Sunday, May 15, 2011

Tell A Good Story

It's hard to let go of bad ideas. We'd like to see our intuitions proved correct, so we never had to learn anything. Real education, however, contradicts and destroys our mistaken intuitions. One of my mistakes involves work and rewards. I hope to be rewarded for my abilities, to do a good job and people will notice. This is not how the world works. Rewards are not based on objective qualities in the work, but in other people's perceptions. Wise workers carefully control those perceptions. Rewards come to those who tell a good story. 

We may regard "honesty" as a virtue, but it's often an excuse for our failure at public relations. Any situation or event may be described accurately in several ways, with dramatically different effects. In his book, Flaubert's Parrot, author Julian Barnes presents contrasting sketches of the french author's life. Here's one example of his treatments: 

Full of honour, widely loved, and still working hard to the end, Gustave Flaubert dies at Croisset. 

Impoverished, lonely and exhausted, Gustave Flaubert dies. Zola, in his obituary notice, comments that he was unknown to four-fifths of Rouen, and detested by the other fifth. 

So far as I know, the statements are equally honest. Life is complex, never just one way.

Once I worked for a man who was famous in his field. Seen up close, his work was a disaster. All his projects were completed late, if at all. Every aspect of his business was unprofitable and out of control. What he did control, masterfully, were his press releases. Each one was an ecstatic hymn to his greatness, citing all his awards and his position at the vanguard of his profession. Important clients trampled each other to retain his services. 

In some jobs, like law and acting, story-telling is 100% of the game. But even in a field like art, what is said is much more important than paint on canvas. Consider the work of modernist painter Barnet Newman, who painted the same picture hundreds of times, and got himself into all the art history books.

Despite his personal charm and verbal brilliance, Barnet Newman’s art remained baffling even to insiders. But what he said about it sounded so deep, and the way he said it was so forceful that he gradually won over the most influential writers on contemporary art. —Alice Goldfarb Marquis, The Art Biz

Internal perception is just as powerful as the external kind. Carefully prepare what you say to yourself about what you're doing. We have an unfortunate tendency to equate truth with negativity. If you are too "honest" with yourself you'll easily to become your own worst enemy. To interrupt this pattern, I sat down a few years ago and wrote down everything I could remember doing right. It took some time to get good at remembering. In trying to maximize good outcomes, I often forget that things could always turn out worse. When I get discouraged, I force myself to read the stuff I did right and add to it from time to time. 

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