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Personal Narratives Connect People

Updated: Jan 10, 2021

Guest Author: John Hagel

Personal narratives connect people

I’ve become increasingly focused on personal narratives. They’ve been the focus of my blog posts and will be a key theme in the new book I am writing. I’ve become convinced they are key to moving us on the journey from fear to hope and excitement. But I hasten to add that my view of personal narratives is very different from the conventional view that is prevalent in psychology and other domains. When psychologists talk about personal narratives, they are referring to the stories that we tell ourselves and others about where we have come from – it’s about us as individuals. and it’s about the past.


I view personal narratives through a different lens. For me, personal narratives are about our view of the future, not the past. The starting question is whether our view of the future is primarily driven by our perception of threat or opportunity. Which is it? But then an equally important question is: what is our call to action to others in terms of helping us to address this opportunity or threat? Is there a call to action to others? For many of us, we feel we need to make the journey alone. For others, we are seeking help. The question here is who are we seeking help from and what is our call to action in terms of how they can help.

Why do I adopt this different lens? First, because our view of the future is more likely to shape our choices and actions than our view of the past. Our view of our past is certainly relevant and worthy of reflection, but ultimately the question is: what is pulling us forward? It’s about the power of pull, rather than the power of push.


Second, the call to action is key. Ultimately, our ability to achieve more of our potential hinges on our willingness to collaborate with others and our ability to motivate them to collaborate with us. If we are driven to make the journey alone, we may be able to make some progress, but it will be only a small portion of the progress we could make by traveling together with others.

Why is that the case? Well, it has to do with learning and the motivation to learn. In a rapidly changing world, if we’re not learning faster, we’re likely to be increasingly marginalized. What kind of learning is most effective in a rapidly changing world? It’s learning in the form of creating new knowledge, not just sharing existing knowledge.

To create new knowledge, we need to learn through action, then reflect on the impact achieved, then refine our actions accordingly.

And, no matter how smart we are, we’ll do that a lot better if we are acting together with others, rather than acting in isolation. We can benefit from diversity of perspectives and experience to help identify the actions with the greatest potential for impact. That’s why calling others to action is so key in driving faster and more effective learning.

By framing a “shared view” of the threat or opportunity, a personal narrative can help to leverage that diversity to drive action to focus on a shared outcome. We may differ in terms of how to get there, but we share a common commitment to the outcome that matters.

But that’s not all. We need to be motivated to learn. Learning requires effort and taking risk. Why would we do that?


That’s where the framing of the narrative as threat based or opportunity based becomes so key in a personal narrative. Threats and opportunities can be motivating, but in different ways. If we’re focusing on a threat out in the future, our motivation for action and learning is likely to come from fear. On the other hand, if we’re focusing on an opportunity out in the future, our motivation for action and learning is likely to come from hope and excitement.

In a world of mounting performance pressure and accelerating change, we are much more likely to be driven by a threat-based view of the future that instills fear. While fear can certainly be a motivator for learning, it is not the most effective motivator. If we’re driven by fear, we tend to become more risk averse and less trusting of others. That inhibits our potential for learning.

On the other hand, if our view of the future is shaped by a really inspiring opportunity that can help more of us to achieve more of our potential, we are much more likely to be motivated by hope and excitement. That’s a very powerful motivator for learning. We’re much more willing to take risks, and we are more motivated to collaborate, because the opportunity is something that we all can benefit from.

If we’re coming together with hope and excitement, it will also help us to strengthen those emotions in each other.

Even if we’re acting in a world that is driven largely by fear, the fact that we are acting with others who share hope and excitement will help to shield us from the fear surrounding us.


But, again, that’s where the role of a personal narrative becomes so central. Is our view of the future shaped primarily by a perception of threat or opportunity? And, if it’s an opportunity, have we framed the opportunity in a way that is not just inspiring for us, but inspiring for others who would then be motivated to join us in our quest? Opportunity-based personal narratives can be powerful motivators for learning faster through acting together.

As powerful as personal narratives can be, I am struck by how few of us have taken the time to articulate our personal narrative, much less reflect on its potential for impact. Even if we haven’t articulated our personal narrative, it is there and shaping our daily actions. We owe it to ourselves to pay more attention to our personal narrative and to commit to find ways to evolve our personal narrative in ways that can help us to achieve more of our potential.

I am hoping that my writing on this topic can be a catalyst for this, but it’s also why I have created a 4-Part Workshop Series for Significance Learning Center called Harness Your Personal Narrative. If you’re interested, please Enroll HERE. These are live-taught highly engaging workshops. They are active-learning sessions. I provide personalized input to support you in implementing what you learn in real-time. Break out groups and class Q&A sessions provide the additional input, sounding board, and trusted community you need to begin actively transforming your life. In this workshop series, you'll learn to galvanize collaborators to enthusiastically support you in achieving your most meaningful goals. Hope to see you in class!

We need to come together and find ways to evolve opportunity-based personal narratives.


About the Author: John Hagel

John Hagel is a globally respected, Silicon Valley-based thought leader, management consultant, coach, speaker, two-time tech startup founder, and the author of seven books, including The Power of Pull. He is the Co-Founder and recent past chairman of the highly respected Center for the Edge at Deloitte and the Founder of Center Beyond Our Edge. He’s on the Board of Trustees of the Santa Fe Institute, exploring complex adaptive systems, and on the faculty of Singularity University in the Corporate Innovation department. John holds a B.A. from Wesleyan University, a BPhil from Oxford University, and a J.D. and MBA from Harvard University. Follow him on Twitter @jhagel and read his personal blog at

In this Significance Learning Center post, we're honored to have John Hagel as a guest blogger to give you a sneak peak of key topics in his forthcoming book, From Pressure to Passion. Enjoy!

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