“A story that you see yourself in is a very powerful thing. In many ways a story grabbed me, rescued me and gave me a vision of who I could be. It was this that I stuck to like a drowning man…”
Dr Garth Japhet, CEO of Heartlines, is deeply conscious of the power stories have to change lives. His own experience with story led him to write his debut book, Like Water is for Fish, which was launched by Exclusive Books on 3 March at an online event hosted by seasoned journalist and media personality Paul Fray. The book illustrates the impact of stories through Garth’s own life and from interviews with around 20 other notable South Africans. The book, as Fray put it, is “part memoir, part instruction manual if you want to change the world.”
“Stories, like some kind of hidden power, had shaped my choices, my beliefs and sense of purpose,” said Garth. This drew him into a journey of discovery about story. The title, Like Water is for Fish, is taken from a quote by writer Jonathan Gottschall that describes the affinity that humans have for stories.
“The genesis of my story was essentially as a little boy that was very anxious and insecure, who managed to drop out of nursery school and then makes a habit of that…By the age 13 I felt like a failure – like I had let my family down,” said Garth. He found solace in a series of books written in the 1950s called Jungle Doctor, about a heroic doctor saving lives in East Africa.
These stories transported Garth to a world where he too could be a hero and save lives. “I saw Dr Japhet as being much less of a failure than Garth Japhet with spots, braces and who dropped out of three schools in one year. It really captured me and set me on the path to becoming Dr Garth Japhet. I faint at the sight of blood, and dropped the first baby I delivered...and I'm not very good at science and maths. I was the most unlikely doctor.”
Sharing the gift of our story with others
“I believe it was important to share the difficult parts of my story. It gives license to others to be vulnerable, to speak about issues such as mental illness,” he added. In his late 20s, a pastor encouraged Garth to spend some time at a retreat. This was when he started realising the value of exploring his own story. “Reflecting on your own story isn’t self-indulgent, it can be exceptionally empowering. If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have recognised that what felt like failure, had actually become a launching pad for something else.”
After co-founding the health-based multimedia edutainment platform Soul City, Garth decided to use the power of story for a new initiative, Heartlines, a centre for promoting positive values through story-based initiatives. “Ultimately, it all comes down to how each of us show up as individuals each day. The journey with Heartlines was very much to tell stories that would inspire us to be a better version of ourselves.”
Garth hopes that Like Water is for Fish will help people realise that each of us has our own story that is an extraordinary gift to the world. By highlighting the power of stories, Like Water is for Fish also illustrates how important and valuable knowing other people’s stories is. “Telling stories, listening to stories is often not a tangible thing...but it might just be either the beginning or the end of a change process in somebody’s life,” he says.
Discovering the power of story: next steps