My name is Ingrid and I am a storyteller

I love stories, I always have, and I come from a long line of storytellers, both on my mother’s and my father’s side. When my sisters and I were little, we would huddle together under a blanket as my dad, in a deep deep voice, told scary stories of the Big Bad Wolf. In my mind I can still see the picture he painted: the ramshackle cabin in the deep dark forest under towering fir trees, and the telephone the wolf always used to call the pigs to trick them to come to different places where he planned to catch and eat them. I get goose bumps just thinking about it.

But I didn’t realize what a great influence stories have had on me and almost everything I do until relatively recently. I remember being about thirteen years old and struggling to remember important dates when studying for a history test in school. In my desperation, realized that if I read my history book like a story, it would be much easier to remember. And presto: I aced the test. Without knowing it I developed a tool for myself, which I use again and again, whether with my kids, with colleagues, with clients, or with students. If I prepare a lecture, for example, I weave a story of the theories, cases, and examples. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to even remember what I am supposed to talk about for 90 minutes. And when giving talks, I don’t think of them as presentations, but rather as stories I tell – again, more for my own sake than anything else. And it works; most people seem to like stories and I find that I can engage them in this way.

So when I saw one of Brené Brown’s TED talks a while back, I felt all the pieces of the puzzle just fall into place. I liked her talk – it’s definitely worth a watch – but it’s what she calls herself that I love. She calls herself a researcher storyteller, and when I heard that I though wow, that’s exactly what I want to be! And I am. Regardless of what I’ve done in my previous career or what I end up doing in the future, I have always been and will always be a storyteller.

I’m going to end with a quote I found in a novel a few years ago. I don’t remember much about the novel, except that I liked it, but apparently there was one passage that made an impression because I wrote it down on a piece of scrap paper that I found the other day when sifting through old piles. So here it is, Brian Morton in Starting Out in the Evening:

“The story-making organ never sleeps… The world, the human world, is bound together not by protons and electrons, but by stories. Nothing has meaning in itself: all objects in the world would be shards of bare mute blankness, spinning wildly out of orbit, if we didn’t bind them together with stories.”

Isn’t that just so true?

Living in the moment

Everything seems to be about metrics these days. In the name of prosperity, we are encouraged and pushed to continuously time, weigh, and assess ourselves and our accomplishments. And I have to say while I find it quite fascinating, I frankly also find it a bit off-putting.

It first struck me many years ago when I was pregnant with my first child. I was constantly being weighed and measured during my prenatal check-ups, which I of course understand. We want our children to be born healthy and the prenatal care in Finland is among the best in the world, and Finland also boasts one of the lowest infant mortality rates globally. However, I found it slightly irritating at the time because it was always followed by a discussion that invariably made me feel inadequate. If the baby had a growth spurt since my last check-up I would get a talk about how I shouldn’t eat too much and how soft drinks just make the baby fat, and if the baby hadn’t put on a lot of weight I would get a talk about needing to eat properly. It seems to me that nothing in this world naturally develops in a neat linear progression, babies certainly don’t; and as for my pregnancy, I felt good, I didn’t gain too much weight (I never drank soft drinks because I just didn’t want to), and at the end of the pregnancy I gave birth to a healthy baby. But I felt frustrated to be so scrutinized by health officials, even though everything was fine. And for my baby, it seems little has changed. In school her height and weight is constantly followed up (as it is for all students) and is accompanied with a discussion of her eating habits. Public health care in Finland is of high quality and this is of course an admirable and important attempt to capture bad habits and possible eating disorders, of which my child by the way has neither, but it just strikes me that in this case these discussions make an issue of something that is not.

However it isn’t only about health care. In today’s society we are so obsessed with the concept of efficiency and growth that we measure everything ad absurdum. We do it at work and we do it in our free time. We measure the minutes of the day and the week and how often or how much time we spend doing or consuming different things. We measure how far we go and how fast we move. We count our friends and connections and how many likes we get. It goes on and on and every additional little thing we are told to measure adds a bit to my stress levels because it is just one more thing to follow up.

But it’s interesting, because while we are obsessed with becoming faster, better, and more efficient, research tells us that this constant streamlining actually defeats its purpose. According to scientific studies, it turns out that efficiency comes from slowing down, reflecting, and being in the moment. For example, the other day I read research conducted by scholars from Princeton and the University of California that shows that taking notes by hand is, contrary to popular belief, much more efficient than typing them electronically. The reason is that when we type on a computer, we are so fast that we often copy things down word for word, and when we do that we don’t really think about what we are writing. When we take notes by hand, on the other hand, the going is so slow that we need to listen, understand, think about, and formulate our own interpretation and summary of what the speaker is saying. When having to reflect over what is said, our understanding is greater and we also remember it better. In other words, in this case, slower is better.

I also recently read about Emma Seppälä’s research on happiness and success. Seppälä, a Stanford researcher, argues that by slowing down and being in the moment we can be more productive than if we are constantly focusing on the future and striving to become bigger and better. Apparently we are more creative if we aren’t under constant pressure to be top performers, and as a bonus, staying in the moment and being present is also found to increase feelings of happiness. You can read about this in her book The Happiness Track, although ironically the book’s selling point is that if you read the book and apply the science of happiness you can be more successful. See what I’m saying; we live in a culture of constant striving and streamlining.

So no, I’m not personally very interested in measuring my work efforts or my free time – although I do have plans and dreams, don’t get me wrong. But I try to live in the moment simply because if I don’t, I feel like time just slips through my fingers. If I don’t pause and reflect over where I am and what that feels like, it’s almost as if I lose chunks of time that I barely remember experiencing.

On that note, what a beautiful day it is; I think I’m going to enjoy this moment and go for a jog. I don’t really care how far exactly I will run nor how fast; I’m not training for anything specific. I just need to get up and move after sitting glued to the computer screen and I want to be outside in the crisp autumn air. Just that, and knowing that I will break a sweat and be somewhat out of breath when I get back, is good enough for me.

Be a mensch

The other day my son and I were having a conversation at bedtime, as we usually do. He asked me why there are so many awful people in the world who do such terrible things. It’s a tough question for a mother. You want to protect your children from everything evil and scary, but you also want them to be aware so that they can be safe. But still it’s hard. I find myself turning off the radio and the TV when the news comes on, because the news is absolutely horrific with color pictures of misery, death, and gore. If the same thing is shown in a movie, which is pretend, there is an age limit. But real life horror has no age limit and is broadcasted during all hours of a child’s day.

I thought for a moment lying next to my son, and then I answered his question as honestly as I could and said that I don’t know, but what I do know is that although there are many really bad people there are at least as many if not more really good people. And it is true there are a lot of good people in the world.

However, sometimes I wonder if that goodness just gets lost amidst all the egos and political rhetoric. In a time when I’m feeling quite disillusioned by the actions of my country’s leaders, it kind of makes you wonder if they are so caught up in their political power struggles that they just forgot how to be a mensch.

I saw a speech the other day by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that really touched me. As usual Adichie is intelligent and eloquent and really hits the nail on its head in her talk about the plight of the refugees fleeing their homes in search of safety. She talks about dignity, sorrow, hope, and pride, and she calls for a narrative in which we truly see those of whom we speak. No one is, after all, only a refugee. (Please watch it, it’s important, in addition to just being a great talk.)

Well anyway, I shared her speech on Facebook and a friend commented on my post, and raised a really important point. She wondered whether this thing where we don’t actually see people is a wider societal phenomenon that goes beyond the plight of the refugees. She talked about how when everything is so hectic we just don’t have the time, but that we don’t make the time either. It’s like we don’t even want to really see each other for who we really are. Think about it. Do you think that’s true?

I think she has a point. There is something about the way we live, about our culture, about the way we connect quickly and fleetingly through social media, thinking that we have kept in touch while really we grow apart if we don’t actually ever see each other or even have a real conversation every now and then. Let’s face it, we are pretty busy navel gazing much of the time as we for example document and continuously report the minutiae of our lives – minutiae, which is often also very stylized. I mean how many of you rearrange the food and cutlery on the table over and over until you get the perfect picture, or take three, five, ten selfies until you have one that is good enough to post? I admit; I’ve done it.

It’s not entirely our fault; we are very much affected by social norms and ideals, and the social structures that we are a part of, form and limit our actions. However, these structures are created and upheld by people – by us. We are also active agents involved in producing and reproducing this culture in which we live. So we can’t just shrug and say what can you do, that’s just the way it is. We not only can, we need to be reflective of what we do.

So let’s open our eyes and see each other for who we really are. And to the world leaders and politicians out there, be a mensch and make this world a more humane place for our children.