You don’t need to build a narrative

Two roads diverged in a wood

Why was Bill promoted?

Bill was the first one at the office every morning, and the last one out. While at work, Bill wouldn’t be the most efficient worker, but he would share his progress at every chance he got, building a great rapport with his manager. His manager recognized that Bill cared the most and would be the best team leader and promoted him.

At least that’s what Bill thinks.

Why was Bill actually promoted?

The manager asked the most senior engineer, Peter, if he wanted to lead the team, to which he declined, in favor of continuing to architect and code. He then looked outside the team for a suitable team lead, but could find none within the week, and then settled on the next most senior team member, Bill, who he thought had potential but a lot of growing to do. Why was there an opening in the first place? Well that’s a whole ‘nother story.

We love narratives

It’s something we do naturally, and we share with others. We build narratives to compress a set of facts, and remember them. However, we also use this narrative to learn from and build our understanding of the world. This simple, concocted example of a promotion generated a narrative from Bill with kernels of truth but largely off the mark. From the point of Bill, it looked like he was a promoted as a result of his efforts at work (fundamental attribution error).In reality, it’s a lot more than that. There are factors such as timing, other’s motives, influence, etc. Every time Bill recalls his narrative, it solidifies his thinking in how the world works, and how his skills and efforts play into his outcomes.

After reading Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow and Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, I found my thinking about events, small and large, altered. In the example above, the set of factors leading up to the promotion are limited but still incalculable. What I mean is that Bill couldn’t have predicted his promotion at that point in time, but when he looked at it in retrospect, everything sort of fit together. In the world, the scale and complexity of events is exponentially larger. On top of that, randomness is a catalyst in many of these events. However, humans tend to build cohesive narratives of these large complex improbable events, also known as Black Swans. I grew skeptical, even weary, of any story from the media as I drew back the curtain of human tendency to build narratives. Trump’s ascent, Brexit votes, ISIS attacks, stock market collapses painted themselves in portraits of exact concise reasoning.

Randomness [or a lack of information] is spun

A few years ago, the Dallas Maverick’s won the NBA championship against the Miami Heat. The Heat was loaded with star-studded ammunition of James, Bosh, and Wade. They were the heavy favorites. The Mavs, initially down in the series, mounted a heroic comeback, taking the last three games, and emerged as the unlikely champions.

I distinctly remember the post-game commentary from Game 6 littered with remarks like “The players from the Mav’s just wanted it more” or “The Mavs were more hungry than the Heat”. Not only did the commentators feel like they had a grip on explaining the outcome, but they had the nerve to link it to the inner-psyche of the players! Mark Cuban furiously retorted — Do you really think Lebron James wanted it any less than Dirk Nowitzki? There is no way they had any insight on that, especially from the commentary box in the stadium. They had a lack of perfect information, as did the rest of us.

But because the series swung a way that was unexpected, analysis called upon the unseen and intangible, as if this was the only explanation. Humans aren’t satisfied with leaving things unexplained. Not-theorizing is a chore. However, there are factors that could be analyzed that aren’t as opaque as the players’ psyche. Namely, the systems and strategies deployed by each team, and how they affected the odds of specific players. Ideally, their commentary would shed some light on why the odds may have shifted, but still demonstrate a fair amount of uncertainty in the face of any outcome.

Not building a narrative takes effort

What’s worrisome to me is that I build causal stories in my own life. For every relationship I’ve had, project I’ve come short on, or class I’ve done poorly in, I’ve tried to come up with definitive explanation. Sometimes these explanations have been called upon (“Why’d you guys break up?”) and others have developed in moments of introspection. As time goes on, what’s stuck is the causal model I’ve developed and not the set of facts that originally occurred.

Why did my relationship fail? Oh, it had to with how she was raised. She had an attachment thing. Then it spiraled.

This is a simplification and categorization to a gross degree. It’s something I’ve done and I’m not proud of.

Next time something really good or really bad happened to you, try hard to not build a causal model, and sprinkle it with a fair amount of randomness. If you do this often enough, uncertainty and unknown factors start becoming part of the equation. My theory is that this is a fairer, realistic way of living, and can prevent you from over-learning the wrong features for satisfaction, success, happiness, etc.

“Bill dropped out of an Ivy League and now he’s rich”
“Donald was an asshole to his teammates and then got promoted”

If only we could filter out these statements from our discourse. They denote a sequence of events as cause and effect and end up rewiring people’s understanding of world. What’s interesting is that coming up with these simplified causal models is inherent to our nature and takes effort to stop. I’ll give you a personal example from something that happened to me.

Over the past few months, I’ve had a tonsil problem which my friends known a great deal about. I kept getting sick with horrible sore throats and inflamed tonsils every few weeks, and nothing could stop it. What I found amusing and would sometimes cause me to grind my teeth and furrow my brow were the barrage of cause/effects diagnoses that were so kindly explained to me.

Mom: It’s because you don’t clean your room, it keeps causing an infection

Dad: You’re sick because you keep taking antibiotics. Don’t take medicine.

Girlfriend: It happens because you’ve developed a complex. Don’t think about it.

Roommate: The bacteria has become resistant. MRSA!

What this shows is that they all theorized about my medical complications. Ultimately, I had to get them removed with the understanding that I might never know exactly why the phenomenon occurred but each of them will go on thinking their theory was right.

Embrace uncertainty

We live in a world where we will never understand everything. In fact, we won’t understand most things. That doesn’t mean we can’t live meaningful and healthy lives. That doesn’t mean we can’t improve things. If we add a bit of uncertainty to our retrospective analyses, it will lead to less drastic judgements and outcomes, will less likelihood of being wrong.

But don’t worry if you can’t completely abstain from building narratives. It’s human nature, as Robert Frost figured out quite some time ago.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — [Cue Narrative]
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.