In the fourth episode of Dispatches from The Well, our host Kmele Foster unravels the significance of storytelling in the human experience. From the profound words of psychologist Dan McAdams to the life stories shared by renowned conservationist Jane Goodall and actor Terry Crews, we delve deep into the art of narrative creation.
We set out to explore how we craft narratives to make sense of our past, present, and future, forging our identities and purpose along the way. Join us as we contemplate the timeless question: Are we the stories we tell?
This episode invites you to ponder the intricate tapestry of existence, where storytelling serves as the compass guiding our journey through the enigmatic cosmos.
Dispatches from The Well, Episode 4:
- Storytelling is one of humanity's most powerful tools for making meaning. Every waking moment, we're crafting a narrative about ourselves and about the world around us. It's how we make sense of our past, how we understand our present, and how we imagine the future. As psychologist Dan McAdams once put it, "We are all storytellers, and we are the stories we tell."
- 'My desire was to be amongst and find out about animals in their natural habitat.'
- In this episode, we'll talk to famed conservationist, Jane Goodall, and actor, Terry Crews.
- 'I got a three-point plan to fix everything!'
- About the stories of their lives. And we sit down with Professor McAdams, who's spent a career studying how people from all walks of life use personal narratives to help make sense of the world.
- We'll look at how the stories we tell about our own lives help us navigate humanity's eternal search for meaning and purpose in our vast, miraculously complicated, rapidly expanding, and incomparably mysterious cosmos. This is "Dispatches from The Well."
- Well, Ms. Goodall, I am really, really honored to meet you. I do a lot of interviews. There are very few times where I find myself getting a little bit nervous and apprehensive before we start, but I will acknowledge that there's a little bit of it today.
Jane Goodall is probably one of the most famous people in the world. Like, she's been on "The Simpsons" famous.
- 'Dr. Goodall, I can't thank you enough for saving Lolo.' 'Lolo, that's what they called her in captivity.'
- Since 1960, her name has been synonymous with the study of wild chimpanzees and later with conservation and advocacy. And in more recent years, for a campaign to spread a message about the importance of hope. Throughout her 89 years, the experiences that Jane has had and the story she tells about those experiences has been central to the person we think of when we hear the name Jane. Her journey of scientific curiosity and understanding began at an early age.
- Mum took me for a holiday on a farm, and one of my jobs that I was given was to help collect the hen's eggs. And that's when I began asking her, "Where does the egg come out of the hen?" Nobody told me. So I remember vividly seeing this hen, she was brown and she was going into this hen house. And my little four-year-old mind must have thought, "Ah, she's going to lay an egg." So I crawled after her. Apparently, I waited for about four hours, and nobody knew where I was. And my mother sees this little girl rushing towards the house, all covered in straw. She said she was about to ring the police 'cause, you know, where was I? And instead of scolding me, she sat down to hear the wonderful story of how a hen lays an egg. And I love that story because isn't it the making of a little scientist? Asking questions, not getting the right answer, deciding to find out for yourself, making a mistake, not giving up, and learning patience. It was all there. And a different kind of mother might have crushed that early scientific curiosity, and I might not have done what I've done.
- I've heard this story before. Jane has told it countless times. It's even been turned into a children's book. But you don't get tired of hearing it. There's so much meaning packed into this one story. Jane has led this remarkable life, but what's equally remarkable is how she thinks about her experiences and translates them into meaning and purpose.
- We make ourselves whole through stories.
Professor Dan McAdams is fascinated by life stories as well. He specializes in narrative psychology and has been researching the role that these stories play in how we view ourselves and the world around us.
- There's this famous developmental psychologist named Erik Erikson, and he wrote about this concept of identity. And Erikson described it as this kind of pattern in the brain that gives your life a sense of purpose and unity and integrates your past, present, and imagined future, and situates you in the world. And like, "Okay, that all sounds good, but like, what is it, what is it?" And maybe a few months later, I'm still thinking about this problem, this question, and I'm thinking, "Well, maybe it's a story." 'Cause stories do that. They integrate past, present, future in the sense of beginning, middle, end. Maybe people are walking around with stories in their heads about how they came to be, where their lives are going. And these stories are partly based on fact, on real, lived experience. And they're shaped by culture and all that kind of thing. But they're also made up a little bit. They're embellished. And we start to work on the story in our teenage years, maybe early twenties. We continue to work on it throughout our lives. We're all authors creating meaning in our lives through narratives.
- 'Hello? I have a collect call from-'
- Someone with an incredible command of their own story is Terry Crews.
Today, you may know him from his role in "Brooklyn Nine-Nine."
- 'Oh damn!'
- Or perhaps as the primetime host of "America's Got Talent."
- 'Terry Crews!'
- But before he found his way to Hollywood, Terry was a professional football player.
- 'Terry Crews, number 51.'
- Now for many, making it to the NFL would be a dream come true. But as Terry would come to realize, that was someone else's dream. I met him in his production studio at Pasadena.
I will tell you right away what my favorite thing of yours is, and it's "Idiocracy." And I know that was some time ago.
- 'I thought your head would be bigger.'
- I remember auditioning probably 20 times for this role. And I was basically an unknown at the time. But when I came in for the audition, I based the President, Elizondo Herbert Mountain Dew Camacho, on a pastor that I knew who I grew up with. Basically, he was a charlatan. Like he was selling drugs out of the pulpit. He had affairs with various people all over the church. But he could preach. That's what people would say! They would literally go, "Oh, but he preached!" And I was like, "But he literally is not doing anything that he's saying he's doing." He's gonna fix the economy!
- I'm curious about the nature of realizing that pro football, after all of the work you did to get there, wasn't what you wanted to do.
- You know, it's wild because, first of all, I was a product of my environment in a lot of ways. I was an artist - left-handed, right-brained, very creative. But I also realized that being an artist wasn't going to get me out of Flint, Michigan. At the time, Flint was going through several challenges - a decline in the auto industry, the crack epidemic, and violence in my own house. I knew I had to escape, and sports seemed like the only way out. Especially for young Black men, sports, whether basketball, football, or track, seemed like the path to a way out. So, I chose football as my escape route. But despite dedicating myself to it, I didn't truly like the game. What I truly enjoyed was playing outside all day with friends - be it football, racketball, or any game. I enjoyed the essence of playing, but not the game itself. It was a deep revelation for me, realizing I dedicated my life to something I didn't enjoy.
- And it was only at the end of your career that you kind of had that realization?
- Absolutely, you fool yourself, you convince yourself. Being in the NFL felt like the ultimate dream, but it wasn't entirely what I truly desired.
- Many people valued it as the ultimate achievement, didn't they?
- Exactly, especially in Hollywood. There are numerous folks who pursued careers because their parents wished it for them. For instance, "My parents wanted me to be a lawyer, so I became one, but deep down, I wanted to be an actor." Similarly, I wanted to be an artist - to paint, draw, create, direct, make movies, and do it all. When I met my wife and got engaged, I outlined our future plans. First, we'd play in the NFL, then move to L.A. to make movies. I remember sitting outside a burger joint, sharing my vision with her. She looked at me like, "This guy's got a vision." But that's what I truly wanted. The NFL was merely a means to an end. The ultimate goal was to get to Hollywood and be creative.
- There's something basic about storytelling. You see it in all cultures. There are storytellers and storytelling in every known society on the world. There is a general expectation in many societies that people who tell good stories are special. They are accorded significant status in different societies. And there's a lot of belief that storytelling really precedes language. And that maybe language emerged in part to give us a really better tool for telling better stories. I think a lot of people who study stories believe, "No, it's like fundamental to adaptation." Being able to like tell a story about anything in your mind is a way of kind of simulating reality. Playing things out enables you to solve problems and deal with challenges. So it's a really basic idea in human life. And my interest in it is less in terms of its kind of universal nature, and more in terms of how each individual person, beginning in their late teens and early twenties, grafts a story onto their life. That's what they use to make meaning of who they are.
- This was the life I had always wished for, and I've certainly never regretted choosing it. There's a lot of other ways you could think about it, make sense of your life. Why tell a story? Probably because storytelling is the easiest, the most basic mode by which we tend to understand each other and understand ourselves.
- Before I came up to New York to sit down and talk to you, I was watching that beautiful documentary, 'Jane,' with my daughter. This was her first introduction to you. There was something that was really rich and rewarding about being able to share that moment with her. But something that really stood out to me was when you were talking about this aspiration that you had for as long as you could remember to go to Africa, thinking about yourself essentially as a man because there were these expectations for women at the time.
- Well, you know, I was really lucky. People have often asked me, 'What was it like to go into a male-dominated world?' But I wasn't because there was basically nobody out there. Nobody had ever studied chimpanzees. The field was open. When I dreamed of going to Africa when I was 10, everybody laughed at me. 'How will you get there? Africa's a dark continent we don't know anything about. It's filled with dangerous wild animals. And you are just a girl.' But not my mother. That's where I was lucky. She said, 'If you want to do something like this, you are going to have to work really hard, take advantage of every and any opportunity. And then, if you don't give up, hopefully you find a way.' And so that support for a young person, I think is absolutely crucial.
- Just as stories can empower us, they can also box us in. Jane was fortunate to have a mother who offered her an alternative to the naysaying narratives of others. Terry also had a formative experience that would help him realize that the story of his life was hardly preordained.
- There was a teacher by the name of Mr. Eichelberg. White man who, and again, I grew up in a city that by the time I was a senior was mostly Black. And he chose to stay and really work in our school. And he was a farmer out in the rural areas of Michigan. We would joke on him and we called him, 'He's the corniest teacher we got.' But this man believed in me. Like when I say all it takes is one person to believe in you for you to actually be successful, he's one of the examples. Because he saw my art ability. And I didn't even believe in myself. Now, you have to understand, I would go to assemblies. And everyone would say, 'You can be anything you wanna do! You can do anything!' And you go, 'Oh, wow.'
And then I was the kid that would run up after the assembly and say, 'I wanna do this, this, this, and this.' And they would look at me like, 'What made you think you can do that?' I said, 'You did! You just said that!' And I realized that people were just saying that. But he backed it up. Mr. Eichelberg filled out all these applications. He took photos of everything that I drew without me knowing. And he submitted them and got me scholarships. He got me my scholarship to Western Michigan University. He got me a scholarship to Interlochen Arts Academy. And I couldn't believe it. He was like, 'Terry.' He showed me the paper when it came back. 'Here's your scholarships.' And that shook me to my core because I was like, 'You believed in me, man.' 'You believed in me, man. Like you really meant that. I don't know what to say, man.' This man didn't have to do any of this. And he saw that I wanted a different future. He changed my life forever, changed my perspective forever. That's one of the stories I tell my kids. And I'm like, "You have to treat everyone as an individual. Because if you put 'em in that pack and, 'all these people do this, and all these people do that,' you're missing your opportunity."
- The various life experiences that live on as stories in our head, stories that we imbue with meaning, they have the power to shape us and alter the way we experience life. It's like an existential feedback loop. It seems like there's a lot of kind of nested, related concepts here that circle back on and reinforce one another. I exist in a particular cultural milieu. I exist in my own mind in some sort of way. I perhaps have a sense of purpose which is informed by my notions about the world. But in the same respect, my sense of purpose can inform my notions about the world. How do you disentangle those things to begin talking about it in a way that actually helps us wrap our hands around these concepts?
- Yeah, I think it is hard to disentangle those things. And I think when I started thinking about life stories in the mid-1980s, I was a little naive about how they work. I kind of at first imagined it like we're all authors and we've got these novels in our heads, and they're kind of like really well-formed with chapters and high points and low points and turning points. And then I just started doing interviews with people to ask them, "Think about your life as if it were a novel divided up in chapters." And I thought, "Will they be able to do it?" And people said, "Yeah, I can do that." And so we had a lot of success early on, but over time it became clear that these aren't all that well-formed. And they're not just your story.
I mean, you think you've got a story and you created it, but your culture shaped it. Growing up in America gives you certain opportunities and constraints when it comes to creating a story. So you can't pull culture out of it. It's almost as if like you and your culture are the co-authors of this thing and that you all kind of unwittingly collaborated, even though you didn't know you were doing it, to create this kind of story. And then you bring up purpose.
So I don't think you have to have a story to have purpose in life, but I think it really helps. And I think that people's life stories contribute to purpose. And so as I'm trying to make sense of myself as a young person, as Erikson described it, when you start working on your identity in your late teens and early twenties, the question of like, "Why am I here and what is my purpose?" That's central, that's part of it. And so the story is likely to be infused with that in one way or another.
- You talk openly about dealing with and navigating your own insecurity and arriving at a place where you had this fundamental, essential confidence in yourself; where you are, over time, kind of realizing more and more perhaps that the only person that you have to please and satisfy is you. And then you can be enough for the rest of the people around you, which I think is a really remarkable insight.
- For me, it's almost like jumping off a cliff and you hit the edge and you think you're on the ground, but you're not. You're like, "I'm still falling." It's like, "Thump, thump, thump, thump." But that only happens when you're moving forward, when you're trying things, when you're experimenting. I remember when I first got to L.A., I always looked at what successful people did. And one thing I noticed is that they were unembarrassable. And I watched them ascend. Like, "Wow, if you can do improv, just jump up there and bomb and not care." I said, "Now you can learn. Now you'll just get better." And for me, I realized that that's what I needed to do in almost every aspect of my life. Like, "Go for it, try it, bomb."
It was difficult because in the really super masculine world, you never want to appear like you failed. Where it's here I am, I looked like this person who's supposed to have it all together, and I didn't. I remember just feeling like, "I have to not care what anybody else thinks." And that's a hard spot. I mean, because you're alone. But I also realized that that was the only way I was going to learn anything. Start at the bottom, be humble. Because this is the mistake I made before, is that every time I was arrogant, I got humbled. I'll never forget the time when I moved out here and I actually was borrowing money from my best friend to the point where I had probably 10, 13 loans from this guy. And he was a former football player. And I was just like, "Yeah, yeah, man, I need another loan." But I was so arrogant, I wouldn't work. I was just thinking, 'I'm a former football player, and it'll all work out.' And one day he turned and he said, "No." And I was like, "Oh no, that's okay. 'All right, no problem, no problem.'" When your voice gets that high, you know something's wrong. When he said no, I was pissed! But I realized, "Man, no, I have to humble myself and go get a gig." And the first gig I had was sweeping floors. And by doing that, it broke something.
Like when I say broke something, I always thought if someone put a broom in my hand, I was gonna fall out. I was gonna die. Like, "Oh no, I would never do that. I'm coming from the NFL, and now I got a broom and I'm in a factory." And I realized, nobody cared. Nobody cared at all. And I went, "This was a trick." It was a trick to keep me from my destiny. And so I began to realize, "Go down, go all the way down, start from the bottom, learn, listen." Then I had to question myself. Like, "What are you gonna do? Who are you? What is your purpose? What is your mission? I mean, is it just to go get some money? What is really making you happy? Why do you want to be successful?" And in the course of answering these things is how I found what I would say, my spirituality, my purpose as a human being. And it's still chopping and forming as we go.
- A question that comes to mind as I'm sitting here and talking to you, and I know how hectic and demanding your schedule is, is how are you? I mean, you've lived this extraordinary life. You've done and achieved all of these things, and you're still going at this incredible clip. How do you do that?
- I think I have a mission, which may sound odd to you.
- No, not at all, actually.
- Good, because I think I have. And it's happened again and again. We call it Jane Magic. Like last night was a perfect example. My voice has got so tired overspeaking, and yet when I get out onto that platform, my voice comes back. And it's very strange. Sometimes if I'm really, really tired, I feel like I open up my mind to say, 'Please, please, please help.' So this is why I feel that I'm on this mission because things come to help me do it. And I've come to believe absolutely there are two Janes. There's this one talking to you, just me. And then there's a kind of icon created by Geographic and Discovery and all these things. I have a hard work keeping up with that Jane. But that's the one that's on the mission. Yeah.
- Could you talk a little bit about the benefits of having a clear, well-defined sense of purpose?
- Yeah. Frederick Buechner described this sense of calling, and he says 'It's where the world's hunger and your own gifts kind of intersect.' He describes a person's skills and opportunities and so forth as manifestations of their gladness. So like I get real delight, I get gladness in certain kinds of experiences. Wouldn't it be great if I could meld those or intersect those with what the world needs? So I think purpose, in the best sense of the word, sort of does that. And so you have a sense when you feel that you have purpose in life, that you are living out something that is authentic, that's truly you, that gives you gladness, that in some way meets your deep needs. But at the same time, it's addressing the hunger of the world. And that means that it's doing something important for the world outside me. Now, what would that be?
I mean, like one could argue, 'Well, I think being a hedge fund manager, I love it, and it's meeting the world's needs. And so that's my calling.' And I respect that. But for me, a more exalted way to think about it is that one's purpose and calling, at the end of the day, should be in one way or another contributing to the continuity of our species, to the next generation. Erik Erikson, he had another very cool term, in his theory, called it 'generativity.' And he argued that in midlife, all of us need to come to terms with generativity. The desire for generativity is the desire to leave something positive behind, to make a positive contribution to the next generation through care and through commitment. Many people do it through parenting, but there's all kinds of other ways to be generative as well. Mentorship, leadership. Even in your business as well as your personal life, people seek to be generative increasingly. And I think purpose, ultimately, especially as we get into our midlife years, should connect to generativity in some way. Otherwise, why are we here? I mean, like if we're not doing something for the next generation, in my mind, we're just taking up space.
And I guess it's weird to find deep meaning in the idea of human evolution since basically human evolution is kind of dictated by randomness. But nonetheless, we have been produced through these random processes as a species that strives to get along and get ahead in social groups. And we have evolved to care about that a great deal. And what would be more important than to keep that going, that opportunity that this species has to do something that in one way or another makes the world a better place down the road?
- My best days of my life were at Gombe. And I left because I realized that across Africa, chimpanzee numbers were decreasing and forests were being cut down. And that's when it hit me: If we don't help these people find ways of making a living without destroying the environment, we can't save chimpanzees, forests, or anything else. So the Jane Goodall Institute began this program, TACARE. It's very holistic.
- Jane realized that it was poverty, not malice, that was leading to the rapid degradation of natural resources. So the program recruited local Tanzanians who went to area villages, not to prescribe solutions to people who lived there, but to find out what was needed to make their lives better.
- As I was traveling around the world to raise money for this project, I was meeting these young people who were losing hope. Some angry, some of them were depressed, even clinically depressed. Mostly they were just apathetic, not caring. And I began asking them, in all these different countries, "Why do you feel like this?" And more or less, they said, "Well, you've compromised our future, and there's nothing we can do about it."
So we have since the Industrial Revolution, maybe since the Agricultural Revolution, we've been stealing their future as we destroy the planet, as we destroy the natural environment. Because we are part of that natural environment. But when they said there was nothing they could do, there I said, "No, that's not true." That's when I began this Roots & Shoots program where the main message is every one of us makes an impact on the planet every day, and we can choose what sort of impact we make. And once you start taking action, you'll find, yes, you can make a difference. And then you want to do more 'cause it makes you feel good. And the more you do, the more you inspire others. Then, think that all around the world, other people like you are doing the same.
- But while not all of us can make generational change on the scale of Jane Goodall, we each have the opportunity to pass down stories, knowledge, and values that can help those that come after us.
- One of the things that I've tried to do with my kids is develop these like mantras in the household. There are two things that I tell them all the time, and I borrow these from a mentor. You're capable of more than you can imagine, and you're responsible for your own happiness. And I love hearing my daughter like say this kind of stuff back to me. And I'm sure it annoys her, but I do think it's so important to be able to just embed these principles. So I'm curious about your approach to parenting now, where you find yourself, and how you go about inculcating these lessons into your kids.
- I'm very careful about dispensing a lot of knowledge unless they ask or if I see they're obviously in a quandary. I like to let them work it out until they need help. And then I also give them, I'll send them texts of different things. Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of my favorite, favorite people. He has a quote that I love so much. It was, "God will not have his work made manifest by cowards." These are the things I send my kids. Like for you to even be born, your mother had to be courageous enough to have you. For anything worth anything in this life, it takes courage. And if you have that courage, you can get anything you want. And I like to inspire that way. Like I tell stories to my kids. I feel like storytelling is the only way to truly get a message, so to speak. If I tell my kids enough of what I've been through and we never shy away, to the point where my kids are like, "Okay, we heard enough. That's really embarrassing." I'm like, "I know, I know." I told my kids all about how ashamed I was of how arrogant I was as a man. And it's something that we all have sat down and talked about, all these things. And I just want them to get that through the story.
- Somebody the other day asked what my next big adventure would be, and nobody had asked me before. And I thought, if I'd been asked 10 years ago, I would say, "Oh, into the wild places, Papua New Guinea." But I couldn't do that now. So I said, "Dying." And it was a kind of shocked silence and a few titters. And then I said, "Well, when you die, you either, there's nothing which is fine, or there's something. And if there is something which I just happen to feel, although I couldn't begin to prove it, then I can't think of a greater adventure than finding out what it is."
- We learn from an early age that all stories must inevitably come to an end. How comfortable we are with the fact of our own mortality probably has something to do with how well we felt we've lived our lives in the present and our ability to appreciate the small, very tangible gift we're given each day to be present in this moment.
- We had a full Moon a little while ago, and I looked up at it as I often do. And I remember when the first landing on the Moon came. And every time I look at the full Moon, I think, "Wow, we put people on the Moon." Young people today take it for granted. They don't have that sense of wonder and awe.
- Have you given much thought to how we can cultivate that sense of awe again?
- I think one big problem with that is that more and more and more are we being dissociated from nature. Especially children. If they aren't able to be in nature, if they can't feel the Earth, if they don't learn how there are millions of little organisms in the ground beneath us, if they can't go to places where there's none or very little light pollution and see the brilliance of the stars and how they stretch up and up and up till you can't really see them anymore, then how can they develop this sense of wonder? For me, when I'm out in the forest, which is my favorite environment, I have this very strong sense of spiritual connection with some greater power, which some people would call God, some people call Allah, some people would call the Creator. But out in nature, it's like you feel the power of the Universe. And then you look up at the Moon and the stars, and then you think about the evolution of life on Earth. And then you wonder, is there a meaning? Is there a meaning we're here?
- Is there?
- I think every single one of us has some role to play, even if we don't know what it is, and that every one of us matters and every one of us can make a difference.
- We're each in the midst of a life story, a story that's unfolding in front of us day after day. If we're open to experience, we will routinely encounter things that change the trajectory of our story, just as they change us. Life isn't just something that happens to us. Each of us has the opportunity to forge our own path, exploring the Universe of which we're a part, and writing the story that is true to ourselves.