What is Your Origin Story?
Like Every Super Hero, Each Company Has One!
Sanyin Siang on LinkedIn
“The world is not made of atoms. It is made of stories.” – Muriel Rukeyser
Just like Spiderman! Identify your Origin Story.
Every superhero has an origin story. If you’re about to launch a new product or idea, wouldn’t it make sense for you to have an origin story too?
Super hip behavioral economist, Troy Campbell, sums up the purpose of an origin story best:
“Behind that idea of an origin story is not that a moment changed me. It’s that a moment revealed me.”
What then makes for a good origin story? In Spider-Man, is it the moment Peter Parker gets bitten by the radioactive spider, transforming his physical powers, as well as his destiny? Or is it another part of his journey?
The heart of the origin story reveals your motivation, your ‘why’. In Spider-Man, the origin story isn’t about being bitten by a spider — that doesn’t reveal who he is or how his character is formed. Spider-Man’s origin story begins when his uncle Ben is shot – Spider-Man could have stopped the villain but he didn’t. This results in personal tragedy and him realizing that “with great power comes great responsibility”. And, therefore, his entire conflict is about protecting the people he loves and fighting crime to prevent other tragedies.
Compelling origin stories not only reveal the motivation but also create a level of authentication and connection.
A few years ago, I was invited by the Krzyzewski family to join the Emily K Center Board of Directors. It was a great honor, but if I was going to sign on, I wanted to be an ace contributor. To do that, I needed to passionately believe in it.
The center tackled education, an issue that I felt strongly about. It focused on Durham, which was my home community. It had a record of tremendous success in terms of impact, and its founder, Coach Mike Krzyzewski, is a leader who I love and admire and whose values undergird the center that I run.
But what drove my decision to join is the origin story of the center. Coach K is a first-generation college graduate. He tells the story of sitting at the kitchen table when his family received the acceptance letter to the United States Military Academy. That moment changed the trajectory of his life. For his future generations, college would now be a norm and not an exception.
And it was because his mother, Emily Krzyzewski, believed in him.
So when Coach was at a point in his life when he had the means and platform to help transform the lives of kids who were like him, he founded the center in honor of the woman who had launched him on his path.
When I learned that the center focused on first-generation college hopefuls in the education space and in its flagship program, and took them from early childhood to college, I got excited. I am not a first-generation college graduate, but I am a first-generation immigrant. I know what it’s like to never be a full part of your former community and never quite be a member of your new community.
You Must Be Brave!
When you are a first generation anything, you are in between worlds. You have to be brave and you have to dream. Those kids that the Emily K Center is trying to help – I get them. Those kids were me.
Coach shares: “Each kid has their own story … Their goals and dreams become our hopes and dreams.”
The origin story of the Emily K Center is powerful and authentic. Hearing it enabled me not only to believe in it deeply, but also to relate to those it aims to serve. Serving on this center’s board is one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever done.
Why is an origin story important? It’s what makes you, well you. Imagine you are an investor or a hiring manager or that person whose buy-in is key to someone’s launch journey. Now imagine you are looking at other start-ups, other candidates, other opportunities.
What’s going to compel you to help them? Is it their skills or knowledge? Those who lack it can remedy it with time and mentorship. Or is it something more magical? That defies imitation? It’s the genuine passion and motivation. If understanding the genesis of your motivation and passion is a key part of the process, then to make you and others feel that ‘why’, you need to frame that into a story.
Powerful Emotions Allow for Engrossing Stories.
Stories are information put into a context that’s emotionally resonant. As a faculty member of Duke’s Story Lab to explore different forms of storytelling, I’ve seen how our brains are wired to receive stories more readily than straight data.
Stories create powerful emotions. When you experience an idea or information through a narrative, you actually experience biological changes in your body. Your brain produces higher levels of a chemical called oxytocin, which is associated with empathy, feelings of closeness, affinity, and kinship. Biologically, you can feel closer to the person who you are entering a story with.
Not only that, stories can transport you to another world. There is a phrase for this – narrative transportation. In the process, it moves you to an action.
The first time I saw Caryl Stern on the stage to make a case for UNICEF, she started with a story. On the screen was a black and white picture of a little girl from the 1930s next to the picture of a ship.
“That little girl,” she told us, “was sent away by her parents, out of Nazi Germany, to safety in America.”
My heart felt a knot. That little girl in the picture was the same age as my child. I couldn’t imagine having to say goodbye to my children.
Caryl continued, “That girl survived and was adopted and cared for lovingly by her new family who gave her a new future.” She went on to explain that that little girl was her mother.
The other picture showed a picture of a ship that her dad was on. He was able to get a ticket on the ship to escape Germany. The ship reached the US, only to be turned back to Europe. On a brief stop in London, her dad was arrested and thrown in jail. That saved his life. Everyone else on the ship got sent back to Germany and perished in the Holocaust.
The two stories that Caryl told us about her personal history revealed a deeper understanding of why she was a passionate humanitarian and child advocate. Caryl is CEO of UNICEF USA. A gifted storyteller, she uses stories to illustrate her points.
Because of her moving narrative, coupled with the revelation of her origin story, we were all inspired to donate money. She is one of the most successful fundraisers, having raised more than $500 million to eradicate childhood diseases around the world.
Beyond driving you to action, origin stories also set up a destiny story, which in your case, is the result of your launch story.
I’ve personally leaned-in on origin stories for my own launches. I’ll share the application of the origin story in another passion project of mine.
A few years ago, my then four-year-old daughter asked me to help her solve a problem.
“Go try and figure it out yourself,” I told her. “I can’t,” she answered.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because I don’t have a prince with a sword.”
That was the problem. We started looking for books and media for girls aged 4-9 about princesses who solve problems. To our dismay, we couldn’t find any. So we sat down and created The Thinking Cap Princess series. Rather than fight the princess identity, we were going to reclaim the princess as a problem-solver. And the princesses were going to work together in teams, use their IQ and EQ, and their strengths across different disciplines to tackle the toughest challenges.
Isn’t that much more compelling than saying I’m creating a children’s series about princesses who solve problems? When you are able to articulate the origin story for your launch, you can create a more authentic resonance.
Sanyin Siang is the author of The Launch Book: Motivational Stories to Launch Your Idea, Business or Next Career, from which this article is excerpted.
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