If you want to grow as a company, you have to do it organically, not by following trends. Ask your customers what they want and then build from that. Stop anticipating the next trend and just work on your core business. Be creative and original. Join your host Bob Roark and his guest Dr. Angus Fletcher as they break down how you can lead your business to grow organically. Angus is a Professor of Story Science at Ohio State’s Project Narrative. Discover Angus’s love for both neuroscience and storytelling. Come and join the conversation on how you can grow your company in a world that’s so different from before. Be open to change and anomalies so that you can grow. Feed your creative brain so that you can grow. Grow organically today!
Watch the episode here:
How To Grow Your Company Organically In This New World With Dr. Angus Fletcher
Our guest is Dr. Angus Fletcher. He is a professor at Ohio State University’s Project Narrative. He is a polymath with dual degrees in Neuroscience and Literature. He received his PhD from Yale, taught Shakespeare at Stanford, and published two books and numerous peer-reviewed articles. He has consulted with Sony, Disney, Amazon, and the Army Command and General Staff College. He is the author and presenter of the Audible Great Course Guide to Screenwriting. He was awarded the Rodica C. Botoman Award for Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching and Mentoring 2020. Welcome to the show.
Angus Fletcher, thank you so much for taking the time to be on the show.
Thanks for inviting me. I’m honored and excited.
In the pre-interview here, I was doing homework. The more homework I did, the more I knew I was lacking. I talked to another good friend of yours, Ken Long. He had some input too and he says, “Maybe he has this.” We will narrow down the discussion as to how it might apply to the business community and narrative. What I was fascinated with is you have literature and neuroscience. It’s like chicken and egg. Which one came first?
I started in neuroscience and that continues to be the bedrock of everything that I do as a young neuroscience researcher. I was in the lab where, like every other lab in America, everyone thought the brain was a computer. They thought that the brain is operated by taking on data, storing it into memory, and then processing that data to make decisions logically and that the brain program has this thing called emotion. That was how everyone was working on the brain.
I started to notice the human brain didn’t work as a computer at all. First of all, human brains are much worse at doing logic than most computers. Human brains can’t take on the same amount of data. Even when we do, we are much more irregular in how we process it. Humans are a lot smarter than computers in certain situations. Humans are much better at low-data decision-making. We are much better at figuring out what to do when there’s not a lot of information. That’s a situation where AI goes completely haywire.
Humans are also better at being creative. Even though AI can be better at predicting the future, humans can be better at making the future and making it in ways that AI can’t predict. That got me thinking, “What is this secret thing that’s going on in the human brain that’s different from what is going on in computers? How is it that we can have these other kinds of intelligence?”
That started me on this very unusual career, where I went to Silicon Valley and Hollywood. I have a PhD and all these kinds of names, which I’m sure your audience doesn’t need to know about. It has brought me into working with the US military, traders, and other folks to bring out some of the insights in terms of how the machinery of the human brain can do things that are different and sometimes smarter than what computers will do.
Part of the reason why I was here to talk with you is I think about the business community. They go to business school, get an MBA and start a business. You find that there are gaps. In the media-focused world, social media, video, LinkedIn, and all the others, I think about the challenge that the business community faces in either communicating properly with their existing client or ideal client. You have done screenplays and movies. You got three minutes to hook them in your video. What does a business owner do to take your skillset and apply it to media creation?If you want to build trust with your audience, you have to give them something about yourself, which is true and difficult to reveal. Click To Tweet
First of all, this whole thing about the gaps in MBA programs is true. Every business owner goes to an MBA where you have some of the smartest teachers in the world and they expect they are going to teach you everything. They are paid very little most of the time. Part of that is because so much of modern business theory is based on rational choice theory, economics, and all these kinds of things, which are logical and they are not creative. They are also general and not specific.
The key to being a successful small business owner or getting a business off the ground is being specific and having a unique, original story that has not been told before but immediately connects and hooks people. I’ve got a story at the beginning of my career. I became fascinated with William Shakespeare for reasons that most people are not interested in.
When I went to school, everyone was like, “Shakespeare is the greatest poet of all time. He is so wonderful.” You read it and you’re like, “This is hard and weird.” It has taken me a long time and not a lot seems to be happening here. I remember the first few times I tried to read Shakespeare at school. I couldn’t even get it good. I started to realize the history of what was going on.
What was special about Shakespeare is he invented new stories. He was coming at the end of the Middle Ages and people had been telling the same stories over and over again. Those stories reinforced the way things worked in the Middle Ages. It’s the feudal system. When Shakespeare helped start the Renaissance by saying, “You could invent new stories. When you invent a new story, that invents new narratives, heroes, choices, actions and everything,” I started to think to myself, “How was it that he invented these new stories?”
A simple example is Henry V, which is the genesis of movies like Die Hard or anytime you have a story about an individual who shakes his world as opposed to the world, shaking the individual. The idea that a person could change the world wasn’t something that people thought in the Middle Ages or even in the ancient world but Shakespeare says, “Henry V changed history. He wrote history. History didn’t write him.”
I said, “How do you come up with a new story? Even more than that, how do you get audiences to buy that story?” What was special about Shakespeare is he wrote new stories. Anyone can make a new story but then who listens to them? Shakespeare made up a ton of new stories and it got a big audience. This was when I was at Stanford. I was sitting at Stanford in this room thinking. I said, “How do you do that? That seems to me to be the secret to life, to create a new story and then get people to connect to that story.”
I was thinking and I couldn’t make any progress on it. I realized across the bay for me was a little company called Pixar. Pixar at that time made a movie called Up, which I don’t know if your audience has seen. It’s a weird movie that won a ton of awards and made hundreds of millions of dollars. In other words, it was a Shakespeare. It was a very original story that connected immediately with a big audience. I thought to myself, “They must know something. I’m going to go hang out at Pixar.”
I spent a lot of time hanging out at Pixar, talking to them about Shakespeare. I discovered that Pixar has this vault of unmade outtakes of Pixar movies, where they came up with different endings for Toy Story and they animated them. They tested them and it didn’t work. This is a big experimental secret storyline that they have under there. I took away a ton of stuff and you can find that stuff throughout my research. The simplest core thing that I learned is that Pixar, at its inception, was founded by Steve Jobs.
Steve Jobs brought into the company the same kind of engineering mindset they used to found Apple. At the core of that is this idea of reverse engineering from the user experience. You say, “What do I want to do? How do I work backward to do that?” In other words, what most people who are storytellers do, which is different from Pixar and Shakespeare, is they start by focusing on themselves in the present and say, “What am I? How do I tell people what I am?”
That usually doesn’t get you very far, whereas if you say to yourself, “What do I want to accomplish with this narrative? How do I work backward to figure out how to have that effect?” It’s a simple example with Up. Up is a story. As the title tells you, it’s about taking you up, making you feel good and optimistic. The simplest thing that the storytellers did was they said, “To get you to feel like you’re going up, let’s start by making you feel very down.” The story begins famously with one of the saddest openings ever in a movie.
It’s the same thing if you are a businessperson. Your first thought when you are thinking about your story is, “What action do I want people to take? Do I want them to buy something, trust me or be surprised?” Those are all three different effects and they have different stories. If you want to build trust in an audience, you have to give them something about yourself, which is true and difficult to reveal. That’s what builds trust. When you say something in public, it takes courage.
There’s the big I’m Vulnerable Movement. I’m presuming that fits into what you are talking about.
The core of trust is being able to be open. That is true in a business setting. You don’t build trust in a client unless they feel that you are authentic. That is the key. Everyone knows that. We have to be authentic in our relationships. People care about their friends. That’s why we only make friends when we screw up in front of them and they realize that’s who you are.
If you are going to try and convince a customer to trust you, you have to be honest and say something in public, which is a little bit risky for you because it could make you look bad. It’s scary. The main overall thing is to start backward from what you want to accomplish and then figure out how to do it. Don’t start from where you are, and then try and spin that forward. The number one mistake I see people make in marketing is they focus too much on themselves rather than on the specific thing they are trying to accomplish.
The military has the reverse planning sequence. I’m sure you are aware and you go, “Where do we want to go? We want to go over here. How do we go from here to there and work our way backward?” For the business owner, they are not marketing people by and large. They are inspired, motivated individuals that have insight and will pursue it. Some of them work out to be amazingly effective in what they do but the challenge for the business owner is, “How do I put myself in the shoes of my ideal client?”
Going through Wonderworks, there’s one story that started developing empathy in several other mechanisms and stories, where the tool is deployed and you think about for the business owner. What I was impressed with was the book that you developed for Leavenworth. That’s Creative Thinking: A Field Guide to Building Your Strategic Core. That’s on Kindle for everybody that’s wanting to know. That to me was more of a how-to guide, “Here are some exercises and how you think about it.”
Who is the one that ringed an opponent with the 10-mile-long fence? They called in reinforcements, “That’s fine. We will put another fence outside. We will find them on both sides.” He goes, “I’ve got them right where I want them. They are over here.” I think about that thinking, “How do you take and create that mindset to get there?”Creativity is not something you can summon on command. Click To Tweet
The first thing is, creativity is not something that you can sell on-demand. This is neuroscience. This is what is fascinating about it. Ninety-five percent of the creativity circuits in your brain are non-conscious. That’s why creativity is different from logic. Most of the logic in your brain is conscious. If you want to sit down and plan your day, you can do that consciously. If you are creative, you will notice your creative ideas occur manually. You will be walking somewhere and have a creative idea.
You will be focused on something, and then forget about it for fifteen minutes. You are eating lunch in the middle of lunch and you will have the idea. That’s because your non-conscious brain is doing all the creative work. That can be frustrating because it would be nice if you could do all that work consciously. What it also means is you have to think a little bit differently about how to make your brain creative. You want to think about your creative brain as you think about your stomach. You want to think about feeding it the right stuff, and then trusting that it’s going to do its job.
When you feed your stomach, you are not micromanaging it and being like, “It’s time to digest the proteins and break down the fats.” You say, “If I feed it the stuff that my doctor tells me to eat and I don’t eat too much of the stuff that I want to eat, as long as I put that stuff in my stomach, I’m going to get good, healthy energy.” It’s the same thing with your creative brain. You want to feed it the right stuff. What is the right stuff?
First of all, the number one good thing to feed your brain are anomalies, strange and weird things. That excites your creative brain because the reason that your creative brain evolved is to handle emergent threats and opportunities. The reason that the human brain was created is that our ancestors were born into a very unstable world. In an unstable world, things could change. To survive, you had to be able to see the first sign of change and react to it.
That change could be a negative thing. It could be a danger, a new predator coming into the space or it could be something positive. It could be a new opportunity coming into the space but what gets your creativity turning is that. In the modern world, we are trained not to notice strange things, to be honest. First of all, we live in this machine world where we all get caught in our schedules and workflows. In anything that doesn’t fit evenly into what we have already decided is important, we push it to the side like, “I’m not focusing on that.”
You will notice this if you ever hang out with a child. The child will always be stopping and noticing stuff and you will be dragging her by the arm like, “I don’t have time for that. We’ve got to move on.” It’s because we have trained ourselves not to notice interesting things. That’s the first thing. The second thing is because we live in a world that’s dominated by computers and logic, computers and logic cannot handle exceptions. They treat those as to be regressed to a need. They treat them as anomalies and they can’t leverage them in the way the human brain can.
The more you hang out in a modern business environment, the more you are taught not to focus on these kinds of outlying blitzes. If you want to be creative, you have to reverse that. You have to emphasize stuff that seems weird and actively re-energize your brain. The simplest way to do that is to constantly look at stuff that seems boring or routine, and then identify the one thing that’s special about it. If you had to walk up and down your block and it’s an average suburban block, you say, “What is the one thing that’s weird about this block that no other suburb has?”
When you start getting into that habit, it’s like with your family from outside and you will be like, “It’s just a regular American family,” but inside the family, you know that everyone is nuts. There are all these unique, weird, and quirky things about them. You have to translate that same ability to notice the exceptional into everything if you want to feed your creative brain that food.
You can watch it on YouTube or any other video deal. I’m a fan of reading odd books that don’t necessarily follow. Sometimes it’s a favorite from when I was a kid. Sometimes it will be a recommendation. The funny part that I see and maybe it’s just me telling myself is I will get a book and read it. It seems to show up when I need it.
First of all, the reason that book sticks in your memory are because there’s something unique, special or distinct about it and it will stay buried in your mind. A lot of times, your deep brain remembers that. It pops them to the floor. The other thing is a book is someone else’s perspective. On the most basic level, it’s the way that someone else thinks. When you come into the perspective of logic, there’s only one way to think to master it.
From the perspective of the human brain, every brain is a little bit different and has unique insights. That’s why when you are managing a team, you want to have a diverse team. You want to have people who all think a little bit differently. You, as the manager, want to be able to get that different thought out of all the members of your team. In any given situation, John might be better than Jane in handling that because he always has this unique angle and sees this way but then maybe in another situation, Jane is better because she sees so on and so forth.
When you get to a book, a book is like a unique member of your organization. It’s a different perspective. When you enter into that book, it releases your brain and increases your range of movement. Even if what that specific book is talking about isn’t related to what you are doing, it still lifts you enough out of your own groups that you can free more of your power and expand your range of motion. That’s why if you are stuck, the best thing you could do if you want to reset is read almost anything, especially something that’s different and it unsticks your head.
You have lots of competing thoughts and tasks that are part of your day. When you get overwhelmed with stuff, what do you do to step back out, reset and let it flow?
I do have a deserved life, which I’m working for in many different fields of research. I have many different partners in so many different domains. The first important thing is to always have a focus on your story and what you are trying to do in the world. Every one of us departs and feels that we have a personal mission. When we stay close to that personal mission, when we are making that personal mission the story of each of our days, we feel energized. We also feel together because we feel like no matter how different the things are that we are encountering, we can all tie them back to that personal mission.
My personal goal in life is mostly to help people grow on their terms. I used to think there’s this extraordinary amount of human potential that we all have that lies in the fact that we are all different and unique. We are living in a world that is so obsessed with mass production, generic, efficiency, and all these things that it has this tendency to obliterate what is special and unique about individuals. We go to school and are mass-taught with standardized tests and textbooks.
If you go for help on the internet, people will give you these single answers when they are supposed to help everyone, “Every business does these three things or the other thing.” I believe that everyone is unique. The number one thing that I do for my day is I’m grateful for the chance to have so many individuals in my life who are all different. I try and focus as much as I can on every situation and what is unique about it.
What holds it together is that sense that I have that the more that I grow the individuality of the people around me, the more all of us together will create a better future that’s richer, more diverse and sustainable. As we all know, the way the species gets wiped out is when it all has identical genes, and then a virus comes along and kills everything.If you're stuck, the best thing you could do if you want to reset is to just read almost anything. Click To Tweet
The reason that culture gets wiped out is that everyone is doing the same thing and something comes along and wipes it out. The reason that America is great is that we are all different. You can go around this country and see many local pockets and different thinkers. It sounds a little paradoxical that I feel a sense of unity and diversity but that is my core process.
You covered that in another one of your work. You were talking about pluralism. For me, being the academic wizard, then I can go, “I need to read what pluralism is. I’ve got it.” It seems in the past years that there has been a real focus on mastermind efforts, where you take and bring together theoretically a group of fairly open-minded and/or intelligent people. They may be intelligent on the blue, red, and green thing. What is your observation on the best use of masterminds? You were brought in as a piece of a mastermind. You were talking about the hedge fund crowd.
Here’s the key thing about human intelligence. The main reason to bring someone smart into your organization is not because of what they know or they have some kind of special intelligence. It’s the opposite. It’s because of what they don’t know. What they don’t know is all the internal biases and assumptions that you have built into your organization. What you are getting when you bring in a mastermind or someone from outside is someone who can see past all the blind spots in the walls that your team has unknowingly built up for themselves but you don’t want to trust that person’s positive ideas.
For example, I get brought in to consult a lot about AI about artificial intelligence. I’m most useful because I come in and I’m like, “Why are you building a machine to do that? Why are you consulting? This doesn’t make any sense.” If you asked me to sit down and program an AI, forget about it. You would be there for the next century. You don’t want me doing that. That’s the key. You want somebody to come in and disrupt your ossified thought. You know your thought is getting ossified because you know your business is underperforming.
Anyone who ever had this experience where they have a good product and it’s not connecting with the markets or they have a market but somehow the products they are building aren’t quite connecting. There’s some kind of thing that’s not there and you know you are underperforming. You need someone to come in and shake something up because they will show you an angle that you haven’t seen before. It’s not in them and it’s not in you but it’s the connection between the two of you that creates the catalyst and the breakthrough.
Why is that? How does that work for you? A lot of times, it’s the elephant in the room. At one place, you were talking about the people inside of a company who know where the problems are. You were talking about ingrained bias, “It has always been this way. It’s always going to be this way,” and yet somebody over here could go, “I have been looking inside your company and I have noticed you have that problem.” This is what we did. We have mentioned hedge funds briefly and they talked about, “What signal? What is noise? What is environmental? What is from anomaly to trend?” What issues are those folks struggling with?
There are a couple of main things that they are struggling with at the moment. The first is there’s so much competition in the space. The hedge fund space used to be this wide. It’s not even that long ago. It used to be a completely wide-open space where you were taking these big risks as a hedge. The idea being is the “safety” of the market wasn’t that safe. There’s so much in the hedge space, “Where is all that money going? How can it all find all these places to go?” That huge competition is a big challenge.
The other challenge is that we are entering an unprecedented era of volatility. We have been living through this golden age in certain ways that I don’t think everyone has necessarily appreciated of economic stability of consistent growth. You can be a fairly mediocre business person and still do okay. If you bought a house years ago in a lot of parts of America, you are probably 2, 3 or 4 times wealthy because of that consistency. We are starting to see a lot of that break apart for various complicated reasons.
What that means, on the one hand, is that a lot of the old ways these hedge funds have made money aren’t there working for and that’s scary. The exciting thing is there are a lot of new opportunities out there. You have to shift your thinking from the way that things are working. That’s the main thing that I experienced. I’m sure a lot of regular business folks feel the same thing. They feel there is a lot more competition in the space and also feel there is a lot of volatility.
If you are a business owner, you say, “This is our business model. We have done it this way for a long time and it has always worked. It works until it quits.” You go, “I have to sell my business or shut it down.” I think about, “How would you recommend a business owner create a healthy sense or mechanism to be more adaptable?” I happen to believe like you that we have been lucky over the past years. The interest rates have been straight down effectively, then they are not. You can go below zero but not far. For the business owner, how do you create an environment where you are not just chasing your tail but you try to take and exercise that muscle?
First of all, this is the thing that I love about working with the US Army, which I hope I can talk about frankly. The US Army is the world’s longest-running successful organization. When you think about, “What American company has been around for 250 years? What American company has reinvented itself so many times so successfully?” The US Army is not always perfect and doesn’t win every battle that it encounters but overall, when you look at its history and evolution, it’s extraordinary that it’s still here. Do you think Google or Amazon is going to be around in 250 years? It’s highly unlikely.
The first thing I always think about is, “What allows an organization not just to be successful at the moment but to reinvent itself?” Depending on the size of the organization, the number one thing is that if you are the leader of your organization, you should not be focused on the day-to-day running of your organization. That should be automated. Anything that can be automated should be automated in terms of you should have protocols and processes that allow the day-to-day running to be handled by the systems around you. Your job should be forward-thinking.
The best way to be forward-thinking is to stimulate curiosity and creativity. Those are the two things you need. I talked a little bit about how to stimulate creativity in terms of focusing on not wasting your environments and being open to change. The main thing about change is it always surprises everyone. The key to exploiting change isn’t to anticipate it to the extent that you can predict it happening five years from now. It’s anticipating it enough that when it happens, you are on the front foot and can deal with it faster than everyone else can manage.
Business is a competitive environment. It’s not about being right. It’s about being faster. If you can be even five seconds ahead of your competitors, you win the market. You win the day. That’s the important thing about creativity. Curiosity comes from thinking like people who are not you. In particular, you want to think like your clients and competitors. You want to sit down and think in terms of your clients, “If I were my client, what is the number one thing I would want?” It’s not, “What can I possibly give my client?” If I was my client in a magic world, what would be the one thing that I wanted?
If you can think about that thing that they want and spend a lot of time asking yourself, “How can I create that thing for them?” That will stimulate curiosity, which will stimulate growth in your business. You will always be doing these things and trying to get to that future. It’s the same thing in terms of thinking about your competitors. If you are thinking to your competitors, “What is it that they are trying to accomplish? If I were them, what would I do?” It’s a hard thing to think about because when you start entering that space, that becomes threatening.The US army is basically the world's longest-running successful organization. Click To Tweet
If you can say to yourself, “My number one competitor is this. What would I do if I was them?” You can then start thinking to yourself, “How can I do that?” That again stimulates that curiosity. That’s the big thing. If you want to keep your company moving across generations, push all the database stuff down to other systems and spend most of your time thinking about the future and living in the future by being actively creative and curious.
In the business community, there’s that little comment, “You are in the business instead of on the business,” which means you are the predominant rainmaker and everything else. Oddly enough, when you build a team and the business can function while you are out thinking, that’s a more valuable business but a lot of people are unaware because back to our training commentary, they have not had that particular training.
In the military, it used to be there was the battlefield commander and the garrison commander. They are not the same. You think about it in the stuff that you are doing with the military, “How do you take a bold battlefield commander and make them come into a community, where perhaps the local post doesn’t have a good reputation with the local community and have him come in and mend fences?” In many cases, those aren’t the same people.
The military has its structure where it’s designed so that when you are in a junior staff role, you are running the show. When you get to that senior job, your job is not to be micromanaging everyone below you. Your job is to be doing the opposite. It’s to be a machine running itself. I would use the analogy of you driving a car. When you are driving a car, is your brain being like, “I’ve got to focus on where the spark plugs are going. I’ve got to think about every spark plug and I’ve got to imagine the fuel nozzle?” No. You trust the machine to run itself. Your job is to look down the road and say, “Where is the machine going? How can I keep the machine out of a ditch?”
The military is very much like that. You get the machine going so that it can run itself. Any platoon out of the field, company or talent can run itself but then the question is, “What do you do with the platoon, company or talent?” It’s the same thing with your business. You want to trust the people below you, delegating everything you can to them, hiring the right people delegating, instilling in them the core principles and practices of the business, and then letting them go for it. You are thinking essentially, “What is the next business?” It’s in the same way that the military is thinking, “What is the next war?”
That’s only your job because the next business is the opportunities and challenges of the future. When you think about this is if you take a basic class in biological evolution, you learn that success in life is not having kids. It is having kids who have kids. That’s the biological definition of success. It is having grandkids. It’s the same thing with a business. The success isn’t that you have created a business. It’s that you have created a business that can create a business. That’s why you always have to be looking to that next business when you are in your current business because eventually, the business that you have created is going to obsolesce and you are going to need to change horses.
In the military, I was thinking about standard practice. You take it and go out on a training exercise. You have the goals that you want to do in the training exercise. You execute, iterate and look at it. You come back and have the old after-action report, “What did we do well? What did we fail at? What can we do better?”
That applies to a business owner. Let’s say you are the ABC Plumbing business and you go, “We are killing it in the market. We have much market share. We have done all these other things and we are good at that.” How would you recommend a business owner start to go out and try to identify the next business opportunity? What would you do?
Your point about the niche is important because, on the one hand, you want to find your niche. You want to find that little area, where you do things better than everybody else and you can outcompete everyone. You want to be the guy that does the floppy disk storage. On a certain level, that’s good. You want to pick up that space. The longer you stay in that spot and stay there, the more that the environment changes, and then your niche disappears. There is no longer a market in what you do.
The dumb solution to this, which you see all the time, are acquisitions and mergers at the mega-corporate level where everyone is like, “We are like an insurance company. Let’s buy a car company.” They start matching these things together or you are Coke and you start a new Coke. You do this thing and you are trying to expand but what you do is you create something inorganic to your brand. You end up having two companies that don’t fit together. You are running around going crazy.
You are like a sushi restaurant that’s serving tacos. You lose your brand identity. You lose your core customers and everyone goes. They are like, “How do you maintain this balance between, on the one hand, having the organic specificity of a niche but then also not getting stuck in that niche?” The simple answer is simply you have to think about it as biological growth. You want to say, “What are the core things that we are doing? How do we extend them?” It’s not, “How do I anticipate the market? How do I simply jump 90 degrees or leap in some random direction,” but, “How do I take what I’m doing and stretch it?”
The best way to do that is always to talk to your current customers, client place, and market and say to them, “What do you want?” If you are a plumber and you have this great plumbing business and you start talking to people, they say to you, “What I discovered is what increases the value of my home is a bathroom upgrade but they are also expensive.” You say, “As a plumber, I do have some insights into bathrooms. What can I do as a plumber to move into that? Could I partner with some company that does bathrooms to bring down the costs of doing those renovations?”
You see how that’s organic to what you are doing. I know nothing about plumbing or bathrooms. That’s probably a terrible example but you get the basic narrative there. It’s starting with what you are good at, going to your customers, asking what they want, not what you can currently do, and then stretching your current business, not starting a new one but stretching your current business in that new direction. That growth is what powers most successful companies. It’s organic change over time. If you look at any company, whether it’s Apple, Sears Roebuck or the Army, you will see that it’s that process of organic growth towards what their customers want over time.
As you were talking, I was thinking back to your screenwriting, scriptwriting, and all of those skillsets that you have. I’m the typical business owner and go, “I want to put a video out and tell my story.” For you, you go in a lot of them. You see and it looks like me holding my phone out, which a lot of them are like that. For the business owner that’s trying to be vulnerable, get the story out, reach his ideal client, and so on, what would you recommend them to do as a precursor to shooting that video?
There are a couple of things to even start with. First of all, the quality of the video itself does not necessarily increase sales or people like you or anything like that. A lot of that is a boondoggle if you spend more money. There’s a ton of cheaply-made effective advertising out there. What is more important is the core emotional connection that you have with the story. The first thing is, do not jump at first into hiring an expensive videographer and dropping thousands of dollars on something. Something cheap can get you something expensive. It’s not always but it can.
Along with that, pilot your story. Try your story on a lot of people before you film it. Go around and see, “Can I tell this story convincingly at the bus stop?” The next time you walk down at the bus stop, tell the story to three people. Go to the supermarket. Stop at someone’s supermarket while we are comparing oranges. In every opportunity I get, I tell my story and pilot that. Once I start to realize people are genuinely getting into the story, that’s when you want to go and film it.How To Grow Your Company Organically In This New World With Dr. Angus Fletcher Click To Tweet
This is in Hollywood. This is known as development. Most movies go through this insane process. It takes years of development. A lot of times, it doesn’t work that well in Hollywood because there are a lot of other concerns beyond what the audience wants. There are a lot of other concerns that are extrinsic to the quality of the movie. The core idea of, “Go ahead, pilot it and try it,” it’s the same thing when you are in a business in general. When you have a new idea for a product, suddenly, you call up some manufacturing plant and have them ship you ten thousand. You say, “I’ve got this new idea for a product. Let me go out to a couple of customers with it. Let me see how it works and then get feedback.”
That’s the first thing. Treat the story itself as a product, as something that you are going to work with, and pilot and trial before you get expensive with it. Going back to what I was saying before is you have to be specific about what you are trying to do with your story. Your story is not you telling what has happened to you. You telling them what has happened to you is incredibly interesting to you and almost nobody. Any of us who sat down and started telling our life story, unless we were a famous musician or something, nobody cared at all.
The questions you want to ask yourself are, “What action do I want the person hearing this story to take at the end? What is the specific action that I want them to take?” Once I know what that action is, I want to build back most quickly and efficiently to tell a story to get them to take that action. That sounds ruthless but that’s how good marketing goes.
We have all seen a ton of wonderful ads on TV. We have loved the ad and never acted on it. We have never done what the ad wanted us to do. We just said, “That was an interesting ad,” and then we didn’t pick up the phone. That’s because so much of the stuff out there is either built on formulas or random moments of the sponsor name. If you are a small business person, you have to be ruthless with your resources, “What do I want to accomplish? What is the goal of this? What is the action that I want to be listed?”
That would be your reverse planning sequence, “What is the outcome and work back from the outcome?”
That’s exactly right. In life, we are always much more successful when we do that for a variety of reasons. First of all, our focus is on what matters. Our focus is on what needs to happen as opposed to what we want. Our focus is not on ourselves. The moment our focus is on ourselves and the moment our story easily becomes something that we are telling to ourselves, it’s very hard for anyone else to access. We get caught up with our hopes and anxieties.
This is the number one thing. If your story isn’t working, the two biggest bugs of any story of any marketing campaign are it’s either caught in your fears or hopes. We all have these anxieties. If you have ever seen someone who starts to tell a story in public and it melts down, and then spends a lot of time apologizing for themselves and getting anxious in public or making excuses, their story is being hijacked by their concerns and anxieties. They are turning in work and we lose them. We can’t focus on someone in public when they aren’t focused, too.
If you are too focused on your hopes, the problem is you skip over the intermediate steps and you jump into what you want to be true. That’s the equivalent of walking up to someone on the street and you can’t even engage with them because you find them attractive. It’s like, “You have missed the intermediate steps here. There are things you’ve got to do. There is a base you’ve got to touch.” If your story isn’t working, the chances are it’s because you have gotten too caught up in what you think you are afraid people think about you or because of what you want to happen. Slow it down a little bit and exit your perspective. You can exit your perspective by thinking like your customer or competitor.
How do people find you on social media?
One of the things that people have always been baffling about me is I’m not on social media. I don’t have the time to do it. I feel like social media is a full-time job. I noticed this is a common thing for small businesses. If you are on Instagram or something, Instagram will then ping your phone anytime anyone responses to your Instagram post. For the next four hours after you make a post, you are constantly getting phone pings and having to respond. I’m more of a deep thinker than that. I can’t handle that level of distraction all the time.
I’m not on social media but you can find me. I have a web page in a true 1990 style, AngusFletcher.co. I’m also about the only famous Angus in Ohio. If you google Angus in Ohio, I would probably be the first person to come up, which would be my guess. It’s less about finding about me and what I do. The main thing I want to encourage people to focus on is that everyone has their own story. We live in a world that is constantly trying to sell us formulas and pre-packaged generic stuff. That’s because the people who are trying to sell that stuff make money by selling it to you and convincing you that it’s true.
If you want to make money yourself, you’ve got to be brave and bold to go outside the formula and take a risk. Once you completely control a marketplace, you can be formulaic because you own everything and you are essentially the big guy. If you turn a break into a space where you are trying to grow your share, that always involves doing something new. The best way to do something new is to check in with what is unique about yourself because what is unique about yourself is, first of all, something that’s not out there in the world. It’s an opportunity. Second of all, it’s organic to you.
If you are always doubling down on what is unique about yourself, you will know that your business will always be growing from a common route. It won’t just be a random, haphazard thing. If you have a big business, don’t lay down what is unique about your team. Finding what is unique about my team will always have innovative ideas but also be organic. To me, it’s always that core process rather than necessarily seeking out Angus Fletcher and whatever he says, and whether or not there’s any direct value to me.
As we were talking, I’ve got curious. I’m circling back to Dr. Ken Long, a friend of mine and yours. He is at the Command and General Staff College over in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He is a teacher, not an inmate. That’s a plus. He will love that. I think about your involvement with the military. What was the genesis of the ask to get you involved? What was the need or problem?
Ken has been one of the most transformative figures in my life. I have only known him maybe a little bit longer. I was working at that time and still working with a faculty member at the University of Chicago, Greg Bunch, who teaches Entrepreneurship. He and I were working on how it was that a lot of the neuroscience stuff that I do in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and AI could be used for entrepreneurs.
To me, a story is more than just marketing. The story is your narrative. It’s what you do. It’s your business. Your business is a story. It’s a plan, plot, and sequence of creative actions. When you get up in the morning and you plan your day, you are not marketing to yourself. You are creating your own story and narrative. We think of stories almost entirely as a communication device when it is how we generate, build and create.The narratives that you tell yourself have so much effect on how you behave and how successful you will be. Click To Tweet
I was working with Greg on some entrepreneurship stuff and we were teaching some stuff involving entrepreneurship. He was friends with Dr. Kenneth Long. He said, “Angus, there’s a guy in the Army who is interested in talking with you. Would you be interested in talking with him?” I said, “Sure. I would be honored and excited.” I had this mind-blowing conversation with Ken, who I understand you may or may not have available to you in a future episode. He is one of the smartest minds I have ever encountered. I spent my life hanging out with him in all these places.
Ken is someone who has read almost everything and is also a uniquely flexible finger. He can move between spaces. Oftentimes, we will have a conversation with Ken and he will say something which you won’t understand at all. Three days later, you realize that he was talking from the future and it won’t make sense to you. That’s the kind of mind that Ken has. He said to me, “Angus, the Army needs you to write its new field guide for creative strategy.” I said, “Ken, that’s bonkers. I don’t know anything about the military and creative strategy. This makes no sense at all.”
He said, “Angus, this would be great. We will have a conversation for a little bit and talk about some stuff. You go ahead and write this field guide.” We started talking and I started reading all the kinds of ways in which the Army works and makes decisions. I was learning a bunch of stuff from Ken about how things work and operate. The number one thing that I took away is that the Army is very good at training compliance, which is standard operating procedures. The standard operating procedures are, “This is what has worked in the past. It’s your go-to for the future. It’s plan one. Try this.”
The Army did not have a way to teach people on the ground to come up with a plan two on the fly. Plan one didn’t work that caused a problem. People started having random freestyle or other things that were happening. The question was, “Can you train people how to make a plan two? Is there a way you can train it?” The answer is, “Of course, because that’s how plan one came on. Plan one was created by someone.” The Army is an inherently creative organization. That’s why they are not still using muskets.
George Washington is one of the most creative minds in human history. He was a guy who had to figure out how to win an impossible war. He surrounded himself with some of the most idiosyncratic military minds in human history. If you look at his general staff, none of them felt at all like each other. Many of them were these self-taught guys. These were the early colonists. They were very independent and fiercely original thinkers. They hadn’t all gone to West Point for something.
Washington was constantly empowering them, drawing on their ideas, and being an innovator. Crossing Delaware is one of the numerous examples of these high-risk, high-reward things that Washington did. I said, “You can teach those two. You have to go back and go through all these moments in history. Those are the commanders that had these huge creative insights. Distill what was going on in those situations, and then build a workbook to help everyone think like George Washington, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar or whoever.”
Ken likes to joke and it’s pretty much true that in a weekend, I sat down and wrote this workbook knowing nothing at all about military history or anything other than what I had been taught by the Command and General Staff College. That book has become an extraordinary success. It’s in the Air Force and Special Operations. It’s all over the place. It has only been around for a couple of months and its influence is already continuing to spread all entirely due to the team at Command and General Staff College.
Also, the Nursing Corps was one of the first groups to come forward. Angela Samosorn, who is a Major, initiated a lot of this work by pointing out that said, “The War College is always emphasizing creativity but it doesn’t have a curriculum for teaching it.” All these different elements have come together and I was honored to join in that. Anyone can get the book. The Army put it on Kindle for $2 because that’s their way to distribute it in this age. You can go on Kindle yourself, get this field guide and become the next Napoleon.
For me, it struck me. This is like the Chicken Soup for the Soul for creative thinking. As you were talking about the story, I was thinking about this. I don’t even know who to credit it to. It says, “The story you tell yourself about yourself is much more important than many of the other stories you may tell the internal narrative.” In your book, you are talking about, “You tell yourself that you are innovative and then exercise the muscle and you, therefore. You are telling yourself you are a creative instead of saying you are not.” My mom told me I was a danger, which was a different thing but maybe the same thing. When I think about the internal story narrative, do you have any thoughts on that?
First of all, the narratives that we tell ourselves have so much effect on how we behave, and then how successful we are. Two simple examples of this are important for anyone. First of all, it’s our optimism. Our source of hope is deeply related to the stories that we tell ourselves. If something bad happens to us, and then we blame somebody else about it or we think to ourselves, “It’s because I’m a failure,” or we do one of these kinds of negative moves, that increases our pessimism and cynicism.
It makes you less likely to succeed in life because the more pessimistic you are, the less you try and you have less energy. Whereas if something bad happens to you, you say to yourself, “That was some bad luck but it was just bad luck. Maybe tomorrow I’m going to have some good luck.” If you say that to yourself anytime something bad happens to you, it is empirically proven to increase your optimism and likelihood of success. It doesn’t guarantee your success.
Optimism is not magical thinking. You can’t just be thinking positively and have them all work out. If you are optimistic, you are more likely to be successful. It’s the same thing with creativity. It is an empirical fact that if you say to yourself, “I am not a creative person,” you will be less creative. If you say to yourself, “I am a creative person,” you will be more creative. It seems like such a silly, simple thing but if you get up every morning and say to yourself, “I am a creative person,” you will be more likely to be an innovator. You will be more likely to change your life and the lives of people around you.
The truth is, you are a creative person because all of us are. This is something embedded in human DNA. The reason that our species has become as successful as it has become is because of our ability to invent cool stuff that works. Every piece of technology, art and culture, science and every business, think about the enormous amount of creativity. Think about all the creativity in your family tree. Think about all the people in your past. Maybe it’s your parents, aunts, uncles or grandparents who are creators, who did innovative and original things. That’s all in you.
Think about all the times as a child that you did something totally weird, and then usually no one else had ever done it before. Think about all the daydreams that you had. We are all created. The key takeaway psychologically is to remind yourself of that. The moment you do, you will see the next day you will start having more ideas and it will flow from there.
I’m lost where I saw this or read it. Let’s say I’m the military commander and I approached a situation and go, “This can’t be done.” Instead of saying this can’t be done, he goes, “How can it be done?” Was that you?
I don’t know if that is me or not but that is 100% what I believe. That is 100% the moment you say, “How could this be possible?” The key to being an optimist and a creative person, in general, is not to say, “This will happen or this won’t happen.” If you say, “This will happen,” then you get yourself into magical thinking. When it doesn’t happen, you get depressed and give up. If you say, “This won’t happen,” you never try. If you get up every day and say, “This could happen. This could work,” it shifts your mind into this incredibly resilient, creative state and makes you the aggressor and initiator of action.
When you say things will or won’t happen, you put yourself in a fatalistic and deterministic cosmos, where you think everything is always being determined in advance. This is one of the reasons why creativity and logic don’t get along. Logic is always about, “This will always work or this will never work.” To be creative, you have to exit that space and say, “This could happen. This could work.” That exit case is the zone of experiments, trying and seeing. That space is immersed and generative in any environment that has evolved and is open.
That’s what we are talking about. We are talking about the future of business. Anytime there is an opportunity in there because the space hasn’t been controlled by their competitors or something, that this-could-work mentality will pick you up every morning. You want to always gently probe. Going back to the early part of this conversation, just because something could work, you don’t push all your chips in all of that.
If it could work, go ahead and put a chip in or go ahead and try it and see what happens. Oftentimes, you will discover your biggest breakthroughs in business or anything else come from trying something that doesn’t work that gives you the idea for something that does work. It’s that hop effect. You would never get there if you didn’t dare to make the first jump.
I like to see how people think. For you, you have disparate influences that cause you to think the way that you do. It’s useful for the business owner and for others to hear the pathways that you think and you go, “Why don’t I think that way,” because you have not used that muscle. Back to the plug on creative thinking, there are other books but this is a very instructional manual with practical exercises that tell you what you can do to take and start exercising and building those muscles and maybe a game plan. You can take in another weekend and create one for business owners in a blink.
You are going to need to do what the Command and General Staff College did. They gave me a crash course in business. If you give me that crash course and the fifteen greatest business thinkers in history, we could sit down, write that book, and put it out for $2 on Kindle or whatever the creativity thinking guide is out there for.
Angus, it has been a pleasure. Thank you for your time. I look forward to doing this again sometime in the future.
That has been a pleasure and an honor, Bob. Honestly, anytime.
I appreciate it.
- Dr. Angus Fletcher
- Project Narrative
- Audible Great Course Guide to Screenwriting
- Ken Long – LinkedIn
- Creative Thinking: A Field Guide to Building Your Strategic Core
- Greg Bunch
- Angela Samosorn – LinkedIn
About Angus Fletcher, Phd
I’m a Professor of Story Science at Ohio State’s Project Narrative, the world’s leading academic think-tank for the study of how stories work.
I started out in neuroscience, working for four years in a University of Michigan Med School neurophysiology lab. I entered the lab thinking that the human brain worked like a computer: it took in data from the outside world, crunched that data into conclusions, and then acted on those conclusions. But slowly, I began to realize that I was wrong. The brain was not a computer. It was a very different kind of machine.
Unlike a computer, the brain wasn’t particularly data-driven. Or particularly logical. Instead, it was emotional. And creative. And powered by story.
To better understand how emotion, creativity, and story worked in the brain, I decided that I should study places where all three converged. Like novels, poetry, and movies. So I left the lab and went to get my PhD in Literature at Yale.
At Yale, I studied Shakespeare. He was the greatest creative in English literature, and I wanted to know: How did he invent so many original characters and story techniques? And how did he get them to work onstage? How did he go beyond raw creativity into world-changing innovation?
After Yale, I took my ideas to Stanford, where I met storymakers from Pixar. I saw that they were using many of the same techniques that Shakespeare had used to innovate story. Techniques that had also been used by Steve Jobs, one of the founders of Pixar, to innovate Apple. And I realized that the same processes that generated creative storytelling could also generate creative technology. All innovation came from the same neural root.
From then on, I dedicated my research to studying creatives in every field, from art to science to business to politics. I watched them work. I worked with them, adopting their creative methods. In Hollywood, I wrote screenplays for major networks and studios. In Silicon Valley, I designed next-gen AI. And then I took what I had observed in the field back to my lab. And I designed experiments for pushing deeper into the brain’s powers of imagination.
In 2021, I published my book Wonderworks, laying out how generations of authors had innovated literature with breakthroughs that can help the human brain process grief, recover from trauma, increase joy, stimulate creativity, and provide dozens of other neural benefits.
I’ve also become known for my recent proof that computer AI lacks the physical hardware to replicate human creativity. Even a sentient, self-aware, and infinitely powerful computer could never innovate—or plan to take over the world. Trust me. The only threat to the future is us.
My current research teases out the brain secrets of how history’s greatest creative thinkers—from da Vinci to Einstein to Maya Angelou—worked their imaginative magic. To try to get a little more of that magic in all of our lives.
I’m also lucky to be partnering in creative projects to write new books of bedtime stories for children across the Arab world; to engineer AI that’s smart enough to know when it’s dumb; and to empower our military to solve the problem of war by imagining solutions to conflicts before they arise.