I realized years ago that every big decision I make in life benefits when it has a clear story. I’ll often agonize over something that a part of me wants to do until I can make it clear to my whole self why I’m doing it.
I decided to travel because I was getting old, I decided to take pictures because it’s the easiest creative outlet to learn, and I decided to come to Japan because the people are so polite that I can learn from them. This pattern: “I decided to do X because of Y,” is fairly universal among me and many other people I know.
Without the story, I can go back and forth on decisions. But with a good story comes an easy decision and I reinforce that story in my mind until it feels like fact.
When I talk with people about purchasing decisions they also often have similar stories. Android phone buyers will tell you that they chose Android because it’s cheaper, because it doesn’t require so many proprietary sacrifices, or because they wanted a bigger screen. Similarly iPhone buyers tell their own stories: better cameras, longer battery life, more cohesive software. The decision to use Android or iOS is one of the most polarizing topics of our time.
We develop stories for other products we buy. We buy a Prius because it’s fuel efficient and we care about the environments, a Tahoe because we like to go to the mountains, or an Audi because we wanted a safe luxury car that isn’t a BMW.
Most of the time these stories don’t even need to be true. They often fit directly with the marketing message from the companies who sell the product. It’s true that Apple phones tend to have better cameras, Android phones tend to have bigger screens, and the Prius tends to be the most fuel efficient car you can buy. These companies are probably thrilled when we rationalize and promote a purchase using the same line they used to get us to buy it.
The stories are also largely bullshit: any flagship Android phone is at most two generations behind Apple on its camera, sometimes extra pixels or screen size aren’t actually more useful, and buying almost any used car is better for the environment than buying a Prius.
In thinking about this I’ve decided to be a bit more careful with the stories I tell myself, and to recognize that many of them are just stories. They are ways for me to rationalize a choice and to convince myself that it’s the right one, but they often focus on a very tiny detail and ignore the rest of the picture.
One of my favorite things that Merlin Mann talks about is the “narcissism of minor differences.” An example is that where I grew up in Virginia, Ford and Chevy guys both drive trucks, but you’ll have a hard time getting them in the same room. Similarly Android and iPhone users can get into passionate arguments where it seems like the aren’t even hearing what the other person is saying — or that they live in totally different realities populated by different facts.
Looking down from space, Ford and Chevy guys both really like trucks, and Android and iPhone users both really like smartphones. They have a lot more in common than they have different from each other, but they can also hate each other far more than any alien might think reasonable for such similar people.
These stories we tell ourselves: “my phone is better because it has the best camera,” or “my truck can haul more,” are mostly lies. They ignore the 95% similarities.
I’m going to make an effort not to let technology choices or any other stories I’ve fed myself about the way I interpret the world cloud my judgment in the future. It won’t be easy, and it sneaks up a the times I least expect it, but it’s one of the most insidious aspects of consumer society that I’d like to get rid of.