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My Favorite Leadership Book is Banned in North Korea

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“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

I’ve read a lot of books on leadership but there’s only one that I’ve read more than 5 times. Everytime I find myself in a situation where I wish I was in control, I dust off my copy of Animal Farm by George Orwell.

Written during the Second World War as an allegorical case against Stalinism, Animal Farm found itself immediately banned in the USA for putting our ally, Russia, in a less than positive light. That quickly changed as the war ended and tensions rose between the US and the USSR. After the War, the book was banned in communist countries. It remains banned today in North Korea and Cuba.

Why? Because it’s full of truth. The kind of truth that topples empires.

Originally published as a “fairy story,” Orwell’s allegorical masterpiece drives home one of the most consistently true patterns in human history: When a group of people who want power finally achieve power, they face a near-irresistible tension to rule others in the same destructive manner that made them seek a rebellion in the first place.

This dark reality is true in geo-politics and office politics, in boardrooms and classrooms, and in factories and families.  For those of us who know the power of story, it is no surprise that this short little fairy tale about a rebel gang of pigs has not gone out of print for  70 years.

Animal Farm is not banned in the USA anymore. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read it. Indeed, a strong case could be made that it is needed now more than ever. Orwell himself warned against the most dangerous form of censorship in a now largely unpublished foreword to the book:

“The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary…. Things are kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervenes but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact.” – George Orwell

There it is.

Governments banning stories is bad. But self-censorship out of fear, complacency and self-preservation may be the worst mistake any of us could make.

Silly Rabbit, Trix is for Adults!

Two years ago General Mills made a very grown-up and courageous move. They took one of their flagship cereals, Trix, and removed the artificial colors in it. Specifically, they traded Red 40 and Yellow 6 for coloring made from turmeric and radishes.

And people hated it. The colors were muted. It tasted different. They got grief on social media for turning a childhood treat into a “bowl of salad.” So finally, they relented and gave the people what they really wanted all along…chemicals!

“We heard from many Trix fans that they missed the bright vibrant colors and the nostalgic taste of the classic Trix cereal,” said General Mills rep Mike Siemienas in a statement to The Wall Street Journal.

There you have it. So what’s the lesson for us storytellers?

People are nostalgic, sentimental creatures. Very few people are eating Trix because they think it tastes better than eggs benedict. We eat Trix for the story – to go on a journey back to simpler time when our biggest concern was trading duplicate Garbage Pail Kids cards for Fruit Roll-Ups. We eat Trix to be a kid again. And when you mess with the tastes, smells and sights of our childhood you’ve gone too far.

General Mills came to their senses this week. They realized were never selling Trix to kids. They were selling memories to grown-ups.

Silly company, Trix is for sentimental aging Gen-Xers.

How One Christmas Gift Changed My Life

By | Joe Boyd's Blog | No Comments

About 16  years ago my wife, Debbie, gave me the most transformative gift I have ever received. It changed the trajectory of my life (and hers) forever. This sounds like I am setting you up to write about the birth of one of my kids. I love my kids. They are awesome… and a “gift” in many ways. But I’m not actually trying to be that esoteric here. I am talking about a normal, regular old traditional Christmas gift that changed everything. She had no idea the portal she was opening.

What she knew was that I was depressed. My career wasn’t exactly going the way I had planned. I had secretly confessed to her a few times that I had the desire to perform comedy. I felt like I was too old to try something that off-the-wall, though. (I was 29 with two kids. We were building a new house. I was trying to accept being a grown up.)

On a date a few months before Christmas we attended The Second City comedy show at the Flamingo Hilton in Las Vegas. We lived in Vegas at the time and would occasionally check out a show on a Friday night. I loved the show that night. I fell in love with improv when I was in middle school and found the BBC version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? This was long before Drew Carey did his thing in America. There was also a short-lived Groundlings improv show on TV when I was a kid. It amazed me that these people could perform and be so funny with no script and no plan. Deep down as a kid I thought that maybe I would try that someday, but I had other seemingly more important ambitions that never gave me the chance… until my wife gave me the one gift that changed everything.

What was this big gift? She enrolled me in the Second City Training Center in Las Vegas. I remember thinking that she was crazy. I wasn’t sure I had the time to attend the “how to be funny” training, but I gave it a shot. A few weeks later I walked into a dance studio on Industrial Road just off the Vegas Strip. It doubled as a storage unit for showgirl costumes. I remember lots of feathers. There were about 12 other beginning students there. My first level instructor was named Michael, an understudy in the show we had just seen. He told us that we were going to have fun, play games and tell stories. He told us that if we didn’t try too hard we would enjoy ourselves. He told us to never try to be funny. To listen. To support each other. To always say, “yes, and.” He said that we were allowed to fail.

The three hours I spent every week in that dance studio were the best hours of my week. In some ways, they were among the best hours of my life. I remember walking out of that first class and thinking, “so this is where people like me end up.” I had found a community, a tribe, and though it would take me years to put words to it, I had found my life philosophy. I discovered that I am fundamentally an improviser.

Had Debbie known all that would come from that she may have had second thoughts about her gift. If she could have seen into the future, she might have been a little scared of the years of chaos those classes would spark. I think now — 16 years later — she would do it all over, but that gift was disruptive to say the least.

Within a year those classes gave way to a new career. I went from taking classes as a hobby to performing six nights weekly at an improv show in Las Vegas. That led to opportunities to do improv and act in Los Angeles. Within three years of that first class we had moved to L.A. Within four years I was working in TV. Within five years I was producing my first movie. In 2007, an opportunity arose in Cincinnati that I would have never been open to had those improv classes not taken us to L.A. I began producing more movies. That morphed into a creative agency called Rebel Pilgrim that launched seven years ago.

I’m prone to be overly dramatic at times, but that’s not what this is. This is just the truth. Most everything in my life right now doesn’t exist if Debbie hadn’t given me that one particular gift a decade and a half ago. If you’ve met me over the last 10 years, then that meeting never happens without that gift. None of those movies or books or teachings or business partnerships or (most significantly) personal relationships in my life would exist without that gift.

Sometimes the people who love you know what you need more than you do. I have this hunch that all of our lives can be traced back to one or two gifts that we received at just the right time from just the right person. In that regard, the right gift at the right time can change everything and lead to decades of meaning and joy for, not just the person receiving the gift, but for all those who will meet them in the future.

Three Reasons Why Storytelling is the Key to Everything

By | Joe Boyd's Blog | No Comments

I tell stories because they are the most powerful force in the universe to make a difference in the lives of real people. All great truths come to us through story. Story shapes us constantly, and whether people realize it or not, the story they believe in any given moment has monumental consequences.

Here are 3 big reasons I believe storytelling is so powerful.

  1. Stories are emotional. All people, save a handful of psychopaths, make decisions on an emotional level. Logic is important, yes. But it is fundamentally emotion, backed up by logic, that makes us move or change. Stories create emotion in us like nothing else. In fact, without story there would be no emotions at all. Data can’t cause emotion until we connect it to a story.
  2. Stories are communal. Imagine a total stranger getting up in front of a room of a few hundred people. If they recite facts at us we are going to quickly grow bored. If they impose their beliefs on us we will be offended. If they ask for something from us we will grow jaded. But if they tell a story – maybe the story of their biggest failure, or the first time they fell in love, or the day they buried their father – then we connect. Story breaks down barriers and creates empathy. All the differences in us fade away when an authentic human connection occurs mid-story. It’s that commonality that brings to mind the time you yourself failed, or fell in love, or buried a parent. Suddenly we are way more the same than we are different.
  3. Stories are imaginative. We are hard-wired to argue over facts and issues. We develop -isms and -ologies to define ourselves. While we naturally critique definitive statements, a good story is rarely instantly debated. Stories engage our brain in a different way. We suspend our opinions and judgments in the middle of a well-told story. We’re ready to take the ride with someone. We may possibly judge them afterward, but we won’t in the moment. In the moment, we’re just present. Being present with someone creates space for a genuine connection to occur.

We all go through life with both declared and hidden agendas. We can’t help that. But stories allow us to set down our agendas for a moment – like a Christmas Day cease-fire. The most politically charged issues can be gently discussed within the context of someone’s story.

Storytelling is my job. I lead a growing creative agency and production company. We make videos and web media, put on live events and do creative consulting. I see everyday the power of a well-crafted story. I also see the danger of a story that lacks emotion, congruence or authenticity.  Sometimes in the business world we lose track of the main thing. (It’s easy to do. I can’t say I haven’t done it myself a few times.) But the main thing is telling a great story. It’s the only way to get where you want to go.

How We All Make Decisions

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Every decision people make in life is an emotional decision.

There is no such thing as a decision purely based in logic. Those who think so are just emotionally attached to being logical.

And emotion only comes from one place: stories.

Data or facts alone won’t change people. Some people can take raw data and create a story from it. These people are highly imaginative. Most people can’t (or won’t) do this so easily. These people need storytellers. Whoever tells the best stories in a culture creates movement and sparks change. It’s always been that way.

So whatever action you want others to take is completely dependent on the story you tell them — or more accurately, the story they believe you tell them. It doesn’t matter if it’s buying your car, signing up for your e-newsletter, voting for you for mayor or hiring you for that new job – if you tell the right story to the right people that creates the right emotional response, you’ll get the change you want.

That’s why I have devoted my life to helping others tell stories. I can’t think of a better way to spend my days.

What story are you telling people today?