Every four years, people around the world tune into their screens to watch world-class athletes strive for victory and win gold for their country. World records are broken and history is made, but it is not just the victory and the medal tally that make the Olympic Games so captivating. It is the inspirational stories behind the athletes. The struggle, grit, hard-work and the unwavering determination to achieve success that they show, that really draws us into the games and imprints these moments into history for us.
But what is it that draws us into their stories? Why is it, that as human beings, we are born with an innate yearning for narrative in our lives – to understand the background and struggle of others so that their eventual triumph is more meaningful to us?
Storytelling has become one of the most fundamental aspects of human development. Right from our early beginnings, stories have helped us to grow, understand, imagine and explore our infinite cognitive capacity. It helps us navigate everyday living, solve the problems of the world, and allows us to have context and perspective on life experiences.
Storytelling is as human as eating and drinking. It evolved with the rise of language and tribalism. It helped evolve our brain, it was at the centre of how we learned, how we grew our wisdom. It recorded history, and bound us together when we had nothing other than the basic human toolkit – words, sounds, expressions and movement.
Storytelling helps us understand what the difference between right and wrong is. It helps shape our attitudes and beliefs and sets rules for moral behaviour.
Fiction prepares us for the unexpected events in life. It ensures we’re ready for whatever comes our way and is a window into an alternative world. People experience stories as if they were feeling them themselves. At a neurological level, the brain processes the experiences as if they were real rather than simulated or imagined – The Science of Storytelling.
“Stories can be a way for humans to feel that we have control over the world. They allow people to see patterns where there is chaos, meaning where there is randomness. Humans are inclined to see narratives where there are none because it can afford meaning to our lives—a form of existential problem-solving” (Delistraty. C, 2014).
“Our stories become richer and become far more interesting when they go against the settled order of things to really achieve something different and unexpected” (Spacey. K, 2014). This is why we feel so deeply for those athletes who have overcome adversity to be where they are, and why it is so much richer when they do finally achieve their goals. The first rule of storytelling in Pixar’s 22 Rules is to ‘admire characters for attempting more than what their successes have been’. This is the fundamental reason particular athletes’ stories resonate so much with us. It is a natural human emotion to rally behind the underdog, empathise with those who have struggled and believe in those who strive for more.
We can’t necessarily choose the stories we have in our lives. But in the end – all we really are is stories. It’s how we remember people and it makes us feel less alone in the world. We never leave the land of make believe, we just enter the worlds created by others. We understand life through stories. We cannot live without them.
Gottschall, J (2012). The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Published by Mariner Books.
Spacey, K (2014). Content Marketing Institute Conference – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJnP2wsgnoA