Personal Mythology: Using The Narrative Fallacy To Your Advantage

It burns.
It burns.

After a short discussion with Brent over at Healthcare Epistemocrat, I posted this simple quote on my announcement wall at my studio:

“Culture and mythology trump everything: we live by fiction.”

And just above that quote, I added a quote from Shinzen Young that tied in serendipitously:

To teach is to inevitably mislead people to a certain degree…to fail to teach is to mislead people even worse.”

What do they mean by that and how can it be put to use in our daily lives?

For those unaware, the narrative fallacy:

The narrative fallacy then refers to the propensity to engage in story-telling, summarizations, and simplifications to reduce the dimension of matters.

Take this in for a moment: we’re telling ourselves stories because the truth of the matter is complex and lacking a compelling narrative. Our gray matter can’t fire enough neurons to properly place all of the dimensions of our life accordingly so we narrow our scope and talk about events or situations that move our story along. It makes us feel good in hindsight and organizes things nicely. Point of fact, here’s the narrative of how I ended up in Austin:

When I was 17 I met my boss, who was interning at a gym I happened to be employed.  3 years later I emailed him on sheer chance and he offered me a job. 1 year later I moved to Austin without knowing a soul and have now been managing Efficient Exercise Westlake for over 5 years.

What that nice 3 sentence paragraph leaves out are all of the mundane details and the details that make me look less heroic. It’s basic social psychology: we want to make ourselves look good, better than the rest, as many deviations away from normal as possible. But it leaves out so many good and bad dimensions that would muddy the story.

Our background colors the lens which colors our experience and interpretations of the outside world.  So if you’re going to create a mythology, an ideal story for your life, there is a dilemma: You have to attempt to out-wit your tendencies, your prejudices, your deep seeded reactions. Think of your current mythology from where you sit. Is it what you wanted or is it story you’d tell your friends? I’m sure parts of it are and parts of it aren’t. I’d like to help you hedge the bets in your favor so that, especially when it comes to health, fitness, and wellness, your story is not only positive but will hopefully ring true for others around you in an empowering fashion. Engage in this thought experiment:

1. Listen to Seneca

Seneca wrote:

Choose for yourself a moral hero…picture him to yourself at all times as your protector. You can never correct something crooked without a ruler.

Your job is to create this ideal, build a practice around what this ideal self has already done and regress their actions back to your current state. Create a mental linear regression from your ideal and that is the path. How will you do that?

2. Choice Architecture

Build your environment around how your ideal self has designed their life. Realistically, you’re not going to achieve a positive outcome for every endeavor but if your practice creates a larger percentage of positive choices over the long haul, you’ll move that much closer to your mythological self. Choice reduction toward a positive architecture is a melding of Barry Schwartz and Art De Vany have discussed. In this experiment, YOU are the evidence from your IDEAL’S past. Your current self is your ideal’s “when I was young and stupid” self. Take this to heart, but how will it be categorized?

3. Build a Eupraxsophy

Once you’ve run your mental regression, you’ll compile the result in a eupraxsophy. Why does an iron-clad set of rules and guidelines help us succeed? Because it eliminates choices that are superfluous and distracting. So from this you’re going to build your own mythic good book, preferably with negative rules toward a positive outcome. It needn’t be that long and you don’t have to believe every morsel of what you write: remember, you’re acting as if, moving toward this ideal who already figured out the bumps in the road. Your practice will change but you’re going to pick a few iron clad rules and some frameworks to follow and follow them because you have no choice but to follow.


This idea wreaks of determinism, I know. That’s also the point. Remember that this is a thought experiment about how your ideal self would guide your actual self if he could come back and give you all the information from his journey. My intent in this is to avoid the negativity of the ought self and to empower choices through an n=1 mythological journey guided by your ideal. Do this and the probability of success goes up dramatically and you’ll emotionally-commit to the very familiar shell you’ve built around the tested principles.  Best of luck!

8 thoughts on “Personal Mythology: Using The Narrative Fallacy To Your Advantage

  1. Someone once described masterful chess-playing as always doing “what someone smarter than you would do.” En face it might seem impossible but by working backwards from a particular destination point, I really think there is something your idea that I can rely on my future, smarter, more experiences and (of course) succesful self for advice and guidance. Many times I’ve tried to do this, but without the structure you suggest it falls by the wayside.

    1. Bryce,

      Thank you much for contributing to my blog; you consistently reply with thoughtful insights and observations.

      This is part of a mental exercise, to be sure, but the ground zero is being “smart enough to know you’re not” and building backwards from when you eventually become “smart.” Think of yourself last year: when I do, I think about how little I knew. I hope to accomplish this feat until the day I die.


      1. Quite right Skyler. That level of intro/retrospection is a difficult thing to maintain. Another introspective personal challenge I undertook was trying to plan, on the spot, everything I said for a day. In other words, before I blurted anything out, I’d consider the context, implications, ramifications, etc of what was being said and what I was about to say. Having the focus to do this for a full day is, I think, something I may never develop, but I hope I’ll be better for trying. I’ve now refocus some of my energies towards your challenge of personal retrospection, on my quest for personal enlightenment.

        Perhaps the only true knowledge we can ever hope to accumulate in our lives is a knowledge of ourselves, and this only through introspection – the only observational “science” that really matters.


  2. Awesome essay, Skyler!

    (Sorry, I just got to this; I was out of town the past few days)

    This was my favorite part:

    “I’d like to help you hedge the bets in your favor so that, especially when it comes to health, fitness, and wellness, your story is not only positive but will hopefully ring true for others around you in an empowering fashion.”

    This is the essence of the Ancestral Fitness Epistemocracy (AFE) that has emerged on the Web and through practice on the ground.

    We learn by mimicry, and ‘n=1’ mimicry of multiple ‘heroes’ in our personal mythologies is a healthy way to progress toward our goals.

    Cheers to reshaping the choice architecture landscape in all things health, fitness, nutrition, et al.,


    1. Brent,

      I too was out of town, so first thanks for the positive response.

      I hate the notion of determinism but I think there is some power in choosing soft determinism, if only to mold a create a mindset. I think my friend Matt’s words will ring true here:
      “Any specific program is just a collection of axioms that emerges from the larger goals at hand. These programs and methods work because they lead you to the larger goal, not because they’re special.”

      Nothing anyone is doing is special except for the person in which they’re working. Keeping this in perspective, trying not to get married to a viewpoint (unless it continues to work), and maintaining something resembling rationality…this is what I hope for.


      1. That’s a good hope, Skyler.

        I like it.

        The word ‘Bricolage’ resonates with Matt’s sentiments; bricolage is defined as:

        Bricolage, pronounced /ˌbriːkoʊˈlɑːʒ/, /ˌbrɪkoʊˈlɑːʒ/ is a term used in several disciplines, among them the visual arts and literature, to refer to the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of things which happen to be available, or a work created by such a process. The term is borrowed from the French word bricolage, from the verb bricoler – the core meaning in French being, “fiddle, tinker” and, by extension, “make creative and resourceful use of whatever materials are to hand (regardless of their original purpose)”; in contemporary French the word is the equivalent of the English do it yourself, and seen on large shed retail outlets all over France. A person who engages in bricolage is a bricoleur.



  3. Thank you so much for this powerful, concise article!
    I am writing a final essay on an article entitled “Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity” and this helped me form some ideas…

    as well as think about it on a more personal level.

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