One of the supporters of this trip expressed concern that Chris and I might be losing focus on our Journey. I understand where they were coming from, our vision and our tactics have shifted a lot since the beginning of this trip. To clarify any points of confusions about what our goals are, I’ve put up (an edited version of) my response letter to the supporter. Even if you didn’t give us any money, I think you’ll enjoy it.
I understand where you’re coming from when you expressed your concern that the trip is losing focus. I have, perhaps, not done as good a job of explaining what we’re after right now as I should have. I hope to fix that by the end of this letter.
I think you understand that the goal of this journey has always been to tell stories. Chris and I share a passion for them—their construction, rhetoric, and power to create real change. What I presented to you before embarking—the project to do in-depth reporting on a few emerging entrepreneurs– was the best manifestation of that that I could think of, the best project I knew how to complete that would allow me to tell great stories.
I’ve learned a lot since then, more than I could summarize in this small letter. One of the things we learned is that that project wouldn’t work. Entrepreneurs as individuals are generally not interesting enough to merit the amount of time that we had planned to invest in each one. Those thought leaders that do merit that kind of research and biographical work are already titans in their industry, and we’d be lucky if they gave us a half hour interview. So, we were left in a conundrum: no access to the people with names worth doing a piece about, and no real market to read long works on individual entrepreneurs that haven’t already made a massive impact.
So Chris and I took a step back, examined where we were coming from, and then set off in a new direction. The direction that made sense was to begin working as freelance journalists, which would allow us to experiment with telling all different kinds of stories until we got damn good at it, and understood their essence. Nevertheless, we didn’t abandon the original idea.
You’ll note that our new Forbes blog, “Freewheelers” is about entrepreneurs in a format that we think will work: short pieces about quirky but ingenious businesses. (The tag line ie “the strangest ways to make a living.”) While we’ve only put out three pieces so far, we’ve seen some success, and gotten a lot of encouragement from an excited Forbes editorial staff. We’re also excited about the column; it will not only be fun to read, but may do much to propel our young careers, and we love meeting and writing about the people featured.
Outside of that column, Chris and I have been working on putting together feature stories. These are 4000 word pieces that take two-three weeks for us to put together. They drill deep into small stories, and represent our commitment to the in-depth journalism that we heralded at the Explorer’s Club. They are about underworlds, as Chris and I like to call them.
Underworlds are small groups of people that are undertaking difficult, curious, or community-changing projects that fall well outside the day-to-day life of most people. Our goal is to make you look at these groups and go “wow! I can’t believe people actually do that!” and hopefully give the readers some takeaways about the ingenuity of the groups, or at least inspire the reader to take a step further into the unknown. It’s an admittedly vague definition, best explained by example: a group of environmental activists that are blocking the passage of a new coal plant by guarding the entrance 24 hours a day, and inciting riots everytime the machines come to build; a group of climbers trying to tackle one of the most dangerous climbs in Europe; a community in Vienna that gets their food by dumpster diving because they think it’s more environmentally friendly.
It’s the same in-depth journalism we were planning to apply entrepreneurs, now applied to more complex, and more interesting, small communities.
The stories, as we write them now, try to be amusing and fascinating. Most of them succeed at least in part, although some do not. The truth is that we are at the beginning of a very long road in understanding what is at the core of a good story. We all know the concepts behind one: interesting conflict, hopefully on protagonist vs. herself and protagonist vs. bad guy levels, adventure, good character development and –this is the hardest one—relatability. Mixing together all those elements is an immensely difficult task even when you can make everything up. It is at least equally hard when you have to find them all in the real world, get access to them from people who don’t know you, and then synthesize all the research and interviews into a coherent piece while filtering for bullshit.
The art only seems to get more complex as we delve deeper into it. So far, I can say we just got past white belt. We now better understand how to find the stories, which characters we need to get to know, and how to extract some of the information we need. Even in these fields, we have an endless amount to learn. But what Chris and I really have not grasped yet is how to make a story relatable. They don’t leave the reader in awe, they don’t give the reader a sense that they need to jump out of their chair—right now!—to act on what they learned in the story. That only happens when the author masters relatability.
Relability itself comes from two sources (there may be others). One is that man vs. self conflict is integrated within the more adventurous man vs. bad guy conflict. Man vs. self only has so many interations, and if the author is honest is describing them, (or if we’re talking journalism, if the reporter was able to get the interviewee to open up), then any reader will be able to associate with the emotions presented. The other way to do it is to use the story to present some great insight or simple but powerful concept, the way that Malcolm Gladwell does it. Then the story is relatable because you understand how the concept can impact your life. There may be other ways of doing it too, one’s that I haven’t yet discovered.
So, in a word, that’s what we’re really after. The one Great Story, powered by relatability. The one that is full of adventure and meaningful conflict, but also relevant to what’s happening around you in the world, and will leave the reader with a fascinating new insight. The Great Story will be about the creation of something you understand and care about, but the creation will happen in a fascinating and foreign underworld that you never knew existed. Reading the Great Story will leave you with a tidbit of knowledge you can really use.
The journey to find that story, and understand it’s composure, will be what the book is about when it is written.
I dare say that this goal is perhaps more nebulous, and less easy to sell, than a journey to go find great entrepreneurs. If you want something sexier, that we can say that this journey is still about fining entrepreneurs and the wild communities they create—that remains the vehicle to our larger goal. But what we’re after is much more meaningful, profound, and ambitious than that. I hope that you see that with me, and that, as a fellow writer, you will enjoy watching the process of us stepping ever closer to this goal, even if we never quite arrive at The Story.