In our efforts to better understand the relationship between communities’ collective self-image and their collective well-being, The Narrative Renewal Project reached out to friends and colleagues with relevant expertise. Here’s what we learned from Ayesha Mathews-Wadhwa, founder and creative director of Pixink Design.
You’ve had the opportunity to observe the way stories are told in many different cultures. Pick two communities that seem pretty different. What are the differences in the ways members of these communities tell their own stories? What are some similarities?
I spent the first two decades of my life being influenced by the culture and community in the South of India, with the largest span of time in Bangalore (80’s and 90’s). The past 14 years have been influenced by equal parts New York and San Francisco with a defining year in Paris.
Here’s an observation on personal storytelling in India and America and how it differs:
In India storytelling with the focus on oneself was frowned upon. In fact, most things to do with the importance of “self” was discouraged to pursue the importance on the “other” – family, social interactions, acts of service … the “self” most definitely came second. Who you were was less important than what you had done, and if what you had done bore any significance whatsoever, someone else would be extolling your virtues. Often “self-actualization” got muddled with “selfishness.”
In America our sense of “self” is continually celebrated. Who we are leads more of the narrative rather that what we have done – no one tells our story better than we can ourselves. Personal feelings, preferences, thoughts all take precedent over the other. We are the protagonists of our stories. Independence trumps interdependence.
To sum up – in America it’s the “I feel, therefore I am” narrative and in India the narrative was “I do, therefore I am”.
While culture and community may influence the narratives we tell others , I’ve discovered it has no bearing on the unconscious narratives we tell ourselves. Narratives that we use to frame the world and shape our sense of identity. These are all quite similar – as in often leaving us unhealthy emotionally and physically. So rewriting /editing the stories we tell ourselves and replacing the central theme of fear with the theme of love is a narrative all of us can share in.
When you are working with clients, what are some of the main challenges people face as they attempt to tell their own stories? Have you seen something similar happening to any communities in which you have lived or worked?
This happened last week with one of our clients based in India. When it came to talking about himself and his personal “brand,” the self-made successful Indian businessman completely relied on his Indian-American colleague to do the talking for him. This was less an issue with language (he spoke English just fine) but more a sense of discomfort with personally narrating his story and success.
Having grown up in India, I struggle with this all the time. I hate talking about myself and even then always prefer being asked specific questions about my story rather than launch into a prepped spiel celebrating “me.” I’m often in awe and a tad envious of my American and Indian American colleagues who seem to be able to make themselves sound really impressive with their compelling, succinct stories of “self.” However, helping elicit personal stories/values/character from people or businesses with a goal to make them “visible” (so they effectively mirror what they aspire to be) inspires me no end. It’s one reason why I do the work I do.
Think about the community where you live now. What are some of the key stories this community tells about itself? Would you change any of them if you could? How?
New York? San Fran? Given my bicoastal life… I guess I get the benefits of a blended community or the muddle! The differences in narratives are subtle in some ways and glaringly different in others.
As I’m physically in San Fran contemplating this question, I’ll go with the Silicon Valley stories. Pretty much all of our key stories here fascinate or irritate me! Here’s three:
Come, “start-up” and conquer - I love this story in spite of its lottery nature. Entrepreneurship layered with design and branding has been a journey of self-actualization for me. The one thing I would add to this story is a theme of sustainability – i.e support, maintain and manage all resources (people, planet, profit) responsibly.
Scale! Scale! Scale! – I’d change this story because as Ricardo Semler says “only two things grow for the sake of growth: businesses and tumors.” I’m a big fan of growing “small” – “small” steps taken slowly and strategically based on good old-fashioned business principles of creating value, taking care of employees/customers and fair pricing. It’s probably why most of the businesses I admire and trust have very few that’s based on the Valley’s scale-and-burn mentality.
Social Enterprise – The story of entrepreneurial principles creating positive returns to society is the kind of story I want for my bedtime reading and anytime reading actually… this is probably one context where “scale” might be worth pursuing.