Jeff Bezos Talks About Writing and the Narrative Fallacy

Stone’s book was published in 2013, just after Bezos bought the Washington Post.

In the prologue to Brad Stone’s book, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, Stone describes his first conversation in 2011 with Bezos about wanting to write a book about the rise of Amazon:

Toward the end of the hour we spent discussing the book, Bezos leaned forward on his elbows and asked, “How do you plan to handle the narrative fallacy?”

Ah yes, of course, the narrative fallacy. For a moment, I experienced the same sweaty surge of panic every Amazon employee over the past two decades has felt when confronted with an unanticipated question from the hyperintelligent boss. The narrative fallacy, Bezos explained, was a term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 book The Black Swan to describe how humans are biologically inclined to turn complex realities into soothing but oversimplified stories. Taleb argued that the limitations of the human brain resulted in our species’ tendency to squeeze unrelated facts and events into cause-and-effect equations and then convert them into easily understood narratives. These stories, Taleb wrote, shield humanity from the true randomness of the world, the chaos of human experience, and, to some extent, the unnerving element of luck that plays into all successes and failures.

Bezos was suggesting that Amazon’s rise might be that sort of impossibly complex story. There was no easy explanation for how certain products were invented, such as Amazon Web Services, its pioneering cloud business that so many other Internet companies now use to run their operations. “When a company comes up with an idea, it’s a messy process. There’s no aha moment,” Bezos said. Reducing Amazon’s story to a simple narrative, he worried, could give the impression of clarity rather than the real thing.

Comments

  1. BARNARD COLLIER says:

    Dear Jack,

    A bloody brilliant question and I’d expect such questions of Mr. Bezos since he’s asked them all his intellectual life or there would not be Amazon.

    What also caught me in the aforementioned story is the riff about luck.

    Luck is considered by many editors a non-starter in plotting and construction of both fictive and non-fictive stories. It’s often scratched out, or twisted into a rational argument for what was actually cosmic accident. Book and movie critics turn their noses up at luck. Many reporters tend to shun luck in making explanations of how and why something took place.

    I’m writing a book about luck, a subject I’ve found fascinating ever since my early days as a student anthropologist, when newspapering was simply a way to pay college tuitions. I taught several classes about luck in different cultures, and how human and significant a concept “luck” is.

    Recently I listed those I could recall of the most important moments in my life where things went good or bad. Almost 100% of the good moments were entirely lucky, without a sniff of smarts about them.

    The bad stuff on the other hand had all to do with my lack of proper smarts. The only luck was that its timing wasn’t any worse.

    It is useful, I think, for all writers and editors to take deeply into consideration the “narrative fallacy” which, as I see it, reflexively disbelieves in luck.

    There are too few available words to describe luck and how all lives are affected by it. There are too many words about smarts and how to get smarter, far fewer on how and why to get lucky.

    One of the lucky things about taking luck into habitual consideration is that you may recognize luck when it pops by.

    Good luck renders the dreadful dangers of life’s unpredictability less threatening, and Mr. Bezos truthfully warned that chaos and lack of clarity is present at the birth of every successful idea and to be too wary of luck is neither accurate nor smart.

    Many thanks for the lucky opportunity to read about this in About Editing and Writing.

    Barney

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