone has about their work is positive:

“I’m surrounded by brilliant/caring coworkers”

“We work hard, but we live well”

“The mission I’m working on is globally important”

they will tend to be motivated and excited to stay on the team. If the narrative turns neutral or negative:

“I’m surrounded by people much smarter than me, and I’m a fraud”

“My coworkers work too hard and have no work-life balance”

“The mission I’m on is only important for a tiny strata of humanity”

they will tend towards apathy and demotivation. If their internal story strays too far from the stories they tell about themselves generally, they will become disaffected enough to leave. The same is true at the team level - I’ve certainly worked on teams with a strong, positive narrative (“The rest of the organization is supporting us so that we can do the all-important work we have in front of us”) and a strong, negative narrative (“We are told exactly what to do and the rest of the organization resents that we’re the only team that has the skills to do what we do”). I can tell you which one I was more excited to come to each day.

In pointy and flat cultures I discussed another way of thinking about culture - but these views of culture are complementary! You’ll find that steep cultural gradients often have clear stories attached to them and that narrative is one of the ways in which individuals can see themselves as part of that culture (or not)


In general, these narratives are only barely manageable explicitly and most of them are built up implicitly from the confluence and synthesis of each person’s individual story. That said, it is possible to be more deliberate about the explicit control you do have.

One such opportunity is the natural ability to build mythology (as opposed to stories). As a team grows in size and in age, those with firsthand experience of events leave. Once this happens, you have a chance to pass the stories that build your team’s narrative through a filter - keeping the myths that you want to celebrate and ones that afford a strong, possitive narrative at both the team and individual level).

I have had some luck running this as a brainstorming session. With a group of both long-tenured and new folks, collect a list of stories that only the long-tenured folks know, but that resonate with everyone. Some example stories we collected the last time I ran a session like this: