The Narrative Fallacy

It Isn’t Always What It Seems

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“…All over America high school and college kids thinking ‘Jack Kerouac is 26 years old and on the road all the time hitch hiking’…While there I am almost 40 years old, bored and jaded.”

Jack Kerouac,

Big Sur

In 1960 Jack Kerouac was on the verge of insanity, his life heading towards self-destruction. After the publication of On The Road, he had become a celebrity. He was driven mad by the constant press attention — continuously getting mail, phone calls, invitations to appear on TV and book signings. He was even hailed as the founder of the “Beat Generation” movement he did not acknowledge.

Millions of teenagers looked up to Kerouac and went road tripping. Kerouac’s autobiographical novels made him seem like a wild, adventurous young man ready to take over the world. But in his everyday life, he was no different from the ordinary person. In fact, he was shy, reserved, and preferred the company of himself. Yet kids in his neighborhood with “Dharma Bums” patched on their jackets always expected Kerouac to be in character when they saw him. A typo in the book said that Kerouac was in his 20s, when he was old enough to be their father.

He decided that he needed to “get back to solitude again or die”. His experiences were later illustrated in the novel Big Sur, named after the place where Kerouac had retreated to — Where he had come to terms with the world, with fame, with his insecurities, with his life.

You know, we’re familiar with a lot of success stories in TED-talks, books, and forwarded emails. Speakers and self-help gurus illustrate how amazing and happy their lives are because they’re living their dreams. You’d often feel, “When is my life ever going to be as great as theirs?”

But all of those stories are carefully narrated. The ugly parts are obviously cut out. Even when they talk about their failures, they talk about ones that sound nice for us to hear — That can be instantly retweeted, shared, liked, and quoted. After all, no one wants to hear about your other failures like, “Today I was a jerk to my sister” or “I feel so bad for yelling at my friend yesterday”.

Nassim Taleb calls this the “narrative fallacy”. It means that you’re only seeing something from one perspective. You don’t know the things that didn’t make it in the story. Think about it when you see someone’s photo on Instagram. Maybe it looks really happy and colorful and all. But chances are the real situation isn’t as cool as how the filters and captions make it seem.

The same goes to people in general. You don’t really know how a person is just by being friends on social media or by hearing about him. You only know how he really is after you’ve spent months conversing with him. Underneath all the things you first saw on the surface are his habits of biting his fingernails, triggers that get him angry, and how well he manages himself in difficult situations.

You probably feel a little jealous when you see photos of a friend studying abroad. But you don’t know the challenges that he or she has to face.

The joyful wedding photos seem like the living of a fairy tale where the couple’s life finally becomes complete — But it isn’t the end of a corny love story. It’s just the starting of it — The uptaking of responsibilities and where love actually begins.


Stay On Your Own Tracks

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“…[To have] confidence in yourself and the belief that you’re on the right path and not led astray by the many tracks which cross yours.”


No matter what you do, no matter how successful you are, there will always be someone who makes you feel like a total failure or a nobody, even if that someone is doing something unrelated to what you do.

You feel like that person is showing off, nudging you in the face. The funny thing is, that person has no intention whatsoever of doing so. He doesn’t even have one thought about you.

But it’s a latent disease in our hearts — We just can’t see another person succeed. It feels like it somehow challenges our reputation. Well just how ridiculous is that?!

All of us are doing our own things. Not everyone values the same thing. Some value God and religion, some value their family most, some value money, and that’s fine — Our actions and efforts are directed to whatever we value in life.

Other people might not value the same things that you do. If you’re aiming to be a good engineer, why on God’s earth would you compare yourself to your friend who’s a doctor?

There’s a word that Seneca wanted us to think about often. That word is euthymia, which means “tranquility” in English. It means to have “confidence in yourself and the belief that you’re on the right path” and to not be “led astray by the many tracks which cross yours.”

You’re not comparing yourself to other people. They’re on different tracks, different paths. You’re only focusing on doing your own work as best you can. You’re not thinking of doing “this other thing” that other people are doing because it makes a lot of money. No, no, no. You’re just doing what you’re best suited to do.

Let me give you an example. Writing is a beautiful thing. You know why? Because competition is no part of it. A writer doesn’t try to compete with what’s out there, to win a prize or anything. Whatever ideas that come to his own mind are the ones that he puts into his writing. His only job is to put those ideas in the absolute best form possible. If his book turns out to be a bestseller, great! If that doesn’t happen, that’s fine too. That’s not the point of writing anyway.

So come on, give yourself a break. Doing your job is hard enough. Why beat yourself up by comparing yourself to other people?


For this month’s book recommendations, click here.

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