two hands touching each other in front of a wall

#15: What is your origin story?

Bob Ewing
May 7, 2021
two hands touching each other in front of a wall

Talking Big Ideas.

“The search for origin stories…is as old as humanity.”
~ David Christian, Origin Story

“What you have told us is rubbish!”

A little old lady shouted from the back of the room. A scientist had just finished giving a talk about the universe. She wasn’t buying it. The world is flat, she insisted, and rests on the back of a giant turtle.

The scientist considered her position, then asked what the turtle was standing on. She replied, “You’re very clever, young man. But it’s turtles all the way down!”

Origin stories have framed our thinking since the dawn of time.

Ancient Chinese believed the Earth was a square built by a lonely goddess. Stephen Hawking suggested the universe began as a subatomic particle that simply blinked into existence. Elon Musk thinks we’re living in a computer simulation.

From ancient to modern, from universes to superheroes to everyday people, we have a fundamental desire to know the backstory: how did it all come to be?

Consider yourself.

How did you get to where you are today? Where does that story begin?

Whenever we find ourselves talking, be it to one person or a thousand, we should be prepared to share our origin story. When we do this, our audience will be more inclined to open up and listen to what we have to say. To understand and care.

Think about how your opinions can change once you hear a quick and favorable back story about a colleague or neighbor down the street.

Origin stories fit well into formal presentations. And they’re essential to have on hand during important conversations. Ideally, we have at least one internalized that can be delivered at a moment’s notice, adapted to fit any audience and context.

There are many types of origin stories. I recommend three: The Epiphany, The Padawan, and The Dragon Slayer.


The Epiphany describes a pivotal moment. A conversation with a mentor. A book. An unforgettable experience. A single, powerful event that forever changes the path forward.

For example, Brent Skorup is one of the nation’s leading experts on transportation technology. His research has a big impact.

But in college Brent was studying to be a scientist. One day at a wrestling tournament, as he sat in the stands, a book his teammate left out happened to catch his eye. Brent picked it up and started reading. He was captivated. He felt a calling. He changed his major to economics, and never looked back.


A Padawan is an apprentice. One who learns lessons from many adventures that build upon each other.

Consider a little girl who goes fishing with her grandfather each summer. She grows a love for rivers and eventually moves to Oregon to study conservation. In class she hears a talk that inspires her to intern in New York City. During her internship, she discovers the Ruby River Restoration and later finds herself in Montana leading a team on the project.

Even a simple story about a random moment from a typical day can be quite powerful, provided you let us relive the moment with you, and share in the lesson learned.


The Dragon Slayer overcomes a serious obstacle to find success. In slaying the dragon, the path is cleared.

Francis Ngannou started working in a mine when he was ten years old. Shoveling sand all day under dangerous and grueling conditions. He saved up his money for 16 years and secured a one-way trip from Africa to Europe, where he was promptly imprisoned for being an illegal immigrant. After release he lived homeless on the streets in France. Head held high, he kept fighting. He found a job and a new life.

Today Francis is the UFC heavyweight champion. He has the most powerful punch ever recorded. For his last fight, he was paid $750,000.

Our dragons don’t have to be fantastical from faraway lands. I have a client that holds his audience rapt by sharing his experiences being bullied in school. He explains how it instilled a passion in him to help people. Now he works as a public interest attorney for a national law firm. Helping people is his full-time job.



Pull back the curtain. Show us your past so we feel connected to you today.

Ask yourself, “what is my origin story?” Take five minutes to brainstorm your answer. Capture any ideas and anecdotes that pop up. Save whatever you discover to build on later.


Couples have origin stories too.

Maryrose and I met at a talk I gave in DC. We ended up working together at the Mercatus Center. For our first date we swam across the Potomac River and had a mud fight. Then we built a fire, danced around it into the night, and slept out under the stars. We learned that we enjoy spending time together.

We started a business and moved into a bus, traveling the country. We learned that we enjoy building our lives together. So this past Wednesday, as we watched the sun rise at her favorite place in Montana, I asked her to marry me. She said yes.

We are excited for the many memories and milestones to come.

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