Patrick Schwerdtfeger is a motivational speaker who can cover the topic of personal narratives and the habitual repetitive thought patterns that hold us back from achieving our goals at your next business event. Contact us to check availability. The full transcript of the above video is included below.
Full Video Transcript:
Hi and welcome to another edition of Strategic Business Insights. Today we’re going to talk about national narratives. Every person has a personal narrative, every company has a company narrative, and every country has a country narrative or a national narrative. So I have to tell you about this trip that I took to Moscow back in July 2013 where I heard on four different occasions and I did not solicit this information, not even once, I did not allude to it, on four different occasions—I was there for five days—on four different occasions people in Russia told me that life is difficult in Russia. Now, I don’t know that much about…I mean, I know a few things about Russia but I’m certainly no expert on Russia, but I have to relay this series of stories.
So when I first got there and arrived at the airport, it was like 2 o’clock in the morning, it was crazy, but anyway I had a car service that took me from the airport to the hotel, which was right in Central Moscow, and the taxi driver, the car service driver, he didn’t speak much English at all, but he spoke a little bit here and there and I told him I was excited to be there and asked him if he grew up in Moscow and just basic small talk and sure enough within a few minutes—we were driving, it was like a 45-minute drive—he told me that life is difficult in Russia. That’s what he said just on his own. He felt the need to tell me life is difficult in Russia and I was like, “Okay,” I mean, “Tell me about that.” I tried to get something out, but again he didn’t speak that much English, but I thought, “Man, that’s pretty interesting.”
So anyway, the next day—I was staying at the Ritz-Carlton, which was literally right across the street from the Kremlin and Red Square, so I really was in a great place, it was awesome—and so the next day I was walking through Red Square and taking pictures and so on, but sometimes I get really bad jet lag and if you’ve ever had like an eight-, 10-hour time difference, I don’t know about you but I get this like crazy, dizzy, like almost nauseous feeling where I feel really bad and it always takes a day or so to get over that, and so I was walking through Red Square and I got one of these spells and I was like, “Man, I have to sit down.” And so I sat down on this bench and there was like some Russian guy who was sitting on the other side of the bench, and he kind of looked over and he didn’t say anything but you could see he had a look of concern, like what’s up with…because I looked like something was wrong, and so I said a couple of things to him. Well, it turns out he spoke a little bit of English, not a whole lot but a little bit, and we talked a little bit and sure enough, lo and behold, a couple of minutes later he tells me, “Life is difficult in Russia,” and I was like, “This is crazy. I just heard this the other day. Last night I heard it from my car service.” And so he says, “Yeah, life is not easy in Russia.” I’m like, “Okay.”
A couple of days later I was at a restaurant and the waitress at the restaurant, who did speak English relatively well, again we were talking, and she volunteered that life is difficult in Russia. And the fourth person was when I was leaving Russia and I was actually flying to Hong Kong on my way to the Philippines, and a lady sat beside me on the plane and of course we had this long plane ride, which we were going to be side by side for the plane ride so we chatted, and she said that life is difficult in Russia. So this is believe is the Russian national narrative. And maybe there are other elements to it that I’m not familiar with, like I said I’m not an expert on Russia by any stretch, but certainly there is a commonly held belief that “life is difficult in Russia” in Russia.
Now, there’s another side to this, of course, which is also part of their national narrative, which is that Russians are comrades. They have very close relationships and they connect through this struggle of “life is difficult in Russia.” So they connect with each other and, for example, nobody smiles in Russia, and if you smile like as an American like I’m smiling, they think you’re crazy. They literally think you’re out-of-your-mind crazy and they think Americans are obsessed with smiling and they think it’s disingenuous and fake and superficial, artificial. They think that you’re smiling, “Why would you smile? You don’t even know me yet. Once we know each other, then we can become comrades.” These Russians, when you’re a friend, you’re a friend for life, like, “I will fight for you. I will die for you.” They have a very strong sense of being comrades, of being in this shared struggle of “life is difficult in Russia.” So there are two sides of this. Having these close relationships I think is something that’s admirable, but it’s like this whole notion of they fight through the struggle of being in Russia together as a cohesive group and this is their national narrative.
So the truth is that every country has a national narrative. For example, here in America, what’s the narrative here? The narrative here is that America is the land of opportunity and you can chase the American dream. That’s the national narrative here, and the politicians never miss an opportunity to remind us that America is the land of the free, the land of opportunity, the American dream. Well, statistically, you could look at America and it’s not necessarily…the American dream is not necessarily that much greater here than it is in other countries. In fact, the division between rich and poor is greater in America than it is in most other developed nations around the world. So for most people, like 90, 95, 98% of the population, this is not the land of opportunity and they don’t necessarily have access to American dream as much as they might think, but we’re told that. It’s our national narrative. Our self-perception as Americans is that we are the land of the free, we are the land of opportunity, we chase the American dream. That’s our national narrative. Imagine the difference in terms of—pretend that you’re either Vladimir Putin or Barack Obama. Which national narrative would you rather have? The one that we have in America is so much more empowering than the one that they have in Russia. The one they have in Russia is not defeating but it’s destructive in so many ways.
Now, let’s look at some other countries around the world. Like I grew in Canada, in Vancouver, and it’s funny because if you do a survey in Canada and say, “What does it mean to be a Canadian?” the number one answer is, “We’re not American.” So Canada has defined itself by what it’s not, “We’re not Americans,” and Canada tries to distinguish itself from America. It’s not a particularly empowering national narrative. I think it’s sad, actually, in a way because there are so many things that are awesome about Canada but they’re not talked about. Canadians aren’t nearly as self-aggrandizing as Americans. They’re not nearly as patriotic as people in America are. They’re a little more subdued and maybe, there’s a word I’m thinking of that I can’t think of, but they’re not as aggressive with talking about how great Canada is.
But then you look at countries like China, the Chinese people are industrious. They work hard. That’s the national narrative in China. What’s the national narrative in India? India is incredible. Incredible India – that’s their national narrative. In Fiji, Fiji is the happiest place on earth. That’s their national narrative. Australia, they party, they drink, they are aggressive, they go after it, they’re more aggressive. That’s their national narrative. Their rugby tradition, so all these things. And these are incomplete examples, every country has more things to point out than just those, but it’s a national narrative.
So what country do you live in? What’s your national narrative? And even if you work for a company, what’s your company’s corporate narrative? Every company has a corporate narrative. That’s what a mission statement is all about, is to identify their corporate narrative. Who are they? What does it mean to be an employee of General Motors or Google or any of these large companies around the world like Exxon or United Airlines or whatever? They all have a corporate narrative, and of course you too as an individual, you have a personal narrative. What’s your story? Are you victorious or are you a victim?
So these narratives are at all levels of our lives, and the whole example of “life is difficult in Russia” just struck me when I was over there because I was like this belief has permeated the culture, the society. The belief system of the country is that life is difficult in Russia and that may or may not be true, but it’s the story that they tell themselves and the story that they tell me as a tourist in their capital. So it was fascinating, and I encourage you to think about this because, let’s face it, you control your own personal narrative and you can contribute to your company’s corporate narrative as well. You can’t control your national narrative, but even an awareness of what it is might be interesting for you to see how it affects your country and the way it’s portrayed not only to itself but to other countries around the world.
Thanks so much for watching this video. My name is Patrick, reminding you as always to think bigger about your business, think bigger about your life.
Patrick Schwerdtfeger is a keynote speaker who has spoken at business conferences in North America, South America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.