The story of an opportunity

While geeking out on this idea of coherence and possible mechanisms that bring coherence, I ended up in a fun rabbit hole of narratives as catalysts for coherence. There seems to be certain kinds of stories that somehow end up bringing people together, organizing them and the outcomes of their efforts into a coherent whole. Looking back at my experiences, the one that stood out was the story of an opportunity.

Generally, the story of an opportunity is a prediction of compounding returns. Such a story conveys a mental model of a compounding loop, along with a recipe (sometimes just a sketch) for reaping benefits off it. I use “compounding returns” and “benefits” here very broadly. It can be straight-up money. It can be gathering enough impact to get a promotion.  It can be acquired insights, carbon emission reduction, the attention of others, or practically any tangible or intangible thing we find valuable.

The story of an opportunity begins with describing the status quo in a way that’s resonant for the listeners. Then, it depicts the (boring/awful) future based on the status quo, setting up for the big reveal: the possibility of drastically different outcomes. This is the central moment of the story, the captivating twist in which the listeners acquire a mental model — how a change in their actions can lead to exponential returns. 

At this stage of the story, the fork in the road is presented. Do the old thing and get old results, or do this other thing and get to ride the power of compounding returns. The story of an opportunity continues with plotting a path, helping the listener become convinced that taking the new path is plausible and perhaps even prudent. There’s usually a discussion of costs that might be high, but meager next to the predicted outcomes — and a conclusion that asks for commitment.

There’s something incredibly powerful about such stories. The glimpse of that mental model can be intoxicating and inspiring (and sometimes, ruinous). Growing up in the Soviet Union, I was prepared for linear outcomes: things will happen in this sequence, and then this will happen. It will all roughly be the same. Then, the iron curtain fell and the American Dream unceremoniously barged into my youthful mind. The movie that truly changed my life was The Secret of My Success, a bad movie that aged even more poorly. But back then, the cartoonish portrayal of riding a compounding loop of wit and circumstance was my fork of the road, followed by dramatic life-defining choices.

A story of an opportunity can act as a force of coherence in an organization. It can inspire people to come together and do amazing things, putting their hearts, sweat, and tears into the common goal. It is also just a story, and as such, can morph or be replaced by other stories, affecting coherence. The durability of a story’s power seems to reside in the accuracy of its prediction: how does what happens next reflect on our chances for riding the compounding loop? In an unpredictable environment, this accuracy diminishes quite a bit, making it more challenging to find a lasting story of an opportunity. Yet, it does seem like we collectively yearn for these stories, continue to look for them — and feel betrayed by them when the predictions don’t pan out.

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