The human brain loves stories. It may be how we have evolved to store information. Language developed before literacy, and in order to convey ideas from person to person, we had to be able to remember those ideas. We forget all sorts of useful information, but we’re able to trot out a familiar tale at dinner parties, telling it in such a predictable format that our spouses know to jet out to the bathroom three words in.
There are downsides to this, of course, beyond driving our loved ones crazy. Our love of stories is not terribly rational, and people sometimes make policy choices based on compelling stories — whether those stories are representative or not.
But I was thinking of this issue with stories more recently in light of reading way too many personal essays. Here’s the structure of a personal essay: Our heroine has always thought something. Then she experiences three new data points. Then, boom! She has an epiphany, and everything changes.
Stories are built around epiphanies. We like moments where something new is realized, where everything shifts. We like stories of transformation. We reach our heaviest, out-of-sorts selves and boom! Something clicks and we start training for a marathon. We find ourselves eating so much chain restaurant crap that the kids head toward the car when they hear it’s time for dinner and boom! We start cooking every night.
I do believe change is possible. But life is not lived in epiphanies. This fact bothers me about prolific personal essayists. How are so many moments where everything changes possible? We are always Saul on the road to Damascus.
Or at least we think that’s the way it should be. But usually it isn’t. Change is often about grinding it out, doing things incrementally different, and celebrating small wins. People tell me they want to exercise more and so now they’re going to get up daily at 5 a.m. to run! It fits the transformational change format of a story you can tell, but it also won’t happen. How about one time a week? Can you try working out once? If you manage to exercise once, and it’s not awful, and you try it again a few days later, and maybe that’s not so awful either, then eventually it might stick. And eventually things will be different. But if you’re waiting for blinding flashes of light, you might be waiting a long time.
In other news: See Nicole and Maggie’s Grumpy Rumblings on small change.
Also: I have a post at Fast Company about surprisingly similar career advice from both Sheryl Sandberg and Charles Murray.