Stories We Tell Ourselves

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A writer far greater than myself once said we are pattern-seeking animals. But that’s not the story I want to tell; it’s not the story you want to hear, either. The notion that we simply seek out patterns, even when they don’t exist, makes for a very unsettling reality. Before you know it, we’re questioning everything and the world suddenly feels like nothing more than gauzy ephemera.

Indeed, despite another great writer’s warnings, we actually prefer to be Fooled By Randomness. This is where we find truth in Warren Buffett’s fabulous analogy about the nature of success and the stories we tell about it.This comes from an essay written in 1984. The best source is here.

In short, imagine a national coin-flipping contest where 225 million people compete by meeting the nearest person, calling the coin flip, and either winning a dollar by calling the flip correctly or losing a dollar if they get it wrong. Over and over again, the contest continues as winners are sorted from the losers in a winner-take-all contest.

Project this out to 20 flips and you’ll find 215 people — out of a starting field of 225,000,000 — who have called the coin correctly twenty straight times. With every consecutive win, each of these people have now earned over a $1,000,000 in the competition. And not only are they wealthy now; they’ve never been wrong.

Well, as you can imagine, these people start to believe there must be some magic to this. They were clearly imbued with a level of superhuman clairvoyance that no one can match. People flock to them, wanting to see and touch this mystical power. These lucky winners write books, hold workshops, and talk very emphatically on TV shows about what it really takes to be successful.

All because random chance.

But don’t tell them that. Or their followers. The story matters far more than the truth.

Gurus, Pundits, and Other Shamans

I have spent nearly every day of the past eight months building a formal knowledge base from all the best books I’ve read. This curated heap of information is not even remotely close to completion and already I’ve amassed over a thousand pages of text. Models, principles, lessons, patterns, anecdotes, and more.

Why?

Because I think there are real, proven bits of knowledge that anyone can use to help them achieve their goals. These techniques and tactics don’t always work for me. But they still work.

When they don’t work, it’s important to understand why. This is a big reason I’ve tried to read broadly across a few fields. When I find something like Matthew Stewart’s The Management Myth, it serves as the strong counterfactual against the preachings and sermons and rituals that are rightfully (and convincingly) purported by people who have won lots of coin flips.

In Stewart’s case, he attacks every writer who says management is a sacred mythical art. He says it’s really more of a myth.

I don’t know who is right. So I read it all. And I formalize the literal paradoxes that emerge from every point so that I can maybe develop something better in the end.

But again … why?

I guess I don’t want us to be fooled. I don’t want us to resort to dogma and orthodoxy and tired old practices that are pushed forward with tradition and confirmation bias.

These things are self-perpetuating in the annals of Business Folklore. And it is, indeed, folklore. It’s stories we tell ourselves. As Stewart explains in the following passage of his book:

When management theorists cite company after company that has succeeded by building its resources and competencies, they aren’t supplying evidence for a theory. They are merely expressing joy at seeing their preconceived interpretative framework reflected back to them.

I am a fan of Jim Collins but look no further than his seminal book Good To Great. Collins is an honest scholar. He uses data and proper case study to explain his theories. The case studies he selected for his book were excellent examples that reflected the framework he established.

And some of those companies are gone now. Circuit City, for example. So is Collins’ completely disproven now? Of course not. But he’s not wholly proven, either. To his infinite credit, Collins has acknowledged all this.

But again, does that mean his carefully-researched framework is flawed? Probably not. Or yes. Actually it depends. Like every other story, the strength of its narrative is predicated on the willingness of the reader to suspend disbelief.

Do you believe that Tom Sawyer really existed?

Or that Alice really did stumble into Wonderland?

If so, you might also believe in the power of all those BHAG’s and flywheels from Collins’ book. And if you do, who am I to question those completely harmless, well-founded beliefs?

The Slippery Bedrock of Management Theory

But we shouldn’t pick on Collins. Again, he’s an honest scholar. There’s others to choose from. All of them, in fact. Take the classic management text In Search for Excellence by the celebrated author Tom Peters. His book makes absolute perfect sense to me. It deliver the sort of cognitive ease that leads to immediate persuasion.

But just because it makes sense doesn’t mean it’s true. There’s only one way to prove the truth. As Stewart writes:

The first obvious flaw in the method of The Search for Excellence is that it provides for no credible control group. Might there be companies that applied the lessons and failed?

Yes. I’m certain of it. It’s a veritable Fermi’s Paradox. The probablistic argument proves itself with common sense. There have been so many failed companies over time that surely one of them involved people who read Peters’ book, followed the tenets, and still failed.

Not that anyone cares. Not that anyone wants proof. Because what Peters provided wasn’t the winning recipe for making the next great company. Instead, he provided the validation for what many people (particularly non-CEOs) want to believe is (or should be) the winning recipe.

After all, who reads these books? People like me. I am not a CEO. So why should I care? Because this is for validation. To hear someone else think like me, in ways that are more articulate, through books that are provided by New York City publishing houses, makes me very more certain about my point of view.

But don’t take my word for it. Consider what Stewart writes regarding Peters, Collins, and other such gurus:

The guru itself is the pack. True to their calling as mass entertainers, they are followers rather than leaders. Their choices pander to rather than create the mood, aspirations, and conventional wisdom of the moment.

Pandering. Affirming. Extolling. Echoing. Whether it’s a management guru or a self-help guru or a diet guru or any other such champion of nonfalsifiable “truth”, the value of the work comes from its ability to reflect the values of the audience.

Do the things they say reflect your values? Does it create a beautiful harmony with what you want to be true? If so, you’ll think these gurus are brilliant. If not, you’ll think these gurus are horrible. Even if they are right. This is what Ignaz Semmelweis discovered when he literally saved mothers in hospitals. Despite his great work, he was reviled and exiled. Because if you want to be a guru, a persuasive and celebrated soul, you can’t merely be right. You have to be right in the right way. As a member of the tribe.

Or else you’ll suffer Ignaz’s terrible fate.

So again, it’s not about being right with the theories of management. It’s about being believed. Stewart explains it as follows:

The theories offered by gurus can explain everything and predict nothing because they aren’t theories at all. Like the more elaborate conceptual frameworks of the strategy discipline, they are in fact bundles of nonfalsifiable truisms.

So what are we to do?

Leaders First. Managers Second.

I don’t know. My guess is that we start with humility. We knock out the vaunted pedestal that management usually rests upon. Management is not precious. It is not pretty. It is not a science. It is barely an art. It is not something smart people should do in order to prove they are smart. Frankly, it is not very worthwhile.

Most days, anyway.

But then some days it is. Some days it is profoundly worthwhile. This usually happens when either (a) you get the chance to oversee truly meaningful work, or (b) you get to do things that genuinely help your staff in the long-run.

Not the short-run. That’s the stuff of Michael Scott from The Office. That’s your Hawaiian T-Shirt Day and “31 pieces of flair.”

And even then … even when you have one of those two great things going for you … it still might not be worthwhile. Why? Because you won’t have the chance to be yourself. To say what you want to say, lead how you want to lead, help as you want to help.

Because there are stories to maintain. Narratives to prop up. Prevailing cultures to adhere to and uphold.

Is all that necessary? Only if you believe in it. And if you don’t believe in it, but others do, then it’s still necessary.

For a little while.

Yes, for a short period of time, it’s necessary to go with the cultures and narratives you are a part of. But if you don’t believe in any of that, you can make a different story. You can champion a new narrative. You can be a leader.

This is what we should do with all this existential dread I’m digging up. We should become leaders. Humble explorers hacking through this jungle, learning as we go, pushing forward best we can, covering new territory and reporting our findings with crude maps we send back to the civilized world.

We should make our own frameworks, in other words. We should become our own gurus. The self-authored kind that leaders always seem to portray.

In other words, we should not stop at the point of becoming a manager. We should move forward to leadership.

A leader is fundamentally different than a manager. A leader writes the story instead of following the script. And such leaders are the sort of thing everyone, including your own manager, needs. There’s no myth there. It doesn’t require a job title, either.

That’s not to say that you’re some flinty-eyed contrarian who fights your own organization at every turn. No leader does that. But a leader does develop an influential, successful, proven method that is unique. And ever-evolving. Regardless of station.

That’s the idea anyway. And I freely admit that it’s still a story. But when you strip away the management myths and stories we let other people tell ourselves, I think you find that this is the story we’re all trying to write.