The Narrative Fallacy

When I first moved to LA, I didn’t have enough money to buy a bed. I borrowed an IKEA futon and slept on the floor for almost two months. I was so stressed and scared that I would wake up in the middle of the night just soaked in sweat. My parents practically disowned me.

Here’s the thing, I could make that all into some dramatic story – like it was this harrowing experience that stays with me – but to be frank, I have almost no recollection of that time. Not because I blocked it out or anything, but because it didn’t seem worth remembering. I worked through it and now I’ve got things back where I like them.

The more painful the initiation, the more likely we are to want to stick with the program. The more inspiring and metaphoric we make our stories, the less they seem to resemble the dull and comfortably literal world that the rest of us live in. We start to think that we’re different, that the laws don’t apply to us – that all we have to do is let manifest destiny take its course. This denies the fundamental role of hard work and sacrifice and luck in everything. Narration conveniently ignores the day we laid around and watched tv and the week where we were sure we were going to quit but didn’t. It’s just not honest.

I guess I could slowly trick myself into thinking that my first few real months in LA will end up molding who I am. “Oh to be be young and driven…” But then I’m more attached to the path I’ve embarked on, those become hard, sunk costs. I’ll start to think that that was the “right way” as opposed to a way and my judgment will be clouded and off.

The fact of the matter is this: I’m 20. I have a cool job that was not without its tradeoffs. I wake up and sometimes I’m super motivated, sometimes I’m not. I’ve been doing it for a while. I’ve had days where I thought to myself that it was over and others where I leaped way ahead. That sounds a lot different than the 200 word biography I could type up for myself if I wanted to impress someone.

There is this Stoic exercise where you break apart something sacred into its most basic parts. When you see how unromantic it really is, the object loses all power over you – you maintain the sovereignty of self. Marcus does this throughout Meditations: sex is rubbing and semen, the cloak of the Emperor differs only in color, death is but the end of feeling.

Shit like prodigy or lucky or “destined for big things” and whatever other superlatives I hear are stories. Just stories. And stories are worthless because they’re mental creations – they are not reality. In ten years, you tell me what bank is going to cash a protégé label. Yours are different but the same.

No question, the use of story is a persuasive tactic. But why? Because they please and pleasure the senses. When stories are applied to self-perception, they are called delusions.

I don’t think the idea is to strip the meaning and specialness out of life. There is still very much a purpose and uniqueness in us. That is innate. But humbleness, clarity, and restraint – those are learned and practiced forms of excellence. They are the extension of honesty. This doesn’t mean you’re unappreciative or pessimistic. Or good food turns to ash in your mouth. That you have to hate the things you want to like. It doesn’t change so much how you live life, as much as it does how you talk about it.

Still, that is not easy either. We are wired to think a certain way – linearly, towards purpose, in terms of justification. Ambivalence, in the jungle, was death. The mind strives for congruency and lashes out violently when there isn’t any. It’s also why people wake up one day and have no idea how the world works anymore. That’s why people say things like “Do you have any idea who I am?” with a straight face.

Resisting the urge to tell yourself stories is difficult. It’s depressing. You fuck up and do it all the time. And occasionally, with little things, that’s OK. Mixed with my self-loathing, I’m often overwhelmed. And tired. And feel like quitting. I have trouble really putting to words how much I struggle with whether its worth it – but if I didn’t say that, I wouldn’t be being honest. It works for me because I work at it but just barely.

I don’t think it’s a fight you can win on your own – it takes people on both sides, cynical and optimistic to keep you centered. Living in delusion is a short-term strategy – simply unsustainable. My philosophy, and it’s one that’s working pretty well is this: There are more than enough people willing to tell your story for you if its good enough. In the meantime, I’ve too much other stuff I need to work on.



Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.