Below is the eight installment of our multi-part series entitled The Narrative Universe. In this series we explore how we humans construct our world—even our professional world—through stories, myths, and narratives.
Stop #1: Philadelphia. Every year over a million people stand in front of this 2080 pound, cracked, silent bell – a bell that hasn’t rung since George Washington’s birthday in 1846. Some considered it less than melodic even then. Viewed objectively, it’s not a great bell. But, of course, as symbol, the Liberty Bell is among the greatest of bells, and it’s anything but silent. It has sounded out its message across the centuries, across this nation—and beyond. Its message now transcends the American context of its inscription: “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof.” The Liberty Bell has become a physical embodiment of an abstract ideal: freedom.
Stop #2: Downtown Library, Aisle A-56. Pause for a moment at this next, more philosophical station to consider how a symbol, such as the Liberty Bell, comes to embody so much more than it’s physical self. The great linguist, Roland Barthes, who may or may not have rocked your world in college (any other Art Semiotics majors out there?!), has pointed out that there is always a gap—an in-between space—between a word or a symbol and that thing which it is intended to represent. In this in-between space, we instinctively collect and organize a vast set of associations, implications, impressions, beliefs, and ideas that then come to inform our experience of the thing being represented. It’s impossible to know exactly how this process unfolds, but one of the most powerful ways that we collect and organize the stuff we’ve piled into the in-between space is through stories.
Come back to the Liberty Bell for a second.
The physical self of this bell is unremarkable, but in the gap between what it actually is and our name for it (Liberty Bell), a brimming well of significance has been collected over time. Recall that it was originally purchased in 1753 and installed in the State House in Philadelphia simply to be rung for public announcements. It was not until 1830 that this bell, with its forceful inscription, gained fame as a symbol of the Abolitionist movement and was renamed the Liberty Bell. Because it was imbued with this new significance, the Bell came to be physically transported around the country after the Civil War to promote unity, which in turn imbued it with even more significance. So then, it was later taken up as an emblem of women suffragists and later still as a symbol of the Civil Rights movement. The grand stories of liberation and unity—all the heroism and ideals of the nation—came to be associated with this mediocre bell. In fact, the Liberty Bell has so come to embody American ideals, that it is widely—and inaccurately—believed that it first rung at the signing of The Declaration of Independence.
As each of the hundreds of millions of visitors stands in front of the Liberty Bell, they continue the process of imbuing the bell with vast significance. The physical bell reinforces the sense of a collective past and a set of shared ideals. As political scientist Frederick Mayer explains, “Although collective memory is held in the minds of individuals, those memories are established and reinforced through the shared rituals of society…[C]ollective memory plays an important role in aligning individual minds into common consciousness, shared passion, and collective identity.” We need our Liberty Bells to be who we aspire to be.
Stop #3: Collective Next. Okay, okay. For this next stop on the tour, let’s step down from the high pedestal of American history and return to the everyday. Walk with me into the headquarters of Collective Next in Boston. You might expect to be greeted with a sample of our fine scribing efforts or something else of real aesthetic merit. But instead—huh?—you are welcomed by a… shoulder bag—embroidered with monkeys—encased in an ornate gold frame. Am I in the right place? Is this a Damian Hurst reject? If you should proceed into the office space, you might then overhear a few of us CN-ers itemizing the supplies needed to conduct an offsite session, a list they refer to as “the monkey bag” list. And, if you then happened to attend an employee onboarding session, you would likely observe that “monkey bag” is referenced as a term of art.
You might then declare, whence the monkey bag?! And how does this connect to the Liberty Bell, and Roland Barthes, and, dare I ask, my organization?
Here’s the backstory: When CN co-founder, Sarah Shrimplin, was just forming the company, clients would sometime refer to her as “a one woman band.” Which means she would arrive looking like a bit of a bag lady, carrying everything she could ever need to deliver a terrific client experience in multiple and various satchels. Luckily, says Sarah, “At the time, the woman with whom I was working with was just wonderful. We really bonded. One day I arrived at my desk and sitting there was a blue bag embroidered with monkeys. The client appeared smiling. She said, ‘I was at the store and thought of you. Wouldn’t it be just lovely to have everything in one bag?’” “I was so touched”, says Sarah. “I wore that bag everyday with pride at having connected with her at this level.”
As Collective Next grew, the humble monkey bag became imbued with more significance than its mere physical self would imply. It came to represent meaningful client engagement, but also served as a reminder of both CN’s scrappy (sometimes goofy) origins and the value we place on meeting our client needs and connecting with them in a real and human way. According to Sarah, “You should always strive to have a client want to give you a monkey bag, and if they do, you know you are doing something good.” When CN-ers look at the monkey bag, they see in condensed form the entire story of CN’s growth, character, and collective ideals.
Stop #4: Your organization. As you think about the culture that you want to promote in your own organization, consider the power that physical artifacts, such as the Liberty Bell, may attain in promoting a sense of shared narratives and collective identity. What object might serve as a physical reminder of the stories that capture your core values? How might this artifact prompt your community to keep alive the stories that reflect your shared ideals? In short, find your own monkey bag.