Using Stories to Make Sense of Our World — 7 Takeaways No. 101

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1. “Making a promise that a stranger is going to have to keep.”

You Don’t Actually Know What Your Future Self Wants – Shankar Vedantam – (YouTube, TED talk)

Future-you is a stranger, a completely different person than who you are today. Vendantam (host of the excellent Hidden Brain podcast) illustrates this with two very moving stories, one a personal anecdote from his childhood, and another dealing with end-of-life decisions featured on his podcast.

It’s a dilemma. Looking back, we see how much we’ve changed, but looking forward, we assume we’ll always be who we are today. That’s simply wrong.

Beyond simple awareness, he offers three strategies to at cope with the eventuality:

  • Curiosity, and being intentional about who future-you will become.
  • Humility, and understanding that all things change — even you.
  • Bravery, in that while we certainly notice the things we lose as we age, it’s equally important to understand that we gain as well — experience, wisdom, and more.

Do this: Be intentional about your future self.

2. “We often undervalue what we inherently do well”

Why Talented People Don’t Use Their Strengths – Whitney Johnson – (Harvard Business Review)

It’s targeted at the business audience, of course, but the underlying principle applies to us all.

you don’t value your innate talents as much as you do the skills that have been hard-won.

This can be a hard lesson to learn. I know some things come easy to me (e.g. technology), and that this can have value to others, but it still feels … odd. It reminds of when I discovered computer programming, how natural it felt, and then further discovered that people would pay me to do it.

Do this: Play to your strengths.

3. “The advantage of a teacher’s high estimation”

The Expectation Effect – David Robson – (ebook)

The examples included are alarming. The impact of a teacher’s assumptions — independent of all other variables — has been shown to have a critical and lasting impact on student performance.

The student, implicitly and explicitly, sets his own expectations based on this most important external source.

Our intellectual performance can be influenced by our beliefs, and we often absorb assumptions from the people around us.

Do this: Expect the best. Seriously.

4. “We use stories to make sense of our world”

Beware the ‘Storification’ of the Internet – Sophia Stewart – (The Atlantic)

Technically, this is a book review/critique, but my takeaways are unrelated.

As a writer, particularly on the internet, I’ve long been told that stories get, and hold, people’s attention. My experience recently enjoying the Star Wars Andor series — which I’ve termed a story well told — would confirm this, at least at a personal level.

The focus of Stewart’s item is how story-telling is being used to manipulate, and how we’re all being encouraged to make everything a story, particularly on social media. (Manipulation is the point of the book being critiqued, Seduced by Story: The Use and Abuse of Narrative. Social media, and the internet, is an aspect Stewart considers the book having seriously overlooked.)

Once again, the “solution” boils down to a common theme:

A more critically minded and media-literate populace is the only antidote for a culture in thrall to a good tale.

Do this: Recognize stories for what they are: stories.

5. “We finally reach 8 billion!”

World population is now 8 billion! – Jennifer D. Sciubba – (A World of 8 Billion newsletter)

Yes, it’s apparently a newsletter dedicated to the very milestone we reached this week. This issue points out a few other numbers that are worth your attention as we surpass 8 billion humans.

  • 2.3, the global total fertility rate is now just a shade above replacement level.
  • 6 billion of us who live in middle-income countries, many of which have below-replacement fertility.
  • 18 years: the gap between average life expectancy at birth in low-income countries (65 years) versus high-income ones (83 years).
  • 42% of the population in lower-income countries is under age 15.
  • 50% of world population growth through 2050 will come from countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • 2020: the year the global population growth rate fell under 1% for the first time in modern history.

Obviously there’s a lot more behind those numbers, but they’re important additional perspectives.

Do this: Realize that the 7,999,999,999 others often lead dramatically different lives.

6. “People can easily imagine how everything could be better.”

Things could be better – Adam Mastroianni – (Experimental History newsletter)

No matter how you ask, or who you ask, when people are asked to imagine things being different, they overwhelmingly describe things being better. Humanity seems to have a natural bias to imaging a better world.

One of the plausible conclusions involves the “hedonic treadmill”:

people get used to good things because they’re always imagining how things could be better. So even if things get better, you might not feel better. When you live in a cramped apartment, you dream of getting a house. When you get a house, you dream of a second house. Or you dream of lower property taxes. There is a hot tub. Or two hot tubs. And so on, forever.

It’s also an entertaining study, which concludes by describing how the study could never be formally published because … it’s too entertaining.

It’s almost as if we can’t help but imagine ways that scientific publishing could be better. Somebody should write a paper about that.

Do this: keep imagining better.

7. “Money doesn’t buy happiness.”

I took Yale’s ‘most popular class ever’—and it completely changed how I spend my money – Dave Schools – (CNBC)

A friend forwarded me that article, and I had coincidentally added Laurie Santos: Psychology and the Good Life – A YouTube video by the professor behind that popular class, summarizing it.

Schools’ article focuses on the monetary aspect of the class’s lessons. The finding is that money does indeed “buy” happiness, but only to a point. Beyond that point, it can continue to, just not to the degree we might expect.

The Yale course (The Science of Well Being, available online for free) covers much, much more than that. The video presents a 45 minute summary and a selection of 10 takeaways from the approximately 19 hour course. The video’s well worth the watch.

Do this: While it’s something we’ve heard before, perhaps take Schools’ takeaway: experiences, not things.

What I’m Reading

In progress:


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