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The key to 2020 and beyond? Joy!

James Warren December 15, 2019
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If you don’t have 15 minutes to read, a desire to reflect on 2019 and a deeply felt need to make 2020 the start of something new for yourself, your company and your community, do not read the rest of this.

But if you do have a little time, and want to understand where to go next, then by all means, let’s continue. Chief Growth Officer Jen Pike, Chief Technology Officer Andy Sitison and I have spent the last few weeks reflecting on 2019, reviewing what we learned and thinking about it what it means for 2020 and beyond.

This is the result.

2019 has been some kind of year for the team at Share More Stories, thanks in large part to introduction of SEEQ. More deeply than I could have ever imagined, we have explored the deepest parts of what make us tick. We’ve succeeded and we’ve struggled on our journey together, we’ve searched for meaning for ourselves, our clients and our community, and we’ve shared real-time experiences and reflections of past experiences together. Net-net, we’ve shared our stories. And these stories have revealed something tremendously powerful for 2020 and beyond:

We are poised to enter an era of profound, collective, mind-blowing, life-altering JOY.

I know that sounds crazy at the moment. Current events would have you thinking the world is about to fall apart. And to be clear, there is a lot of stuff we need to get serious about addressing, and with a quickness. As a matter of fact, when it comes to explaining what’s wrong in the world, I tend to look to my friend and colleague Andy because he gives it straight, no chaser. Unfailingly, he had this to say:

“Globalization collapsed the blue-collar jobs around the first decade of this century, and now the addition of digitization, automation and artificial intelligence will absolutely have a similar effect on white-collar jobs. In the speeding diversity of the global economy, companies are “a churn,” becoming turnstiles of employment, optimistically calling the process of “free agenting” older more expensive or unneeded workers the “gig economy,” reducing their corporate liabilities while leaving many without the realization of their planned financial trajectory and personal responsibilities. The structural effect of it will weaken the lower mid, middle and possible upper middle class foundations of our economy, potentially washing out these groups into a growing class of working poor like a sandcastle in the tide. All of this has left us with the fact that the top three wealthiest people in the US have more wealth than the bottom 50%.”

 Add to this the existential threat of climate change, limited global resources (water), the pollution epidemic, and the aging population of baby boomers, and one could feel our future is bleak. This is not a functioning society, nor one that is prepared to deal with the next 50 years we are facing. How do we find a path forward, how do we enable the millennials and post-millennials to rightly route the ship before it hits the rocks? Specifically for our team at SMS, how do we enable remedies to these challenges with what we have humbly learned?”

Damn, Andy. That’s a touch dark, no?

Jokes aside, he’s not joking. We are living in an age where so many of the things we counted on and considered fundamental to our everyday lives, are now in upheaval.

Consider this: in the US, we spend more on healthcare than any other developed nation, and yet for the last three years, life expectancy in the U.S. has DECLINED for working age adults. Why? Drug addiction. Alcoholism. Economic stress. Systemic organ failures. You name it. But to Andy’s point, the social and economic conditions for working age people and generally the middle class are worsening.

At the same time, the hand-in-hand rise of social media and the introduction of tech on-the-go have changed the way people behave with one another and impacted one of the most fundamental aspects of human existence: connection and community. We spend hours attached to our phones. And for what? Katy Perry has 100 million followers and recently said in an interview that we shouldn’t look to social media for connection, because it’s not real. A star whose brand depends on the engagement with her audience on the medium, tells us it’s not real. It’s no wonder then that humans are navigating with great challenge this journey of figuring out how to be their most authentic selves in a world where digital fakery is the norm across politics (fake news), marketing (authenticity), entertainment (audience development), and technology that allows us to create 100% fake versions of ourselves – and others.

So people leave their homes and communities, and they go out into the world. They travel to find the connection they so desperately crave in their everyday lives. They travel to learn more and make sense of the world around them. They travel to satisfy the curiosity born out of frustration with the fakeness they see. They travel because the desire to escape the BS they see in their every day, especially online, urges them – compels them – to go find real people and be with them. Travel becomes a necessity, no longer a luxury.

They are also struggling with how they make a living. The broken contracts between Americans and corporations have resulted in people finding – demanding – new meaning for work. Work must be valuable, and not just in an economic sense. The search for authenticity, the need to explore/learn/connect, the desire for greater health – and pleasure – in context – all comes to a head in the workplace. And if companies aren’t careful, the things they care so much about – their ability to convert human capital into economic capital will disappear before their very eyes, as workers say, “That’s cool. We’ll just press restart on you all.”

In the appropriated and modified words of Jay-Z, we’ve got at least 199 problems. And even after we’ve identified them, there’s still work to do to chart pathways forward. When it comes to what he’s learned about the world we’re living in and how we’re navigating it, I think Andy summed it up quite nicely:

“I learned more about the power and irrationality of collective response to world events that are injected into our world through ubiquitous media channels. I realize that what I considered rational independent intelligent thought is not always used, sometimes never used, and even opposed by some. So how can we solve today’s problems rationally, if we don’t consider them rationally? If it is not rational thought, what is it? What can we use in place of rational thought, and/or what can we do to enable rationality? What is involved beyond rational thought in healthy collective decision making?”

The answer lies in our emotions – more specifically, what we Feel, Think, Value and Need (or as we’re calling it for now, FTVN).

And the picture painted so far seems full of negative emotion. But here’s the thing: as Andy and the rest of us observed, the stories people shared with us throughout the year started to reveal another painting underneath the one we first saw, that people are getting ready for the next big thing. And the next big thing isn’t more pain and frustration with people’s lived experiences – as citizens, consumers, workers and family members.

No, the next big thing is about something quite amazing. Joy.

Hold up. Wait a minute. I know what you’re thinking.

After all that darkness, dismay and doom, I’m saying Joy is around the corner?

Absolutely. There’s the saying (part scripture, part song verse): “Weeping may endure for a night. Joy comes in the morning.” So let’s dig into that a bit more. Why Joy? Or more accurately, why the transition from fear, anger and sadness… to joy?

Well, we went back and looked at stories shared with us in 2016 and 2017, and guess what? They were characterized by fear and anger. But that’s not the case anymore.

At a high level we think that our collective story of 2019, our shared narrative that emerges from more than 1,000 participants through over 15 in-person SEEQ sessions and our online platforms is that of One Big Shared Exhale and it suggests where people are heading to next.

Every storytelling session we do in person or online starts with Maya Angelou’s quote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” One Big Shared Exhale means that in 2019, our participants – and therefore, we – were able to begin the big, long, slow exhale that comes from getting the story out. And this is the moment that people can start transitioning from pain, grief and frustration, to curiosity, optimism and joy.

Have you ever had a dream of something bigger than your present? Something more purposeful? Something more impactful? I think the agony of the untold story is the feeling we feel when we are unresolved because the dream remains unfulfilled. When we are still in the dark about what a major life experience (good or bad) means. When we are in the gray dawn and sensing some kind of clarity but still not sure which way to walk. And when we are finally on the edge of the clearing, aware of what we’ve learned, but unsure of what to do about it.

We read, heard and watched so many stories in 2019.

And as our team reflected on this and zoomed out some, we realized these stories reflect both the pain of unfulfilled dreams, and the boundless joy of knowing what it feels like to have a dream, a deeper inner urging, become true. To understand their profound implications for 2020 and beyond, you need to see what we see as the transition from pain to joy.

These stories represent the fear of not knowing how to protect one’s family from violence, and the joy of coming to realize that what we have most in common is our love for family, and through that love, we can bridge some of the biggest divides that exist in our society.

They represent the sadness of not being able to do what you need to do to be both happy and healthy because you’ve put everyone else first, and the joy of discovering what it feels like when you reframe and give yourself the freedom to do what you need to do. For you.

They represent the pain that accompanies empathy when you want to help people because it’s your purpose but the status quo makes it so difficult that the best you can do is a few sympathetic words (whoo-saah, you can tell that’s still fresh!), and the joy that comes from the moments of feeling, flexing your positive impact in the world by making just one person’s life better.

They represent the frustration of feeling trapped, stagnant and disconnected when your present reality defines your travel fantasy, and the joy of freedom that accompanies that trip when you were able to connect, learn and explore on every level imaginable.

They represent the agony of wanting your history and your experience to be included in the broader context of your group / community / company all to no avail, and the joy of acceptance and inclusion without compromising who you are.

They represent the staggeringly crippling feeling of vulnerability and isolation that comes from feeling like you can’t trust anyone or anything around you so much that they can’t be permitted to see you for who you are, and the joy of knowing what it feels like to trust yourself and your environment so much that you can be your most authentic self all the damn time.

They represent the deepest sense of betrayal when you realize the organization you work for does not respect you for who you are and just wants you to fill a box in an org chart until they no longer need you, and the joy of wanting to get up everyday to go do WORK that feels on purpose, and valued and aligned with your values.

They represent the anger of being seen in your own land as “other” because others don’t want to love you as they love themselves, and the joy of finally feeling welcomed, and made to know that you belong in the space – any space – you find yourself in.

You also need to understand how we felt and what we learned on a personal level.

From an experiential standpoint, Andy pointed out that we learned in ways both small and big, that we could find and foster community, and remind others that there is individual value in each of us, if we would only share, and listen. Connection, especially today, is mindful effort. And connection is what Share More Stories is all about.

Reflecting on our SEEQ sessions this year, my friend and colleague Jen shared the following:

“In every single session, the yearning to connect was palpable. To think about one’s own experiences and how it has shaped who you are and what you believe today. To meet someone new. To share with others, either through telling your story or listening to someone’s else’s. To laugh and cry right along with them. Yeah. Cry. I saw grown men get choked up with emotion in more than one session. Women, too. People also shared highly personal experiences: of feeling lost, of feeling angry, of breaking rules and norms, of feeling joy, of feeling pride, of the price they are paying now for figuring out how to deal with the legacy of the mothers and fathers they had, or didn’t. There is just such a desire to share it. To tell it. To be heard, seen and considered. I am left with the impression that heading into 2020 we really do want to come together. We want to share our experiences, stay open and curious about the experiences of others and move into the future, together.”

Okay, so that’s the what. The transition to joy, through connection.

Now, it’s about the So What.

Naturally, I have a few key takeaways for you. By now, you’re 15 minutes in, and you should be leaning in more like nobody’s business. Because Jen is a guru at figuring out what matters, I’ll just tell you exactly what she said:

First, let’s reinvent and re-xpress the current cultural frames that are cracking. That’s the key to joy.

Yowsers, Jen. Whatever do you mean?

“We heard a lot about the struggles we are all having to balance traditional cultural values with our real-life experiences today. So much of the angst seems to come from our struggle with meeting expectations or norms that we have grown up with, and also aren’t working as well for us today. We all want to find ways to re-frame pleasure as health, vs. treating it as an either or. We want to find ways to re-frame work in our equation for personal meaning and value, knowing that “providing” is no longer a given or even enough. We want to find ways to explore different aspects of ourselves, adapt and grow without the penalty of seeing ourselves as “not being authentic.” People are ready to start the next phase of their lives, and get on with re-writing, re-thinking, re-casting and re-expressing what these values and norms mean for them today.”

That my friends, is the first step to joy: reframing. And if you don’t nothing else, at least get on with reframing your life, so you can unlock your joy.

Next, let’s accept and embrace that the future is more human than our current technology-driven landscape would lead us to believe.

“I am excited about the future that AR and AI can promise. What excites me are the possibilities for augmenting human intelligence and human experience. Better diagnoses, faster breakthroughs to our most challenging problems, improved auto-correct and voice to text… and please lord let us have the contact lenses that will remind me of everyone’s name that I have ever met! While I know that as a part of this, many things people do today, machines will eventually do better, I do not believe a world where machines attempt to replicate humans and our real-life experiences is where we are truly headed, nor is it desirable.

Already today, bots and algorithms are cluttering our lives and getting in the way of connection and experience. I see this as a natural stumbling block on the way to getting it right, not the ultimate path. After two decades of digital marketing and advertising, we have failed to make REAL progress in the ways that brands connect with consumers. Sure, there are new channels and more and more ways to deliver targeted messages, yet in spite of this, brand relevance is dropping. The future is more human. The future is to use all of the gains that technology brings and apply them through humans, in real-life ways.”

Okay, so that’s the so what, and that’s really impactful.

Now it’s about the So What Do We Do?

Look, it’s time for companies to completely rethink their role in the economy and their purpose in society. It’s that simple, and it’s that big.

Workers are consumers. Consumers are workers. Either companies will learn how to meet their needs and expectations through value-based alignments. Or they won’t. And if they don’t, these companies will disappear – losing relevance as employers and as marketers. Once the values go, the relevance goes. Once the relevance goes, the value goes.

But there is a keystone, and it rests on a few things: a commitment to actually aligning with consumer/worker values, and then a desire to develop much deeper human understanding of those values, and finally, a commitment to execute against those values.

It’s time for companies to fundamentally change the way they connect with consumers and with their own employees, to unleash the potential these humans have, and therefore the potential these companies have to be a force for good, a force for joy.

We are determining how to scale and enable SEEQ to be an instrument of that change. It is mutually about the collective and the individual. It’s about heart, head and healing which is important to our progress. As we so often hear from the feedback, SEEQ has the ability to change us one person at a time, it finds connection, and it does one thing so well that we found during our journey this year. In Andy’s words, it generates “shared wisdom”:

“We define this as the magic that rises off a group of people who come together, find connection, and start sharing. When this happens, an alignment naturally occurs. We compounded this effect with SEEQ, because we use stories for this sharing. Stories are humanity’s most primitive tool. When we tell personal stories, it reframes our thinking to a deeper, shared narrative. As humans, the majority of us naturally express our empathy when reading, watching or listening to the stories of others. Nothing is more core to us or more effective than stories in bringing people to the space of shared wisdom.”

Okay, so that’s the so what do we do. Are you ready for the finale? I’m sure you are.

Lastly, it’s about the So What Do We Do Now?

Well, from my POV, that’s simple: we’re trying to change the whole world, and it starts with people like you (you know, the people who’ve read this all the way through). So if this hits you in the gut, let’s talk. If this is what you’ve been dreaming about for your company, your brand or your community, but, humbly, I was able to give voice to your dream, let’s talk. If you’re fed up with all the BS offers to help that don’t actually solve the problem you have of real human understand and real human engagement, then let’s talk. Our contact info is at the end.

And, I get it, some of you aren’t ready for that. You want to give it a tire kick on your own. Fine, because we care about you, we decided to end this with what you could do, even if you never talk to us. We focused this on people who lead marketing in their organizations, and people who lead teams or work in HR. Because that’s the intersection we’re focused on to drive change from a business perspective in society: brands and org culture.

Jen, Andy and I put our heads together and came up with some ideas for you. Here you go:

If we were running a brand right now (which we are), we would focus on these things (which we do):

  1. Have a relevant idea. We would really inspect our brand idea… the core of our positioning. What is its point for being in the world? What does it represent? What does it stand for? If it disappeared tomorrow, what would be lost? The brands that last will make a difference, they will stand for something, they will inspire and not just entertain.
  2. Help Re-Express that idea. Do we fully understand how that idea is being re-framed from where it has been to where it needs to be now and in the future? Some ideas are not showing signs of significant change. Others are getting re-framed quickly. We would want to understand where we stood.
  3. Be real. Be human. Where are the places in my execution that we’ve automated too much? Have we evaluated our digital strategy on a human scale? Where are there places where it would actually improve the brand experience to have the right person on the front lines. What is our brand persona and how can that drive which risks we choose to take and how we handle inevitable mistakes?
  4. Invest in real life. Absolutely a lot of our brand work would be executed digitally. It is required today. But as we thought through our new product plans, new promotions and programs, how might those initiatives enhance the real lives of our consumers? How might they bring about joy? Are we putting enough resources into event marketing? Or brick and mortar experiences? Or the people that are on the front lines, either formally (because it’s their job) or informally (because they are people in the world, too)?

And if we were running an organization right now (which we are), we would focus on these things (which we do):

  1. Breathe your culture – and turn it inside out if you have to. Seriously. What are the beliefs and behaviors you want people who you may never get a chance to work with, but who work with your company, to exhibit? What stories do you want them to tell their families and friends about what it’s like to work there? How do they FTVN?  Do you want them to be merely satisfied, or do you want them to exhibit joy? Because the ways they engage their colleagues, and the experiences they share with their family and friends are the definition of your culture.
  2. Have a clear purpose. Many companies talk about this, few have done the work. Why do you exist? If you’re not sure where to start, start with the gifts, because gifts often reveal or explain purpose. So start with the people who have the biggest impact on your business and love working for your company. Chances are, they have gifts you that can help define your company’s collective purpose.
  3. Articulate a vision for the future. When people are unsure of their future, they hold onto their past more tightly. So if you’re trying to get them out of the past, it’s quite simple: focus them on the future. Give them a vision they can enjoy, be inspired by and connected to.
  4. Understand the identities – the untold stories – your employees are yearning to express. And unleash them. When identity is threatened or diminished, many people respond by seeking to express it more strongly, often at the expense of connection to something bigger than self. Make room for their identity, so they feel accepted as part of the whole and included in the brighter future you’ve articulated.

Thank you for taking this first step with us by reading our reflection on 2019 and forecast on the future. Take the next step and connect with Jen Pike, Andy Sitison or me, and follow us on LinkedIn. You can also check out what we’ve learned together with our community during the SEEQ 2019 sessions in Richmond, Milwaukee and New York City. Or you can contact us here.

The point is, we’re on a journey and we’re moving into 2020 on a mission to change the way business connects with people, by enabling deeper human understanding. If that sounds like your mission, let’s do it together.


Photo credit: David Orsborne from Pexels


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  1. David Newberger January 28, 2020

    Superb thinking by the Team! Thank you for sharing and for giving this gift of JOY!


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