#80 The Dangerous Power of Stories: Fear The Perfect Well-Packaged Story

Years ago I found myself in a high stakes emotional meeting. I had to choose a winner between two competing groups.

A member of one of the parties told me that “if you really study the subject like we have, I’m certain you’ll agree with us”. And he proceeded to lay out a nice tight story that backed up their case.

BUT, unfortunately for him, his nice tight story was incomplete. He’d ignored all the potential downsides of his solution. He was unprepared to handle tough questions. It seemed like he’d built his narrative in a vacuum, convinced himself of its power, and then ignored the rest of reality.

And this blindness/overconfidence led to a major loss for his team.


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Here’s Nobel Prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, describing what I experienced that day. This quote is from page 87 of his book Thinking Fast and Slow

“The confidence that individuals have in their beliefs depends mostly on the quality of the story they can tell about what they see, even if they see little.We often fail to allow for the possibility that evidence that should be critical to our judgment is missing - what we see is all there is. Furthermore, our associative system tends to settle on a coherent pattern of activation and suppresses doubt and ambiguity.”

Kahneman calls this form of situational blindness WYSIATI - What You See Is All There Is. And he points out that the LESS we know the easier it is to fit everything into a tight clean story.

This sounds both powerful AND dangerous. It can be great to internalize a tight clean message and sell it hard. BUT, not taking the time to see and understand the holes in our story can also make us look like fools.

If you’ve been around this site awhile you might think this topic sounds familiar. And you'd be right. I made similar points back in post #28 Purge (Confront) Wrong Stories. And I referred you to the book Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me. Where the authors told many stories of people going off the rails on false narratives. Destroying themselves and others by latching onto stories that ignored way too many dissenting facts.


Over the years, as you’ve built your business, you’ve probably had affairs with various success gurus. Folks with nice tight stories and recipes for how to move from good to great. They sound so compelling in the beginning, but the recipes seem to fall apart when you apply them in the real world.


So you find the next guru with a tight simple story, and the next, and the next. 

You might even start to doubt yourself. I’m following the same damn recipe they used, but I’m getting lesser results. Why can’t I achieve the success that they’re achieving? 

Well, the reason you’re not getting their results is because their recipes have been overly distilled. They’ve left out the parts of their stories that don't fit the narrative they’re trying to sell. The parts where their recipe led them to big screw ups. The parts where luck mattered way more than their recipe. The parts where their competitors choked and left the door wide open.

Let me give you an example from my own past of this kind of storytelling. Here's the perfumed version of the story of one of the startups I was part of.

Once upon a time a small MRP software company wanted to rewrite their applications. But they couldn’t find the perfect set of development tools to do the job. So they brought in some geniuses to build that set of tools. The idea being that they’d used the tools to rebuild their application AND they could also eventually sell the tools to other developers. So as that set of tools was being built, it was also being used right down the hallway to build that new MRP system. And this constant feedback mechanism made the tools magically awesome. So magically awesome that the competition never had a chance. Next thing you know those tools are worth nearly a billion dollars.

It’s a good story, and it was pretty effective, BUT there’s another version that’s equally true.

Once upon a time there were a group of folks with an idea for a great set of software development tools. Unfortunately, no investors liked the idea. They refused to invest in the team. So, out of desperation, the team decided to build the tools inside a tiny existing MRP software company. A company that had just enough cash to get the job started. And having the two companies under one roof got messy at times - some execs from the original company lost their jobs. And the entire MRP business was eventually sold off. As for the amazing set of tools built with users right down the hallway - it had some bugs. One release being buggy enough that the press tried to scalp us - so much for eating our own dog food. But in the end, somehow, we managed to survive and thrive.

After hearing the first story, the tight clean one, you might consider patterning your business after us. After the second story, you might think we were the Bad News Bears and use us as an example of what NOT TO DO. The reality is somewhere in the middle. But as an observer you have no idea what’s real and what’s nicely packaged storytelling.


As amazingly brilliant and stable as we all are, we’re still susceptible to being sucked in by a tight story. 

Heed these words from Kahneman (page 201 of Thinking Fast and Slow).

“Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”

These words sting a bit - our unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance. It's almost like we're dumb ass monkeys. We latch onto or create a clean story. We ignore all points that don't fit our narrative. Then we play that biased and incomplete story over and over. 

Meanwhile, the world is spinning. And we're missing out on real opportunities because WYSIATI - What You See Is All There Is. 


The point is that we must constantly fight the tendency to fall for the neat clean story. Not that we want to overcomplicate everything. But in areas that really matter to us, we need to fight back against our “unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”

So how do we do this fighting back?

Well, first of all, we have to realize that this tendency exists and that it's an issue. 

Then, pay closer attention. In your next meeting notice how the most influential people tend to attach small stories to their opinions. And how other folks tend to nod their heads and get drawn in. See the influence taking place and realize that it might not be all good.

Then, before your next meeting, try this advice from Kahneman. Confidentially collect input from each person BEFORE the meeting starts. Either in person or in writing, get their impressions/opinions/thoughts. You’re paying these folks for their knowledge/creativity, so take the time to collect it in it's rawest form.

Then use this untainted feedback to kick off a wide open discussion with lots of free exchange. The kind of exchange that helps turn good businesses into great ones.


(This site is all about building a Map that will help me do work and life better. So at the end of each post I check in to see if any changes / insights come to mind.)

You're tired of hearing it but I'm going to say it anyway - CONFRONT WRONG STORIES. From a Map perspective, this is yet another example of how we let WRONG STORIES mess with our heads. CONFRONT. CONFRONT. CONFRONT. We've got to learn to recognize and neutralize this crap so we can get to the good stuff - GROWTH & CONNECTION.


Daniel Kahneman’s book - Thinking Fast and Slow - is one of my favorites. He does a great job of explaining how we come to wrong or biased conclusions. And that’s why I’m doing this summer series of posts covering the topics that Kahneman writes about. See the transcript below for a list of prior posts in this series.

# 73 - Being A Jerk Seems To Work
# 74 - A Well Timed Pizza Could Have Changed Old Red’s Life
# 75 - Does Thinking About Money Mess You Up
# 76 - Luck Can Take You To The Top But It Won't Keep You There
# 77 - Do Not Take Business Advice From Dart Throwing Monkeys
# 78 - Is Following This Site Worth Your Time
# 79 - Using Intuition To Make Big Decisions


I hope you enjoy them.

***Note: This site works best when you read the posts in order. So please head to the ARCHIVE to get started.