The dangers of a great story

The most dangerous person in the world is the storyteller

Welcome to 2,118 new World Builders. Each week, we study the best storytellers throughout history — from creatives to entrepreneurs — to become better storytellers ourselves.

Check out past pieces here.

With the SBF saga unfolding, I wrote about the dangers of a great story...

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Steve Jobs famously said, “The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller.”

Look at MLK, Gandhi, and Mother Theresa – they moved millions of people with their stories. Pushed the world forward. Showed that one person could alter the trajectory of a country.

But there are two sides to the coin. The most dangerous people in the world are also storytellers.

  • Dictators

  • Frauds

  • Cheats

This week, Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder and CEO of FTX, was exposed as a fraud. Turns out his unicorn startup was built on the power of story and a spreadsheet so full of holes it belongs in a Michael Bay movie.

But how did he get away with it? How did he convince employees, investors, and the public he was the Hero in the story?

Why do bad actors like SBF, Elizabeth Holmes, and Adam Neumann seem to raise unlimited amounts of money to fund their house of cards?

This is not a piece about the missing $8 billion of client’s funds or the $300 million of investor money SBF may have taken to bankroll his Bahama lifestyle, but about the mythology and story SBF built around himself to fool investors, employees, and the public.

Here’s a DM SBF sent to a Vox reporter (the whole conversation is wild):

That last quote tells me all I need to know: “everyone goes around pretending that perception reflects reality. it doesn't. some of this decade's greatest heroes will never be known and some of its most beloved people are basically shams.”

Something you’ll notice about the most famous Heroes from fiction:

  • Luke Skywalker

  • Harry Potter

  • Katniss Everdeen

Early in the story, they’re relatable. Not special (yet), not rich (yet). In fact, they start near the bottom of society.

Enter SBF:

A young dude with big hair, a knack for math, and an awkward smile.

He looks smart and innocent – in other words, relatable in a dorky way.

But you never hear about SBF's Stanford professor parents. That would put him out of reach. The Hero can’t have built-in advantages!

SBF was such a good storyteller he hoodwinked one of the top venture firms in the world (Sequoia Capital) into giving him 10s of millions while he rampaged through bronze 3 on League of Legends.

Don’t worry, though. SBF never cared about the money. In fact, he didn’t want to start a company. But he had to in order to make money. Because, of course, he planned to give everything away.

This is important!

SBF is *refusing the call* – a critical step you see in every major story. He doesn’t want to make money. He doesn’t want to start the company. But he must. Because he will custody it better than the others.

As the crypto industry saw collapse after collapse, SBF stepped in. His company, FTX, sponsored Tom Brady and Steph Curry. He bailed out other massive exchanges, sometimes even direct competitors.

It seemed SBF could do no wrong. The industry’s golden boy.

Whether intentional or intuitive, SBF was following the cycle of the Hero’s Journey. A shy, dorky guy with messy hair and too-large clothes who stepped in to save even his greatest competitors.

Add a lightning-shaped scar and I'm describing Harry Potter.

Through the lens of story, SBF’s entire strategy comes into focus:

  • Brand himself as the loveable yet brilliant neighborhood nerd

  • Go public with his altruistic intentions

  • Associate himself with superstars

  • Swoop in to save the day when it looks all is lost

  • Stay in character, no matter the situation

In short, become the Hero.

With the story planted, SBF goes about solidifying his narrative with money. He donated $37M during the last election cycle while doling out more to news organizations.

SBF was maniacal about controlling the narrative. It worked — check out this NYT puff-piece.

The challenge is (without a glance at the spreadsheets) it’s near impossible to tell a fraud as sophisticated as SBF from a genius.

Remember, Elizabeth Holmes drew comparisons to Steve Jobs. SBF was called the next Buffett.

Here's how I think about the relation of storytelling and product:

  • Great product, no story → nobody hears of it.

  • No product, great story → SBF, Holmes, Fyre Festival (the greatest party that never happened)

A brutal lesson: the best storyteller — regardless of product, traction, or reality — wins over investors, employees, and the public. Until the entire house of cards comes crashing down.

I write about this because it makes me angry. I want you – the people who use storytelling to get incredible products in front of customers, who write stories for children to enjoy, who want to make a buddy laugh over dinner – to tell better stories than frauds like SBF.

Talk next week. We’ll go deep into Kendrick Lamar’s incredible ideation and note-taking process.

– Nathan

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A message from... Me!

The interest in this tweet blew me away...

In my experience, there are two ways to get good at storytelling:

  1. Study the greats (what this newsletter is for)

  2. Practice, practice, practice

I do a lot of practice through StoryWork.

And so many of you liked, commented, and sent me DMs about the practice I decided to turn it into a guided course for you.

Check it out:

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Storyteller's Finds

🗞️ Newsletter: Stacked Marketer sends the best actionable marketing tips.

📜 Essay: A great read on “The End of Effective Altruism.

💎 Gem: Kyla Scanlon, who records fantastic market breakdowns even I can understand, writes her scripts in poetry.

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Career Fair

Growth and content roles are the first to go in recessions. But my talent collective has companies across the tech landscape actively hiring.

If you’re open to new opportunities, apply to the collective to get introduced to some of my favorite companies. You can join anonymously (if you want) and leave anytime – completely free. Apply here.

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