Everything is a Story

I’ve been thinking on and off about this post for weeks, and it’s not coming together, so I’m just going to write up what I have and see what happens. Or at least put it up to instigate comments that will help me clarify what I mean (as the comments on my “Faking it” post led to the “Language Games” post).

The basic premise is that we use stories to make sense of the world. I’m using stories in a very broad sense here, including anything where there’s a causal narrative (X did something and Y happened). Let’s take some examples:

  • The apple fell from the tree because the Earth exerts a gravitational field that pulls objects with mass towards it.
  • The cells weren’t happy today because the incubator was at the wrong temperature.
  • 9/11 happened to punish us as a nation for our sins.
  • My bike is struggling a bit because the derailleur is out of alignment.

We tell stories to explain how the world works. And if we can’t make sense of the world with our existing stories, we invent a pattern (or story). This New York Times blog entry describes how superstitious beliefs go up in times of uncertainty, as people respond to their lack of control by finding patterns explaining what is going on, such that they understand the causes of the distress they’re experiencing. In ancient times, we anthropomorphized nature into the form of quarreling gods, as we imputed understandable human behavior to objects that were otherwise fearsome and unexplainable.

One of my traits as a generalist is that I find patterns everywhere. This can be a strength, in that I can take a mass of data and observations and distill it down to an underlying pattern. The flip side is that I can often see several possible stories to explain what’s going on, and just pick one as a hypothesis. Somebody wlll point out an inconsistency in my story, and I’ll say “Oh, good point”, and switch to a different story (Paul Saffo calls this “Strong opinions, weakly held”, which I quite like). This can be quite frustrating to people who hold opinions strongly and sometimes even mistake them for Truth.

So my theory of the moment is that everything is a story:

  • Science is a story of how scientists go out and explore the world and find unchanging Platonic laws of Nature, which is an attractive but somewhat deceiving story.
  • Religion is a story of how a great people was chosen by God to accomplish great works.
  • Sports tell the story of the underdog rising up, the champion holding on, the journeyman breaking through, etc.
  • Brands are the story of a product’s users – as I read someplace recently, your brand is what your customers tell other people (it sounds like Hugh MacLeod or Seth Godin, but I couldn’t find a reference).

Stories have targeted audiences – not all stories will make sense to all audiences. I can tell the story of a great play in football, and the eyes of my friends will glaze over. I can tell the story of evolution to a fundamentalist Christian and elicit an angry rebuttal. One of the dangers we face currently as a society is that we no longer have a unifying set of stories that you can expect everybody to believe. We have a fragmented set of audiences each believing its own stories. To put it in Latour-ian terms, we have a number of co-evolving parallel Collectives.

This fragmentation of stories and audiences drives the need for more generalists. One of my strengths is understanding different audiences well enough to tell stories that make sense to each audience. To take my well-worn example, when I was working on CellKey, I often had to translate between the physicists and biologists and software developers. The generalist can play the part of the Latour-ian diplomat, interfacing between different Collectives and finding the common ground on which they can be brought together.

Every time I post on this blog, I am telling a story. It’s not a story in a conventional narrative sense, but it is my way of making sense of the world, of describing the patterns I see around me. I record these story patterns with the hope that they can help others make sense of the world as well. This ongoing process of finding and collecting stories has been a fruitful one for me, and I hope that you find it useful as well.

P.S. Third week at Google, and already head-deep in a project. Stayed late at work tonight finishing up a presentation for tomorrow. And yet this is the night I make the effort to blog, partially because putting together the presentation employed these skills of telling a story from a mass of unstructured data, and partially because of the Cokes I was drinking at 8pm to help me with the final push.

7 thoughts on “Everything is a Story

  1. One of the dangers we face currently as a society is that we no longer have a unifying set of stories that you can expect everybody to believe.

    I don’t think it’s ever been true that there was a single unifying set of stories everyone believed. What’s different now is that we’re aware that broader society is composed of many subcultures, each with its own set of stories. You can’t pretend anymore that mainstream culture is the only thing that exists, because it’s so easy to find subcultures now that you can do it accidentally.

    The danger in this situation comes from people really wanting theirs to be the One True Way and not being willing to engage in life patterns that will accommodate diversity. This has always been true, and historically the solution has been various forms of oppression. But now that it’s obvious to the subcultures that they’re not alone, they fight back a lot harder. What we have to watch out for as a society is not finding ways to peacefully coexist in parallel and having the conflict between (sub-)cultures spiral out of control.

  2. I agree that stories help us as humans deal with our surroundings, either by creating stories as a way of explaining what is happening or utilizing metaphoric stories to prove a point or make a statement.

    It is also interesting that people who have mastered the skill of story telling are more interesting and dynamic people to be around.

    Hope you are having fun at google!

  3. your brand is what your customers tell other people (it sounds like Hugh MacLeod or Seth Godin, but I couldn’t find a reference).

    Grant McCracken?

  4. Sorry to disagree, but not everything is a story — some things are arguments. The difference between the two is quite simple:

    Stories are time-sequenced listings of events, events which may or may not be causally-connected, eg,

    “X happened, and then Y happened.”

    Arguments are justifications for believing some conclusion given a belief in some premises, eg

    “Because Z is true, we can conclude that W is also true.”


    “Because Z is true, we can conclude that we should do W.”

    There are many different justifications possible in an argument. Isaac Newton, for example, drew conclusions about the movements of planets based upon the results of experiments conducted here on earth with pendulums. (On the face of it, this justification is absurd, but modern physics has taken it for granted since Newton.)

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