The Jarvis Report

“We Are Story Animals”: Why Good People Do Bad Things

Posted September 21, 2018 by

Behind the controls of a Cessna airplane, Ivy Walker feels completely free. (Ivy is a Primal Originator®, an Inside8® group whose members often value personal freedom above all else.) Describing the freedom of flight, Ivy recently told me, “You can’t really think about anything else when you’re up there. Whatever is going on at work, whatever stress there is, for 90 minutes it’s gone.” Ivy paused her 90-minute flight lessons around 2014, when she co-founded Helios Digital Learning, an educational media company that focuses on storytelling. When Ivy chooses to resume her pilot training, she will only need one solo flight to get her license, at which point she can take to the skies any time to be free as a bird. Until then, she’s stuck with the rest of us here on the ground, where things often seem chaotic, confusing, and constricting. Through Helios and other ventures (like Purpose Workforce Solutions, which helps low-income disconnected youth find employment), Ivy uses stories to communicate not only scientific fact but also emotional truth. Considering that Oxford Dictionaries recently declared “post-truth” as Word of the Year, that’s no small feat.

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Joe Jarvis
For a lot of us, learning has to do with memorizing data. But you say that storytelling can help people learn better. How so?

Ivy Walker
We exist on story. We tell ourselves stories about everything that’s going on, or what we expect to happen. We are story animals. A good story at its core is cause and effect. Helios specializes in a specific type of learning: ethical judgment and decision making.

In tough situations, we might convince ourselves that we don’t have a way out. We convince ourselves that what we’re thinking about doing—even if it’s not aligned with who we say we are—makes sense in our scenario because of whatever reason. So it’s the stories that we tell ourselves that cause good people to do really bad things. In our line of work, we spend a lot of time with white-collar felons, and they’re not Bernie Madoff. They’re not people who woke up one day and decided they were going to fleece thousands of people for billions of dollars. They are people who took small steps that ended up leading them over the line. Each step of the way they told themselves a story.

We work with white-collar felons and whistleblowers. When you go through our training, you’re having a one-on-one experience with somebody who is taking you through their story and decision-making process and what’s happening in their thinking.

Joe
And Helios has different audiences, correct?

Ivy
We have three different clients. We work with major corporations on their compliance and ethics programs. When you look at financial services, there are a lot of compliance trainings that people have to go through, and it’s all kind of tick-the-box. “Don’t do this, don’t do that.” Nobody’s paying attention because for the most part we all believe ourselves to be good people. When somebody comes to us with a list of do’s and don’ts, we dismiss it because we think we already know all that. The problem is when you are faced with a situation where there are pressures—like you have to keep your job, or you were expecting this big bonus—you start to shift your perspective on what is clearly right and wrong. We work with our corporate clients to integrate compliance programs using these kinds of situations, to virtually simulate what would happen.

We also have academics. Accounting, finance, management, and increasingly advertising and PR courses, are including ethical components. Our third audience is the mass market. We recently released a documentary called “All the Queen’s Horses.” We’re trying to help the general public think differently about how these things happen, and what their individual responsibility is. In “All the Queen’s Horses,” a comptroller stole $53 million dollars. Everybody turned a blind eye because they could never fathom that she could do it. Willful blindness. One person who stumbled over the evidence was really tormented about what to do because she had known her for 20 years. A lot of people in these situations have a hard time deciding what should they do.

Joe
It strikes me that what you’re doing is really timely. In our contemporary culture, facts don’t matter. There is no accepted truth. Who’s to say I’m embezzling funds? To me it’s just alternative accounting. Are organizations aware of this cultural shift away from established facts, and are they responding to it by seeking you out?

Ivy
We were starting to see a significant increase and interest from corporations around what we do, but we’ve started to see that go the other way. The environment that we’re operating in right now is kind of a bizarro universe, with the absence of facts, the denial of facts, the absence of truth. The regulatory environment seems to be lessening its force around ethical violations within businesses. I would have thought that our business would be going gangbusters given what’s going on right now, but Chief Compliance Officers are really struggling from a budgetary perspective. Their budgets are being cut. I personally believe it’s the result of the enforcement environment changing.

But this situation sparked me to teach. I wanted to directly prepare students before they go into the workplace, so I started teaching an ethics class to upperclassmen. It was really enlightening to get firsthand their interpretation of what they’re seeing in the news. In some ways it was a little disheartening because there is a sense of “What can we do?” but it was enlightening. They were eager to find something that could be done, beyond the keyboard commando type of thing.

Joe
If people are learning differently, can they be tested the same way?

Ivy
Sure. Stories break down your mental barriers to accept a concept that you might otherwise dismiss, or it connects those concepts to other parts of your existence that you wouldn’t be connected to if you just had the facts of the situation. Story doesn’t change the depths which you can grasp. It simply inserts the topic in a different way. It’s like a Trojan Horse. You get the same level of understanding, but you get it differently. It tags your emotional component. Your emotional brain actually cements learning and experiences better than your non-emotional brain. Whenever you can attach an emotional experience to something, it sticks longer, better, deeper than just facts and figures.

Joe
You went to Northwestern for your MBA. When I think of MBAs, I think of people who are very much facts and figures. Is that fair?

Ivy
Yeah,  I’m very much left-brained. When I came out of Kellogg, I went into investment banking—as facts-and-figures as you can get. I ran financial models all day for two years and then I worked in private equity, so more facts and figures, but also more stories. When entrepreneurs are trying to get you to invest in their business, the better the story, the more likely you are to invest. I’ve always been a story person. My mom said I started reading when I was three. I’ve been reading my whole life, and I love movies. I go to the movies practically every weekend. So, I am very process and number-oriented, but story has always intrigued and fascinated me.

Think you’re an Originator like Ivy? Or maybe a Guardian or one of the other Inside8®groups? Take the Inside8 personality test and get your own report.

Joe Jarvis

Joe Jarvis

Joe Jarvis is co-founder and editor of Someone Else, a style journal and production agency based in Chicago. Joe focuses on the core motivations of clothing designers and artists, to help tell their stories. With The Jarvis Report, Joe uses the same approach to discuss personal fulfillment with people in the world of Inside8.

All stories by: Joe Jarvis

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