In Pour Your Heart Into It, Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz wrote, "The more uninspiring your origins, the more likely you are to use your imagination and invent worlds where everything seems possible." Schultz came from uninspiring origins and he never grows tired of telling the story of his humble beginnings in books, interviews and public presentations.
The story opens on a cold January day in 1961. Howard's father, Fred, broke his ankle at work and lost his job. The family was living in a Brooklyn housing project at the time with no worker's comp, income, or insurance. "That image of my father, slumped on the family couch, his leg in a cast unable to work or earn money, and ground down by the world--is still burned into my mind," Schultz recalls in his book. "I knew in my heart that if I was ever in a position where I could make a difference, I wouldn't leave people behind."
He made good on his promise to provide employees with a safety net. Under Schultz's leadership Starbucks was one of the first major companies to offer a full package of health insurance to part-time workers, as well as stock ownership and free college tuition.
Schultz repeats the story often in his public presentations. His executive profile on the Starbucks website begins with it: "Howard grew up in public housing and was the first in his family to graduate college..."
As a student, Schultz studied communication and public speaking at Northern Michigan University. He learned about the role that stories play in rallying people around a common purpose. Schultz realized that if his customers and employees can see themselves in his origin story they'll feel a stronger sense of connection to the storyteller and his brand.
"I want to inspire people to live their dreams," Schultz writes. "I come from common roots, with no silver spoon, no pedigree, no early mentors. I dared to dream big dreams. I'm convinced that most people can achieve their dreams and beyond if they have the determination to keep trying."
When I researched the lives of famous entrepreneurs and business leaders for a book on storytelling, I was intrigued by the fact that almost all of them were very open about their past struggles. The Voice and Shark Tank creator Mark Burnett candidly tells the story of coming to America with $200 in his pocket, while motivational speaker Tony Robbins talks openly about the struggles he faced growing up poor in a single-parent household. Inspiring entrepreneurs reframe their personal narratives to give their lives purpose and meaning.
Their stories motivate the rest of us to dream bigger and to accomplish everything we're capable of achieving.
Humans Find Meaning In Struggle
Research in social psychology has found that the classic rags-to-riches story, the theme of struggle and redemption, is as old as civilization itself. We grow from traumatic events because its in our DNA to turn past tragedies into today's advantage. Our brains are not only wired for story; we're wired to love a good rags-to-riches story. It's why most commercially successful Hollywood movies have a happy ending. In business, too, the most persuasive ideas involve stories of struggle and sacrifice, of dreams dashed and dreams found.
Struggle makes your life story more interesting for others to hear because the best things in nature are products of struggle. Pearls, diamonds, and award-winning wine represent nature's conquest over adversity. For example, the best wine grapes come from steep slopes or rocky soil that stresses the roots and creates fruit bursting with flavor. Winemakers say grapes that grow in harsh soil have more "character."
We like stories with a diamond at the end, a satisfying resolution to the struggle. Inspiring leaders often speak in the story of adversity to create an emotional bond with their audiences.
If you've been through rocky times, it's important to embrace your back story and to share it with others. The experience has formed your character and makes you an interesting person. Don't feel as though you have to expose all the skeletons in the closet to connect with your audiences, but a story of triumph over adversity is irresistible for a reason. We're wired for it.