I’m 2.5% Neanderthal, but that’s not my story

AncestryIf you weren’t already aware, having a story beats having data in almost every situation. In business we love ‘ROI’ but the true bottom line is that facts aren’t everything and a great story is far more powerful and evocative in the human brain that reams of data.

A few months ago I wrote about how many of our preferences are baked into our DNA and how many reflect our mental genome, the way our life’s experiences change us. Since then, my wife and I both sent our saliva to 23andMe and have our complete results back. No shocker, I’m 20% English and Irish (and look like it), and completely European. My wife is East Asian (and looks like it, too).

But getting our results had a surprising effect, as well.

Story versus data

Getting our hard, cold data back has been a lesson in our biological makeup but made it abundantly clear that our chromosomes aren’t even close to everything we really are as human beings. Beyond our % Neanderthal, we’re the richness of our story. Jeanne was adopted from a hospital in South Korea and my family traces back through Canada to Ireland on one side and on the other through New England with the founding of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

It’s not that we’re disappointed to have our results, its just that the results are such a flat representation of where we come from. When our daughter begins to understand her own heritage, we probably won’t be telling her about her risk of ulcerative colitis (mine is 1.7%, her mother much lower), but instead we’ll tell her the stories of a Korean adoptee growing up in Western France and of a boy growing up Protestant in an almost entirely Catholic farming town on Lake Erie.

Stittsville Hockey Team 1927She’ll speak at least two languages fluently and know that one grandfather fought for the French Foreign Legion in Indochina and Algeria and another ancestor fell at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, Ontario in the War of 1812. She’ll know that three cousins played on the Stittsville, Ontario hockey team in 1927.

The richness of her story can’t be told with haplogroups or Warfarin sensitivity.

It’s personal

A story beats data because it’s personal and told right, according to Psychology Today is “…the best way to teach, persuade and even understand ourselves.” And modern technology, from DNA analysis to data science, require a story to put things in perspective and make it ‘work’. Social media makes the use of story even more necessary and compelling:

Social media technologies have created a demand for fundamentals: authenticity, participation, and engagement. Special effects and funny Super Bowl ads are fine, but they are expensive one-offs if they do not touch the core of experience. I don’t care how you calculate, that’s not going to get you a very good ROI. When organizations, causes, brands or individuals identify and develop a core story, they create and display authentic meaning and purpose that others can believe, participate with, and share. This is the basis for cultural and social change.

So, it’s great to know that I have a susceptibility to norovirus and that I should avoid raw oysters and wash my lettuce carefully, but I’ll get a greater personal impact from knowing my own and my organization’s story than from my chromosomal makeup. Are you focused on story? I have a friend, Ben Zoldan, who writes here from time to time who earns his living teaching about the power of story. What he said in the past resonated but truly came to life when I had our DNA results.

Story is a powerful tool.
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Categories: Selling, Social / Collaboration

Author:Chris Taylor

Reimagining the way work is done through big data, analytics, and event processing. There's no end to what we can change and improve. I wear myself out...

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4 Comments on “I’m 2.5% Neanderthal, but that’s not my story”

  1. June 18, 2013 at 2:13 am #

    You guys have a pretty interesting story! It’s true, the reality is that a story that sounds plausible is more often accepted as truth even when evidence suggests otherwise. Daniel Kahneman and other behavioural economists have written about this too. As much as we convince ourselves that we will be led by hard facts we more often go with gut instinct and intuition.

    Often we don’t have enough data available at the right time so we have no choice, other times we’re just too lazy to seek out the data. This can be a good and bad thing, good in that it can make us less predictable and therefore arrive at creative solutions. It also makes us too predictable, in some cases, and is used by politicians to increase popularity rather than fix the real issues that society faces.

    • June 18, 2013 at 2:27 am #

      Great comment, Craig. Behavioral economics is fascinating. I’ll look up that author.

  2. July 8, 2013 at 9:41 am #

    This is a great article about connecting with people, customers, employees and shareholders. We relate to stories, not data. Without the story, the data is meaningless.

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