Nothing beats a good story. In this episode, Jonathan Dichter, Managing Attorney at DUI Heroes, joins Rodney as they talk about the power of storytelling in trial practice. Get to know how Jonathan learned and improved his skillset as he shares his own story becoming a trial lawyer. Jonathan and Rodney discuss the movement happening in America and how storytelling is driving the change that most people are thriving for. Tune in and discover the strength of engaging in narratives that can propel you in your field.
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The Power of Storytelling: Using the Basic Skill of Storytelling in Trial Practice with Jonathan Dichter
I am excited about this show. I have Jonathan Dichter with me. Jonathan is an attorney, a small business owner, an author, actor, improviser, speaker, teacher and proud father. After graduating from Seattle University School of Law 2003, he became a career criminal defense attorney dedicating sixteen plus years to defending the rights of the accused. He rebranded his successful law practice and the DUI Heroes was born. Jonathan is the author of DUI Survival Guide and Innovative DUI Trial Tools Fourth Revision, a nationally published desk reference text for lawyers.
He has also developed a unique continuing education seminar called Innovative Storytelling for Trial Lawyers, where he teaches attorneys from around the country how to use the basic skill of storytelling in their trial practice to advance their clients’ cases and needs. He is a frequent teacher and resource to the courts, lawyers, and anyone else who likes a good story. Jonathan’s other interests include traveling the world, escape rooms and sharing game nights with family and friends and vacations to Disney. Welcome to the show, Jonathan Dichter.
Thank you so much, Rodney. I appreciate it. When you list it out like that, I sound way more impressive than I am. I’m a guy who enjoys narratives, engaging in narratives and found a way to work that into my professional life. I found that people have an interest in learning about how to do it because most people don’t know how to tell a story. At least not outside of when you’re doing it naturally talking to somebody like we are. It became a skillset that I learned and carried on with.
Storytelling is a powerful thing. I am a speaker and one of the ways to truly engage with an audience is through storytelling, believe it or not. People love a good story. Being a person that has a good story myself, I don’t know how much you know about me and my story.
I know your story. It’s an incredible story. It’s impressive.
Thank you. Stories are powerful. Let’s start with the story. Let’s start with your story. Give us a little bit about how you became a lawyer and started writing your book.
There’s a third book that we didn’t mention that I’ll get to in a little while, but it’s outside my professional life. It’s a different beast. My story is an interesting one. Rodney, I’ve come to terms with the fact that if I’m not willing to be more authentic with my story, that I’m losing something in the telling of it. While getting ready for this podcast, I’ve confronted some parts of that story that are so old and have been so quiet that I haven’t mentioned them to anybody.
The long and the short of it is, I’ve been told by a number of different counselors, therapists and mental health workers over the course of the last several years that statistically, I should not exist. I should never have graduated from high school. I should never have graduated from college. I sure shouldn’t have a doctoral degree. I shouldn’t be a father. I shouldn’t have a relationship or any of those things. What I’ve come to terms is I have a great deal of struggle with PTSD. I grew up in a home that was an upper-middle-class home in suburban New York. We lived down on Long Island.When you do stand up, you get the idea of how to connect with an audience and get inside their brains quickly. Click To Tweet
The problem with that home was that there were some demons that lived in it. Essentially, there are some mental health issues that were strong circling around my mom and some struggles she was having. My mom and I are on great terms. We have a different relationship than the one that I had grown up but I grew up in a world that existed in flying remote controls and closing the windows so the neighbors couldn’t hear the screaming. Also, a legitimate fear every single day that I would come home from school, and somebody would be hurt or worse. It was constant for over 30 years.
The tricky part about it being constant was that it was constantly inconsistent. When I was about nine years old or so, I was put into family counseling for the first time. My older sister had run away from home. She was gone for over eight months. She had stolen $5,000 cash from my parents’ suitcase and vanished. My people thought that was a good idea to put me into some counseling and they asked me to describe what my house and life were like. The description that I gave them that was apt to me was that I loved my parents. My dad was a role model and my mom was a fantastic mom. She loved art history, science, theater, and singing. Every couple of weeks, a monster would come and live inside her body for 3 or 4 days. I had no idea how to comprehend it. What I liked though was I watched my older sister.
My older sister was always vilified by my parents because she was a troubled kid. She was the one who was into drugs, running around with the wrong people, into bands and these sorts of things, and ran away from home. What I decided was what I needed to do was figure out a way to do everything the other direction. I sank myself into school and into the family but I had to learn how to stay safe in these unpredictable situations. The way my little 5, 6, 7-year-old brain decided to do that was to try to understand every possibility that was going to happen. Every possible direction that a choice could take you.
What I was doing was I was plotting out a story. I didn’t even know it. I was planning out all the different plot arcs this story could take. Every step and test I took, every statement I made, what direction could this story go? As long as I could anticipate the directions the story went, I could guide the narrative the way I wanted it to be and I could keep myself safe. All of this was subconscious. I didn’t have any idea any of this was going on. Meanwhile, I was a happy kid going along and I had no idea that my house was any different than anybody else’s house. I was in college before I even learned any of those things.
What I knew I wanted to be was a physician. My dad was a doctor. My mom is an RN. I wanted to follow my dad’s footsteps. I picked up the hardest subspecialty you could imagine I was going to be, a pediatric facial reconstructive trauma surgeon. There are seventeen different years of schooling in that and it’s the craziest specialty. People would ask me, “Do you know somebody?” No, it seems like the hardest thing to do.
That’s what I wanted to do up until ER came out. Do you remember that TV show ER? Everybody who wanted to be a doctor decided they wanted to be an emergency room doctor. When I graduated high school, I went to high school in Northeast Ohio and graduated eleventh in a class of 1,600 and decided I wanted to go to medical school. I was so sure I wanted to go to medical school that I only applied to what is called six-year medical programs. You skip straight through two years of college. You do an undergrad and two years go straight into four years of med school. They take about 45 kids a year in each program. I made it into one there in Northeast Ohio.
After about 1.5 years, my grades were lousy. I was eleventh in a class of 1,600, I was getting C’s and D’s and I knew from school that these were letters of the alphabet, but I did not think these were actual grades people got. I thought those were myths teachers told us to scare us but here I was struggling with it. I finally made the decision that I couldn’t be a doctor. I went home and I told my mom and dad, “I’m not going to be a doctor anymore.” My mom said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “I’ve been doing stand-up in my spare time and I want to act.” She fell off the couch.
This was not a popular sentence. When she came to, I said, “Law school sounds good. I’ll go to law school.” I applied to law schools on both sides of the country and I ended up in Seattle. I came out here to study law. I was convinced I want to do entertainment law. I took contracts, which is one of the first classes you take, and about three days into contracts I realized that I was never going to do entertainment law because I was bored out of my skull. I need to be engaged with people. I need to be talking to people.
It’s funny because normally when I tell the story of becoming a lawyer, I skip straight ahead to applying to be a prosecutor. There was a piece to this story that I skipped over it a lot, but it’s important in today’s world. It’s important that I mentioned it because it feels significant to me. At this point, my mom and dad who were stereotypical New Yorkers, my mom was a New York Italian girl. My dad was a Jew from Brooklyn. They were living in rural Oklahoma. If you watch Tiger King, they were not far from where Joe Exotic’s Zoo was.
They were living in rural Oklahoma and the summer of my first year of law school. I went out there to stay with them for the summer and I spent the summer working with my dad’s attorney as an intern. They did everything. They did oil and gas law, personal injury law, wrongful death, divorces and they did some criminal work. They handed me a file for a client of theirs who wanted to appeal to an ordinance violation. She was convicted of trespassing. It’s a minor thing. She was accused of going on to her ex-boyfriend’s property and keying his car but she swore she didn’t do it. When we looked into it, we found out that the judge and the prosecutor and the victim were all golfing buddies. The whole thing was a mess. I decided I was going to go out and do a little bit of research into this and this took place in another town nearby.
This was the summer of 2000. I drove out to this town. As I’m driving into town, there’s a signpost coming into town. There’s the Welcome to Town sign, and I’ll spare the name of the town because I can’t necessarily assume everybody in town agrees with this. There’s this Welcome to Town sign and underneath it is another sign and this is a mass-produced professional sign. This is not cardboard with Sharpie on it. This is in the exact same font as the Welcome to Town sign. I won’t quote the sign to you. I will simply tell you that it said in unflattering and un-politically correct language that people of color were not welcome after dark.
This was the summer of 2000. I had no idea whether or not my client committed trespassing or not but I decided the minute I saw that sign that I didn’t care, this town wasn’t going to win because that ticked me off. It’s summer 2000 and I’m a kid from New York, living on the West Coast. I’m in the middle of the country, and I see this ticked me off. Sure enough, I did some research and we ended up getting the case dismissed. It was my first victory as a defense attorney. I wasn’t even an attorney yet. That felt good so I came back to town and started studying criminal law. I found a knack for it.
Originally, I tried to become a prosecutor because that’s what everybody tries to do when they’re coming out of law school. That’s the path is you start in the prosecutor’s office and go on but because everybody tries to do it, there are only so many jobs, they didn’t want me. As the story goes, I stood in the lobby of the King County Courthouse in Seattle and I made a pact with God that if the prosecutor’s office didn’t want me, I would spend the rest of my career making them sorry for that decision. In reality, I ended up finding a job as a public defender as an intern and started working with low-income people who were charged with trespassing, assault, shoplifting, or DUI and things like that. I got to know the system and it turned out I was good at it.
One of the things that one of my earlier mentors told me was that my ability to connect with people was unlike anything he’d ever seen. It was because I wasn’t trying to connect with them as a lawyer, I was connecting with them initially in a comic. When you do stand-up, you get the idea of how to connect with an audience and to get inside their brains quickly, because in some cases, you’ve got five minutes on stage, in some cases, 30 minutes on stage.
You’ve got to hit them hard quickly, and you’ve got to get in their head. With a jury, I’ve got a lot more time. I got a couple of days, but I still managed to get in their heads in those first few minutes. This skillset that I started to develop, this ability to connect and tell a story became this tool in my arsenal. Over the course of the last several years, I’ve honed, shaped, and turned into some other courses. It’s become a microcosm of my life because I didn’t learn how to tell stories in a courtroom. I didn’t learn to love stories in the courtroom. I learned to love stories in a bedroom trying to shut out the noise. I learned to tell stories in a kitchen trying to redirect an emotional outburst of somebody else. I learned how to do this when I was a 7, 8, 9-year-old kid, trying to manage the emotions of adults who couldn’t figure out how to manage them themselves.
You would think that that would have been something that was massively traumatizing and you would be absolutely correct. It was. It affected my ability to do everything for 30 plus years. If you go back and look at my relationship history and my interpersonal life and those sorts of things, you can see the effect. The flip side of that token, the other side of that blade is it gave me a skill that translated professionally into creating a formidable trial attorney, who now is someone who’s teaching the skill to other people.
Other attorneys, in some cases, judges, police officers, investigators, or anybody who listens. The class that I teach Innovative Storytelling is geared towards defense lawyers, but anybody can get something out of it because it’s not about law. I don’t quote a single case. I don’t talk about a single statute. What I talk about is, how does Hollywood, Broadway and TV tell their stories in an encapsulated format to try to grab your mind?An average human will go through somewhere between 12 and 15 major life events a lifetime. Click To Tweet
How can you use that skill in whatever your arena is moving forward? That’s how I got to where I came to be. Secondary to that the other track. One of the other ways that I escaped from that difficulty growing up was I sank myself into a variety of things. I sank myself into video games when they were popular so I got into gaming. I got into video games and board games. I don’t know if anybody told you that I like board games. We have several hundred board games here. I paint them and those sorts of things.
Food was a big deal. Both my parents struggled with weight. I was a scrawny kid who liked to climb rocks. I was a beefy middle schooler. I ended up playing football for about half a year until I blew my knee out. I became an obese adult. When I was in my mid-30s, I topped the scale of 405 pounds. I was having back pain walking through the grocery store. My daughter at that point was 5 or 6 and she would ask me if she could push the grocery cart. I had to say no because I needed to hold on. Otherwise, I would be struggling to walk. I made the decision a few years ago after a lot of stuff.
I made the decision to try weight loss surgery. I tried everything else so I tried weight loss surgery. I threw myself into it. I decided one of the goals that I had was I wanted to apply for and be cast on the season of Survivor. It’s one of my favorite TV shows. I started recording my audition video before my surgery and throughout my weight loss. The first audition video I submitted, you watch me shrinking from 405 pounds down to about 240 pounds.
As I was going through that, I started journaling. A lot of the things that were happening I thought were hilariously funny. I’m talking hysterical to me. I realized that the emotional journey I was taking was similar to other emotional transformations I’ve been through in my life. I lost my dad, a grandmother. I lost a job. I started a business. I got married. I got divorced. I had a kid. All of these, they call them major life events. Psychiatrists and psychologists tell us you have a major life event that you can define yourself by. There’s you before, there’s you after and you’re never the same person again.
An average human will go through somewhere between 12 to 15 and a lifetime. From 2009 to 2011, I went through about 9 and 2 years. It was a rough time. I realized that the emotional journey of the weight loss surgery and the weight loss mirrored that closely. I started writing about it from that perspective and that culminated in my first book before any of the other books were written. I wrote a book called #SleeveLife because I had gastric sleeve surgery.
Whenever I would post on social media, I would use the hashtag #SleeveLife. I had come up with it and I co-opted for the title of my book. The subtitle is called Losing Half of Myself and Finding the Rest. It was a chronicle of that journey and now I’m in the process of revising that book to add in more authenticity about the backstory. I haven’t been willing to tell that story about my childhood for a long time. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I need to if I want to be able to help people. That’s a long answer to a short question.
Given two things that I’ve heard in that story, one is your experience with racism, I’m going to call it for what it is. You’re wanting to tell your story and wanted to help people and you mentioned especially at a time like this. How are you doing being someone who suffered from PTSD, giving your story and all your experiences? How are you doing with everything that’s going on in the world now?
I find that it’s more and more disturbing to me every day. By the same token, I can’t say that I’m surprised. The reason I say that is my undergraduate degree is in the American political system. It’s not a Political Science degree. It’s specifically in American politics. This isn’t a political chat or anything like that, but I don’t mind not hiding my political colors. A few years ago, I started plotting out a fiction book, which I may write at some point. The two questions that I was faced with going into this and one was sparked by my trauma history and my love of virtual reality. My question was if therapists could use virtual reality to allow you to relive the trauma in virtual reality, how would that affect therapy? What if you couldn’t draw the line between reality and fiction?
I started coming up with that story, but I wanted to set it in a more political overtone. I said to myself, “Suppose I was a low-level political figure, maybe a professor, maybe somebody a middling celebrity, or somebody with a name, but not a big one, and I wanted to literally take over this country and turn it into a dictatorship.” It’s something similar at that point to what I was thinking of if you’re a Star Wars fan, how the Emperor took over the galaxy. I said, “How would I do that? What would I do?” I plotted out how to create a dictatorship in our country. I’m watching it happen in real life now.
It’s different because the thing I was looking at was at the time, things outlying certain religions, decreasing the number of people who are able to come into the country from other areas and encapsulating that. As it turns out, rather than looking for a political enemy from outside the people who are drawing these lines or drawing the lines internally inside the country and looking at brother against brother similar to some things we saw in our past. It’s frightening to me as an individual. By the same token, I was in law school on September 11th, 2001. It’s my second year. I was sitting at a lunch counter with some friends of mine and we were watching TV like everybody else that morning.
Terrified, horrified, riveted, not knowing what was going on, we watched both towers fall. As a New Yorker, you can imagine what that felt internally. We walked into our class that morning. We were the earliest class of the day. It was a constitutional law class, The Law of the Constitution of the United States. We walked in and our professor, who passed away in 2019, was one of my favorite professors. He was Professor James Bond. At that point, he was the dean of the law school.
Dean Bond came into class and he was famous for being in his office at 5:00 AM prepping his lectures. He came into class, stood at the lectern, opened his book and started lecturing. We’re all sitting at our little tables. We’ve got our laptops open. We’re chatting with each other over the top of him like how you and I are talking. We weren’t whispering. We weren’t trying to hide anything because we were watching the news. It became clear quickly that Dean Bond had no idea what was happening.
Finally, he interrupted us and said, “Is there something going on that I need to be aware of?” I brought on my laptop and I said, “Dean Bond, look.” He looked down at the laptop. He took it in for 1 or 2 minutes. The headline at that point was America Under Attack. He nodded at me. I took my laptop back away, and he looked up at everyone and he held up the book, which was Constitutional Law in the United States. He said, “For the rest of your lives, you will be grateful that on this day you came to this classroom to learn about this document in this country.” He turned and walked out of the room.
For a minute, we all looked at each other thinking, “Is that it? What do we do?” Back to that now, because I look at some of my colleagues and some of my brethren in downtown Seattle, who are fighting for the release of inmates during the COVID crisis so they’re not a danger, who are fighting for the release of the protesters, who are being arrested or who are getting arrested along with the protesters. People who are down in the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone and hanging out down there and posting the real pictures of what’s going instead of what Fox News is reporting. It makes me proud to do what I do.
It’s scary and it sucks. Everything that’s going on is terrible. I also know that if there’s a way through it that isn’t the worst possible direction you can imagine this going, it’s probably going to be guided by the law. As strange as that sounds when we’re talking about reforming and defending police departments, when we think of the law, we think of law enforcement. I’m talking about the judicial system. I’m talking about the dedicated lawyers who are out there saying, “No. We have certain rights that are guaranteed.” Those judges that are then willing to stand up and say, “You’re right. These rights are guaranteed, and we’re not going to stand for this.”
I appreciate it. Part of me if I can share where I would like to see change. I don’t want to turn this into a political show. I’m speaking to a lawyer, especially someone who’s taken constitutional law. I feel that needs to change. When you look at the things that are happening and the people that are involved, I don’t feel everyone’s properly represented. I don’t think it starts with the judicial system. There are changes that need to be made there but you want to start from the top-down, in my opinion, not the bottom up. I support the Navy. I’ve been doing that for almost many years now. I go to work and I don’t work for a paycheck. The things that I do support the men and women who show up every day and put their lives on the line to protect the constitution and this country. I don’t have an M16 in my hand, but I know people that do.That idea of sharing an emotional experience with one person, the ability to connect with one person and share their emotional truth, that's how change occurs. Click To Tweet
They go out every day with an M16 in their hands. That’s their job and they take orders, but both of us can come home after working hard for the country and turn on the television. What I feel is that I’m not properly represented but the expectation is that I give everything that I have on a daily basis to protect the constitution and the country. Yet I feel the country isn’t protecting and respecting me as an individual. I feel that that needs to change because everything truly flows down from that. I don’t know the law so you can correct me as you see fit. For that document to change, there are a lot of views, publicity and there’s a lot that has to go into making that document.
More than publicity, what needs to go into it is changing the mindsets of the individuals in Washington and connecting with them individually.
What I’m saying is, in order to change that document, there has to be a meeting of the minds. A lot of people have to come together and buy off on these changes. I particularly think that we may have to cut because when we say we the people of America, the meaning of that statement was based on the times of the past. It was we, the people, of a certain era of a certain time. It wasn’t, in my opinion, all-inclusive. In order to amend it and make it inclusive, you have to call out specific groups now. You have to specifically call them out to protect and include them. I don’t know what the exact language is, but this is where we need to experience change.
I want to augment that a little bit because what you’re talking about is large scale change. The biggest problem with large scale change, especially for and I’m going to take a guess here, Rodney, because I’m looking at you on the Zoom and we have similar barbers and similar facials. I’m also going to guess that you’re roughly in my age range. It’s 1970. The biggest problem with large scale change is that our peers who are younger than us, our Millennials, and our Gen Yers feel daunted by that concept. They feel there’s no way to effectuate large scale change individually.
I work with a lot of young kids through the theater that I work with because a lot of our actors are younger and I love them to death. I say kids not meaning that in a derogatory sense, but to us a 21-year-old is a kid. I remind them of two important stories that are about the ability of an individual. They’re short and these are stories that you can adapt to almost any situation. You can teach these stories to your kids and you can use them all over the place. I use them in trials.
One of them deals with emotion. A man was walking through his neighborhood and on the corner on the porch, there was an old lady who lived there for years with her husband. They would sit out on the porch, the two of them together, on their rocking chairs and they would wave at everybody going by. Every day the father would walk to the bus stop there by the corner and he would get his son onto the bus. They would wave at the couple. He would get them off the bus and they would wave at the couple. This would go on and on almost every day. They got to expect it and count on it.
One morning, they were walking out to the bus stop and the old lady was sitting there. Instead of wearing her normal, flowery dress, she was wearing a black dress. Her husband wasn’t there next to her. They waved at her and she didn’t wave back. She looked down. They walked past and the young boy asked, “Dad, what’s wrong with the lady?” He said, “Her husband passed away this weekend,” and he went off to school. On the way home, dad comes to the bus stop and picks up the kid and they’re walking by the house. Once again, they see her and she’s still sitting there and they wave at her and she doesn’t wave back. The kid breaks away from dad and runs up the porch. He goes and stands with her for a minute.
Dad can’t see what’s going on. He’s far enough away that he can see the two. It doesn’t look like there are any words exchanged between them. After a minute or two, she opens her arms and she hugs the child. The child comes back to dad and the child’s face is wet. Dad says, “What happened?” He said, “I’ve been thinking all day about what I could do because I could only imagine how sad she was. I wanted to say something. When I ran up and I looked at her, I realized there was nothing that I could say.” Dad says, “What did you do?” He said, “She was crying so I cried with her.”
That idea of sharing an emotional experience with one person, the ability to connect with one person and share their emotional truth, that’s how change occurs. Change occurs one person at a time by connecting with the emotions of other people. In addition to that, one of my other favorite expressions, and I talked to my daughter about it a lot when she’s telling you about how much schoolwork or how big of a project she’s got or everything. I always asked the question, “How do you eat an elephant?” I’m sure the answer.
It’s one bite at a time.
The story I remind her of is called the Starfish Story. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the story or not, but I’ll tell it to you. There was a great storm in the tropics one day and stuff was broken. The beach was a mess. This gentleman was walking along the beach and surveying the beach. He saw the shells out on the beach. Thousands upon thousands of starfish have washed ashore. Starfish won’t live outside the water and there are thousands of them. It broke the man’s heart seeing this and he walked through the beach surveying the damage.
Off in the distance, he saw this figure. It looked like it kept running towards the water and running away from water and running towards the water. As he approaches the figure, he sees that it’s a young girl, maybe ten years old. He says to her, “What are you doing?” She says, “Mister, the starfish need to get back in the water, or else they’ll die.” She picks one up and she throws it into the water. He says, “You stupid child. Look around you. You’re the only one here doing this. Look at the thousands and thousands of starfish on this beach. There’s way too many here for you to make a difference.”
She looks up at him and she’s got that thing where the bottom lip starts to quiver a little and she’s trying to hold it together without breaking. Her bottom lip sets and her fist ball up and she gets that look. If you’ve got kids, you know the look where they’re all of a sudden I’m going to do something. She reaches down and she picks up another starfish and she hurls it as hard as she can into the water. She says, “I made a difference to that one.”
Large change starts with one person. The journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. Any other change or metamorphosis cliché you can think of, but they’re all true. They’re there for a reason. I can tell you that although I feel that the protests and the rallies and even to a certain degree, the larger, more volatile gatherings that are happening are all positive. They’re people expressing what they feel. You can also make as much head road, if you can, sitting down with a single person and sharing your story with them and connecting with them individually.
That’s how you can make an effect on someone. That’s how you can change an individual’s mind. The only way to change the mind of a group is to get to each individual mind. That’s how a virus spreads one cell at a time. If we want something to go viral, which is what we want. We want change to go viral. We have to take it one brain at a time. I agree with you that there’s change that’s needed all across the system from the top down. I shouldn’t even say from the top-down, because technically, the three branches are on equal footing.
The executive needs to change. The legislation needs to change and the justice system also needs to change. Where I talk about the idea of lawyers in the judiciary helping out is simply because that’s my skillset. Those are the tools I have to work with. I’m not an elected official, but I know how to get a message to elected officials and I can do that through case law. I can do that through representation. I can do that through helping out the individuals who need to be helped out. People ask me frequently, “As a trial attorney, a part of a bunch of other local groups and things like that, how are you helping the situation?” I said, “One client at a time,” because that’s what I can do. I can do it with one client at a time.Large change starts with one person. Click To Tweet
There are a lot of people out there who have a story that they want to tell and that they feel. Many of those people are set up. Many of those people want something to change. What do you say to those people?
Tell the story to anybody who’ll listen. You don’t need a book, podcast or a platform. You need a marker and you can tell a story. One of the most powerful stories I’ve ever been told was three words long and a question mark. It wasn’t even a story. It was a question. Try to picture this story in your brain. I went to the Not One More! rally in Seattle. It’s sad that I can’t remember which school shooting it was after, but it was after one of the school shootings in 2019.
There was a rally where we marched from Centennial Park down to the Seattle Center. I went and I took part in this march. As I was walking into the crowd, listening to the speakers and taking in that scene, everybody had their signs. You’ve got the funny signs, ironic signs, angry signs. I saw a little girl. Little girls will always get my attention because I have one. This little girl was about eight years old. She was dressed in a school uniform. This was a kid who either had a school uniform or went to a private school. She was holding a sign. Three words and a question mark, it’s the most powerful story I’ve ever heard. The question on this little eight-year-old girl sign, “Am I next?”
She didn’t have a microphone or a megaphone or a website. She probably didn’t even have a cell phone. I will never forget that. I took a picture of it. My thousands of followers and the people I know all saw it. Everybody who was there will never forget that because that’s a compelling story that you can tell in a nutshell. We’ve all lived through Sandy Hook in Columbine and all these different things, but that was the simplest encapsulation of the message of that rally. If you’ve got a story, whether it’s an angry story, a sad story, an emotional story, whether it’s a happy story, stories change, whatever your story is, find somebody to tell it to.
It’s funny because that story, “Am I next?” is relevant. For me, I am a little angry. As powerful as telling stories, I want more than that. The reason I want more and the reason why I want it is because I don’t know who’s going to be next. It’s fortunate that all of these conversations and all the movements that are happening is a result of George Floyd. The question I have in my mind, “Who’s going to be next? Is this going to happen again?” This isn’t the first incident.
It’s not even close to the first incident.
It’s a string of incidents over the decades. This incident has caused the most movement from a global perspective. More conversations are happening. It is different this time.
Why? The person who got the answer right to this question is Will Smith. What had Will Smith said? He said, “It’s not that racism is getting worse in America, it’s just that it’s getting filmed.” The reason we’re all up in arms, the reason that this conversation is even happening is because somebody had a phone to tell that story. That’s a horrific story. If I haven’t said this already, you said you’re angry, you should be angry. I’m angry. The reason we’re angry is because somebody told us the story of what happened.
Back in history, I’m talking all the way back. This conversation took a much different turn than we thought it was going to, but that’s fine. You look at me and you boil me down to my most basic. I’m a lawyer. I’m an actor. I’m an improviser. I’m a magician, singer, author, teacher. Forget all those things. None of those things are what I am. What I am is a storyteller. We all have an archetype. Some people are the warrior. Some people are the gatherer. Some people are the storyteller. It’s that old guy at the fire, telling the histories to the children or the other tribe members so that they understand where you’ve been and can learn from where you’ve been to make a better choice as to where you’re going on. That’s the power of storytelling. Every major change in human evolution has happened because somebody told a story about where we were to inspire a new direction of where we’re going.
There is a lot of footage you can go and pull up about things that are happening back in the ‘60s and the ‘50s.
To be clear, I’m not saying that the filming of showing this story is anything new. What I’m saying is that we’re seeing it in much larger quantities. George Floyd was a horrific murder captured on tape in a way in which we hadn’t necessarily seen before in its entirety. It was broadcast in its entirety. It was part of an avalanche within a few days between Central Park and the lady with her dog. I forgot the gentleman’s name but that issue, George Floyd. We’ve got the Wendy’s shooting. We’re seeing this avalanche. The story is everywhere and it’s being told more. Every time it gets told, more and more people feel what you feel and what I feel. I don’t like this story. I don’t want this story, which then begs the next question, how do we change this story?
Until you’re willing to ask it, you’re never going to change it. That’s where we’re at. We’re at this watershed moment in our society where we’ve been, I don’t want to say given an opportunity because I feel like that demeans the sacrifices, not even sacrifices because they weren’t willing. It demeans the lives that were taken in the service of this story. In order to make those lives mean as much as possible, it’s not just our ability, our choice. It’s not even our preference. It’s our obligation as intelligent people who care about our society, community, brothers, sisters, children and our parents. It’s our obligation to share this story and more than that, to change it.
I wonder if this is something we could do. I wonder if someone would write a book. Maybe it’s you, Rodney. Maybe this will be your next book. I don’t know. One of the examples I give lawyers on how to close a case where they feel like they’ve got no chance of winning, when they give their closing argument, I tell them, “It is entirely possible for you to do this as a story. The story you can do is you can tell the jury how they will justify finding your client not guilty to their neighbors at home.” I stole this from another lawyer because every good skill is stolen from somebody else. It’s the idea of telling them. When you’re all done, you’re going to go home and your neighbor is going to ask you how jury duty was and you’ll say, “It was good.” They’ll say, “What was it?” “It was a criminal case.” “I bet you found that guy guilty.” “I didn’t. I let him go.” “How did you do that?” As a lawyer, you can justify to them. Give them all the facts they need in order to make that decision.
Imagine if instead of telling stories of a dystopia where everything falls apart, imagine if someone started telling the story of a utopia that begins with how we got ourselves out of this mess. Maybe we’re not going to follow that path. The one thing that I’m starting to see in places like the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, which is being changed the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest, it will change from CHAZ to CHOP. What I’m seeing there is something I haven’t seen in many of the protests over the last several years that I’ve seen and been a part of, whether it be Black Lives Matter, Not One More!, #MeToo Movement, any of these things. What I’m starting to see are people looking for hope and a way forward. Anger is great. Anger sparks change but if we don’t have hope, where does that change take us? What I’d love to see is a narrative where we start telling the story of how we already won.
Imagine if we started talking about Joe Biden as if he weren’t a candidate but already the president. We started treating him as if he were already the president. Imagine if we started talking about Donald Trump as if he was already out of the White House. Imagine if we started talking about the Black Lives Matter movement as if it was already over because change had occurred that was meaningful. We’re able to talk about that change that occurred and where that change was and how it got started. Once you model it, then you can do it.
Isn’t that visualization? Isn’t that conceiving so that you can achieve?
Absolutely. Most people look at it personally. They talk about, “What can I do to change myself?” If we have enough people that are willing to do some conceptualization or visualization on a societal scale, community scale, household scale or a neighborhood scale, that’s when you can start to see those large-scale changes.The journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. Click To Tweet
When I go back to what I said about the Constitution, we can act like the Constitution has already changed.
I’ll give you a way to act like that. You can do it because I’ve got news for you, it’s already changed. How do I mean that? I’m going to get law technical here, but I’ll pull out of it for you. We’ve been laboring under a strict construction list Supreme Court for a long time. These are people who say, “The words on the paper are the words on the paper.” There’s an analogy I learned in college that I subscribed to, which is called the potted plant analogy. The Constitution is a potted plant. It’s designed to grow and evolve and be transplanted from one pot to another without having to be destroyed, ripped up or taken away. Those rights that are guaranteed, you talk about all men are created equal, that’s a word from a bygone time. We don’t have to change it. We have to make it mean what it was supposed to mean all along, which is that all men are created equal. I recognize the saying, “All men is also gender stereotypical.” All people are created equal.
One of my favorite shows of all time is Star Trek. I love Star Trek. If you go back and watch the original series, they’ll say, “To boldly go where no man has gone before. To seek out new life and new civilizations.” In the newer series, they changed that ever so slightly, but nobody noticed. It was a subtle change, “To seek out new life forms and new civilization and to boldly go where no one had gone before.” Nobody remembers the old story anymore because the new story got seamlessly plotted in. If we start talking about the fact that all people are created equal, before you know it, that’s going to be what it always meant. It was built in such a way that it’s designed to grow with our society.
The founding fathers, as flawed as they were, and don’t misunderstand me, I do not in any way condone some of the behaviors of the founding fathers. Thomas Jefferson was a hell of a writer. John Adams was a hell of a lawyer. John Adams is the smartest man in the Constitutional Congress. He made Thomas Jefferson write it because he knew Thomas Jefferson, at 32, was a better writer than John Adams would ever be. He wrote a document that was strong enough and yet vague enough to adapt with our society. It wasn’t meant to be gospel words on a page. It was meant to be guidelines that would guide a growing and evolving society that they didn’t even know what it was yet because they were still building it from the ground up. Why don’t we start looking at it as adaptable and use what’s in there to adapt to our purposes? If I can be politically humorous, the right has been changing the words of documents, whether it be the Bible or law to mean what they wanted it to mean for decades. Why the heck don’t we start?
How can people connect with you if they want to learn more about you and work with you, Jonathan?
There are a lot of ways. The easiest way is they can send me an email. My email address is Jonathan@DUIHeroes.com. My professional website is an attorney. You can also find me on social media. I’m @DUIHeroes or, in some cases, @DUI_Heroes. The other places you can look at are @SleeveLifeBook and SleeveLifeBook.com is the website for the #SleeveLife book there. When I begin doing additional coaching and teachings, you’ll find all those announcements there. I have newsletters you can subscribe to and all those things. I’ll make sure that I’m keeping up to date. My Instagram feed is always full of fun stuff. I’m happy to have folks subscribe and take a look there or reach out to me individually and I’m happy to talk with folks anytime.
What story did you tell yourself to overcome PTSD?
The story I told myself was that I was going to succeed, that I didn’t have a choice and that I was going to get to whatever the next thing was. The phrase I often use is, “Stumbling joyfully forward.” I’m someone who’s an eternal optimist. I’m happy. My outlook is always positive. What I do on any given day is I look at where I am and I look at where I want to go and I take the next step towards that. The story is you are the author. You are the director, writer, producer, and you’re the star. You get to write your own story. When you stop writing, you stop moving. When you stop moving, might as well dig a hole because you’re done.
Jonathan, thank you for coming on the show. This has been a wonderful and rich conversation. I’m appreciative of you, your insight, your storytelling, and all the things that you do. It’s been a true pleasure to chat with you.
Thank you so much. I appreciate the opportunity. It’s been a blast. I’m always happy to talk more anytime.
Thank you. You are the author, star and the director of your life. I know we’re dealing with some tough times. For some, it’s tougher than others. The thing that remains constant is the fact that you’re the author, director, and star. We get to choose. What it comes down to when dealing with adversity, dealing with tough times such as this or anything else is choosing the story that you’re going to tell yourself. Because what you believe the story you tell yourself, the one that you take in, that’s the one you’ve got to react to. That’s the one that’s going to dictate your behavior and your outcome. Not the environment out there, but your outcome. Write a good story. I cannot wait to hear your story. Until next time, peace and love.
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