by Max Sirak
(Don't want to read? You don't have to. Listen instead.)
Last month I wrote about narrative bias and how it shapes our lives. (You can read it here. Be sure to watch the videos, especially the last one, This Is Water.)
As a quick refresher, narrative bias is our tendency to make up stories to explain our lives. These stories, explaining why things happened and what they mean, affect us deeply.
Our ability to shape our narratives, to consciously construct healthy stories about our lives, is our storytelling superpower. The words we use to make sense of our lives impact how we think and feel.
To a large extent, we are our stories. For better or for worse.
Take Me For Instance
Using myself as an example let's look at my life as it stands.
– I'm 35.
– I'm single.
– I live alone in the mountains.
– I quit a lucrative job two years ago to pursue writing.
These are four objective facts about my life. Because we are humans, and narrative bias is real, each of us will weave a story to connect these dots. Again, this is an automatic response. It's how we navigate our complex world.
And, depending on the type of person we are, leaving our narrative bias on autopilot might be completely fine. If we are healthy and well-adjusted the tales we spin about ourselves and others might be full of compassion and hope.
Connecting the dots of my life I could say: “I have most of my life in front of me. My days are quiet, peaceful, and stress-free. I'm surrounded by mountains. I don't have the headaches and hassles of being a husband. There's no clock to punch and I'm not starving. My time and life are my own to spend however I wish.”
Or, the story I tell about myself could easily be: “I need to get it together. I'm already 35. I don't have a steady paying job, let alone a career. I live in isolation. It's a cultureless place where the ratio of men to women is 10:1. I'll never have a family. My days are lonely and loveless. I'm a fool for toiling away at an impossible dream.”
See the difference between these two stories? Both are based on the same four dots. Both are radically different in tone and texture.
The first is positive. It features a set of underlying assumptions about my values and focuses on things I have. Peace, quiet, freedom, natural beauty, solitude, and dominion over my time are all highlighted.
The second is negative. It also features inchoate ideas about what matters but pinpoints all that's missing. A career, an intimate relationship, romantic prospects, a full house, a family of my own, and an average income are all notably absent and underlined.
Clearly, one of these stories is much healthier than the other. One is life-affirming. One is life-negating. Taking active control of my narrative bias and choosing which one I tell myself is using my superpower.
Superpowers In Science
Using words to make sense of the world isn't just something we do in the scope of our personal lives. It happens in science. Cosmologist, Max Tegmark, talks about this in his book The Mathematical Universe.
“…all physics theories that I've been taught have two components: mathematical equations and ‘baggage'—words that explain how the equations are connected to what we observe and intuitively understand. When we derive the consequences of a theory, we introduce new concepts and words for them, such as protons, atoms, molecules, cells and stars…”
Here we see, even in the world of particle physics, there are dots (equations and math) and the words we use to explain what we observe (proton, atom, quark, etc.).
Tegmark further illustrates the point. “For example, if you solve the Schrodiner equation for five or fewer quarks, it turns out that there are only two fairly stable ways from them to be arranged: either as a clump of two up quarks and a down quark or as a clump of two down quarks and an up quark, and we humans have added the baggage of calling these two types of clumps “protons” and “neutrons” for convenience.”
Protons and neutrons are two words we made up. They are verbal representations conjured and assigned to mathematical solutions of a specific equation.
Essentially, there was complex math. We did it. It worked. We began to make up a story as to why. This story, the names we gave to the numbers we found, is what Tegmark calls “baggage” (and I've called our narrative bias) at work.
An Aside About Einstein
We all know Albert Einstein was a brilliant scientist. In fact, I'd be willing to bet if you asked a random person to name a brilliant scientist, they'd invoke ol' Al.
And rightfully so. The theories of general and special relativity are monumental. They ushered in a radical way of thinking about the universe. They unlocked a multitude of new inventions, discoveries, and revolutionized our world.
But math isn't what made Einstein remarkable. According to Tegmark, it was his storytelling.
“When Einstein discovered special relativity in 1905, many of the key equations had already been written down by Hendrik Lorentz and others. However, what required Einstein's genius was figuring out the relation between the mathematics and the measurements.”
Most of the equations were there. They had already been discovered. What we didn't have were the words to fit the math to make it all make sense. That's where Einstein came in.
He did the math then used his words. He corresponded his computations to the world in a comprehensible way. Everyone else was stumped. Einstein handled the “baggage.”
Albert Einstein was a master baggage handler.
Bringing It On Home
Einstein didn't just use his superpower in the realms of science, making math fit our world. He also realized the stories we tell fundamentally influence our lives. Which is probably why he said, “The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.”
There is evidence enough to support either conclusion. We can look around and find dots of kindness, love, tolerance, and giving. We can likewise choose to pay attention to all the cruelty, hate, fear, and greed we encounter. It's up to us.
This is our superpower. We connect the dots in anyway we choose. We decide what words we use to make sense of the world.
This is our “baggage.” Carrying it isn't optional. Having a say in the type of “baggage” we lug around is as good as it gets. And make no mistake – some bags are way heavier than others.
Going back to the examples from my life, which of those two stories do you think is easier to haul? One is a carry-on with four good wheels and a working handle. The other is an oversized duffle with a broken strap.
Replacing Our Luggage
I'm not a licensed mental health professional. I'm just a guy who likes to read and write and help people lead better lives. I'm a dilettante at best.
That said, here are some options…
1) – DIY
It involves little more than writing and time. The gist is you identify some unwieldy “baggage” you're tired of carrying around. Often times it's a past emotional trauma parading as present malcontent. Write down the story of what happened and why. Get as deep and into it as you can. Let it all out.
Read over it the next day. Write down any insights you've had. Now separate the events from the “baggage.” Strip away all the words until what you're left with are just unadorned dots.
The next day re-lease your past. Throw out your old story. Create a new one. Go back and connect the dots. Do it in a life and self-affirming way that makes sense of the situation.
2) – The Interwebs
If you're OK with spending some cash and using the internet then check out The Lefkoe Method. It was developed by psychologist Morty Lefkoe. Some people swear by it. I've only used the free trial so I can't speak with much authority. From what I've seen he's come up with a process teaching people to use their superpowers instead of being used by them and offers it online for a nominal fee.
3) – Help From The Pros
Narrative therapy is the most expensive option, but also probably the most effective. Narrative therapists are professionals who train and specialize in helping people work with the stories they tell themselves. It was developed by David Epston and Michael White in the 70s and 80s.
We're each responsible for our superpower. We can let narrative bias go unchecked and tell the same stories we always have. Or we can take steps, exercise control, and harness our power for good. It's our choice.
Some words of caution and encouragement – it's far easier to not use our superpower than to use it. It's easier to do what we've always done than change. Our old stories are comfortable. We know them by heart. They make sense. But they are not capital-t truth.
Anytime we work to change a habit or pattern it's important to take the long view. Know there isn't over night success. Know some days you'll be fantastic at using your superpower and others you won't. That's how it goes.
With time and practice you'll start realizing how, where, and when narrative bias shows up and affects you.
Last month I told you you had a superpower. This month I wanted to teach you more about using it. Because Killer Mike and Run The Jewels are right…
“[You] can't pick up no crown, holding what's holding you down.”
Photo credits – Einstein – By Photograph by Orren Jack Turner, Princeton, N.J.Modified with Photoshop by PM_Poon and later by Dantadd. – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3b46036 Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=925243