The chemistry of storytelling. 4 ways to embrace our biology and work together.

Back when our hominid ancestors were stooped, large of brow, and desperately unsure of their life expectancies, our sense of community was almost wholly defined by conflict.

As in: where will we sleep safely? Where will our next meal come from? Will a saber-toothed tiger eat me? We joined forces under a shared sense of fear.

Simon Sinek doesn't think that, 50,000 years later, much has changed.

Feeling a shared, common burden is one of the things that brings us together.

Yup: we're still at the mercy of our feelings.

In his latest guide to biological obviousness, Leaders Eat Last, Sinek claims that although our lives have grown increasingly complex, there's still something inherent that draws us together—our chemistry. And the answer to the book’s subtitle—”Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t”—is, as Sinek explains throughout, all about catering to our biology.

The family at Film Lab Creative, Magnolia, Texas.

The family at Film Lab Creative, Magnolia, Texas.

A few weeks ago when we visited Film Lab Creative’s new workspace, we indulged in a little too much caffeine and left absolutely refreshed. We'd just visited their new workspace that was thriving under a pretty basic idea: that everyone was treating each other as everyone wanted to be treated. 

Which, of course extended directly to their team, people who were both literally and figuratively family. It meant that in that case, the Golden Rule had to be a bit more personal.

Treat others as you want to be treated—by understanding our shared biological imperative to be total walking contradictions.

Sinek sums up such contradictory programming as something every one of us is pit between every day. Like deciding whether to listen to a devil on one shoulder or an angel on the opposite, we are forever pulled between extremes.

This means entertaining our brain's basic parts—our biology—and one chemical on which Sinek focuses as he makes his way through the kinds of natural processes that simultaneously push us apart and draw us together is called oxytocin, or “most people’s favorite chemical.” To keep it simple: “It’s the feeling of friendship, love or deep trust.”

We might as well just refer to oxytocin as the “collaboration chemical”: it is the primeval force in our brains that compels us to join forces, that confirms we are naturally meant to work together.

Starting at the chemical bonds, Sinek’s philosophy parses out pretty easily from there: a company that comes together as a family will grow together as one, sustaining itself on and surviving through the purest good feelings we can get as human beings…

And the way any organization can achieve this is through empathy.

Let’s just cut to the chase, and connect the dots here.

In order to live a fulfilling life, all the way down to the physical core of who we are as so-called “storytelling animals”, we must band together. We've got to work as one cohesive team in order to grow into the best versions of ourselves.

The only way we can band together is by treating each other as the weird, complex humans we are—and doing so with understanding, affection, and support.

We take this seriously here at Story & Heart, and not only because we’re building a community of filmmakers. The idea of working together is at the foundation of our whole mission: the best stories we can tell—those that have the greatest impact, those that will change the world—are those we tell in tandem.

Yet, because we fight our inclinations, because we are both existentially lonely creatures and civil beings forever drawn to social systems, we still have trouble coming together. Like we said in our most recent Blog post, we’ve convinced ourselves that limited resources and a lean economy make competition—especially in creative fields—a necessity. We fight our biology and go rogue. Sinek argues:

Cooperation and mutual aid work better than competition and rugged individualism. Why add another degree of difficulty by fighting against each other when we were already forced to struggle against the hardships of nature, limited resources or outside threats?  

From those building a small production studio to those running a small production, filmmakers are especially beholden to the ability to curate a group of unique individuals, all with differing needs, working smoothly for one large goal. Just like a human being, film is collaborative by nature.

So how would a burgeoning film production, in order to ensure a successful outcome months down the line, tap into the parts of our brains that thrive on love and friendship, that affirm togetherness as one of the touchstones of a truly fulfilled life, even when every fiber of our being wants otherwise?

Here are 4 ways, care of Leaders Eat Last, to remind ourselves that it’s in our best interest to work together.


1. Understand what trust really is.

Sinek exclaims, as if it is a revelation:

What an amazing thought to love our jobs. To feel safe at work.

In reality, this is a revelation, at least to the extent that we still, on the whole, operate under the illusion that work and family can’t mix. “Imagine,” we muse, “what our lives could be like if we actually looked forward to going to work each day?”

From the Marine Corps to CostCo, Sinek provides examples of huge teams—working communities—that engender a high degree of loyalty from those on the inside. This they accomplish through creating a safe environment.

These exceptional organizations all have cultures in which the leaders provide cover from above and the people on the ground look out for each other. This is the reason they are willing to push hard and take the kinds of risks they do.

While we no longer depend on a hunter-gatherer groups to survive, we still need to feel safe.

Trust, then, is safety boiled down to a reciprocal relationship. 

We trust those who help us feel safe. Creatively, this means: safety to share our ideas, to admit our weaknesses, and to do so without fear of retribution.

Again, since so much of our biology is geared toward survival, safety is always a priority. And since safety is our priority, our innate ability to gather into communities to further ensure our safety shows us those whom we can trust, as well as those who don’t care about our well-being and so are those whom we can’t.

2. Give authority to those closest to the information.

This sentiment sounds more complicated than it actually is, when what it really means is that in any group, any community or company, every person must feel essential—they must feel as if their part in any organization is vital, is secure, and is valued.

It’s not the demand of the job that creates stress, but the degree of control workers feel they have throughout the day.

The biology of bottlenecking. (From Leaders Eat Last.)

The biology of bottlenecking. (From Leaders Eat Last.)

For Sinek, every member of a team, every role in an organization, must bear a sense of ownership. He uses military hierarchy as an example of how authority (ownership) distanced from the action (control) makes for an environment in which there’s little connection between accomplishment and happiness.

Really, Sinek is only defining the inherent risk of bureaucracy: abstraction. It is in our nature to connect with—believe in—only that which we can see (for more, check #4, below), so the more our actions are removed from the ownership of that action—the authority to make that action happen—the less we care about the outcome.

When our leaders give us something noble to be a part of, offer us a compelling purpose or reason why we should come to work, something that will outlive us, it seems to give us the power to do the right thing when called upon, even if we have to make sacrifices to our comfort in the short term.

By knowing that we are a vital part of something greater, something that has purpose, we are much more apt to give ourselves to it.

And then he says this, which is just flat out awesome:

In physics, the definition of power is the transfer of energy.

The key to collaboration, then, is to pass it on.

3. Redefine your struggle.

Remembering our ancestors 50,000 years ago: what would happen if the saber-toothed tigers stayed out of sight for a while?

Since we’re animals who must see to truly believe, we let abstraction allay our fear, even when the danger we face hasn’t lessened at all. If the tiger hasn't shown up in a while, we may let down our defenses, start thinking a bit differently about our safety, even if common sense would tell us otherwise.

Plenty more saber-toothed tigers are likely lying in wait outside of our Circle of Safety. 

This might make more sense through the context of Story & Heart’s filmmaking community.

The more any community grows, the more all the danger surrounding it shifts, expands, and reframes. A community must reframe itself too. (From Leaders Eat Last.)

The more any community grows, the more all the danger surrounding it shifts, expands, and reframes. A community must reframe itself too. (From Leaders Eat Last.)

We gather to create a safe place for artists to collaborate, bond, and create better art—and in turn we’re guarded against an industry which doesn’t care about the individual, or rails against the idea of community. We’re even guarded against insolvency and inevitable creative burn-out: by helping each other we can better earn a living from passionate projects.

But then what happens?

If Story & Heart’s community serves its members well, then all of us will succeed: earn a livelihood from work we care about, and grow our network of artists who believe in our work as much as we believe in theirs. Easy, right?

At this point, Sinek believes the community could stagnate, or even dissolve.

Leaders of successful organizations, if they wish to command loyalty and love from their people, must reframe the struggles their companies face not in absolute terms but in terms relative to their success.

This returns us to oxytocin. To be satisfied within any project—any workplace, any community, any artistic endeavor—we must be inspired. Regularly. Otherwise all those chemicals dry up. And with it the sense of belonging that is so essential to the very essence of our happiness.

In other words, any community must take the long view.

For Story & Heart, this means providing a platform and community that will not only change a filmmaker’s whole creative process, but that will transform how all of us create, tell, and re-tell the stories that mean most to us. The scope of this, Sinek believes, is intrinsic to the kinds of inspiration that will keep us happy.

To inspire us...we need a vision of the world that does not yet exist.

4. Serve...in person.

In an uncharacteristically somber moment, Sinek alludes to Alcoholics Anonymous as something of the ultimate community based on safety.

His point is simple: few alcoholics will stay sober unless they make it to the 12th Step. Because Step 12, the last step in AA’s program, is devoted to service.

The whole purpose of AA meetings is to make people feel safe. The people who share the struggle, who come together to help and be helped, are warm and friendly and welcoming. For many alcoholics, the connections last long after the meetings are over.

By helping others, we share in the struggle, and so we help ourselves. By inspiring others, we inspire ourselves. This is the whole cycle on which our biology is built: synaptic connections must be reinforced to last, one response feeding into another and back again, strengthening the venue for that feeling over and over until it’s organically sound.

Of course, service isn’t as easy as bringing awareness to a cause through wearing a multi-colored bracelet or donating a few hundred bucks to a worthwhile charity.

...remember our biology: we are naturally cooperative animals that are biologically more inspired and motivated when we know we are helping others.

The deepest connections—and therefore the most truly soul-lifting feelings—we can experience are those felt through community: from person to person, from conversation to conversation, from one helping hand to another.

As far as we’ve come from the nomadic tactics of our ancient forebears, we still operate so much around survival. We work to make it from one day to the next. We don’t think life has much room for loftier aims. And then we wonder why we’re so miserable.

This is the true power of community: it is happiness in action. When we work together we help each other reach for something so much more than a means to an end—whatever that end may be: of a report, of a series of bills, of our day, of our lives—and the means become the end itself.

It’s in our biology. By reaching for happiness we are made happy. Like Sinek says:

There is no biological incentive to do nothing.

It’s how our chemicals work. So it should be our work too.


We recommend you grab a copy of Leaders Eat Last, which you can do through Simon Sinek’s website, or, as may be more in line with Sinek’s philosophy, through buying a physical copy in person from a local seller.