Telling Stories

Telling stories around the campfire - The Stone Mind
Telling stories around the campfire.

I was sitting in a vegan diner with my friend Brendan eating a buffalo “chicken” burrito when the topic of stories came up.

“People are geared to think in stories,” he offered as he ate the Gravy Train, an item off the breakfast menu, even though it was lunch. “The odds of getting murdered in Denver are, like, 20,000 to 1, but then someone says, ‘Oh yeah? Well I heard a guy got killed just a few blocks from here the other day,’ and all of the sudden you feel like Denver is super dangerous.”

The reason is simple: we prefer information in this form—it engages our empathy and is easier to remember. (It must have been a successful evolutionary strategy for using information about the past to build predictions about the future.) As someone who works in marketing, I aim to craft memorable stories about sponsored athletes, products, and brands—without a good story to tell, information is only so much noise in an increasingly noisy world.

A story can show us the value of a product in a way that bypasses our analytical centers and goes straight to the emotional ones. Take this Google India video about friends separated by the partitioning of India and Pakistan, for example. By way of a story, a political reality becomes tangible, comprehensible… as does the value of a product.

A story can lead us to a larger truth, the way the story of Eric Garner’s choking death at the hands of police is one polarizing instance of a real problem. The story gives us a relatable entry point into the problem, which is large and complex and troubling. Like the bit of dust around which a raindrop forms, a simple story can allow us to build a more rich and nuanced understanding of a bigger reality. Or it can simply reinforce our pre-held views and lead to further division between groups of people. That’s the problem with stories: they’re wide open to interpretation.

In cases like the one Brendan mentioned of murder statistics in Denver, stories can often lead us to incorrect conclusions. They trick us into feeling something to be true, even when the bigger statistical picture shows just the opposite. “Human minds yield helplessly to the suction of story,” writes Jonathan Gottschall in his book The Storytelling Animal. Thus, politicians use stories to warp our view into agreement with their agenda. The news and social media are clogged with stories selected and crafted specifically to hook our attention rather than convey any particularly important information.

Our entire worldview is encoded in stories. The world’s great religions are built entirely on stories; we spend billions every year on movies, books, and magazines; increasingly we spend our time reading and watching stories on our computers and mobile devices…

But perhaps the most interesting and stories are the ones we create constantly in our head—the stories we generate when we picture something in the future or recount something in the past: Stories about how we’ll perform at work or in a competition, stories about our past interactions, stories about what other people think of us. These stories can create feelings of anxiety or confidence, fear or anger. They can make us behave differently than we otherwise would. Our stories not only color but shape the world around us.

The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are the most powerful and problematic. Are we good looking, intelligent, successful… ultimately the way we see ourselves is formulated into a story. We present ourselves through stories, too, but should be careful not to believe them too fully, for fear of limiting ourselves or obscuring important truths. We are not our alma maters or our résumés, we’re not our hobbies or neighborhoods, our relationships nor our criminal records.

Though stories can convey great amounts of information, they can never tell us everything. And there are many stories, representing many different perspectives, to be told about even a single event. This is why we must listen to the stories that surround us with an open yet critical ear, and remain open to revising our own story from year to year, day to day, even moment to moment. I think this is what Walt Whitman meant when he wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself.”

For all their uses, stories can blind us to the untranslatable nature of the world, the essential suchness of being that resists language and narrative and can be experienced clearly only in the pastless and futureless now. As with the motion of a penman’s hand, our lives are written (or do we write them?), but we only truly experience them at the point where the pen’s tip meets the paper. The rest is nothing but stories.

Vertical Dispatch: Climber Questions Ultimate Significance of Sending Project

Man looking down at deer carcass

BOULDER, CO — It was a feeling that had been weighing on Brendan Slater’s conscience for some time, but this Saturday, the weight became too much bear. “What does it really matter if I send my project?” Slater said. “At the end of the day, climbing just seems so meaningless… so selfish.”

Slater, who works at the local sub shop in order to maintain a flexible schedule for climbing, admitted scaling vertical surfaces has for years served as his primary source of fulfillment and self-worth, but that he began to wonder about the ultimate significance of his passion after finding a deer carcass on the hike up to the crag to work on his project.

“I just sort of stared down at that deer’s skull and its bones and those tufts of fur and thought, ‘That could be me,’” Slater explained, adding that the world seemed suddenly like a very big and cold place, and really what else do we have in this life but our good works and our compassion for our fellow humanity, you know?

In an effort to assuage the existential void that gripped him while gazing into the deer’s vacant eye sockets, Slater sought council from a local pastor, who recommended volunteering to help those less fortunate.

“That didn’t feel like the right way to go, either,” Slater said. “I feel like that’s just as selfish, because I’d only be doing it to feel better. I’d still be looking out just for me.”

“For now, I’m going to stick with climbing,” he added.

Adidas Partners with Climbing Gyms and Generally Continues to Cozy Up With Climbers

adida Outdoor magazine for the iPad
adidas Outdoor digital mag for the iPad

New to the climbing scene, adidas Outdoor has recently made an interesting move to outfit climbing gym employees with adidas clothing and shoes. The first press release to this effect announced a partnership with the Brooklyn Boulders, the second a partnership with the new So iLL gym in St. Louis. The positioning in gyms indicates an interest in reaching a broad climbing audience and most likely the youth market, which seems to be the golden goose in the eyes of most companies. (Have you heard of any similar partnerships between gyms and adidas Outdoor or other outdoor-focused brands? I have not…)

If you’ve been following the trail of press releases you’ll know this is but one part in a larger adidas strategy to access a market dominated by brands like The North Face, Arc’Teryx, Patagonia, Columbia, etc. This is no doubt related to the fact that as the recession drags on, outdoor brands, with a focus on performance and durability rather than pure fashion, seem to be faring better than their “indoor” counterparts. Other marketing and outreach efforts from adidas include an iPad app: “With this app users can experience the fascinating stories of alpinists, climbers, kayakers, paraglider pilots and base-jumpers going ‘all in’ in digital form with plenty of exciting extras.” Adidas has also picked up a handful of climbing athletes for its team, including Sasha DiGiulian and Thomas Huber. But perhaps the clearest sign of their dedication to the outdoor, and particularly climbing, markets is their acquisition of Five Ten.

Certainly, Adidas has the war chest and the brand recognition to carve out a spot for itself in the outdoor niche. The question is, how will the core climbing and other “adventure sport” communities respond? I remember ten-odd years ago when Fila attempted to enter the core climbing market with a line of rock shoes. They sponsored climbers like Boone Speed and, if I recall correctly, even approached gyms to form footwear and apparel partnerships. In the end, the sales were not enough to warrant continued interest, though last year Fila did pick up boulderer Alex Puccio as an athlete to rock their Skele-Toes toe shoes (not climbing shoes, per se).

On a related note, hard goods manufacturer Black Diamond Equipment has announced an interest in entering the apparel market, and La Sportiva has introduced a new line of performance skiwear. It would seem that the siren song of apparel’s big margins is too attractive to pass up.

I’d love to hear what you think on this direction in the climbing and outdoor industries. Do you welcome new brands to the climbing marketplace, even big ones like adidas? Do you plan to buy adidas jackets, pants, and approach shoes? Do you fear Adidas will water down Five Ten’s technical shoe offering, or will their deep pockets allow for more exciting new technologies? How do all of the developments in the climbing and outdoor industries mentioned above sit with you? Do you see the future as bright, grim, or pretty much the same?