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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

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Everyone is the protagonist of their own narrative. And in this narrative, it's only natural to see ourselves as the proverbial "good guy" of the story. We tend to rationalize our own actions as necessary or positive, much like Walter White until (spoiler alert) the end of Breaking Bad.

Here's an interesting thought experiment to try once in a while. Like Walter, turn Turn this narrative on its head and imagine that you are the villain of your own narrative instead. What lessons would that provide?

heisenberg: hero or villain? By Alejandro Garcia CC BY-ND 3.0

Yesterday, as I drove my family to work and school, a driver cut me off as he drifted across two lanes to get into the left lane. This forced me to hit the brakes to avoid him. I pulled up next to his car and glared over, but he did to not look back.

The running narrative in my head assimilated this into the story. This young punk was oblivious to what's going around him. He's a bad driver and a bad person.

But I had this sudden epiphany. What if I were the villain in this story? It did seem this guy had just pulled into the right lane from another street and he needed to get to the left lane so he could get on the freeway. Was I perhaps going a bit over the speed limit? (The answer to that is usually yes.)

In this alternative narrative, I was the aggressor. I sped along and did not allow this innocent person make it over to the turn lane. It made me realize that I've been in his shoes before. And many times I label the driver drive who approaches too fast as the bad guy when I try to change lanes. I couldn't have been in the right in every situation, could I?

This thought experiment mirrors the ideas I wrote about in my post Argue Well By Losing. The difference is the techniques I wrote about in that post apply when you're in the midst of a debate. This technique is for more contemplative moments.

When you change your narrative, you challenge your long held beliefs, biases, and prejudices. You realize that someone who holds a deep belief that's antithetical to your own, is a "good person" in their own mind. And in their narrative, you, who attempts to refute their belief, is "the bad guy."

This can lead to mutual understanding. Perhaps you still want to change their mind, but the tactics you take might change. Rather than go on the attack as your only option, you might look for ways to mitigate their concerns. You might help them see that those who oppose their beliefs are not the "bad guys." A great example of this approach is in this post The Distress of the Privileged Privilege .

Privileged distress. I’m not bringing this up just to discuss old movies. As the culture evolves, people who benefitted from the old ways invariably see themselves as victims of change. The world used to fit them like a glove, but it no longer does. Increasingly, they find themselves in unfamiliar situations that feel unfair or even unsafe. Their concerns used to take center stage, but now they must compete with the formerly invisible concerns of others.

If you are one of the newly-visible others, this all sounds whiny compared to the problems you face every day. It’s tempting to blast through such privileged resistance with anger and insult.

Tempting, but also, I think, a mistake. The privileged are still privileged enough to foment a counter-revolution, if their frustrated sense of entitlement hardens.

Note that this doesn't mean you excuse the marginalization of others by the privileged. It means you gain an understanding understand of what's going on in their heads. How they rationalize it with the narrative that they are a good person.

Unfortunately, this doesn't make for "good politics." Loud extremists create an environment where politicians feel pressure to form rigid views with no wiggle room. But the rest of us don't have to wallow in that bullshit. We can realize we're all the good guys of our own narratives just trying to live decent lives, even if we disagree on how to do that.

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gvwalker
3048 days ago
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Take a different outlook on life.
Johannesburg, South Africa
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Photos

15 Comments and 53 Shares
I hate when people take photos of their meal instead of eating it, because there's nothing I love more than the sound of other people chewing.
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gvwalker
3088 days ago
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Johannesburg, South Africa
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13 public comments
janojanojano
3080 days ago
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Relevant to my current situation.
Sydney
infini
3082 days ago
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Give the man a big hand, folkses!
Asia, EU, Africa
jhollowaygmailcom
3084 days ago
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Infrrf
Brighton
GuuZ
3088 days ago
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Spot on!
ktgeek
3089 days ago
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As an avid photographer and as someone who also just likes to enjoy experiences, I understand both sides of the starting argument. However, nothing drives me more nuts than someone telling me I'm "doing it wrong" when there isn't really a right way to do something and it doesn't effect that third party.
Bartlett, IL
dbt
3059 days ago
Yeah, I don't mind people taking pictures, just holding their phone up in front of me at a concert.
Michdevilish
3089 days ago
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A Kodak moment
Canada
MourningDragon
3089 days ago
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Exactly!
adamgurri
3089 days ago
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boom.
New York, NY
Satri
3089 days ago
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Interesting...
Montreal, Canada
JayM
3089 days ago
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Heh.
Atlanta, GA
soren
3089 days ago
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Fair point, although there's also "a photo-taking-impairment effect" from photographing events you'd like to remember.
http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/12/04/0956797613504438.abstract
llucax
3089 days ago
Very interesting!
ruthherrin
3089 days ago
Neat! Thanks for the link.
ameel
3089 days ago
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:)
Melbourne, Australia
trparky
3089 days ago
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"I hate when people take photos of their meal instead of eating it, because there's nothing I love more than the sound of other people chewing."
sjk
3089 days ago
I concur. Hearing shutter sounds is preferable to hearing people chewing and slurping and crunching. Blech!
fxer
3089 days ago
Of course, you'll get the slurping no matter what, photography only delays the inevitable. Like Judgement Day!

QUOTE: I think we sometimes overlook things we don’t r…

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I think we sometimes overlook things we don’t realize we’re already good at or have limited experience with. You may be beating yourself up about not having good enough grades in biology to go to medical school while overlooking the fact that you’ve been working in your family’s hardware store over the summer for eight years and have an extraordinary sense of how to deal with people. That’s a skill that a lot of doctors in their 50s would kill for: they’ve never learned to understand and be empathetic towards others. People have all kinds of soft skills that you can’t train someone to have, but they beat themselves up because it’s not the thing they think they’re supposed to be good at.

—One small part of a big, terrific big interview with Merlin Mann.

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gvwalker
3088 days ago
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Wise words
Johannesburg, South Africa
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INSIGHT: Picked up a great lesson from the book Turn…

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Picked up a great lesson from the book Turn The Ship Around. David Marquet, the author and nuclear sub captain, says you can’t empower people by decree. While you might be able to ask someone to make a decision for themselves, that’s not true empowerment (or true leadership). Why? Because you’re still making the decision to ask them to make the decision. That means they can’t move, or think, or act without you. The way to empower people is by creating an environment where they naturally start making decisions for themselves. That’s true empowerment. Leaving space, creating trust, and having the full faith that someone else will rise to the challenge themselves.

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gvwalker
3088 days ago
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Insightful indeed
Johannesburg, South Africa
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Healthy benefits for the long run

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Employee benefits for technology companies are often focused around making people stay at office longer: Foosball tables, game rooms, on-site training rooms, gourmet chefs, hell, some even offer laundry services. We don’t do any of that (although we do have a ping-pong table in a back room that gets wheeled out for our bi-yearly meetups).

Instead we focus on benefits that get people out of the office as much as possible. 37signals is in it for the long term, and we designed our benefits system to reflect that. One of the absolute keys to going the distance, and not burning out in the process, is going at a sustainable pace.

Here are the list of benefits we offer to get people away from the computer:

  • Vacations: For the last three years in a row, we’ve worked with a professional travel agent to prepare a buffet of travel packages that employees could pick from as a holiday gift. Everything paid for and included. Having it be specific, pre-arranged trips — whether for a family to go to Disneyland or a couple to tour Spain — has helped make sure people actually take their vacations.
  • 4-day Summer Weeks: From May through October, everyone who’s been with the company for more than a year gets to work just four days out of the week. This started out as “Friday’s off”, but roles like customer support and operations need to cover all hours, so now it’s just a 4-day Summer Week.
  • Sabbaticals: Every three years someone has been with the company, we offer the option of a 1-month sabbatical. This in particular has been very helpful at preventing or dealing with burnout. There’s nothing like a good, long, solid, continuous break away from work to refocus and rekindle.

To come up with the best ideas, you need a fresh mind. These travel and time-off benefits help everyone stay sharp. But it goes beyond that. Even the weeks when people are working full-on, we offer benefits focused around keeping everyone healthy in other ways too:

  • CSA stipend: We offer a stipend for people to get weekly fresh, local vegetables from community-supported agriculture. Eating well is good, cooking at home is good, doing both is great.
  • Exercise stipend: Whether people want to take yoga classes or spend money on their mountain bike, the company chips in. Eating healthy goes hand-in-hand with getting good exercise. And we sit down for too much of the day as it is, so helping people be active is important.

These benefits form the core of our long-term outlook: Frequent time to refresh, constant encouragement to eat and live healthy. Pair that with the flexibility that remote working offers, and I think we have a pretty good package.

It’s always a real pleasure and a proud moment when our internal Campfire lights up with an anniversary announcement. Like Jeff celebrating 6 years this month, Sam celebrating 8 years and Ann 3 years last month.

We ultimately want 37signals to have the potential of being the last job our people ever need. When you think about what it’ll take to keep someone happy and fulfilled for 10, 20, 30 years into the future, you adopt a very different vantage point from our industry norm.

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gvwalker
3088 days ago
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Now those sound like well thought out benefits
Johannesburg, South Africa
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