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Long before seeing television, or even knowing it existed, I listened to stories on the radio mainly with my grandmother. As I mentioned earlier, my favorites were The Lone Ranger, Hop-along Cassidy, and Tom Corbett and The Space Cadets. Looking back on it, I’m not sure why she listened although she might have answered questions for me or provided some additional commentary. As I only learned much later, these programs used special props for the sound effects of whizzing bullets, thunder, horse hooves, rocket engines, etc. At the time, it never occurred to me that there were “sound effects.” I just listened and constructed an entire “TV program” in my mind’s eye. More accurately, I was there along with the villains and heroes.

Although the stories presented each week in these programs fascinated me, my grandma’s “Old Pete Stories” captivated me even more. Grandma presided over the Firestone Park Dramatic Club and her performances for me were filled with all the drama she could muster. Her “Old Pete Stories” arose out of an actual character she knew from her days growing up on a farm. Old Pete was a hired hand on the farm; a loner and a drifter, Old Pete had a talent for getting into trouble. In fact, it is rather surprising that Old Pete seemed to get into precisely the type of trouble that a five year old boy might get into and rarely into the kind of trouble that you would expect an adult farm hand to get into. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? But it didn’t make me wonder! Not at the time. Instead, I found myself, just like Old Pete, wondering what mysteries that deep blue pond held. I found myself, just like Old Pete, terrified when he became tangled in the unseen currents and forces below the surface. And, like Old Pete, my gratitude and relief came in waves when I … er, Old Pete, I mean … struggled to the shore and pulled himself out. Although “Old Pete” inspired my grandmother’s stories, I’m pretty sure that the plots she constructed were “cautionary tales” much like Aesop’s Fables.

My mother also read me stories, mainly from a giant book of stories. Each story typically only had one ink drawing on the title page for that story. There was one about a mouse who played the piano and another about a Bull in the China Shop. She too loved to practice her most dramatic voice when reading aloud. And then, some time in the first grade, something magic happened. We were sitting around in a circle struggling through our primers when my teacher made some comment that caused everything to “click into place” for me and from then on, I could pretty much read anything! I could now read stories to myself! The stories in the school primers were generally pretty lame, but soon, I got my own books and soon after that, Tootle, and The Adventures of Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy gave way to Tom Sawyer! Huckleberry Finn!  I went to the library every week and picked out three books. Generally, these included some science books and some fiction books and often some combination. The Earth for Sam was a fictionalized account of a boy going back in time to see first hand what dinosaurs were like (among other things). I discovered that our library had a copy of our first grade science text. In fact, it also had a copy of every grade 1-6 science texts. I went through them like the proverbial knife whose molecules had extremely high kinetic energy through butter. Stories of the Knights of the Round Table thrilled me as well as The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Some people found it odd that I read Nancy Drew, but I think they are better written and I can relate to a girl hiding in the closet trying not to get caught and not trying to scream when a spider dropped on her just as easily as if a boy were hiding in the closet trying not to get caught and trying not to scream when a spider dropped on him.

You might think from my catholic tastes and prolific reading that I would forgo television when we finally got a TV set. No way! I loved Gabby Hayes, for instance, and Superman. We had a couch and a reclining rocking chair in our living room. When Gabby Hayes explained that Quaker Oats were shot from guns (!), I hid behind the rocker as the cereal exploded out of the canon. When the Superman theme song or that of The Lone Ranger came on, I ran across the room full speed and flung myself into the recliner. My parents hated this and told me on numerous occasions not to do it despite the fact that I only knocked over the rocker once. Their story was that I would “hurt myself” or “break the chair.” But neither of these things happened. I don’t recall ever actually getting severely punished so I concluded this was just one of those things parents feel obligated to say because they see themselves as responsible adults who must therefore say such things. Meanwhile, I didn’t understand how they could be so blasé about these shows. Why on earth were they also not running across the room and flinging themselves into the chair or couch? Did they not hear the strains of The William Tell Overture? Didn’t they realize that this meant that another episode of The Lone Ranger was about to begin? Didn’t they understand that he would right wrongs? The Lone Ranger not only prevailed every week; he did so without bloodshed! He would gallop up alongside some bad guy and then jump and tackle him off his horse, wrestle him to the ground and subdue him with fists alone. On occasion, The Lone Ranger would shoot, but only to defend himself or others and even then, only shoot the gun out of the villains’s hand! He never missed the target and accidentally gave the bad guy a free appendectomy or craniotomy. And, Superman? Come on! In case you forgot from last week, it always began by reminding you that he could leap tall buildings at a single bound (though why he needed to do this when he could fly is unclear). He was faster than a speeding bullet! He was more powerful than a locomotive! How could they possibly forgo these shows to do some other thing? That seemed incredible but only for the first few milliseconds of the show. After that, I was glued to the tube and lost interest in what they were doing.

Although people hate to “be fooled” so much that when they are fooled, no matter how much evidence accumulates, they tend to dismiss the evidence and insist that they were not fooled. And yet, there are other occasions, like movies, television, novels, and plays were people welcome being fooled. This really struck me hard many many years later watching Apollo Thirteen for the third time. I knew this movie was based on a true story and I knew how the real life events had unfolded and I had seen the same exact movie twice before. But that didn’t stop me from being excruciatingly worried about whether the astronauts would make it back alive. Other species of animals and plants can certainly “communicate” with their own kind and even with other species. It seems doubtful, at least so far, that they can “tell stories” however. This may be one of the quintessential differences between humans and other species. Whether we sit down in a campfire circle to trade ghost stories or streak across the room to throw ourselves into a rocking chair, we seem to be saying “Fool me!”

“Fool me” arises in other contexts as well. The first few years that I lived on North Firestone Boulevard, a peddler appeared several times each summer with a small hand cart filled with toys, puzzles, and games. Generally, these items were not to be found in stores. One item in particular held my attention. A small number of wooden rectangular blocks, roughly card-sized but much thicker, were held together with ribbon. However, when he held them up, he ticked one and allowed them to cascade in a magical fashion so that each block changed from one side to the other. He did tell some cock-a-mamie story as he did this and no doubt, like any other magician’s patter, it was designed to draw attention away from what was actually going on. But in this case, it wasn’t the story, per se, that was so cool. It was the (seeming) physical impossibility of what was happening before my very eyes. In this case, it wasn’t that I wanted to stay fooled. I wanted to see the trick again to understand what was really happening. The peddler, however, relished making money. He wasn’t really trudging up and down the street in his rather heavy coat (especially for summer) for his health nor to entertain children. He wanted to turn a buck. So, despite our pleadings, he would never do this trick more than twice. After that, if we wanted to see it again, we would have to pay for one of these sets of “magic” interconnected blocks and figure it out on our own. I raced back inside to wheedle my parents into giving or at least lending me some money so I could buy one of these. I breathlessly and ineptly explained how these were magic blocks but they seemed singularly unimpressed with my analysis. Dad muttered something vague and incoherent about it just being the way the blocks were connected by the ribbons, but he had not seen the actual demonstration. I did not score the money nor the blocks, at least that time. I did, however, save up my money. My allowance at that point was a dollar every two weeks. So, I had to forgo my favorites from the popsicle man, substituting grape popsicles at 4 cents each rather than the more expensive (and much tastier Mr. Goodbars or even fudgesicles) in order to save, but save I did. The next time the peddler appeared, I was ready! But damn! He wasn’t! He didn’t have any more of the magic tumbling blocks and tried to interest me and my friends in some other toys. I suppose some of those were pretty cool too, but I didn’t care. You’ll be happy to know that I eventually found some when I had my own kids. I was delighted that they were delighted but they no longer held any mystery for me personally.

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Everyone I know likes stories and magic tricks. What I find hard to understand are people who prefer to stay fooled. They don’t want to know how a Jacob’s Ladder works. They don’t want to know how a magic trick works. They don’t want to know whether their political candidate lies and cheats. They don’t want to know whether climate change is really going to affect the lives of their children and grandchildren. If there were only say, 100 stories in the world, maybe I could understand that they wouldn’t want to know the outcomes of those 100 stories. But there are way more than 100 stories! There are way more than 100 damned good stories; I don’t see any shortage. But more than that, I don’t see any problem with knowing the outcome (as I did with Apollo XIII) still being engaged and entertained and transported by a good story, well told.

Don’t get me wrong. Just because I want to know how magic tricks work, doesn’t mean I think it is necessarily right for me to explain it and that people who don’t want to know are inferior or stupid. Different people have different preferences. I like cilantro and anchovies and blue cheese but not everyone does. When it comes to what is actually happening in the world in ways that impact our ability (and even more importantly, the ability of our families) to live and function though, it seems to me the truth is much more important than is the pleasure of listening to the same false but comforting story over and over.

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Imagine that we are all sitting around a campfire listening to a “ghost story” about a guy trapped in a pit with scores of foot long spiders who come out and nibble on him whenever he tries to sleep. I am not going to spoil everyone’s “fun” by pointing out that this is very unlikely. No way. On the other hand, if I see a forest fire headed our way, I am going to interrupt the frigging story and let people know! Furthermore, I cannot fathom why some people would rather stay and hear the story if it means they are going to die or at least suffer a lot of third degree burns. Perhaps stories are not only one of humanity’s greatest gifts, but also, under some circumstances, our greatest curse as well.

My fascination with stories continued throughout grade school, high school, and college. Although as an undergraduate at Akron U and then Case-Western Reserve, I took almost a dozen psychology courses, none of them delved with any depth into stories. I did, however, also take courses in English Literature, Shakespeare, and Drama. Even to this day, it’s a little hard to believe that these psychology courses largely skirted the whole issue of stories considering how important and fundamental they are to understanding the human psyche. Freud and Jung did discuss stories in some depth. Even in four years of graduate study at the University of Michigan, stories seldom came up as a topic in cognitive psychology. In fact, the whole enterprise of experimental and cognitive psychology at that time seemed to be about deconstructing human thinking, problem solving, learning, and decision making into different little boxes and finding out about the little boxes.

 

Humans are notoriously varied but one thing you can pretty much count on is that whatever else is going on, these little boxes communicate with each other. My senior year as an undergraduate, I had three part time jobs. One of these was teaching astronomy and space science at the Sixth Grade Educational Center in downtown Cleveland. Another was working with kids in a psychiatric hospital. Another was as a research assistant to a Professor doing experiments in operant conditioning. In the latter set of experiments, kids went into a large “Skinner Box” and pulled a lever for nickels. In front of them, during training, was a large red circle. Later, they continued to pull the lever but got no coins. During this phase of the experiment, they might be shown a smaller red circle, a red ellipse, a green circle and so on. During the time the kids were actually in the Skinner Box, there wasn’t much for me to do. So, I went out to the waiting room and used the blackboard there to teach the kids who were waiting a little astronomy such as the names of the planets and their “order” around the sun. Although my Professor was a behaviorist, he did ask me to debrief each kid as to what they thought about the experiment. To my astonishment, the kids who had heard my little mini-lecture about astronomy tried to relate what I said to the little circles and ellipses that were shown during the experiment. Of course, once they said that, I realized that to them, it made perfect sense to try to relate these experiences. After all, they came to the University, and here was the same guy (me) telling them about weird unusual things. Naturally, they tried to make one unified story out of it.

In graduate school, I got my chances for story telling to my kids but also at a more adult level. It was tradition for each sub-area within the Psychology Department to put on “skits” and I co-authored two satirical musicals, mainly about the professors (and still managed to get my degree). To show you how much on the edge I was, my advisor the first year was Dr. Reitman who studied cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence. One of the main characters in the play was “Dr. Brightman” whose student (played by me) was building an AI program and trying to impress a very cute grad student.

I told her my program simulated human thought. “Oh, really?” she replied. “Your program simulates human thought?”

“Absolutely,” I answered, “although for now, purely for convenience and ease of measuring accuracy, we’ve decided to focus on mathematical thinking as a representative domain of human thought.”

“I see,” she answered, “So, this program simulates the way humans do mathematical reasoning.”

“Precisely!” I continued. “Of course, because of storage limitations on our computers, we are initially focusing on arithmetic.”

Now, her brow furrowed to signal that she was less impressed. “So, you are saying your program actually does arithmetic problems?”

So, I said, “Indeed! Or, at least it will if I ever get the code debugged.”

Well, you get the tenor of this satire. (And, by the way, the hype in AI still exceeds the actuality by about the same ratio today 50 years later!) Looking back on it, I am very impressed that the Professors in the department were able to take it all as good-natured fun.

There were important stories told in graduate school. For example, my Professor in physiological psychology discovered the “pleasure center” in the rat brain. The reason he discovered it was his inexperience. He and his professor were doing research on stimulating the “Reticular Activating System” in rats. This part of the rat (and human) brain is important in keeping you awake and alert. A small current into this part of the brain makes the rat much more alert but is punishing to the rat. You can “prove” this by implanting electrodes into the brain and turning on a very tiny current (which is not painful in the sense of an electric shock) and then the rat will soon avoid whatever part of their environment they are in when you turn on the current. But something was terribly wrong with the rat that James Olds had prepared. Instead of avoiding the area, his rat was falling head over heels in love with that area! The rat kept going back for more! When the rat was “sacrificed”, it turned out that Olds had not waited long enough for the cement to dry and the electrode had moved forward into another area of the brain. A whole line of research grew out of this “mistake.” What was “good” here was that Olds and his professor did not try to hide this unlikely result or sweep it under the rug. Instead, they strove to understand it. Although there are certainly scientists who are not as honest as these two, by and large, people go into science in order to find the truth. Not many people go into science in order to make a career out of lying. If you want to be dishonest as a career, you’ll make much more money much more easily by becoming a con artist, or some kind of unscrupulous business person than becoming a scientist. I’m not saying it never happens, but it is a rather stupid path to take. Besides the fact that people who go into science want to know the truth (and do not go into it to get rich), there are all sorts of checks and balances in science to “weed out” dolts who lie about or cover up results.

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My interest in stories and my interest in psychology, though both strong, for many years stayed separate. At one point in my IBM career, I was trying various ways to study and improve a system called “The Speech Filing System” which later transformed into the “Audio Distribution System.” This was a system which functioned a little bit like an answering machine, but was much more sophisticated. One big advantage was that you called it on purpose to leave an audio message. This puts the user in a much better frame of mind than an answering machine. If you call a human being and expect to talk to a human being and instead, get an answering machine, you are (even to this day) more likely to leave a somewhat incoherent and incomplete message such as:

“Leave a message after the beep. BEEP!”

“Oh, hi. It’s me. I wanted to … well, I… I wanted to … maybe it’s .. . you know what? Call me back. I will be gone for an hour or so unless you call in the next ten minutes. Anyway, you know my number, right?”

Yeah, we’ve all been there. By now, a few decades later, people are not quite so surprised by an answering machine, but it still sucks.

Instead, if you called the Audio Distribution System, you knew ahead of time you were going to be leaving a message so you prepared it mentally. You could also easily edit or delete your message and start over. That is just a taste of its many features. But it was new; not just a new product, but a new concept. Furthermore in those dark days of the distant past, there were no mobile phones. People were not used to using something with twelve buttons for a User Interface. The system had a lot of functions but only twelve buttons. Speech recognition was too unreliable to be used for the command interface. So this provided something of a puzzle; how could the buttons be used to make a good interface. Luckily, there were plenty of psychologists on the case. In fact, the main inventor of the concept, Stephen Boies, had been a student of Mike Posner, one of the most brilliant experimental psychologists ever, and John Gould, a prominent and experienced member of the Human Factors Society was also on the project as was I. In addition, the team included Jim Schoonard and John Richards. John was another Posner student. We may have had the only project team with more psychologist by training than computer scientists! As it turned out, both John Richards and Stephen Boies ended up doing a lot of the programming and most of the maintenance.

By using standard processes of design, test, and re-design, we developed a good set of commands. Beyond that, the interface, prompts and documentation were all derived from a state transition table so that changes in the User Interface could be made fairly easily and the documentation could be automatically updated and kept congruent with each other. However, I felt the need for something else. It wasn’t that people had much trouble “figuring out” how to accomplish a particular thing with the User Interface. That, they could do. The problem was that many of them never thought to use the Audio Distribution System. It did not require anything different. There on the desk was your same old phone. (True, there was a little template of commands that sat around the square keys). The trick was, how do you get someone to send an audio message as opposed to calling someone or sending a memo or email? For that purpose, I found a bit of video story-telling to be more effective. I portrayed by voice over what was going through my head and modeling what I hoped the thought process of the user might become.

For a variety of reasons, the Audio Distribution System, although it became an IBM product briefly, never became a “best seller.” For one thing, it was inexpensive. That’s right, inexpensive. It provided a lot of function for the customer but not a lot of sales commission for the sales person. On the other hand, for the sales person to sell the Audio Distribution System required them to learn a whole new way of thinking and then a whole new way of convincing their customers. It was much easier, and much more lucrative, to sell the customer on more storage or processing power.

I happened to attend a talk at an IBM meeting by Shelly Dews who mentioned storytelling. She worked in Raleigh at the time on a new IBM suite of networking products. We ended up working together on what was essentially a story to explain to customers what Netview was and what it did. That seemed to work very well and people who read the “story” version remembered the concepts better than the standard form of documentation and training. However, at about that time, I had an opportunity to begin an Artificial Intelligence Lab at NYNEX and so left IBM for a dozen years. At NYNEX, I mainly sublimated my storytelling by writing a play and three novels and some day we’ll come back to that.

I also worked with Heather Desurvire to develop a variation on the User Experience technique called “Heuristic Evaluation.” In that technique, you basically ask people to look for issues in the User Experience. It works better if you use experts, but even non-experts can find many of the issues in the User Experience that would come out in tests.  The variation builds on people’s ability to use empathy. So, rather than simply being asked to find issues with the User Experience, people are told to look at the interface via a series of different perspectives; e.g., a cognitive psychologists, a worried mother, a physical therapist, a Freudian therapist, and so on. People who look at the interface in a variety of ways were able to see more issues and also to make more suggestions for additional features than folks who spent an equal amount of time simply looking at the interface (presumably from their “own” perspective). This relates to story in that people who enjoy stories must be able to experience what is going on in the hearts and minds of the characters in order to comprehend and enjoy stories. It’s a little disconcerting that education doesn’t spend more time improving on people’s natural empathic abilities.

It was not till I returned to IBM to work on “Knowledge Management” however, that I was fully able to marry my interest in stories with my interest in cognitive psychology and indeed with the applied field of “Human Computer Interaction.” I was lucky enough to manage a project for several years that was focused on the “Business Uses of Stories and Storytelling.” This is not the time or place to try to summarize all of that work here, but here are a few interesting tidbits.

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At the time, there was a fairly well-known commercial about “Knowledge Management” that claimed that the “secret” to “Knowledge Management” was “simply” to provide the right knowledge to the right person at the right time. Of course, it is anything other than “simple” but even assuming you could do that, it seemed problematic in concept. I immediately thought back to my college professor who taught German. Professor Maciw was Ukrainian by birth and spent most of World War II in a German Prison Camp which is where he learned German. Perhaps that was part of the reason he tended to be a bit on the sadistic side.

At the end of the first semester, rather than giving us a written test as most Professors do, he determined he would give us an oral exam. He prefaced this by saying, “Who is dis class vants A?” Well, of course, every student in the class raised their hand. Who doesn’t want an A? In our class, happened to be a young woman who had had four years of German in high school, and had lived in Germany for three years. Her German was quite a bit better than mine or anyone else’s in the class. He began with her. His method was simple but mind-boggling. He would begin with a question, always shouted, never spoken, such as “In story of small village, who was main character?”

She would begin with “Eric.”

He would then scream in somewhat broken English (never German), “Please to give complete sentence!”

She would begin answering in German in a complete sentence, but she would not get far. After about three words, he would shout: “Please to decline!” This meant that she would have to think back to the last noun she uttered and then say the noun with the various grammatical cases. Nouns in German all come with articles that differ according to whether the noun is masculine, feminine or neuter, as well as whether it is singular or plural and what the grammatical case is. And, so she would begin with the declination of, say, “Der Hund.”

But no sooner had she begun than he would scream, “In story of Hans, who was wife?”

So, she would say, “Erica.”

Then, the Professor would yell, “Please to say in complete sentence!!”

So, she would put it in a sentence and he would immediately interrupt with: “Please to conjugate!!”

This meant that whatever the last verb out of her mouth was, she would have to conjugate the verb.

This went on for about forty minutes. At last she broke down in tears.

I am quite sure she could have correctly answered any of his questions correctly. It wasn’t the information that was problematic. It was the way in which he interrogated her.

The professor strutted around the room for a few moments with his back turned to the class and then spun about facing us as he said, “NOW, who is dis class still vant A?” Only two of us, out of a class of about thirty raised our hands. Then he started on me. I poured buckets of sweat but did not panic or break down in tears. At last he curled the outer part of his lips down to his shoulders and shook his head a little up and down. Then he started out on the other student, Mr. Lepke whose main sin, I am pretty convinced was that he had been born in the wrong country though I no longer remember what that was. At least twenty minutes of a typical hour and half class were taken up by arguments (in English, or some semblance thereof) about European history. I honestly don’t think I recall a single fact from all that argumentation. In any case, Mr. Lepke’s turn began and after about two minutes the bell rang signaling the end of the double period. All of us left.

By chance, around dinner time, I ran into the professor at the student union. He eagerly strode up to me, his eyes ablaze, “Ah! I had Mr. Lepke in class for two more hours! Finally, he said, ‘No more Dr. Maciw No more, I beg you.’” Now, I have never been in a prison camp so I can’t really say what was up with that particular professor. And, I have to say that his method, although it may have temporarily broken the other two students, gave me a great deal of confidence. Nothing since has so far been as harrowing a verbal interchange. So, in a weird way, it was actually useful for job interviews, exam questions, presentations, and so on in later life.

In any case, the next semester, we were back. None of the three of us who had been questioned dropped out. One of the early spring lectures about European history, the professor stopped mid-sentence and said, “Vat is DIS?! Someone in my class passing notes?” He sped down the aisle and snatched the note out of a student’s hand, striding back to the front of the classroom. !” I vill read note in front of entire class!” 

In his loudest stage voice meant for hundreds of students, though we were only about thirty, he read, “Dr Maciw. Your zipper is open.” And, so it was. But here too, this was the right information, delivered to the right person, at the right time. So, it seemed to me that it was crucial to think, not just about the right information content getting to the right person at the right time. It was also very much about how that information was presented. Certainly, one way that information is presented with thought about how is in the story format. Stories are about emotions, feelings, character, relationships, in other words about people. And, by the way, it doesn’t matter whether the characters are doorman or ducks or dogs or dragons or demigods from Damian three or doctors. The stories are always about people. As a child, or as an adult, I am every bit as stricken with “Lady” in the “Lady and the Tramp” as if she been a beautiful woman. I know just how Tramp feels!

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Another interesting feature of stories as a communication medium is that they allow us to talk about the union of our experiences rather than the intersection. In business, one reason the meetings are almost universally boring is that everyone must frame everything into a single corpospeak which tends to be gray and rectangular. Stories, on the other hand, are a different matter. They come in a huge variety of shapes, sizes, colors, textures, smells, tastes, and movements. Since each is about people, the variety of possible characters is essentially infinite.

Another consideration about stories is that they tend to focus on the edges of human experience rather than the “central tendency.” The universe is a complicated place, full of wonderful and dangerous surprises. Try as we might, we can never step in exactly the same stream twice. Our knowledge is limited and our personal knowledge is very limited. But, we can learn from the experiences of others. We find this especially interesting if it is something on the edges of human experience. In the same way that we find the largest and smallest and fastest mammal to be interesting, we find it interesting to see what happens when the vilest criminal imaginable falls in love with the nicest person on earth. It makes us consider what we would do; it makes us see the question of “what is love, anyway?” in a new light. A story, in other words, is far more than “mere entertainment.” It can literally be life-changing.

Charles Dickens, for instance, is largely credited at least by some for ultimately improving conditions for the poor in England. Little Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe opened the eyes of many to the horrors of slavery in a way that statistics could never do. Why? Because if you actually read the story with an open heart, you become just a little, of a slave. And, hopefully, of course, you realize that whatever pain you feel in merely reading about something hateful, terrifying, or despicable is only a teeny fraction of the pain a person actually experiencing these things would feel.

David McClelland, a former Harvard professor of psychology helped develop a three factor theory of needs: Need for Achievement, Need for Affiliation, and Need for Power. Some people, and some organizations, have various mixtures of these needs. I identify personally a lot with the need for achievement. I want to find problems, solve them, get things done, understand how things work, improve things, etc. I also identify a lot with the Need for Affiliation. I like people. I like their variety and their surprise. I do not identify much at all with the Need for Power. I like it okay, but only when it’s combined with the other two. If I am in charge and I can make good decisions and genuinely feel that I am doing what’s best for the entire group, I am totally fine with being in charge. But the instant I feel like I want to manipulate someone or bully them or make them do something so that I personally benefit, I will quit. I want no part of that.

McClelland studied children’s literature and found that over time and cultures, these needs were more or less in evidence. What he further found was that about forty years after a particular need was most prevalent in the children’s literature, that need begin to manifest itself in society. Whenever, for instance, the need for Achievement was exulted in most children’s stories, then, when those people grew up and began to make decisions and impact life, that society embodied that need and people made a lot of advances with relatively little violence. On the other hand, when the need for power was prevalent, then the adults raised on those stories had a generation with lots of heat and not much light; a lot of violence but not much progress. Stories are powerful.

Let’s now briefly revisit Jacob’s Ladder, the peddler’s toy that fascinated me so much as a small kid. Recall that the Peddler told a story as he demonstrated Jacob’s Ladder. This was no random story, after all. I recall now that in the story, the various tiles/blocks represented places such as a house or temple. The coins used in the story stood for people. So to my five year old imagination, this was not about coins disappearing and reappearing, though that would be a good trick. No, this was about human beings, being in one place and then, suddenly disappearing from that place and then reappearing in another place! Holy Toledo! If that could happen to Jacob and his brother, maybe it could happen to me! This was magic I had to understand! I didn’t realize this until this moment.  I bought one of these for my kids, and they failed to show anything like the level of interest in it that I had. But, I never told them the story.

What is your story?


UPA talk about stories with more links and references about story

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Selection of my short stories