The Stories We Are Writing
Late last night, or perhaps early this morning, I told some friends that ‘the best stories are the ones being written.’ I believe that what I said is true. But I realize what’s also true is that we are all writing our own stories. I am writing the story of my life write now, as are you. I think a hazard of the thinking person is to forget that we are writing our own stories.
When I speak of the thinking person I’m referring to someone who leans heavily on rational inquiry to make decisions. Everyone does this to some extent, but it’s clear that some do much more than others. and it’s those towards the high end on that spectrum that I’m referring to. Many of society’s most influential people, from scholars and citizen bloggers to leaders and innovators, are amongst this group of thinking people. And all of them to some extent share a flaw.
Thinking people struggle to differentiate between what they think and believe. While the truth is that all of our rational thoughts are rooted in beliefs and assumptions, making thoughts and beliefs two sides of the same coin, thinking people tend to act as if thoughts and beliefs are of categorically different nature, with thoughts having absolute supremacy over beliefs. At times this is great.
Within a well defined frame, rational thought is clearly an extraordinary tool. We have built the modern world on the scientific and technological advancements that are the products of it. But in other spheres rational thought can yield a false sense of certainty in its conclusions.
An abundance of research suggests that we are mostly post-facto rationalizers, meaning that we subconsciously make decisions then come up with the reasons why, to varying of degrees of reasonableness, depending on the person and circumstance. So from the get-go, most of what people believe to be the product of rational inquiry is actually a product of feeling and belief; intuition. It may be that the thinking people are merely better at justifying their positions. This also explains why the thinking are not necessarily the wise.
While rationality doesn’t imply certainty, it feels like certainty due to our beliefs around it. Someone who heavily depends on or strongly believes in rational thinking as source of the answer to every question might think that their conclusions are absolute and universal. A common example I run into is the man who believes they are unattractive or undesirable to others. They have probably had some life experiences that have reinforced such notions, making it a fact in their minds that they are unattractive. This becomes their reality. These men, unless actively seeking misery, which I won’t past many, are not writing their own life stories; instead, they are letting the world write it for them.
There is another reality however in which a great deal of male attractiveness is simply confidence; a belief in their own attractiveness and desirability. I have found anecdotally that these men are often just a bit of confidence away from being amongst the most attractive and desirable. A reframe of beliefs around oneself and one’s perception to others can make all the difference. But in order to do that, one needs to betray the illusion that what they think is real and believe that they can write whatever story they want. There are smaller, day-to-day implications to this as well.
Just the other day, I was engaged in a task that’s quite difficult to accomplish using rational thought alone: ordering food. Of course, I have a process for this that I roughly and mostly follow. First I eliminate options based on dietary restrictions. Then I research or inquire as to whether any dishes at that food place are known to be good. Taking that into account, I imagine myself eating the dishes that most appeal to me and try to determine what I have the strongest yearning for in that moment. Yes, this is a processing for assessing a feeling. I suppose some would just call this feeling, but I’m weird. This process unfortunately is imperfect.
On the occasional I’m thinking of, I was torn between an eggs benedict or steak and eggs for lunch. Though I was leaning benedict, I at the last moment felt a stronger yearning for steak and eggs and ordered. Moments later, I realized my desires had shifted but it was too late to change my order and I was disappointed. On a certain level I believed in my silly process, and believed in the certainty that I had erred. This was quite silly as I couldn’t have gone wrong with either choice, but it’s interesting how easy it is to feel from so much thinking that there is a right or wrong answer, even for something so trivial. Eventually the food came and was delicious and the disappointment faded away as did my hunger, but I could have avoided this negativity altogether.
At the moment I was disappointed, I could have altered my belief about the food. I could have changed the story I was my writing in my head about what that food was. As I told myself and continue to tell myself when I am forgetting, that everything happens is perfect, in that moment I could have told myself that the food that I ordered would be perfect and delicious and was exactly what I needed in that moment. This may seem like an almost comically subtle point of mindset altering, but if trained as a habit the ongoing re-evaluation of what’s happened in one’s own mind is a useful tool. Let’s consider an example for the more probabilistically.
Let’s say hypothetically that one has rationally concluded and thus now believes absolutely that there is a 51% chance that taking an action will completely work and a 49% chance that it will completely fail. Let’s say that if works that one will all of the fortune, glory, and happiness, and that upon failure one will be tortured forever and die a lonely miserable death. I think this is how a lot founders feel about successfully exiting their business versus having their startups fail. Now, given these odds, it’s clear one should take that action. It were even 50/50 it’s a coin toss, but in this hypothetical 51/49 scenario is a no brainer. One can know they made the right decision, but if they hold the framework they used to make the decision they might not be so happy.
Imagine how you’d feel if you were flying an airplane yourself and knew there was a 49% chance you would die in a fiery crash. How would that impact your confidence in flying? Clearly, for most people, it would be awful. One be terribly stressed out and lacking in confidence which would have an adverse effect on their performance. This scenario is a sad and tragic story. There is a solution, however.
If one believes that they have made the best possible decision, probabilistically speaking, they should shift their belief system away from the decision framework highlights uncertainty, to a confidence framework which highlights that they have made the 100% right decision. Instead of dwelling on the 49% chance of failure, one can dwell on the confidence they made the best possible decision. In the real world where no one even perfectly understands or frames any situation when trying to rationally discern what they ought to do, this is a healthy to break away from the unhealthy baggage of the sometimes useful process of rationally thinking through a a decision.
It is possible, and I would argue desirable, for us to constantly re-evaluate and adjust the life story that we are writing. It is very easy to get caught up in a way of thinking, particularly in our own thoughts and conclusions. There is comfort in believing that some elements of ourselves and the world are fixed. We need not re-evaluate everything all the time. But we must also identify when our fixed thoughts are hurting us and adjust our beliefs accordingly. This should not be taken to an extreme.
There are bad people who will rewrite their life stories to justify their actions almost to the point of what seems like delusions to others. Elizabeth Holmes is one of the more interesting contemporary examples. It may be that all of life is one giant delusion, but my general view is that if everyone is calling our your delusion, it’s too much. I wouldn’t suggest being the sinner who sins because they know they can repent. If you do that, I’m not sure you’ll have many friends. Most people, however, are fortunately not delusional psychopaths.
I must remember everyday first, that I am the author of my own story, and second, that I can change that story at any time. We need not be held to our past thoughts or decisions when we realize they are no longer serving us well. I would implore everyone to write the story of the life they want to live.