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The Story that can make a difference

How you create stories about an event in your life determines the potential of your future

Art by Aditya Sundaram

“Better to be a lonely individual than a contended conformist”

That was Larry Adler, world-renowned Harmonica player (Mouth organ as popularly called).

His life story fascinated me to write this piece. To be Precise, one part of his life story, the part where his narration contradicts with the narration of another person involved in that episode.

In an interview where the interviewer calls Larry Adler a raconteur, he says “by the way, Raconteur is a polite word for Liar”

The story starts with his affair with beautiful actress Ingrid Bergman. In the biography of Ingrid Bergman where her husband claims that Larry confessed his affair with Ingrid and larry commented as follows.

“I know I would not have done such thing. I would not have done this for Ingrid. But it is there in the book. I cannot deny what he wrote but I don’t think I would not have done this”.

He neither denies that nor accepts that.

Larry Adler has also famously given a different version of a raid done by American Intelligence in which he was a witness than the one narrated by the American Spy involved in it.

Larry Adler quotes the soldier in Tolstoy’s War and Peace who speaks to an audience about the war and the action in the field. What is strange in the story is that this soldier never fought a war. He has only witnessed a war from the close quarters. What he does is to put himself as one of the soldiers in the field just in order to keep the audience with him. Tolstoy says”..truth slipping away from him, he no longer knows himself”.

He says that’s how our memory works, shuffling between truth and fiction. The more we use fiction, the more fiction becomes the truth. Did he use fiction to twist the truth? It does not matter as it made a fun to listen to Larry Adler’s tales of his life. (Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell Podcast for this story)

Dr. Martin Seligman, Author of Authentic Happiness and commonly referred as the founder of Positive Psychology says How we define an event decides our future course of action. He says it was found out in a study of Nuns handling a similar situation in life, those nuns who used more positive phrases to define everyday event gave them more positive outlook and happiness. This is true in any given situation. When my boss rated me just above average and not excellent, I took it as a challenge to improve my performance than ruminating on the rating. I exceeded the expectation in the next year and got the promotion I deserved. The point to be noted here is that this Boss has never given excellent rating to anyone in the past. People working under him either moved out of the department or left the organisation. In both the cases they were brooding and complaining. I took his rating as a positive challenge than a negative hurdle. Dr. Martin says that most of the situations can be dealt if we could see the positive aspect more than the negative aspect. It may not be entirely possible in every situation. However, we could make it as a practice to apply this in the most situations which can then alter the way we see life. Being an aspiring Positive Personality gradually and eventually lead us to become one.

Dr. Marshall Goldsmith provides us another insight in managing between reacting and responding. In his book, “Trigger”, he talks about how we emotionally get charged to react whereas a little bit relaxed overview of the situation would have allowed us to respond. He gives one simple example of how a simple caution notice by a wife sitting next to her husband is driving the car, can trigger a negative reaction from the husband. She is just alerting him of a possible accident or even a collision but the trigger directly ignites the ego of the husband and he reacts “I know, I have been driving for so long”. However, if the husband takes his time to understand that the alert is not to question his driving skills but a concern for their safety, the response will be different. This again leads to the same point “How we define a situation defines whether we react or respond”

While I am not suggesting that we should define every situation such that we lead a life in a cocoon, I would recommend to look at the positive aspect of every situation and define every positive aspect in every person we meet more than the negative aspect.

Daniel Kahneman in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow” talks about “Availability and Affect” in Chapter 12. He mentions about a Study conducted by Paul Slovic, Sarah Lichtenstein, and Baruch Fischhoff about availability bias. The study focused on the public perception of risk where the people participated were give a pair of causes of death and asked to rate them. Following is a sample of their findings :

  • Strokes cause almost twice as many deaths as all accidents combined, but 80% of respondents judged accidental death to be more likely.
  • Tornadoes were seen as more frequent killers than asthma, though the latter cause 20 times more deaths.
  • Death by accidents was judged to be more than 300 times more likely than death by diabetes, but the true ratio is 1:4
  • Death by disease is 18 times as likely as accidental death, but the two were judged about equally likely.

The lesson from the study is clear. The estimates of causes of death are warped by the media coverage. Unusual events attract disproportionate attention and are consequently perceived as less unusual than they really are. The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality. Our expectations about the frequency of events are distorted by the prevalence and emotional intensity of the messages to which we are exposed. (page 138, Chapter 12, Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman)

Larry Adler quotes Leo Tolstoy when he narrates his life events with a twist in his own style.

Dr.Martin Seligman says how we describe an event changes our perception and eventually our mindset towards life.

Dr. Marshall Goldsmith says how we handle a trigger in our life changes the way we respond to the trigger.

Daniel Kahneman uses availability paradox to show how our mind can deceive us from reality and provide a completely different picture.

When I combine them all together, the following is what I could decipher

1) Use positive stories to define your life events. It has the potential of changing the way life unfolds in future

2) Use caution when your mind uses availability paradox to paint a negative picture of an event or a person. When a negative image emerges from your mind, hold back to check whether availability paradox is being played by your mind. It may be because you have faced a similar situation or people in your life which/who might have left a deeply negative impact. Hence, your mind is forcing out a negative image for every such possible situation.s Dr. Marshall Goldsmith talks about the trigger and the subsequent reaction or response depends on how we define the trigger. In many cases, the trigger’s reaction is also because of our mind using availability paradox. When we define a person as nagging, the mind triggers a particular type of reaction whenever that person speaks. But if we define that person as someone who is helping us with alerts. As the life moves forward, availability paradox will play to our advantage and we will respond positively everytime they push us. So, instead of using the word nagging, use the word “aggressive help”.

3) Use funny twists to change the narration even if it had a negative impact. This will force your mind to look for funny twists every time such situation emerges. Whether you could manage the situation successfully or not, at least you will have some fun in life.

How do you tell the story of your life events?  Have you tried to create a positive story from a negative story? Has it changed your life perspective?

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