Looking back at 2016, it might feel like you could put together a pretty convincing narrative of how the year went down. You can see how an event early in the year led to another event part way through the year which then branched out into a dozen events that defined almost everything else that happened to you in 2016. How could you not have seen things unfolding at the time — it seems so obvious?
This is the narrative fallacy in action. We naturally want to craft a convincing narrative that binds past events together. More often than not, these narratives don’t reflect true reality — they ignore events that don’t fit with the narrative and massively overestimate our ability to see future events coming. Unexpected events happen incredibly frequently. We simply can’t map things out. Although in hindsight we can try and build a clean narrative, we spend a lot of our time feeling like we’re just improvising.
Is improvising a bad thing? I don’t think so. I think improvising gets a bad name because it goes against our tendency to want everything to stick to our clean, perfectly structured plan. When we improvise, the perfect plan goes out of the window.
So is planning a bad thing? Nope. The value of planning is clear when we look at the buildings around us — how do you ever achieve something as incredible as the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal without a little planning? To suggest that planning is bad would feel a little crazy.
Can we plan our lives like we’d plan a building? No! And that’s where I think problems can arise. Unexpected events happen incredibly frequently in day-to-day life. There’s an infinite number of possible routes our lives can take and yet we’re trying to stick to a fixed plan, no deviation. We have to let ourselves improvise.
Finding an answer
So we crave a nice, convincing narrative of how our lives unfold. But the reality is that we have to improvise — so many things just can’t be planned for. This can lead us to feel frustrated and anxious when things don’t go to plan. What’s the answer?
Like almost anything interesting in life, there’s no quick and easy answer (at least not one that I’ve discovered). Rather than searching for an answer to the problem, I like the idea of changing the problem itself.
I’m writing my own 2017
I’ll be thinking of 2017 as an ongoing narrative. In the next few days I’ll be sketching out an outline of the year, starting by filling in the events that are already booked in. Although these are fairly certain to happen, I’ll still write this in pencil — anything can change. I’ll use pencil for the whole narrative.
Next I’ll move to the end of the year and think about where I’d like my narrative to end. I’ll think about my intentions, my goals, my hopes. I’ll write very lightly, fully aware of how the smallest event earlier in the year can change the ending. I know that this section will be erased and rewritten multiple times during the year.
Finally I’ll fill in the gaps. I could work back from the end or forward from the beginning — mostly likely I’ll do a mixture of both. I’ll press harder on the page towards the start, getting lighter and lighter as the end approaches. The more distant the date, the less certain I can be.
With my outline complete, the year will begin. The sketched outline will provide a guide but it will always be subject to change. As each new moment arrives I’ll be aware of that writing in pencil. I can’t rewrite the present — it is what it is. To beat myself up or consider how things could have been different serves no purpose. But I can rewrite the future — that’s why I wrote lightly.
Even when the present seems frustratingly fixed, I’ll still be rewriting the future.
Also published on Medium.