This was originally published in my newsletter How It Actually Works
How much of your view of the world is based on stories and narratives?
We hear things like:
- the economy is good/bad
- X actor’s career is dying (based on 1 movie)
- buying a house is a good investment
…and often take them at face value.
Too much of what we think we understand about the world is from a narrative we’ve absorbed without examining the underlying data.
You can disocver this trap by attempting to explain the details of an idea that you internalized as a story.
This happened to me on a phone call last week.
I was chatting with a Disney executive friend who works in Beijing, and asked him what he thought about China’s competitiveness with the US.
It’s a big topic these days and something you hear about semi frequently: China is working harder, moving faster, growing more, etc.
So I asked him, Are they doing better than the US?
And his stupid simple response made me pause: “What do you mean by ‘doing better’ ?”
Uh…. And I hesitated, because I had to actually think about it.
What exactly did I mean by “they work harder”? Or that they’re “more innovative?”
What does it even mean for one country to be “doing better” than another?
I had an opinion built from a story I’d consumed by reading hundreds of tweets, headlines, articles, etc., but never from looking at actual data.
We fall to narratives all the time. This is why people do things like buy houses and go to law school.
(Wanna be THAT GUY at a dinner party? Ask someone the top 3 specific changes their favorite politician would enact if they won office. Most people can barely name 1.)
Ask yourself: what stories do you accept as reality about the world?
Maybe it’s that tech is too powerful and needs regulation.
Or that San Francisco would fix its problems by building more housing.
Or that entrepreneurship is sexy and worthwhile.
To be clear I’m not saying whether these things are true or not. I’m saying be cognizant of how you come to your conclusion, and beware how much of that is just a narrative you’ve accepted without doing critical thinking on your own.
Same Facts, Different Story
There’s a similar mistake we make which is having widely different interpretations of reality based on nearly identical facts.
Take a game of basketball that’s won by a single point.
After the game the commentators always have some “analysis” or opinion of what mattered in the game and led to victory.
Ask yourself how would their comments change if, instead of losing by a point, that same team had won by a point.
You know the story would be different.
The importance of players on the winning team would grow, the significance of the losers’ mistakes would be magnified, the talk about which players should be traded or let go would change, etc.
Yet the facts between the two outcomes is identical but for a single extra point!
3 Women World Leaders
In a different universe we’d have the narrative of 3 simultaneous, powerful women leaders in Western democracies:
- The 1st woman President of the United States, Hillary Clinton
- The 1st woman Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel
- The 2nd woman Prime Minister of Great Britain, Theresa May
Women increasing in influence, opportunity, etc., would be a big narrative.
And First Woman President Follows First Black President is a headline that literally would have made the history books.
But yet again the factual differences between that headline and what actually happened on election day is minuscule: a mere 80,000 votes.
Trump could have died on November 9th without a day in office, and the narrative about the United States would still have been fundamentally different than had Clinton won.
Instead of headlines about multiple women leaders in powerful countries, and the transition of US presidential power from one minority to another, we saw headlines like “An American Tragedy”.
Like a game where the winner wins by a single point, the facts are almost identical but the story that gets told is completely different.
It’s cliche but the word story makes up most of history. And history is just the emphasis of certain facts over others.
Stories You Tell About Yourself
This happens everywhere, e.g. in headlines based on the same research study.
But a more interesting example is that you do this to yourself.
We tell stories about ourselves constantly: about how successful we are (or aren’t), about why we have certain preferences, about our own personalities.
Are you “lazy” or do you “work smart, not hard”?
Are you “introverted and shy”, or “someone who makes friends intentionally”?
Try this exercise:
Tell yourself 2 different versions of your career narrative.
Try one version where e.g. you’ve worked hard, made smart choices, minimized mistakes, and overcome a myriad of struggles.
Then try the total opposite where maybe you got a few lucky breaks, you happened to meet the right people at the right time, and you were in a field that was already growing.
Which one do you prefer? Does it matter?
So Anything Goes?
“So Trevor are you saying I should dig for the “true” story? Or that I can make up any story that best suits my needs? What the hell is your point?”
My point is to be cognizant of what information you have stored as a story.
Sometimes there are multiple narratives that are equally valid. And sometimes there aren’t! (i.e. there’s no reason to rerun the experiments that led to the periodic table! That story checks out.)
But other times there’s more accurate or improved stories we can tell about the world and about ourselves if only we’re self-aware enough to notice.
Read more about this in my newsletter How It Actually Works.