Recently, I finished reading a fantastic book entitled Building A Story Brand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen. While the book, written by Donald Miller, is aimed at a business audience, it got me thinking about the topic of storytelling in a broader cultural context.
Miller’s book lays out a seven point structure which can be found in nearly every successful film, book, business etc.
Summarizing the above grid in two simple sentences, Miller writes “A character has a problem, then meets a guide who gives them a plan and calls them to action. That action either results in a success or failure.”
While I’m certainly no expert on the topic of storytelling archetypes and realize Miller’s explanation may not be an earth-shattering revelation in the field, for an average reader like myself, it made a lot of sense.
Whether it’s Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, or Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars movies, all of these characters follow the same basic path.
As I continued to think through this basic plot, my thoughts turned to a man who has helped thousands, if not millions, of people sort themselves out, discover their own story, and get their lives back on track.
With his simple yet incredibly effective message of “clean your room” and “sort yourself out, bucko,” Peterson has had, judging by his book sales, worldwide lecture tour, personal anecdotes, and the thousands more posted all across the web, a very positive effect on many people’s day to day lives.
Although his rise to fame was triggered by his stance for free speech in the face of Bill C-16, his status was fuelled by an abrasive message of personal responsibility that runs counter to the current cultural direction. And now, two and a half years later, Peterson is still as popular and relevant as ever.
Now why is that, one may ask? Well, I would posit that it’s because Peterson’s message is honest and realistic. Life is hard. We all suffer to varying degrees. There’s a multitude of reasons to feel helpless and nihilistic. But is that how you want to live your life? Find purpose in responsibility. Start small and work your way up. Don’t pursue happiness, instead find purpose through taking up your cross and shouldering life’s burdens. This will provide you with meaning through the ups and downs of life.
It’s a message that will continue to resonate with people around the globe because it always rings so true. We all know life is hard, some more than others. There are plenty of reasons to give up hope and live in despair, especially if you have no religious substructure to keep you grounded. Yet we know we can’t live like that. We need to set goals, we need to have a purpose.
Looking at Peterson’s message through Miller’s story lens helps explain why millions continue to watch his videos and listen to his podcast.
The Character: It’s you. You are the one Peterson is talking to, the individual.
The Problem: You lack structure and meaning in your life. You’re unsure of why you’re here and what you’re supposed to do.
The Guide: Peterson acts as the guide, helping you sort yourself out and clean your room.
The Plan: Start small, set goals, take up responsibility, improve yourself step by step so that you can be responsible enough to help out others.
Call To Action: This is your calling, it’s the only way to extract meaning amidst the malevolence of life. Take up your cross and get to work.
Failure: You may fail and falter. Reassess your goals and reduce to them to a level you can manage. Achieve these and continue your climb.
Success: Slowly but surely you set your life in order. You stand up straight with your shoulders back and gain confidence. You become a reliable and competent human being who is able to take care of yourself and those around you. In doing so, you make the world a better place, one step at a time.
It’s easy to see why such a message or story would resonate with so many people. By placing the focus on the individual rather than the collective, Peterson is saying that it’s your story and it’s up to you to write it – go forth and act!
Peterson’s instructions, when followed, provides you with a sense of agency. They instill the feeling that even little old you can make a difference in this big, chaotic world. That alone is tremendously important for the millions of people who previously felt they could not make a difference.
Inspiring self-improvement aside, Peterson’s message has also resonated so deeply with many in the West because it revived a sense of meaning and purpose for those lost in the meaningless fog of postmodernism.
But how does Peterson’s story end? What is the final goal? Where are you carrying your cross to?
For Peterson, at the top of the hill is the City of God. A place where the individual bears the maximum amount of responsibility and speaks the truth. But can we make it there and is that enough?
In today’s Western world, where many are plagued with nihilism and suicide rates are on the rise, the stoicism of Peterson’s message does a great deal of good for many people looking for a reason to live. Will it suffice in the long run?