The legend of you

Fed Ex was based on an idea Fred Smith had in college. He shared the idea in a paper, which got a C because of the idea’s impracticality. Nobody thought it would work.

In the early days of the company, it looked like the skeptics were right – it wasn’t obvious they would make it.

Sometimes drivers didn’t have enough fuel to do the whole route, so there are stories of drivers pawning their watches to get cash to fill the trucks themselves, because the packages had to be delivered.

A mentor of mine who was an early executive there said that it was not uncommon for his boss to come to them and ask how much cash they actually needed that pay period, and to ask if they could take the balance of their check in stock.

And of course, it is well known that one particular week when they couldn’t meet payroll, Fred Smith cleaned out the bank account and went to Vegas and won the money to make payroll on the craps tables.

The stories are legendary. And that’s my point.

When Smith was faced with a payroll bill he had no hope of paying, I doubt he felt like a business genius. I bet he felt like a failure. If the only way your business works involves your drivers paying out of their own pocket for the gas to do their routes, I bet that doesn’t feel like a win. Looking your executives in the eye and telling them they can’t get their whole paychecks this week can’t feel good.

No, I bet none of that processed as “winning”.

The reason I am telling you this isn’t to say that Smith didn’t quit, and quitters don’t win, and rah, rah, rah.

No, the thing I love about these stories is that now, 30 years later, Fed Ex brags about them. If you go to work there, they have people come into your orientation class to tell you the stories. They brag about the early failures, the missteps, the times it almost went under.

It has become part of the legend of Fed Ex.

Legends are funny things. They exist, and they grow over time. They are stories we tell to make sense of things that happened. In retrospect they seem almost foreordained.

Like a wise old man who has been through the war and lived to tell about it, Fed Ex has scars that taught it things, and, they believe, made it better. In fact, made it who it is. They are the stories they tell themselves about themselves. 

In the moment, however, the people those stories are happening to are not processing them as history. I bet George Washington had tons of self-doubt that freezing Christmas night when he crossed the Delaware River to surprise the enemy.  Washington’s men were starving and literally freezing to death. But now? That story is legendary.

Thinking about this idea – that failures and bad experiences are the stories that will shape us in the future – has changed how I process and deal with those bad things.

When you are going through the dark times, ask yourself, “What will I learn from this? In 20 years, how will I describe this time? If I am mentoring or talking to someone then who is going through what I am going through now, what will I tell them? What advice would I give them?”

In short, ask yourself, “How will this contribute to the legend of me?”

Our stories matter. So tell good ones.

Life is about stories. Our lives are made up of stories, and as the computer in the Spike Jonze movie Her said, the past is a story we tell ourselves about ourselves.

Because of that, I believe that stories matter.  And sometimes, the stories we tell ourselves are the problem.

In his book The Powers That Be, the theologian Walter Wink unveiled what he called The Myth of Redemptive Violence.  This myth tells us that the way you overcome evil is with violence. That violence saves us.

This myth is pervasive. Think of the Popeye cartoons. Every single episode has the same plot:

  • Life is good.
  • Bluto desires Olive
  • Bluto tries to rape Olive
  • Olive resists, but is not powerful enough
  • Popeye tries to save Olive, but is not powerful enough.
  • Popeye eats spinach, beats the crap out of Bluto
  • Life is good again.

The way we get life to be good, Popeye tells us, is we beat the crap out of oppressors. Rambo tells us that too. So does Rocky, by the way, as does many of our movies and songs.

It isn’t just Popeye and the movies. The myth is wrapped up in US history as well.

  • The British enacted oppressive taxation – so we went to war.
  • The Southern states would not quit owning and selling people – so we went to war.
  • What ended the Great Depression? – We went to war.
  • How did we tackle poverty? Or drugs? – We went to war with poverty. And drugs. .
  • When we were victims of terrorism in 2001, what did we do? We went to war with a country that was not involved in the attack. When that did not work, we went to war with another country.

It’s why, when we hear of people who do not own guns and are not afraid, they are almost always asked what they will do if someone threatens a loved one. It is almost like we don’t have any other language for how to resolve our difficulties.

The Myth of Redemptive Violence is everywhere. So what do we do about it? Wink said that we need to tell better stories. The reason we can only imagine violent responses to evil is because those are the only stories we hear and share. Those are the stories we tell, and they become normalized. So much so that when we occasionally hear of an elderly woman outwitting her attacker by nonviolent means, we discount it, and think it cute.

But violence isn’t the only place we see false myths that reside in stories, myths that reinforce the status quo.

A contemporary example:

After midnight on Friday morning, the Senate healthcare bill died. It was super close, but because of John McCain’s last minute vote, the bill was defeated, saving the Affordable Care Act and keeping millions of people insured. That is the way the story is being told.

And it’s true, as far as it goes.

But we tell that story as if it just sprung up out of nowhere, waiting for McCain to do the right thing. He is lionized for his bravery for changing sides. John McCain as the hero of the story reinforces what my friend David LaMotte, in his book Worldchanging 101, calls the hero narrative – that the way we overcome obstacles and injustice is by having a hero lead us. A hero like Martin Luther King. Like George Washington. Like Rosa Parks. A hero like John McCain.

We want a hero. We want the story to be simple – that one man (it’s almost always a man) stood up to oppression, stood up to the powers that be, and thus overcame the darkness.

But LaMotte argued that change seldom happens because of heroes. Change mostly happens because of movements.

John McCain did a courageous thing, going against his own party and voting “no” on a bill that there was tremendous political pressure to vote “yes’. But McCain has a long history of going against his party. He is one of the most senior members of the Senate. He is 80 years old and was recently diagnosed with brain cancer, so he probably is at the end of his career. He had very little risk. He isn’t going to be fired, he doesn’t need the votes to get re-elected, and is probably going to be absent from the senate for a long time going forward as he gets treatment for brain cancer.

Those of us who are glad the bill was defeated should be glad of how he voted, but I don’t know that it is heroic.

On the other hand, Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski also voted no. But they were always clear that they were voting no. Both have much less seniority than John McCain. Both are young enough to have potentially long careers in front of themselves. Both are risking a great deal. And yet they stood firm. They made it possible for McCain’s far less risky vote to make a difference.

So, why is it that when we tell the story, the idea of a man who does the “right” thing at the last minute at very little risk to himself is a powerful narrative we wish to embrace, while the story of two women who stand their ground at great political risk, whose actions enable the man to act isn’t?

I suspect it has to do with several things, but the hero narrative is a big part of it. And in our culture, people we laud as heroes tend to be male. And when we tell the story of McCain as a hero for his vote, we reinforce the idea that heroes are males, and that the women who did the risky work that made his act possible are not doing heroic things, and are not themselves heroes.

Both Walter Wink and David LaMotte were convinced (and they convinced me) that the way we overcome the pervasiveness of these myths is to tell better stories. Tell the stories that involve the world we wish to see. Tell stories that tell the truth, that share other ways of navigating violence, stories that share other ways of enacting social change. Tell the stories about the contributions of movements, tell stories of nonviolence.

In other words, our stories matter. Our stories change things.

So make sure you are telling a good one.