Post No.: 0344
We perceive reality as we see and remember it. The narrative we tell regarding the/our past is just a story – and an overly neat and coherent story at that. For example, ‘I’ve always loved football, I got into an academy, I made the senior team and I scored the goal that won the cup.’ But we should actually be sceptical of the simplicity and neatness of such stories.
‘Narrative fallacies’ arise since flawed stories of the past shape our views of the world and expectations for the future. They occur as a result of our continuous attempt to make sense of the world. But the explanatory stories of causality that we find most compelling are simple, concrete rather than abstract, assign a larger role to talent/stupidity and intentions rather than to luck, situational factors or things outside of people’s individual control, and focus on a few salient events that happened rather than the countless number of possible events that failed to happen.
So the real story would be something more like ‘my father played football with me when I was young and without that I probably wouldn’t have liked football in the first place, I was lucky that a local football academy was next to where I lived otherwise I probably wouldn’t have been scouted, I’m glad my coach encouraged me to play in a different position when I wasn’t showing enough promise elsewhere, I luckily never experienced a serious injury as a result of bad tackle from another player as I developed my football career, there was no pandemic(!) and my mother was frail but didn’t fall too ill during the cup campaign otherwise I wouldn’t have played in the final’ or a countless host of other messy but crucial details that enabled that very moment to happen.
Any recent salient event is a candidate to become a seed for a causal story, and we fool ourselves by constructing flimsy accounts of the past and believing them to be true – compelling stories formed with the benefit of hindsight provide a simple and coherent account and foster an illusion of inevitability. (See Post No.: 0282 for more on the ‘hindsight bias’.)
Thus when constructing a narrative of how a successful person became successful, we’ll focus on every choice they made that had a good outcome, and maybe how his/her competitors were slow, blind or incompetent. This’ll all make it seem ‘obvious’ how this person succeeded (and as if we’ve finally discovered the furry formula for success – cue book sales!)
But what this narrative neglects are all the chance events, moments of luck, moments that could’ve derailed the success, and all the choices they made that had a bad outcome but luckily didn’t matter – these happened but don’t add to the coherency of a good causal story thus are generally ignored (and as a result, we buy the autobiography and we think we’ve learnt a valuable, neat and tidy lesson in how to become successful ourselves, but we’ve actually learnt much less than we thought, hence few readers of such books become successful themselves. This is unlike a book about, say, how to bake cakes, because these types of recipes depend far less upon the intervention of external factors/other people/luck).
The ultimate test of an explanation is its predictive power, not its ability to explain things in hindsight. No simple success story can meet this test though because no such story includes the myriad of events that would’ve caused a different outcome – it’s almost always easy to identify a small change that would’ve turned a success into a failure, or vice-versa. For example, a chance train delay that turned out bad, or even good, for the person down the line. This relates to ‘chaos theory’ and how a tiny, maybe imperceptible, change in input can create a highly unpredictable, possibly vastly divergent, output down the line, even though everything is strictly obeying cause-and-effect laws. Chaos is too mathematically complex to be predictable in a practical sense. People often think about chaos theory when hypothesising about changing a small thing if they travelled back in time, yet then don’t think about it when considering how this present reality materialised.
We only see what happened and forget to consider all the potentially infinite counterfactuals that could’ve happened instead – counterfactuals that one didn’t have any (full) control of i.e. depended on luck from the subject’s perspective. What we see is all (we think) there is i.e. we’re poor at considering what we failed to notice, meaning that we don’t really explore anywhere near the full probability space of what alternatively could’ve happened that was out of our control (e.g. what if the opponents your team drew against in the tournament were different? What if you didn’t find a kindred spirit at your club who made training there more bearable?)
Our minds don’t deal well with non-events (e.g. a mental or physical illness or natural disaster involving you or your home didn’t occur that would’ve scuppered your chances of success). The media doesn’t report non-events either because they’re not interesting, even though they’re collectively far more common than events such as chance meetings between two people who cross-fertilised their ideas. (Chance meetings include between one’s parents or grandparents too, which if they didn’t meet then you wouldn’t have even been born – no one’s life was therefore ‘inevitable’ from a personal-choice-or-efforts perspective, and therefore nothing anyone does is ‘inevitable’ from a personal-control-of-fate perspective.)
The fact that many of the key events that did occur involved choices further tempts one to exaggerate the role of skill and underestimate the role that luck played in the outcome. Because every critical decision turned out well, the record suggests almost flawless prescience and skill – but bad luck could’ve derailed any one of those successful steps, which in turn could’ve changed one personality-wise when considering any future risks. Plus whatever’s deemed as a ‘critical decision’ is only decided when constructing the narrative in hindsight too (e.g. you rejected signing a new long-term contract, but it won’t be considered a ‘critical decision’ in the narrative since you succeeded despite that error, because you were luckily given a second chance to extend your contract the following season). The ‘halo effect’ also lends an aura of invincibility to the heroes of the story.
A skilled rafter has gone down rapids hundreds of times in order to read, anticipate and avoid the rocks in front of him/her. But there are far fewer opportunities for a young person to learn how to create a multinational company and to learn how to avoid the hidden obstacles (e.g. a brilliant competitor who happened to be concurrently working on the same idea as you elsewhere in the world; and of course you cannot control what other people do/don’t do). Some skill is involved but luck plays a more critical role than a success story tends to allude to. And the more luck that’s involved, the less there’s to be learned from a story to replicate the success.
Entrepreneurs or corporations frequently cannot replicate the level of success they’d achieved with a previous venture – even when the new venture is closely related to what they did in that previous project, and even if they should now have the special connections and understanding of that industry and saved capital/attracted investment to make it happen. That’s because there are many external factors that must align for something to be successful – it’s hardly just the control and talents of the entrepreneur, even when they had their first fluffy success.
What’s happening is ‘what you see is all there is’ (WYSIATI) – we cannot help dealing with the limited information we have as if it were all there is to know. We don’t know what we don’t know, and ‘system one’ doesn’t even consider what it might not know. We build the best story possible from this available information and if it’s a coherent story, we’ll believe it. Dangerously, it’s easier to construct a coherent narrative when you know little – when all you know are just a few pieces of information to make/fit into a story. So a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing – worse than knowing nothing even. Unfortunately, a little is what most people know about most complex subjects they opine about.
Not knowing what one doesn’t know makes one believe one knows more of the complete picture than one does actually know, hence overconfidence and extreme/black-or-white views. This also unfortunately means that people are more attracted to and persuaded by short, condensed, one-sided arguments than long, comprehensive, multi-sided arguments – even though much of reality is complex.
Our comforting conviction that the world makes simple sense, despite its actual complexity, is because of our unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance! A ‘little bit of knowledge’ can make things appear simple to do (e.g. coaching a football team, when one has only seen coaches barking orders from their technical areas and that’s it) and it therefore makes it easier to unfairly criticise others too (e.g. if one has never played a full, hard-fought 90 minutes of football before, but watches the game, one can find it easier to criticise a player for making a tired shot during extra time). Our own interpretations of the ambiguous events of many of our own dreams tend to be over-coherent and subjectively packaged into neat causal stories too.
So luck plays a large and critical role in every story of success but we tend to neglect this because we prefer a neat and tidy, over-simplistic causal narrative to people’s lives where everyone deserves what they get. A story of chaos (although still essentially governed by cause-and-effect but with complexly, practically-untraceable initial causes for their effects (except perhaps the Big Bang?!) for many effects) and where external factors play a larger role than one’s own choices, doesn’t make for a satisfying story nor sate our beliefs in natural justice.
Luck averages out regarding repeated trials (e.g. after living several lifetimes) but it doesn’t necessarily do so within any single lifetime. Individual people’s lives aren’t just as lucky as anyone else’s – some are evidently luckier than others. We’re inexorably shaped by events that we chose and mostly did not and cannot choose. An event can be rare or finely-balanced in likelihood, but whatever the odds – the divergent effects of falling down one life path or another (especially the earlier such divergences of paths occur) can be considerable down the line. A baby could end up either as a CEO, petty thief, dead before 18, etc., depending on what practically unforeseeable and incalculable string of paths he/she falls down in life (e.g. he/she could, by chance, be introduced to the right person, enter the wrong crowd, be born too early or too late for his/her ideas to be a commercial success, and the complex, chaotic cascade of outcomes that follows in path dependence from these seemingly insignificant moments long into his/her future, and compounding his/her advantages or lack of too).
Most key events that shape our life trajectory come early (e.g. our upbringing neighbourhood, which we could not control) and most key outcomes aren’t from repeated trials (e.g. we’re only ever born to one pair of parents). Lots of decent creations don’t make a commercial success, and vice-versa (e.g. the critically best movie of the year isn’t always the highest grossing). A lot of luck is involved (e.g. a global celebrity just so happens to spread awareness of your product on their social media to all of his/her followers) that people don’t realise or don’t want to believe because they want to believe that everyone deserves what they get from their own efforts alone. Life and any aspect of it is mostly about luck – if not ultimately all if one takes a strict deductive perspective.
We must therefore always remain grateful for our fortunes and humble about other people’s misfortunes.