Once Upon a Time
On Spreadsheets and Storytelling
If you're going to have a story, have a big story, or none at all. —Joseph Campbell
Above: A tradition unlike any other—friends gathered and fables recounted around the fire.
Pull up a seat and kick up your feet.
Grab your favorite, old, battered mug.
Pour yourself some piping hot coffee or tea and settle in, dear reader.
It’s time for a brief story.
Like most things, it started with that faint, foreign inkling of an idea; a phenomenon not unlike a lighthouse’s faraway, sweeping beam or a wingtip light’s staccato twinkling.
Unlike the flickers of airplane or lighthouse, this was neither ephemeral nor short-lived. Rather, it came to life—birthed in a mess of figurative blood and sweat and tears.
Like all ideas, it came in with a bang.
Like most, it went out with a whimper.
Through long meetings and longer hours at the office…
Product roadmap after product roadmap…
Standards set and laws broken…
Ceaseless cajoling and banal bickering…
It was made real: a startup in the flesh.
In fact, you have likely heard of it.
It is an amalgamation of apps and their developers, ride-hailers and their ride-hailees, software and services, logistics and legwork.
In fact, take a beat. You can likely guess its name.
What comes to mind?
I’m describing none other than Juno, the inglorious, defunct vehicle-for-hire startup.
Unfamiliar? Well, it shut down its operations in 2019.
Read on, as this proves my forthcoming point.
Why waste your precious time and my limited space on yet another defunct startup, you ask?
Put simply: to highlight the importance of storytelling in work, in life, in all things.
A business without a clear story resembles a car without an engine. No matter how much you kick, scream, or turn its crankshaft over, it won’t go anywhere. It’s no more than a dead vehicle sitting (or a dead company walking, for that matter).
Like near all things in life, I find business simple, but not easy.
It consists of two foundational pillars: spreadsheets and storytelling.
Spreadsheets represent the table stakes; that nitty gritty operational rigor necessary to bring about the business, to make the damn thing work. These myriad minutiae resemble the chassis of a car; they are absolutely essential for meaningful execution.
Storytelling articulates the overarching vision and ethos; it differentiates the Mustang from the Maybach, the Range Rover from the Rally Car, Alexander the Great from Alexander the Mediocre.
Though seemingly superficial, the latter (i.e. storytelling) steers a vehicle powered by the former (i.e. spreadsheets).
Sans spreadsheets, a business will fail to launch. Sans storytelling, it will careen off course.
Together, they can propel a business any which way in service of its desired destination.
Take Juno, Uber, Lyft as examples. Fundamentally, they offer an identical, commoditized service: cheap transportation from point A to point B in a (usually) dinky vehicle.
Their difference lies in their brand.
Their brand derives from their financial backing.
Their financial backing comes from their ability to sell their story.
Don’t take my word for it, read those of modern-day soothsayer Morgan Housel:
How many great ideas have already been discovered but could grow 100x or more if someone just explained them better?
How many products have only found a fraction of their potential market because the company is so bad at describing them to customers?
Good stories make prices go up and help things happen.
They get you the job or the girl.
Great stories create generational wealth and unlock leaping emergent effects.
They get you the promotion or the “yes” in response to proposal.
Bad stories destroy fortunes, friendships, future opportunity.
Take three, compelling stories from everyday life:
1—Money. Today’s dollar has as much backing as its weight—that is, virtually nothing. The dollar or ruble or peso represents no more than grand delusion held up by collective belief. Each is mere chapter in one of the greatest stories ever told: currency. As written by author Yuval Noah Harari:
Money is the probably the most successful story ever told. It has no objective value... but then you have these master storytellers: the big bankers, the finance ministers... and they come, and they tell a very convincing story.
Nota bene: This only further underscores the macroscopic, global importance of both web3 and cryptocurrencies.
2—Patriotism. It has been said that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” To elaborate, I share the words of two penmen much more talented than I:
“The Patriot Game” by Dominic Behan
Come all you young rebels, and list while I sing
For the love of one's country is a terrible thing
It banishes fear with the speed of a flame
And it makes us all part of the patriot game
My name is O'Hanlon, I've just gone sixteen
My home is in Monaghan and where I was weaned
I've been told all my life cruel England's to blame
So I am part of the patriot's game
It's barely two years since I wandered away
With a local battalion of the bold IRA
I've read of our heroes, I've wanted the same
For the play up my part in the patriot's game
This Ireland of ours has for long been half free
Six counties are under John Bull's tyranny
And most of our leaders are greatly to blame
For shirking their part in the patriot's game
They told me how Connolly was shot in his chair
His wounds from the battle all bleeding and bare
His fine body twisted, all tattered and lame
They soon made me part of the patriot's game
Now I am dying, my body all holes
I think of those traitors who bargained and sold
I'm sorry my rifle has not done the same
For the Quislings who sold out the patriot game
“Dulce et Decorum est” by Wilfred Owen
…My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
3—You, yourself. The stories we tell both to ourselves and to others play a large role dictating who we are and what we become. After all, our life is (literally and figuratively) an inside job—a wily agglomeration of absorbed narratives. Whether at work, in a relationship, or at home—to friends and foes alike—these together weave a tapestry of who we are, why we are, how we are; not only to us, but also to the world as a whole.
So then, let the muse settle inside you and tell a good one. It may well alter both the trajectory and the outcome of your life.
Besides, no one wants to end up like Juno: dead, defunct, forgotten.
Below: What ink will you spill onto the blank pages that make up your future?
Per my about page, White Noise is a work of experimentation. I view it as a sort of thinking aloud, a stress testing of my nascent ideas. Through it, I hope to sharpen my opinions against the whetstone of other people’s feedback, commentary, and input.
If you want to discuss any of the ideas or musings mentioned above or have any books, papers, or links that you think would be interesting to share on a future edition of White Noise, please reach out to me by replying to this email or following me on Twitter.
With sincere gratitude,