It’s Hard to Remember Not to Rely on Your Memory


Storytelling (photo credit:

In a recent email exchange with some colleagues, I made the mistake of relying on my memory for a budget number instead of first checking our documents.  When the mistake was corrected by another on the email trail, I made the excuse that I was working from memory, and added that I should remember not to rely on my memory.  A colleague with a very dry wit responded with the quip, “It’s hard to remember not to rely on your memory.”

He had me there.

I’ve written in the past that, “Memory is a poet, not a historian.”  When you need things like budget numbers, we call upon the historian part of the brain, to make sure the figures are correct.

But in many instances memory—and especially the poetry of memory—is crucial.  Max DePree writes of the times when memory and storytelling come together in powerful ways.  He does so to differentiate between what he calls scientific management and tribal leadership.  “Every family, every college, every corporation, every institution needs tribal storytellers.  The penalty for failing to listen” to these storytellers, says DePree, “is to lose one’s history, one’s historical context, one’s binding values.”

I have heard several excellent examples of storytelling in recent weeks that helped me understand the historical context that was at the heart of the message.  At last week’s Main Street Now conference, Bill Peduto—the mayor of Pittsburgh—spoke in easily understood language that told you about the city he leads and loves.  When he says, “The city of Pittsburgh produced more steel in World War II than Japan and Germany combined,” one learns so much more than just the annual steel production numbers in western Pennsylvania.  You learn about the character of the people.  Stuart Graff, the CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, was engaged in tribal storytelling at the celebration of the Painted Desert National Treasure two weeks ago when he said that Wright stressed that one should “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature.  It will never fail you.”   Stuart—speaking primarily to a group of conservationists and preservationists—was  making the counter-intuitive case for taking a different perspective when looking at modernist structures in natural settings, such as national parks.  My National Trust colleague Tom Mayes, in his Why Do Old Places Matter? series, participates in a type of tribal storytelling to remind us of the values around the work we do.  It’s not just about the buildings.

There are times when we will all be called upon to reflect on people, work, and values we hold dear.  Remembering (if we can) to rely on the poetry of our memory helps us turn those reflections into storytelling, which then helps us connect to our history, our historical context, our binding values.

Have a great week.

More to come…


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