Interview: Lisa Cron.
Lisa Cron is a story coach and the author of Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence (Amazon, Bookshop) and Story Genius: How To Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages that Go Nowhere) (Amazon, Bookshop).
She's worked in publishing at W.W. Norton, as an agent at the Angela Rinaldi Literary Agency, as a producer on shows for Showtime and CourtTV, and as a story consultant for Warner Brothers and the William Morris Agency. Since 2006, she's been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program and she's on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts MFA program in visual narrative.
Now she has a new book called Story or Die: How to Use Brain Science to Engage, Persuade, and Change Minds in Business and in Life (Amazon, Bookshop). (You can also click here to learn about her video class Wired for Story, and find her video tutorial Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story here.)
I couldn't wait to talk to Lisa about happiness, habits, and creativity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Lisa: Strong coffee, first thing in the morning. I started drinking it in college because it made me feel like a genuine grown up. It still does.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
I know that being older holds way more happiness than I thought possible when I was a kid. Both the giddy kind and a deeper layer that isn’t as fragile or fleeting as the happiness I experienced when I was younger.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?
I love this question. It leads to something that almost always surprises people, because it flies in the face of what we’ve been taught. It sure surprised me. It’s about the role emotion plays in every decision we make.
Like so many of us, I was taught that when I wanted to make a decision, I should marshal all the facts, all the figures, all the data, and then analyze it dispassionately, in the cold light of objective reason. And there was always a caveat: during the process it was imperative that I keep emotion at bay, lest it sneak in and cloud my judgement, and I really would buy that pony.
That’s why the most surprising – and liberating – thing I’ve learned is that not only is emotion the most critical element of every decision we make, but if we couldn’t feel emotion we couldn’t make a single rational decision. That is not a metaphor or a theory, it’s a biological fact.
I’ll never forget reading about a man named Elliot in neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s Descartes’ Error (Amazon, Bookshop). Elliot had been a successful family man who, after losing part of his prefrontal cortex when surgeons removed a benign brain tumor, lost the ability to feel emotion. Although he still tested in the 97th percentile in intelligence, he couldn’t make a single decision – he’d go from restaurant to restaurant at lunch but he never went in, because he didn’t know what he felt like eating. Can you imagine?
Emotion lets us know what things mean to us, instantly. We don’t make decisions based on our rational analysis of the situation, we make decisions based on how that rational analysis makes us feel.
This is not to say that logic – rational analysis – doesn’t play a part. It does (hopefully). But it’s not emotion vs. reason, as we’ve been led to believe since the time of Plato. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. And after all the logical analysis, emotion is the ultimate decider.
As Maya Angelou so sagely pointed out, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” The point is – and I admit I’m an evangelist on this – when you’re trying to persuade anyone of anything, emotion isn’t the monkey wrench in the system. Emotion is the system.
Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
It was my eighteenth birthday. The year before, I’d dropped out of high school for good. I’d left public school after tenth grade and gone to a very small private high school, thirty-two kids total, with classes held in a suburban house in the San Fernando Valley. Yeah, it was a hippie school – the kind that used to be called a “free school” – although of course there was tuition. I loved it. We did things like stay up all night then go downtown to the flower market at dawn to watch them unload the trucks, we had classes with titles like “Nonverbal Communication,” and once we dissected a mail-order cat cadaver.
But by my senior year, the school had splintered and fallen apart. So I dropped out, got a job, and didn’t think about the future at all. I spent my free time talking philosophy with my best friend, who was in college, and going to every movie that came out.
But then, on the morning of my eighteenth birthday, I woke up thinking about the philosophical argument I’d had with my friend the day before, and suddenly I wanted to study philosophy too. And then it hit me: I wanted to go to college. I remember sitting up and breathing it in. I was hungry for learning in a way I had never been – school hadn’t interested me before. But this time no one was forcing me to go, making me study things I had no interest in. This was my choice. And, I realized, on a deeper, scarier level, I’d been afraid I didn’t have the self-discipline to stick to, well, anything. Now, for the first time, I had the drive, and the agency, to take that risk.
It turned out, by compete coincidence (probably), that eighteen was the very age at which a person could enroll in community college without a high school diploma. So I did. I threw myself into my classes, did well, and after two years transferred to U.C. Berkeley, where I graduated.
I’ve never told this story before. Because it makes me feel vulnerable. I have always been inordinately proud of having graduated from Berkeley, and I’ve been afraid that if I admitted I’d dropped out of high school and then gone to community college for two years in order to get there, it would somehow diminish the accomplishment.
It never once occurred to me that the opposite might be true. The fear of being vulnerable, of being seen as different (read: lesser than) runs surprisingly deep. Even when, like me, you’ve called yourself a nonconformist since grade school. And even though research proves that it’s only when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable that we have a chance of actually connecting with other people. And you know what? Having now told this story publicly, the fear be damned, has made me happier. A lot happier, and more comfortable in my own skin. Which, maybe, is the same thing.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
I have a motto that gets me through times when what I’m trying to accomplish begins to feel impossible, and giving up and taking a nice nap starts to feel like the perfect solution. It’s a military motto, and it’s this: “You gotta love the suck.” Because, let’s face it, there’s always going to be that slog, when that mean voice we all have in our head (right, it’s not just me?) starts to tell us that if we keep going, we’ll just be making a fool of ourselves. Reminding myself (and that pesky voice) to embrace how hard it is rather than bail, is what keeps me going. That, and of course, the caffeine.
In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
I would love to correct the completely understandable (but dead wrong) myth that stories are just for entertainment, and thus serve no genuine purpose other than offering us a delicious reward after having spent a hard day doing real things in the real world. Which has led to the belief that sure, life would be far duller without stories, but we’d have survived just fine.
That could not be less true. Story is built into the architecture of the brain: we think in story, and we make sense of everything thorough narrative.
And because we’re wired for story, we decode every fact that’s thrown at us through our own subjective narrative, our own personal story – always tacitly asking, How will this fact affect me? Will it help me, or will it hurt me? This is not a choice, nor is it a failing. It’s biology, and it’s how we got here.
Turns out that story was more crucial to our evolution than our much touted (and beloved) opposable thumbs. All our thumbs do is let us hang on – story tells us what to hang on to. The takeaway is: we don’t turn to story to escape reality, we turn to story to navigate reality.
In your latest book, you explore how to use brain science to engage, persuade, and change minds. What’s your number one takeaway from this book for people who want to improve their lives and be happier?
This is such an important question now, given the divisive times we live in. So often these days families are torn apart by deeply conflicting beliefs, and so many of us are hoping to use facts to get our loved ones to see the light. But often that only inflames them. And when it’s the other way around, the facts they throw our way tend to inflame us. The truth is, no one listens until they feel heard. Heard, without judgment, counterarguments, or eye rolling (yep, it’s hard).
The goal shouldn’t just be to find out what someone believes, it should be to find out why they believe it – what it really means to them – given their story. And the good news is, as Mr. Rogers said, “It’s hard not to like someone once you know their story.”
Plus, by listening, not only will you have disarmed the person whose mind you’re trying to change, you’ll have reached a place of empathy and calm, which will help you find the place where your story speaks to theirs – and that’s way easier when your hair isn’t on fire. Trust me on this.
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