Make Up Your Own Fiction

I am really fascinated by ideas of our personal narratives and how powerful the stories we tell ourselves can be. On some level I think we all understand this, and recently I have been thinking about the power of our narrative within political ideology. The Democratic Party seems to be criticized for creating a narrative where where people are hopeless and can’t make it without a little help. Conversely, the Republican Party seems to operate in a narrative where people can always pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they just try harder. I don’t think either of these simple narratives about how the parties treat people is really accurate, and it is not what I am actually writing about today, just a quick example of how narratives can drive so much of our beliefs and ideas.

 

A quote from Fernando Pessoa in his book The Book of Disquiet translated by Margaret Jull Costa shows the power of narrative, “The truly superior (and the happiest) men are those who, perceiving that everything is a fiction, make up their own novel before someone else does it for them…” What Pessoa is saying is that we can all recognize the power of narratives in our own lives, and create our own stories rather than try to live up to stories that other people have made for us. His ideas in this quote align with a lot of the Stoic ideas and thoughts that I try to live by. His quote acknowledges that we are under pressure from other people to be the person that other people want us to be and to achieve a picture of success created by someone else. Writing our own story, however, gives us the chance to be our own person and to pursue a life on our own terms.

 

“Since life is essentially a mental state and everything we do or think is only as valuable as we think it is, it depends on us for any value that it may have.” A painting is only as valuable as we decide it is. A car is only valuable if we all recognize it as such. Any given activity is only valuable if we decide it is a valuable way to spend our time. There are certainly things we can all recognize as more valuable than others based on the use, form, and function of the thing, but at the end of the day, nothing has inherent value just on its own unless we decide that there is a value attached to it. We should all be aware of the value we place in ourselves, the things in our lives, and how we live so that we can craft a story about who we are that creates meaningful value in our lives and in the lives of others.

The Trouble of Probability

“Most people, it should be noted, are terrible at offhandedly understanding, or even estimating, probability,” Colin Wright writes in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. Without specific training, human beings generally seem to be pretty bad at statistics and statistical thinking, as Wright states. Our ability to estimate how frequently something should occur or the relative risk of something is not as good as one would think considering the power of our brain to recognize patterns and help us evolve to the point where we are as a species.

 

We really didn’t evolve to be good at numbers. Humans evolved in small tribes that likely numbered 150 people or less. As hunters and gatherers we likely just didn’t deal with numbers that were so large that we needed complex statistics to understand them. The largest numbers we probably really focused on were 10 or 20 and we have enough fingers and toes to help us there. As our societies began to take shape and grow, numbers and statistics still were not the deciding things that determined whether ones genes were passed on or not. Story telling has always had a much greater influence on the human mind than statistics.

 

For most of us, the fact that we are bad at statistics probably doesn’t matter too much. We can invest in mutual funds or index funds, have someone else tell us how much money should be taken from our paycheck automatically, and we will be fine. But if we want to engage with public policy, if we want to do the most good we can do, and if we want to approach the world rationally and leave it better than we found it, we must not only understand a base level of statistics, we must be able to understand how little statistical grounding most people have for their decisions. Convincing someone to make donations to help indigent people is much easier if you can focus on a single individual with a compassionate story who needs help. Overwhelming a person with statistics regarding the number of people who need aid will not convince anyone that their action is necessary. Giving your neighbor or uncle a dizzying array of data points around climate change and global warming is probably less effective than focusing on a single whale that washes up with plastic bags in its stomach, less effective than a story about coral bleaching along the Great Barrier Reef, and less valuable than a visual story of storms destroying the house of someone who looks like your neighbor or uncle. We must work to understand science and statistics ourselves, and we must take what we learn in dry numerically dense academic papers and craft a story that shows people exactly what they will lose if they do not act, or how they can be a hero if they do take the action we encourage.

To More Fully Understand Reality

I really love science. Most of the shows on my podcast feed are science shows, and even though I am not a scientist myself, I love listening to new discoveries and trying to think about the world in the way a scientist would. Even though he is not a scientist himself, Colin Wright, in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, has a whole chapter dedicated to experimentation and what we are doing when use the scientific method to understand the world around us. This entire chapter resonated with me since I like to think about the world scientifically.

 

I spend a lot of time trying to approach the world in a rational and empirical way, continuously doubting the stories I tell myself and wanting objective confirmation of the things I experience. I forget how foreign this way of thinking can actually be for much of humanity. Many people do not truly approach the world following the scientific method and have not been trained to think in truly scientific ways. Our ancestors for thousands of years evolved in small groups where we could understand reality and bond at the same time by telling stories that explained how the world operated and how humans should exist within it. It is only relatively recently in human history that we found out how to interrogate the world through experimentation to truly see what was happening in front of us.

 

Wright writes, “Our understanding of the world, the galaxy, the universe in which we live, is increased through a scientific model, which allows us to posit ideas and then test them systematically.” A challenge for humanity is recognizing that we further our understanding by developing testable hypothesis and designing experiments that set out to prove those hypothesis false. It is too easy to prove what you want to believe is true and approaching science and the universe in this way presents us with too many opportunities to nudge the data and methods to get the results we hope for. Setting out to rigorously try to disprove your theory leaves you in a place where you never quite confirm what you believe, but as you eliminate different alternatives that would prove your thoughts false, you gain more confident that your idea is an accurate reflection of  the world. “We observe, we experiment, we refine and experiment some more, and we eventually learn something that we can express and act upon.”

 

Wright suggests that part of why this is so hard for so many people is because, “this is in part a consequence of having been told since birth that our opinions are just as good as anyone else’s.” We live in a world today where we feel as though we are supposed to have an opinion about everything. It feels like we should come up with the answer for every problem, even if we have no reasonable basis for having an opinion. I believe that is part of why we operate unscientifically, but I also think that human nature does not favor believing in something because we have systematically tested it and ruled out alternatives in a legitimate manner. It is far easier, and often more comforting, to believe the world is a certain way because it feels intuitively correct. Striving to use the scientific method in our lives, however, has incredible payoffs as we step away from the false narratives and stories we create in our head and learn to live with more accurate information that better reflects the reality of the universe without preconceived expectations of what that reality should be.

Crafting Stories

Our brains are awesome at pattern recognition. It helps us drive down the freeway and know when traffic is going to come to a stop, it helps us identify fresh bananas and avoid overly ripe ones, and it gives us the ability to do complex mathematics. The brain evolved to recognize and identify patterns in nature so that we could adapt and adjust to the world around us and live in societies with other people and their pattern recognizing brains.

 

Today however, our brains’ pattern recognition can get us in trouble. In our daily lives we encounter a lot of randomness. We have a lot of experiences and face a lot of situations that truly don’t have any meaning behind them, but just happened to happen. Whether it was our toast getting knocked off the counter, seeming to hit every red light on our way to work, or someone not texting us back, we have a lot of daily experiences that our brain will attempt to find patterns between to find meaning where there isn’t any (or at least isn’t any substantial meaning).  Being aware of our brain’s pattern recognition engine and its desire to create a story between random events is important if we want to be able to react to the world in a reasonable way and to draw reasonable conclusions about the world around us.

 

Ryan Holiday writes about the danger of creating unrealistic stories from the standpoint of our own egos in his book Ego is the Enemy. Holiday writes, “Crafting stories out of past events is a very human impulse. It’s also dangerous and untrue. Writing our own narrative leads to arrogance. It turns our life into a story – and turns us into caricatures…” Holiday was writing about the way we look at success in the lives of other people and the way we think about where we are going and how we have gotten to where we are today. We often see a clear path looking backward that really didn’t exist when the journey began. We likely fail to see the doubt, the uncertainty, and the luck that just happened to bounce along and open a new path for ourselves or someone else. We create a narrative that highlights our good decisions, downplays our errors, and makes our journey through life seem like an inevitable trajectory and not like a rocky forest path that just happened to wind up where it did and not someplace else.

 

Its likely that none of us will stop telling our life in the form of a story or that we will ever be able to turn our brain’s pattern recognition engine off to stop the stories, but we need to be aware of the fact that we do this. Our perceptions of the world will always be limited, which means the stories we tell will never truly represent the reality of the world around us. We also have strong incentives to tell a story that gives meaning to things without any meaning, like the person who cut us off on the freeway leading to the accident was clearly an immoral person who victimized me, the innocent and pure driver who didn’t deserve such misfortune. Our stories will also likely create positive groups that we belong to and out-groups that are somehow less virtuous than our group. Our stories will feature us as prime actors driving our life forward, when we know that sometimes we just bump into good fortune or receive an opportunity without truly doing anything to deserve the opportunity. Ultimately, our stories are likely to be tools to inflate our ego and our status, are likely to jumble together patterns that the brain perceived from nothing, and to include only slivers of reality from our singular perspective. The stories are not real, so we should question them and be aware of when we are trying to make decisions based on the story of our lives that we tell ourselves.

Our Ego Creates a Story

An egomaniac is someone who is too overconfident in their own abilities, believes they are more worthy of praise than they actually are, and generally thinks too highly of themselves. What they believe about themselves and the reality of their skills and abilities is in a state of misalignment. The ego creates a false narrative about overcoming great hurdles, about being incredibly important in the world, and about achieving incredible successes. While everyone has undoubtedly faced many hurdles, is important in their own world, and has achieved some measure of success, the ego inflates all of these measures and creates a story that does not truly match reality.

 

“When we remove ego, we’re left with what is real,” writes Ryan Holiday in his book Ego is the Enemy. Holiday’s quote is meaningful for me because I often focus on the stories we tell ourselves and how disjointed those stories can be relative to our own reality. When we allow our ego to run uncontrolled, we start living in a world that does not exist and the decisions and choices we make are less sound. We filter the world and our experiences through the falsehoods of our story, and this can have negative impacts in our own lives and the lives of others.

 

Holiday generally takes a stoic approach to the world, following in the traditions of Marcus Aurelius and other stoic thinkers. Through self-awareness, Holiday encourages us to replace ego with humility and confidence. Looking at the stories we tell ourselves and being honest about who we are, where we are, and what we have accomplished on our own versus with the aid and assistance of others, helps us to have a more honest conversation with ourselves about how amazing we think we are. When we can get beyond these stories, we can start to recognize the advantages we that helped make us who we are. This allows us to start to see the ways in which we hype ourselves up in an attempt to ever increase our own status. By shedding our ego and the stories that go with it, we can also see other people more clearly, and hopefully be less judgmental of others and more open to connect with them and help them in the ways that other people have undoubtedly assisted us. This cannot be done if we chose to live in our ego bubble, constantly reassured of our greatness through false narratives that we create to feel good about ourselves.

An Unhealthy Belief in Our Own Importance

At the end of the day, we all, somewhere along the way, adopt a belief that we are more important than we really are. A friends mother saves journals as if people are going to one day read them and gain great insight into her life. Average American’s across the country worry that what they post on social media could be viewed negatively by a government security apparatus. And while I tell myself I am writing this for myself, in the back of my mind is a thought about writing something insightful that all my readers will find valuable (my website had exactly 5 hits yesterday).

 

We tell ourselves stories as we go through the day, and eventually we start to believe our own stories and start to build an ego.

 

Ryan Holiday thinks this is a problem. In his book, Ego is the Enemy, Holiday encourages us to take a deep look at ourselves, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and how we allow our ego to drive the show. He looks at stoic philosophy on self-awareness, introspection, and honesty with the self to see how our stories and ambitions can get in our own way and ruin our path. Holiday also shares his own stories about ego and the ways in which he has made mistakes out of pride, envy, and unrealistic visions of his own abilities.

 

Early in the book Holiday spends some time drilling in on what he means of ego. After providing some clinical and academic definitions, he writes, “The ego we see most commonly goes by a more casual definition: an unhealthy belief in our own importance. Arrogance. Self-centered ambition. … The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility–that’s ego. It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent.”

 

Our ego is our idea that we have somehow risen above other people and become more important in the world than we actually are. It is a belief that what we tell ourselves about what people think of us, about our ability to shape the world around us, and about what we are capable of is actually the reality of the world. Our ego pushes us to find ever greater status and have ever greater things in our life so that we can demonstrate some superiority over others (or at least appear to have such superiority). Ego puts us at the center of not just our own universe, but of the universe for everyone else, even when we have no reason to believe that we are who we tell ourselves we are. None of us want to believe that we allow our ego to run our lives in this way (as I write this I have convinced myself that my ego really isn’t that bad), but our ego always has a potential to grab the reins if we are not careful, and it always impacts our decisions in ways we don’t want to admit.

 

Even small things in our life can become driven by our ego. We often think that what we do in a given day is more important than it truly is. When we step back, pull our ego away, we see that what happens to us on a daily basis really isn’t very important or consequential. We are likely not being watched by the people we imagine to be watching us and we probably don’t get noticed as often as it feels that we do. After all, everyone else is probably living inside their head and worried about themselves and what everyone else thinks of them. I find this reassuring because it means that I don’t have to live my life as a performance. I can allow my life to play out and try my best without worrying about a pressure to do or to be anything specific and I don’t have to ascribe great meaning to random moments of my life. This opens the possibility for me to enjoy a small moment, to tolerate dull moments, and to do my best without an inordinate pressure to impress anyone.

Rational Relationships

In his book Some Thoughts About Relationships, author Colin Wright starts by examining what it means to be rational in a relationship. Often times we assume that relationships are built on emotional connections like love, fondness, and collegiality and we balk at the idea that we can bring a rational approach to a relationship or to anything that is driven by emotional feelings. Wright acknowledges the importance of emotions, but believes that bringing a rational approach to a relationship is key to having a successful relationship.

 

He describes rationality within relationships with the following, “Being rational in relationships means that you acknowledge cause and effect, the possibility of iterative improvement, and the potential to pull apart and assess problems to find solutions.”

 

Contrasting rationality is irrationality within relationships, which Wright describes as, “Being irrational means that you rely on a story line to make things right: that if you just believe hard enough, want it bad enough, or go through enough struggle, life will work itself out. No assessment possible, no change necessary.”

 

A rational relationship is one that requires awareness and requires that you get beyond your own perspective. You must interrogate your feelings and opinions and try to understand the thoughts, decisions, feelings, reactions, and behaviors of another person. Once you have worked through yourself and made an effort to view the world from the eyes of the other person, you must ask what factors contributed to the outcome you observed, and in a realistic and honest way ask how things could have been different in a different situation or if other factors had worked out a different way. Rational relationships are built on thought and observation which is challenging and requires concentrated effort to understand everyone’s needs, desires, feelings, and perspectives.

 

If we abandon these rational characteristics, we are left with the story we tell ourselves about the world. What we feel and what we believe is simply the way the world works. The problem is that our story and how we view everything the perspective from which we create our story is incomplete. A sense of injustice, insult, or injury is as serious as a direct threat on who we are. Our feelings constitute truth and the meaning we attach to certain things becomes iron clad.

 

The rational relationship steps back and pulls away the meaning we attach to events. It asks what happened, why did that happen, and how did everyone involved react? Was the outcome of the situation positive for all, damaging for me, threatening for others, or in some way less than desirable for all involved? If the view for any of these is that things could have been better, than a rational relationship rethinks how we interact and behave and seeks a way to improve the relationship for everyone, not just for ourselves.

 

If we choose to live our relationships without this rationality, we instead have nothing but what we tell ourselves and believe. We cannot change because we are simply stuck with another person who is the way they are and not capable of being anything different. The outcomes we face are unavoidable and people cannot be expected to improve their behavior unless you can fully change who they are.

 

Living irrationally is perfectly fine for an individual, but if we all approach the world in this way we will tear it apart. By bringing rationality to our relationships we can work better with other human beings to support their needs and to identify and build relationships that align with our needs and desires. We can better connect and recognize ways of interacting that further our connections and improve our interactions. Irrationality however, will create a world in which we are all building dishonest stories of the world to make us feel better about who we are or to create false narratives to make other people seem worse than they are. Each of us acting from our own limited perspective will have a net negative impact on the world as the micro-gravity of our own story pulls in and distorts the world around us.