There are certain narratives that people want to hear, certain stories that they want to shove everyone into. It can be pretty basic, trying to make someone a hero and someone else a villain, and give life an engaging plot structure. But then there’s the other kinds of stories, the ones that we’ve all bought into, that we want everyone to match. This is the problem with narrative fallacy.
You know, if you’re a tech CEO, you should be a high school or college dropout who founded a company when you were broke.
Or, the best tech companies can trace their beginnings back to a garage. It’s always a garage, right?
Or, if you’re a life style entrepreneur, you had a moment of clarity and total epiphany in which you realised you had to change your life.
Or, if you’re a millionaire, you had to have started with less than you’ve got now.
Or, if you’re an artist, you’ve got to be a tortured soul with a deep, meaningful drinking problem.
My personal (least) favourite, is if you’re a billionaire you’re also a genius. These narratives are all neat and tidy, and they’re easy to consume. They turn life into something coherent, instead of the chaotic mess that it really is.
Where it gets dangerous, is when you start to try and live your life in a way that will make the narratives work. One guy I know went to India looking to have a life changing spiritual experience, because apparently that’s what Steve Jobs did.
This isn’t a good thing. You can’t try and make yourself fit someone else’s story, or fit a trope, because that’s not giving yourself what you need. And it won’t make you happy, because life is so much more complicated than all of that. Life is crazier. Life is messier.
It’s a phenomenon called the Narrative Fallacy. Here’s a quote about it that gets thrown around a lot, from a book called The Black Swan:
Breaking Down Narrative Fallacy
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.
— Nassim Nicholas Taleb
We fall victim to this fallacy every time we try and read someone’s life like a story, with a moral at the end like it’s a fucking episode of G.I. Joe. We fall victim to it, and we wind up with these accepted narratives that we want to apply to everything else.
Unfortunately, if you don’t find yourself easily slotting into these stories, it’s really fucking depressing. My life has never made sense in any kind of narrative trope, and I can’t help but feel like that kind of disappoints people.
You can’t try and fit the narratives. You can’t try and conform to the stories. Real life isn’t that simple. You’re going to have a weird experience, and you’re going to have to find your own way.
The beauty of that, is that just because you don’t fit the story, doesn’t mean you won’t be successful.
[This post by Jon Westenberg first appeared on Medium and has been reproduced with permission.]