The Danger of a Single Story

July 7, 2014 • Issue 07 - July 2014, Strive to Thrive

For more than 120 years, people have been enjoying stories featuring Sherlock Holmes and his uncanny crime solving style. Reading a Sherlock Holmes novel (or, more likely, watching the new BBC series or spin-offs like CSI on Netflix) we can’t help but get sucked in by his brilliance. We tune in to out-think world-class detectives and solve the case from our couch before they let us in on the secret.

Sherlock Holmes looks at a crime scene and crafts a story, rich with details, that explains a complex mystery in a simple way. In the process, of course, he selects one of thousands of possible interpretations and ignores all others. It makes for a good story, but it’s no more realistic than movies that feature talking trees, elves, and dragons.

Sherlock is a classic know-it-all, and so are we. At least, a section of our brain about two inches above our left eye is. This part of the brain seems to hate ambiguity so much that ”I don’t know” is the only  answer it won’t accept.  When we find ourselves making assumptions, accepting stereotypes, or spinning complete stories that explain the people around us, we can be sure our left-brain Sherlock is hard at work.

”The storytelling mind is allergic to uncertainty, randomness, and coincidence,” says the literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall. ”It is addicted to meaning. If the storytelling mind cannot find meaningful patterns in the world, it will try to impose them. In short, the storytelling mind is a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will manufacture lies when it can’t.”

There’s no reason to feel bad about the way our brains try to make sense of the world — it’s just the way we’re wired. But understanding the process can help us become more aware of the stories we use to explain the people we bump into in our lives. We don’t have to stop with a single Sherlock Holmes story that tells us everything we need to know about the world — we can choose to keep adding to the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and others.

”The single story creates stereotypes,” says author Chimamanda Adichi, ”and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

We all know what it feels like to be stereotyped — maybe because of our race, our religion, our family, our hobbies, friends, or city. We sometimes even take the single-story shortcut with each other around Redmond. (”Oh, he’s a Best Vinyl guy,” or ”Ah, a Heber Office person. I get it.”)

But we are all much larger than a single story, much more interesting than our Sherlock Holmes left brain wants to admit. As we choose to add more stories to the people we meet, our own story becomes more complete and we begin to make a bigger difference in our world. And that’s an idea each of us can get behind.

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