The Story of My Life

For most of my life, I had a particular self-image of myself, a self-image I was actually unaware of. A self-image is the way you see yourself so how can you be unaware of what you see? But of course you can be unaware of what you are seeing. How you see yourself is often only possible well after the fact.

So what was that particular self-image I was unaware of? I think I saw myself as the protagonist of a great drama. I was the main character of my reality show. As the main character, I was faced with key decisions along the way as the story unfolded — where to live, what job to take, who to marry, and so on. Along the way, as in any good drama, life intervened in all kinds of typical and unexpected ways, the plot twists that make a story interesting. I got sick, a job offer I was expecting didn’t happen, a woman rejected me. Or I received an unexpected honor, a consulting opportunity came along, the internet happened and podcasting became possible.

Through all of this, I persevered and gave up, smiled and cried, danced and sat on the sidelines, planned or plotted, hoped and dreamed. Many times I would day-dream about the successes of the past and the ones I hoped still lay in the future. I would congratulate myself on the plot twists that turned out well and often, but not always, I’d remember darker episodes or even a whole season of not-so-cheerful episodes, where things hadn’t gone so well despite my best efforts. I would tell myself story after story from this great archive of memories along with the stories I could imagine that lay in the future with memories I hoped to create.

When I say I wasn’t aware of this self-image, I mean that I didn’t spend a lot of time being aware that I was living this way. Only now, as I’m older, do I realize that I had mostly unconsciously crafted a set of narratives about myself and that those narratives in turn affected how I lived from day to day.

I don’t think this is unusual. As I wrote in my Adam Smith book drawing on Smith’s wisdom, we think about ourselves more than we think about others. This is the way of the world. So it’s not surprising that I think of myself as the main character of the drama that is my life and the rest of those I interact with as something of a supporting cast.

That supporting cast may include bigger stars in cameo roles. My PhD advisor, Gary Becker, won a Nobel Prize. I never will. But in my movie, the one where I’m the main character, the theme of the reality show is the guy who did his PhD with the Nobel Prize winner. The Nobel Prize winner only gets a cameo. The show focuses on me, the student — my ups and downs, my brief but meaningful interactions with my advisor, and so on.

Just the other day I told someone of how the economics department at the University of Chicago was on the fourth floor of the Social Sciences building but Becker and Saul Bellow had offices on the fifth floor. Just the two of them, I think. I never saw Bellow. But I saw Becker fairly often, whenever I struggled with an issue related to my dissertation. His secretary, Myrna, would give students a 15 minute time slot. When the appointment rolled around, you’d trek up to the fifth floor — there was an elevator but usually you’d already be in the department on the fourth floor for some reason— and as you climbed the stairs you’d be filled with a mixture of fear and awe and excitement knowing you were going to be talking to Becker.

There was something weird and yet appropriate about going up to the fifth floor and being all alone with Becker. Very quiet up there. There was no small talk. You’d sit down and he’d say something like, “Yes?” and you’d get right to whatever question you had. And in the full version of the episode, there’d be a flashback to when I’d been a first-year student and auditing Becker’s class and how even though I wasn’t on the roster, he’d call on me and I’d get the question wrong. Every time. A good scene I’ve shared with my children and students about how things can turn out well even though things don’t look good at the time.

So obviously Gary Becker is something closer to a real star in the great movie of life but in my movie, he’s just a bit player. And in Becker’s movie, Milton Friedman gets a cameo but there’s a lot more time for Becker, of course. You get the idea. In the old days I suspect, people surely saw themselves as the author of their own novels. We’re more cinematic. So from my perspective, my life story is something like the Truman Show with me in the role of Truman. With a lot fewer viewers. Well actually, just one viewer. Me. I’m the main character and I’m pretty much the only one who sees the story that way but most of the time, I never notice. I’m too busy thinking about the script and the episodes that have come before and those are still to come if the series gets renewed…

But I think that’s the wrong way to think about our lives.

Not the story-telling part, which I think is pretty much hard-wired alongside the self-centered part. But the main character part. Inevitably, if you see yourself as the main character of your own reality show and people around you as part of the supporting cast, you miss a big part of life.

Our natural impulse to see ourselves as the main character inevitably assigns less important roles to those around us. So if I’m not careful, for example, my wife isn’t the co-star of my married years, or at least not quite a co-star. Imagine a middle school production of My Fair Lady. I was actually in My Fair Lady in 8th grade — season 14 of my reality show. I played Henry Higgins. Season 14 was a great season. So many good episodes about my teacher, the fabulous Miss Kineen, so many stories I’ve told myself and others from that year. Almost a half century ago, and I can still remember the names of who played Liza and Pickering (JH and EB) though I haven’t seen them since 1972. Crazy!

Where was I? Ah yes, imagine a middle school production of My Fair Lady. And the director of the musical knows Benedict Cumberbatch and the director went to high school with him and somehow convinces him to play Liza Doolittle’s father, Alfred, the dustman.

Alfred isn’t the star of the musical. But he does get two great songs — With a Little Bit of Luck and Get Me to the Church on Time. And some wonderful dialogue. Put Benedict Cumberbatch in that role with a bunch of middle school students and it would be unforgettable for most of the students. And Benedict would get some good stories out of it for his own script. “Let me tell you about the time I did this favor for an old friend of mine from Harrow…”

How would you describe the relationship between Benedict Cumberbatch and a bunch of kids inevitably overwhelmed and in awe of having a real actor and celebrity in the show? Distant, is the simple answer. They’re just not comparable. And because they’re not comparable, they can’t really have a relationship. They relate to each other in some dimension of course. They’re in the same show, after all, and share scenes together. And there’s even some dialogue off stage. But they don’t really interact in a meaningful way. Too big a gulf between the star and the rest of the cast. Can Cumberbatch really share anything of his essential self when he’s on stage or even off stage? Hard to imagine. How authentic can he really be among a bunch of middle schoolers?

I think to some extent this is the reductio ad absurdum of what we do when we cast ourselves as the main character in the story of our lives. We relate to other people, but not on an exactly equal footing. If I’m not careful, it’s about how I feel more than about what you feel. If I’m not careful, it’s about how your actions affect my story and not the other way around. And even when my role is just someone in the chorus, I inevitably make it seem bigger than it really is. I inevitably take myself a little too seriously. I inevitably underestimate your role and find it hard to remember that you too have emotions and drama in your own life apart from mine. It’s hard not to pose and preen and say my handful of lines a little louder I should.

As I said before, this is perfectly natural. It’s more than natural. It feels right to be the main character. I think that’s the way we’re made. Many of us crave it. My point isn’t that most of us are narcissists. Most of us aren’t. Narcissism is just the darkest side of what I’m talking about. If you’re humble and shy, you’re still usually the main character in an unfolding mini-series. It’s just a mini-series about the challenges facing a humble, shy person. Even the humble among us, the shyest among us tends to focus inward on the inevitable centrality of our own experiences and our distorted, imperfect memories of our past.

But I’d like to suggest a different way to go through life.

To get at the alternative, think about an ensemble cast for a sitcom or a series. In a show like Friends, there’s no star, no main character. Just a bunch of people weaving in and out of people’s lives. It may be called Seinfeld, but he’s not the main character. There are four main characters. The show is about their relationships, not just the narrative arc of Jerry’s life. Or the movie Love, Actually. An incredible cast but no one’s the star. The movie is about love and connection, not the adventures of a central protaganist.

What would be different about seeing yourself as part of an ensemble rather than the main character?

I’ve spoken on EconTalk about our social interactions in life as a dance floor. When you go out onto the dance floor with a partner, there is a temptation to try and shine, to be seen as a great dancer and to create an experience that will be remembered with yourself at the center. A different strategy is to see our jobs on the dance floor as one of getting along with others, of melding into the flow of couples swirling around each other in time to the music, of making my partner look graceful, of not banging into anyone else or stepping on anyone’s feet, of being part of something larger than ourselves, weaving near and around the other dancers in unexpected and delightful ways.

When I’ve invoked that image, my point has been to distinguish between two ways of thinking about how to behave and what underlies our behavior. In one, the question is, what’s in it for me — the maximizing approach at the heart of modern economics. How can I maximize my benefits over and above my costs? In the other, the approach I think of when I think of Adam Smith and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, the focus is on propriety — what is the proper way to behave in my interactions with others. Because I must interact with others, propriety matters. No one wants to dance much with the show-off who crashes into others and thinks only of himself.

What’s in it for me might explain how I behave when I go shopping on the internet. It does a lousy job of explaining how I behave in my family or my religious community and sometimes, even how I interact with my economist colleagues.

Smith’s point is that because we are forced to interact with others, we become accustomed to taking them into account even when our natural impulse is to be self-centered. For Smith, it is not our natural beneficence that encourages us to take others into account. It’s our very self-centered nature that encourages us to temper our most selfish urges. For most of us, those urges of pure self-interest get tempered by our realization that if we are to behave according to those urges without regard for the impression we make on others, we will have few friends and a much poorer life.

I’m suggesting something a little different here. Even when I act tactfully on the dance floor and behave properly, keeping others — my partner and the other couples — in mind, I have a choice in how to think of the experience before, during, and after. Even if I behave properly, I can see myself as the dutiful servant who did a good job meshing with the other dancers. Or I can see myself in a more wholistic and connected way, as simply a part of something larger than myself, a fuller, more connected experience.

My idea here is that there is something of a struggle going on in our psyches and that we can choose to some extent how we perceive our daily experiences. One choice is to see ourselves as fundamentally atomistic, heroic, and essentially, existentially lonely. The other is to see ourselves as connected and belonging to something with that belonging at the center of the experience. When I say “see ourselves” I am suggesting that the before, during, and after of our experiences can be processed in two different ways.

How would this work in practice? Suppose I’m meeting someone for coffee and to chat, someone I haven’t seen in a while. Looking ahead to the conversation, I catalog a few stories I hope to share about what I’ve been up to. Maybe a funny experience I had or a success I want to share. While with the other person, I spend a lot of time thinking of what I’m going to say next and to make sure I make my points. This is particularly strong if it’s a professional conversation rather than a friend. How can I make a good impression? What can I get this person to do for me? But even with a friend, I can use them in direct and indirect ways for my own goals. After the conversation is over, I can savor having told the stories I wanted to tell and congratulate myself on how funny I was or eloquent. This perspective, which I regret to say I have experienced more than once, is self-centered even if I am gracious enough to split the airtime in half and let my conversational partner talk as much as I do.

The second way to experience that conversation is to think of it not as alternating monologues but as an actual conversation, an emergent experience that goes in unexpected, unplanned directions. Sure, when talking to a friend, I may have something to share that is important that has happened to me recently. But my perspective is not to focus on that to the exclusion of the rest of the experience. My perspective is to savor not my conversational brilliance but the experience of interacting with another human being and to see what happens without expectation during that encounter and without a plan to steer it in particular directions.

Some of the most powerful moments in my life have come from listening rather than talking.

Really listening. Giving someone my fullest attention without thinking of what I am going to say next, allowing someone who needs to connect with another human being the chance to open their heart. That turns out to be a much more glorious and transformative drama than the one where I’m the main character.

Essentially, this perspective is about treating your friends and of course, your family, as a deeply valuable opportunity to experience life fully as you move through the world. Rather than seeing your friends and family as objects to serve your goals, you see them as adventures you commit to. An adventure in the sense that you are not sure where it will go and to value the journey more than the particular outcome. It means making sacrifices to invest in friendship and family.

In a way, all of this is just an obvious cliche — friends and family make life meaningful. We all know that. But if we know that, why do we glance down at our phone in the middle of a conversation with one of our children because a notification has come through? Why do we often fail to make sufficient time to do things with our friends that have no immediate benefit to us. Why do we let friends drift away and miss a chance to stay connected? Why do we see the caller ID and decide to ignore the call? They’re family, they’ll understand, we say to ourselves to rationalize the decision. But most of all, why do we give in to our natural impulse and see ourselves as the main character? If we can see our life alongside friends and family and colleagues as more of an ensemble we are privileged to serve in, I think we will treat them better and even treat ourselves better. Better isn’t really the right word. Daily life will have a different texture — I think a richer and more satisfying texture.

After having these thoughts (inspired by a conversation with a friend who told me of her decision to try and stay better connected to her closest friends), I realized this is a version of Iain McGilchrist’s insights in The Master and His Emissary.

McGilchrist argues that the left side of the brain and the right side of the brain pay attention and process experience in different ways. Here is the way he describes the difference in his EconTalk interview:

Effectively the left hemisphere is good at helping us manipulate the world, but not good at helping us to understand it. To just use this bit, and then that bit, and then that bit. But the right hemisphere has a kind of sustained, broad, vigilant attention instead of this narrow, focused, piecemeal attention. And it sustains sense of being, a continuous being, in the world. So, these are very different kinds of attention.

He goes on to say that the right side of the brain is about connecting, and betweenness — the relationship between things that interact together. It sees the whole picture rather than the narrowest part. Of course we need both parts of the brain. But what I’m suggesting here is that we work on strengthening the part that feels connected, that yearns for connection.

In the conversation with McGilchrist, I brought up another metaphor to describe different ways of moving through the world and how we think about ourselves, and tied it back into economic theory:

And the other distinction I want to make, which I heard recently from Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, which I think is a fantastic distinction, is between contract and covenant. A contract is about: What do I get out of this? And, I think: ‘What’s in it for me?’ And, ‘I’ve got to protect myself.’ And, I’ve got to have these clauses to make sure I don’t get taken advantage of or exploited. A covenant is a promise. A covenant says: We’re together. So, a marriage, where I go into a marriage and say, ‘I hope I’m a hit today. I hope I get more out of it today than I lost,’ or ‘I hope I got more — gee, didn’t my wife, hasn’t she failed to do this the last three times? It’s her turn’? So, if you keep score, you have a lousy marriage. And the way to have a good marriage is to base it on love. And to say, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ That emergent, attentive, enjoying whatever it is at this moment. And that’s very hard for us. Especially that left side of us doesn’t want that. It wants to say, ‘I could get more out of this. I’m dissatisfied. I need a better x,y,z — whatever it is — whether it’s a marriage or a job or a relationship with a parent, or a friend.’ And I think that whole maximizing mindset, which economists adopt, has some real drawbacks in thinking about how you should live your life. We often rationalize it by saying, ‘Well, but you’ve got to look out for yourself, don’t you?’ We often rationalize it by saying, ‘Well, people don’t — they’re not literally like this, but they act as if they are.’ And your point, I think correctly, is that: Well, if you keep thinking as if they act that way, maybe you start to think they do. And you start to think it’s rational for you to act that way. Which is, I think, extremely destructive.

So my suggestion is to think more covenant than contract, more harmonizing in the choir rather than hearing your own voice as distinct, more ensemble and less main character. It isn’t just a way of thinking about your life. I think it can change your life, change not just the way you see yourself but the way you interact with others.

David Foster Wallace said that everyone worships. That’s a statement about what we ultimately care about. We really don’t just care about ourselves. We do yearn to be part of something larger than ourselves. We yearn to feel connected to others. It varies by person. Some of us are more loners than others. Some of us crave human interaction and struggle to be alone with our own thoughts.

What I’m urging in this essay is to work on that desire to connect in a way that enhances our humanity and brings us together. By re-framing how we see our own lives and seeing them more as an ensemble and less as the story of a heroic figure, I think we can be better friends, better spouses, and more fully human.