Lisa Katayama: The Power of Stories in a Complex World

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Photo credit: Tomo Saito

I have always believed in the power of stories to transform the world. Throughout my life, this has showed up in many different ways.


Stories help us make sense of the world.

Before I knew how to speak, I distinctly remember knowing in my head that the universe was much bigger than what I had access to from my limited view as a human baby. I was convinced that my parents lived in an alternate reality while I napped, that this life they had created—with me the infant and all the complexities that came with raising me—was a type of fiction. I used to try to stay awake for as long as I could in an attempt to catch a glimpse of their other world.

As soon as I learned how to articulate my thoughts in words, I started writing. As a child I filled notebook after notebook with stories of playground adventures featuring real friends and fictional families in far away places. Growing up with mixed-race friends and a Chinese mom in a racially homogenous country (Japan), it was fascinating for me to imagine how the narrative of a simpler cultural construct might have played out. Of course, I now know that nobody’s story is really that simple. But the notebooks are evidence that I must have once felt the desire to have that, to understand that, to become that, through the stories I wrote.


Stories connect us to ourselves and to each other.

As an adult, my first chosen career was as a magazine journalist. I learned that the public always has an appetite for a good human story, and that—if you dig deep enough—everybody has a story worth sharing. I also realized that it’s always better if people can tell their own stories, rather than having others tell it for them.

Identity is complex. Each and every one of us experiences being human so differently. We use categories like age, race, gender, ethnicity, and nationality to define, protect, to create a sense of belonging—but no single category is useful for telling anyone’s full story.

In her popular TEDTalk, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the danger of a single story. “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete,” she says. This realization—that every individual’s story is truly unique and that the best narrator for one’s true experience is herself—was what eventually led me out of journalism.

What if people could tell their own stories?

This question led me to start a nonprofit (called The Tofu Project) that creates tools and experiences for people to find their own self-expression through storytelling, design, and events.

It is a question that I continue to carry with me as I continue to meet new people, enter different worlds, and explore how people connect with one another.


Stories help us heal.

In 2010 I became a volunteer at Maitri, a hospice for people living with HIV/AIDS. At Maitri, I encountered some of the saddest human stories in the world. People who were deeply abused physically and psychologically. People who had watched loved ones get killed, people who narrowly escaped being killed by loved ones. Some residents kept their stories to themselves, but more often than not these painful truths would start to emerge at random moments—on the patio over a joint, or as they lay in bed for what they knew to be their last few days in this life.

Here is one story I wrote for Boing Boing about a man named Vinny, who died in 2010, shortly after sharing his story with me.

There are psychology-based workshops you can sign up for online where you rewrite your own narrative in order to reframe your life and move on from past trauma. As anyone who has ever kept a diary knows, writing can be a powerful healing tool.


Stories help us create new futures.

Right now, I work at a high-end creative consulting company called SYPartners that uses the power of strategy and design to transform leaders and organizations. We do complex, bespoke, multifaceted work in fields like technology, retail, public education, and human rights. It’s even more important in business to figure out what stories leaders are telling themselves, their employees, and the worlds they impact. Stories are what help the most influential people in the world understand the moments they are in, and the urgency of those moments. Stories are what encourage them to be better actors as they face uncertain futures. As my friend Glynn Washington, who hosts the award-winning podcast Snap Judgment, said recently: Nobody has ever been moved by facts and figures or a PowerPoint presentation.

Stories matter.

The world needs stories for so many reasons.

How do stories help you navigate the world?


❔ Whois

Lisa Katayama is a former journalist and nonprofit founder who currently leads editorial strategy at SYPartners in San Francisco. She is the co-creator of the MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellows Program, a program that catalyzes collaborations between the technologies of the Media Lab and creative changemakers all over the world. Lisa has appeared on CBC Radio, the BBC, CNN, Martha Stewart Radio, and in The Wall Street Journal and the Spanish, Russian, Swedish, German, Nepalese, and Italian press. She is also the author of the blog TokyoMango and the book Urawaza: Secret Everyday Tips and Tricks from Japan. Some parts of this article were repurposed from “Our complex, intractable, evolving identities,” a Medium post written in March 2017.

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