Updated: Aug 31, 2020
The “civilized-human” experiment we are currently undertaking owes its existence to storytelling. It is fair to say that not too long ago, humans were grunting to each other, relying mainly on their instincts to mate, hunt and take care of themselves. It was only until we developed the ability to tell stories and share them with one another that we jump-started the astonishing evolutionary process we have experienced in the past six or so thousand years. Storytelling is the fuel that powers who we are now and where we are heading.
World-renowned producer Jeff Gomez is someone who is deeply aware of the impact that storytelling has had in shaping the world around us. Born in the colossus storytelling beehive that is New York City, Jeff has spent his life analyzing, dissecting and telling stories. He loves telling stories so much that when it came down to choosing a medium to share his stories with the world, he decided to go with all of them, becoming one of the forefathers of modern transmedia storytelling, a powerful technique of telling stories through multiple orchestrated media.
Through his studio Starlight Runner Entertainment, Jeff and his team have performed world-building services and created content for media giants such as Disney, 20th Century Fox, Sony Pictures, Mattel and others. Jeff has also provided consulting for a wide array of people, from the leaders of nations to Fortune 500 top executives, to indigenous and underrepresented communities. During his consultations as a personal coaching, Jeff uses a precise and particular method that he has developed over decades of research and development to help his clients and mentees find their life’s central story; their purpose in life and career.
Given the extraordinary state of affairs we are all currently experiencing, we thought it would be wise to sit down with Jeff to discuss the topic of “Reinvention,” a largely elusive term that everyone seems to be focused on at the moment. The goal of this conversation is to discuss the true importance of undergoing personal and societal reinvention and how narrative can be used as a tool to effectively reinvent oneself and change the way we perceive reality.
Tiburon Transmedia: We often hear that this pandemic has provided a great opportunity for people—and societies—to reinvent themselves. The problem is that most people would not know where to start. What do you think would be the first steps to start that process of reinvention?
Jeff Gomez: We want to make changes, or even reinvent ourselves, because something is not working. We may not even understand what the problem is, we only realize that what we desire is no closer today than it was months or years ago, or the way we’ve conducted ourselves is somehow unfulfilling or even exhausting.
The first step is to figure out how to step outside of your daily experience, so that you can look for the patterns of behavior and patterns of belief that have led you to this point in your life. In my coaching, I have tools that allow for you to quickly discern those patterns, and they are often quite a revelation. We tell ourselves stories, and we fervently believe in those stories, and some of those stories are not necessarily factual.
Once we realize that not all of our decisions are based on facts, we start to become freer to make different interpretations of what happened to us—you are freed up to do a rewrite on the script of your life. As with any good author, you can see many possibilities for the hero of your story, rather than just one or a few.
The next step is to decide what you’re going to do with that freedom. You don’t want to completely abandon who you are, or disregard the beauty and integrity of the work you’ve already done. But you also don’t want to become lost in the infinite choices that lay ahead of you. So, we draw upon the most powerful themes and insights that we’ve gained from the story of your life to generate a new vision, a new purpose, something that will benefit you but just as importantly benefit the world around you. Truly a wonderful process.
Tiburon Transmedia: Let’s back it up a bit. Could the necessity for “reinvention” be a bit overstated? Why do we need to succumb to the pressure of having to always reinvent ourselves? Wouldn’t it be best, for example, to let this storm pass through by staying true to one’s core principles, without trying to reinvent oneself at a time when everything else seems to be changing around us?
Jeff Gomez: If you’re at peace, if you’re genuinely happy with your relationships and your work, even in these stressful times, there may not be an immediate need to reinvent yourself. No sense doing it if life is working for you—the desire is not strong enough to make such changes.
However, life has been pretty stormy for a whole lot of us recently. To me, this is indicative of the fact that as a whole, humanity is engaging in patterns of belief and behavior that are not necessarily in the majority’s best interest. I think we ought to collectively pause, step outside of ourselves, and examine those patterns. We might be surprised at what is possible to change. The human race can truly level up. That starts with each one of us as individuals. So, I’ll always recommend pausing to toss ourselves out of ourselves, stepping outside of the trees to examine the state of the forest.
My best recommendation is this: in a time when the world is troubled or chaotic, we often fall upon our first instincts (our core values and cause/effect responses) to deal with the problems. It’s sort of like taking a hammer to a nail. But if the problem is complex, if it’s not a nail but a motherboard, then a hammer is going to mess things up even more. You may want to pull back and check out how all those circuits are connected to one another, because it isn’t always obvious. You may want to bring in a few experts and listen to their advice. You may want to step outside your comfort zone, the familiar, and take a different approach to the one you’ve been using all your life. That’s reinvention.
Tiburon Transmedia: Could you provide an example from your own life and career, where you were able to effectively reinvent yourself to overcome a major obstacle? How did you use storytelling as the tool to make that reinvention happen?
Jeff Gomez: In 1999, I had this idea for what I was calling “web-based experiences,” where interactive stories could unfold online through websites, video, chat, and email, and I was so excited when investors gave me the money to realize my dream. We were 80% done with our prototype when 9/11 happened. Our investors withdrew, and no one was interested in complex digital mysteries in a time of such fear and uncertainty. My little company Starlight Runner was pretty much finished.
Together, my staff and I took a break and we decided to visit schools around New York City to teach how storytelling and the stories we tell ourselves about what happened could make us less afraid, less hateful, and better able to help one another. The experience was so wonderful that I started thinking about how infusing positive values, the process of personal aspirational transformation, could be infused into popular entertainment. What if I could use my knack for creating and producing entire story worlds to help companies to the same for their brands—with the full understanding that what makes any story special is the transformation (the reinvention) that is symbolized by the heroic journey?
I put that energy out into the world. I started writing about it and talking with journalists about it, and before long, Mattel called my office and asked me if I could create a Hot Wheels universe! I knew nothing about race cars, but I knew this was an opportunity to use storytelling as a tool to show children around the world what I was showing them in those New York City classrooms. I took the job.
Tiburon Transmedia: In a time when we are bombarded with stories, is it becoming harder for us to let stories affect us? How can a story cut through the noise and actually affect someone to the point where it provides not only the intellectual base for a reinvention to happen, but actually the tools to kick that process into action?
Jeff Gomez: There are two factors that go into creating a story that cuts through the noise and chaos of pervasive communication to truly touch peoples’ lives. The first is that the story needs to have resonance, and by that, I mean that it has to speak specifically to who we are today, right now. Have you noticed how many movies are coming out that are just meh, feeling like we’ve seen them a thousand times, even if hundreds of millions of dollars are poured into them? That’s because the screenwriters and filmmakers are not listening to us. They’re giving us their spin on tried and true tropes, but they failed to anticipate what was in our hearts, what was causing us pain that needed to be salved, what we needed to hear to make it easier for us to get by.
The second factor is related to the first. The story needs to give us a map. It needs to show us a world, however chaotic, and describe how best to navigate it—even if their protagonists are doing a crappy job of navigating it themselves.
Look at I May Destroy You and look at Betty, both on HBO. Each is about young women trying to maneuver in deeply complex, chaotic worlds, each is almost supernaturally resonant with the crises and uncertainty we are experiencing today, and yet one is entirely different from the other. Both are works of art.
Tiburon Transmedia: If stories have the power to change how we perceive the world, in your opinion, why is it then that we still largely think about storytelling as something ethereal? For example, when we talk about a company’s performance, or a country’s GDP, we focus on what we perceive as tangible: materials, infrastructure, budget, etc. We almost never hear politicians or company executives talk about having to “invest in storytelling” as a way to increase productivity and/or a community’s wellbeing. Why is that?
Jeff Gomez: Storytelling is rarified skill, best left to the experts as far as corporate executives and government leaders are concerned. Spinmeisters, advertising agencies, marketers, publicists—and even these people are intuiting story without necessarily fully understanding the underpinnings and mechanisms of narrative.
This has been fine, I guess, until now. I think it’s vital that we all invest in storytelling. Because we don’t understand that there is a science to storytelling, that it’s made up of dozens of different components, just the same way a car engine is, we just give up and call it “magic.” The problem is that when you believe in magic, you can allow for spells to be cast over you. You become subject to the power of narrative, even when it is not being used in your best interests. The facts get completely lost and you fixate on interpretations that echo your own biases, your traumas, your fears, and the desires in your heart that are born of those things. Things stop making sense. Our perception of reality itself can start to unravel. It can make you crazy, and it can make you allow for crazier and crazier things to happen. That’s really dangerous.
So, instead of the 1% making further investments in storytelling, my very strong recommendation is for all of us to make a big investment into understanding what storytelling is, how stories are devised, the distinction between storytelling and the facts, and how storytelling can be used to help us reconcile, heal, and promote one another’s wellbeing.
Tiburon Transmedia: Your Company Starlight Runner consults with the world’s top media companies, Fortune 500 companies and even government, NGO and educational institutions. What do you consult about? How would you define the work that you guys do?
Jeff Gomez: The subjects are varied. How do we reintroduce an aspirational Japanese superhero to the North American market after a 30-year absence? How do we turn an elite obstacle racing brand into a lifestyle brand for all kinds of people? How to we help reinvent a charity that has leaned on white savior tropes for decades into an organization where donors’ lives are transformed just as much as the recipients’?
What all of these have in common is what we’ve been talking about today: when we understand the power of narrative, and the science of narrative, we can create stories that are more compelling, more participative, and ultimately more likely to improve our lives and our world. If our prospective client isn’t interested in this, we are less interested in working with them, however much money they offer us.
Tiburon Transmedia: How are you reinventing yourself at this moment? Well, maybe we should ask, are you in the process or reinventing yourself? If yes, tell us why and what are you hoping to get out of this reinvention process?
Jeff Gomez: I am reinventing myself right now. I live in the heart of New York City. The pandemic and racial strife has deeply impacted my family. Like so many, we’ve struggled with anxiety, depression, and uncertainty about the future. At first, my strategy was to fight. My whole life had been a struggle in one sense or another, so why shouldn’t this be the latest boss battle? But when the “war” dragged on, and things only started to get worse, it became so tiring and frustrating. Why should I have to struggle at this point in my life, as hard or harder than I ever did? I decided to try and take some of my own advice.
I stepped back and looked at the patterns. I saw that since I was small, I had always been punching up. This giant boulder of negativity wanted to come down that hill, and there I was using all my strength to push it back up. I started asking myself, what if I just stepped aside? What if I played to my strengths and started running? The boulder would roll away. The boulder wasn’t made up of the circumstances of my life—it was made up of the negativity that I’d attributed to the circumstances. It was the incarnation of the fight. When it rolled away, it vanished, because I was no longer concerning myself with the fight, I was concerning myself with the steps I needed to take to navigate up the hill.
Those steps were new, by the way, because I was used to doing things the old way, the one way. So, right now, sometimes I have to stop running and take in the landscape. The pause that refreshes. I have to be at peace with the wild contradictions that life is offering me, and then trust myself to make bold decisions.
The first thing I’ve gotten out of this is a calmer family, one that is finding new intimacy with one another. The other is a new zest for life, one that is hopeful and creative and ambitious, even under these cosmic circumstances. The work is not done, but I’m excited to see what’s next.