For bigger, more consequential decisions, we will adopt a framework based on synthesis, design, metaphor and storytelling, rather than selection among predefined options. So rather than treating college as a “which college should I attend, and what major should I pick?” decision, we will treat it as the creative process of continuously retelling and enacting the most compelling College story you can.
Venkatesh Rao, Tempo
Story-telling, once the greatest of human arts, is in a sad decline. Consider Homer, the blind poet genius, whether historical man or not. He typifies an entire culture, our grandfather culture in the modern west; much of what we know of it is from this single story-teller.
Rationality leaves no place for stories: stories are incommensurate, their lessons often oblique, the enjoyment of the interaction being part of the point. Compare to operations research, to solving systems of linear equations which exist in a point out of time.
And yet we have rediscovered stories, in the blinkered and limited way that modernism allows. Stories are valuable because they are, in our lingo, optimized for memetic value. Behavioral economics experiments show that compelling stories can be more convincing than “rational” arguments – and how compelling do you think stories can be in a psychology lab anyway? What are these shallow, pale stories compared to the great epics and horrifying tales that are our birthright?
We are told that great executives must be good story-tellers, that the act of creating and leading a company is about crafting and repeating the same story, creating a culture around that story. “Story-telling classes” and workshops spring up in our cities for yuppies. They all learn the same cadence and style, and it becomes a hobby – not a way of life.
When I was in college my friends and I would meet each week and sit in a circle, taking turns to say whatever we wished, often in the form of a story. We knew who the good bards were, their stories were reliably full of drama and humor even when nothing had happened.
For individuals, telling good stories to others is an instrumental technique. It makes you more valued in social situations, more successful in business. Bring it into every aspect of your life and you will flourish and be happy.
Rao’s point above is that you can also use it on yourself, as a decision-making technique. Real-life decisions are often too complex for a set list of options with exactly specified criteria. Instead, you can frame the history leading to this point as a story – and this is always possible in several ways, which may fit the past more-or-less well. The best, most classic stories are predictable – Joseph Campbell found this out the long way. Each possible story, each narrative line drawn through past events, points in a different future direction, and the story you pick to describe the past will tell you what to do next. 1
To do this well you must enrich your mind with many story templates, and practice applying them. The Seven Basic Plots might be a good place to start, if long and bit too Jungian for my tastes. I wonder if writing fiction helps at all, and how well we can isolate and practice the muscles of “thinking of stories” and “delivering stories”.
Curve-fitting or mathematical modelling data is a strict subset of this activity and much more limited. ↩
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