Imagine a loving husband that is being cheated on. One evening for no specific reason he looks at his wife’s phone and his world collapses. I can’t believe this is happening might be one of the thoughts that cross his mind. He means it literally. Picture a high-performer who continued climbing the career ladder until he slipped and fell all the way to the bottom. Being fired and without a goal he now wavers somewhere between overwhelming self-doubt and complete bewilderment. How could that be me he might wonder while indeed not being able to grasp it. These are examples of events that contradict our narrative of who we are so fundamentally that we question the core of our identity. Even though you may not experience these specific scenarios, you’re unlikely to go through your life without something that will shake the sense of your identity. These instances of incompatibility between experience and personal narrative point to the essential idea of this essay. Our identity as human beings is packed in one grand narrative that we tell ourselves. It frames every experience we make, every memory we form, and every relationship we engage in. Our narrative, however, is not static. On the very contrary, it is subject to constant change as the two examples drastically point out. No matter how these two people process their traumas, they won’t be the same after that.
So why does this matter? Understanding and actively reflecting on our own stories puts us in the driver’s seat instead of just being steered by external influences. Since others follow the same principle, comprehending their personal narrative builds empathy and mutual understanding. It allows us to engage with each other on a much deeper level. The goals of this essay are to a) share a new framework, b) encourage active reflection and deliberate authoring of one’s own narratives, and c) emphasize the importance of recognizing other people’s narratives. In order to accomplish this, we will observe the power of narratives in regards to ideas, memories, and relationships that ultimately add up to our identity as a whole.
We are currently living through a Cambrian explosion of information. Ideas are everywhere. But why do they spread? While the reasons for this are diverse, there is one thing for sure. It’s never the best, most thought-through idea that is the most convincing or memorable one. It’s the best story that is.
Take some of the most successful startup pitches. They present to you a heroic story with a yet unsolved customer problem that needs to be overcome. And after outlining the changes in the world that now make it necessary to react, they name the painful complications that arise from it. These sales decks paint the customer’s pain as tangible as possible and show that there are winners and losers. They lay out the vision by teasing the promised land and show the features that allow the customer to get there. In sum, they make a good story.
Zuora serves as a vivid example, a sales deck often cited as a best practice. It proclaims the global shift towards the subscription economy, pointing out the inevitability of this change. The company names the winners of this change such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, and other incumbents like IBM, as well as the losers: the “52% of Fortune 500 companies that have disappeared” in the last 15 years. They tease the advantages of the subscription economy, the promised land, and introduce their solution as a way to get there. Now, is the story they tell always true? Certainly not, it’s just a story after all. Sometimes the rise of a startup is just purely serendipitous. A good idea, at the right time by smart people. These people then start looking at the global trends and what other external factors exist and stitch all these together into one coherent story. Confirmation Bias at its best. Granted, startup pitches, especially those that follow an ambitious growth path, are often a bit dramatic, almost by necessity. But it’s even true for the simplest business presentation. It’s not going to be convincing unless there is a clear story that is being told including the basic situation, the complication, and the solution of it.
But the mechanic of the spread of ideas can be applied to other domains as well. How do we teach children basic ideas on what is good or bad? What to do and what not to do? We share these concepts in the form of stories that otherwise couldn’t be understood. Tales such as Snowhite teach them to be cautious with strangers. Legends such as Santa Claus encourage them to behave well and to fulfill their duties in order to be rewarded. And parables such as the Good Samaritan stress the importance of compassion, empathy, and generosity.
There is one more crucial element to it. We need to make sure that the stories we share are told in the recipients’ world, so it fits into their own narrative. It doesn’t help if the intended solution addresses some pain point that they are not aware of. Zuora’s sales deck needs to paint the problem and describe the promised land in such a way that the customers can apply it to their own businesses. And the tales, legends, and parables need to be transferable to the children’s world in such a way that after the child finishes the story of Snowhite, it will indeed be more careful with strangers.
In his book “Start with No” the negotiation expert Jim Camp emphasizes this as one of the most crucial factors of success, writing that “you want to inhabit the adversary’s world, because that is the world about which you need information, and that is the perspective from which the adversary makes decisions”. Therefore, if you want to pass an idea on to another person, tell a story. Turn it into a parable, a saying, a metaphor, a fable, or a legend that fits into the other person’s narrative and make them the hero of the story. Recall that this is how humans remember ideas – the better the story and the more closely the fit to the recipients’ narratives, the better it will be remembered. But what exactly is the relationship between stories and memories?
Just as ideas are communicated in stories, memories are stored and remembered as such. Whenever we recall a past event, it’s in the form of a narrative. In an experiment, psychologists asked women to select from among twelve pairs of nylon stockings the ones they preferred. The researchers then asked the women their reasons for their choices. All the pairs of stockings were, in fact, identical. Nonetheless, the women came up with backfit, post hoc explanations. One theory is that this helps us to make sense of a world that bombards us with information that we can’t possibly all memorize. Attributing a cause-and-effect chain to our knowledge of the past is called Narrative Fallacy. As the author Nassim Taleb describes in his book Black Swan:
“The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.”
To view the power of narratives, consider the following statement: “The king died and then the queen died.” Compare it to “The king died, and then the queen died of grief.” Even though the latter expression incorporates more information rather than less, it seems to make more sense and can be easier remembered. Our brains are designed to detect patterns and assume that outcomes are based on preceding events. This ability evolved for good reasons. Our ancestors wouldn’t have lasted very long if they had assumed that a rustling bush was caused by the wind rather than a lion. In modern times, however, this survival adaptation leaves us wide open to misattributing effects to causes.
But it’s not only that. A cause-and-effect chain could allow information to be stored at less cost. As Taleb states:
“The more orderly, less random, patterned and narratized a series of words or symbols, the easier it is to store that series in one’s mind or jot it down in a book so your grandchildren can read it someday.”
This is the reason why stories, myths, parables, and tales are so powerful as pointed out in the beginning – they reduce complexity and create the impression of order and structure in an otherwise chaotic and random world.
What further adds to the idea of energy-efficient storage of information in the form of narratives is the process of memory formation itself. We take the peaks of our experience as well as the end, stitch them together, and derive a coherent narrative that in reality is only a rough approximation of the actual past. This process, first discovered by Behavioural Economics pioneers Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, is known as the Peak-End-Rule. That way, even seemingly unpleasant experiences that made us suffer steadily along the way but were occasionally interrupted by an outburst of pride for what we accomplished, can make a great story in hindsight. Therefore, distortions of our reality not only arise by misattributing cause-and-effect relationships to non-existent patterns but further by being wrong about the experience itself. Not only could the suffering in an unpleasant experience appear much less severe in hindsight than it actually has been (Peak-End-Rule). But also, we might attach a meaning to it that is not justified (Narrative Fallacy).
Our relationship narratives are formed by both, our and the other person’s narratives. Comparing ourselves to others and figuring out the domains in which we are better or worse off than others adds to our narrative and impacts every relationship that we are in. Maybe I am not as smart as she is, but I am much more athletic. We never focus on the absolute, but notice only the relative differences. However, it’s not only our opinion about how we compare to others that matters. Being the social animals that we are, we can’t stop wondering about what other people might think about us. Did they say they admire our working attitude? In that case, we are even more inclined to live up to this impression.
Take romantic relationships as an example. What’s your story as a couple and why are you special? In one way or another, we are all striving for uniqueness and individuality. That might be one of the reasons why Tinder encounters sometimes feel uncomfortable when sharing the story of how they met. Simply, because it might not compare well to others and doesn’t fit into their narrative of a romantic relationship, which often is the result of unconscious socio-cultural influences. In simpler terms: It doesn’t keep up with Hollywood. When sharing her thoughts on the roots of desire in romantic relationships, the psychotherapist and author Esther Perel lists observing your partner engaging confidently in a new social context as one of the drivers of desire. Why? Because seeing your partner through the eyes of another person is new and exciting. It’s a different part of a story that you didn’t yet know about which adds to the existing and so well-known narrative of your partner.
Sometimes, things go wrong and couples drift apart. In such cases, it might not be enough to learn new parts of your partner’s story. It takes a more deliberate effort to get things right. The approach of Narrative Therapy assists people to re-author the narratives of themselves and their relationships in a constructive and collaborative manner. In a podcast, sex therapist Dr. Suzanne Iasenza shares her approach to rewriting relationship narratives. At the very beginning of a session, she asks the couple to individually define the underlying problem. She normalizes and encourages different perspectives, saying that, by necessity, there will always be two different perspectives on the same problem. How couldn’t there be, if every partner has a different narrative to tell and thus, a different frame of experience? The next time you find yourself in a conflict with someone, remember that every disagreement has two stories to tell. Acknowledging this and working towards mutual understanding and eventually a joint story is core for achieving more meaningful relationships.
Our identity then is one overarching narrative that consists of all our stories around individual ideas, memories, and relationships. This narrative stands in an interdependency with all of our layers of experience. Every idea we come across, every decision we make, every situation we experience, and every new relationship we engage in, contributes to our narrative as an individual. Even more importantly, however, every experience will always be framed by our narrative. It fundamentally determines how we see the world. If your narrative is that of a playful optimist, all experiences will be framed accordingly. Even if things go sideways, you are much more likely to look at them as an opportunity for growth and improvement. Vice versa, a person that considers herself a cynical pessimist focuses on the problems instead of the chances. In this narrative, it’s easier to be stuck in negativity loops. Once you assume that bad things happen to you for a reason and that whatever did happen will get even worse, you enter a dangerously destructive loop.
As the two examples of the betrayed husband and the fired high-performer, in the beginning, have pointed out, it is possible that events occur that fundamentally contradict our personal narrative of who we are. In her Ted Talk, Esther Perel further elaborates on the example of being cheated on by your partner. This experience is not only so incredibly painful due to the mere act of being cheated on, but especially because it violates the core of our narrative. Perel states that “Infidelity hurts because it threatens our sense of self.” We just didn’t see it coming. In our narrative, we had this beautiful relationship. And all of a sudden, this seems like one overwhelming lie. So if all of this turns out to be wrong, what’s left? The process of recovery is one where we fit these so strongly contradicting situations and events in our narrative, as painful as this might be.
This essay has been much more informative than it has been action-oriented. The attempt of describing the “What” goes at the expense of answering the question of “How”. How to tell better stories, how to handle inaccurate memories, how to understand other people’s narratives, and, most importantly, how to change one’s own. These questions remain open to be answered and I hopefully circle back to them at some point. For now, I still want to conclude with some action-oriented key takeaways from this essay.
- Become aware of the underlying pattern of narratives in all our domains of life.
- When sharing ideas, put them into stories and use metaphors, analogies, fables, legends, and parables to be convincing.
- When recalling memories, take the Peak-End-Rule and Narrative Fallacy into consideration and consider that your memories don’t recall the actual experience but serve as mere heuristics.
- When researching questions and making decisions, consider the implications of the Narrative Fallacy on all dimensions – ideas, memories, relationships, and your own narrative as a person – and be careful not to assume causal relationships by default. Focus on data instead of anecdotal evidence and on clinical knowledge in favor of overarching theories.
- In all kinds of relationships, try to understand other people’s narratives and how they frame their experiences to achieve better understanding, stronger empathy, and more meaningful connections.
- Actively reflect on your own narrative. Understand, that you are not stuck with the person that you are and that changing your narrative means also changing your experience of reality.