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Home » Be Suspicious of Stories: Tyler Cowen at TEDxMidAtlantic (Transcript)

Be Suspicious of Stories: Tyler Cowen at TEDxMidAtlantic (Transcript)

Tyler Cowen – American economist

In normal times, a blog written by an economist might not get that much attention, but our next presenter’s blog, called Marginal Revolution, is quite popular, and he writes a column for the New York Times, called the Economic Scene, here to explain the world to us in terms of the Great Recession and beyond. It is Tyler Cowen.

I was told to come here and tell you all stories, but what I’d like to do is instead tell you why I’m suspicious of stories, why stories make me nervous. In fact, the more inspired a story makes me feel, very often, the more nervous I get.

So the best stories are often the trickiest ones. The good and bad things about stories is that they are a kind of filter. They take a lot of information, and they leave some of it out, and they keep some of it in. But the thing about this filter is that it always leaves the same things in. You’re always left with the same few simple stories. There is the old saying that just about every story can be summed up as “a stranger came to town.”

There is a book by Christopher Booker, where he claims there are really just seven types of stories. There is monster, rags to riches, quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, rebirth. You don’t have to agree with that list exactly, but the point is this: if you think in terms of stories, you’re telling yourself the same things over and over again.

There was a study done, we asked some people– people were asked to describe their lives. When asked to describe their lives, what is interesting is how few people said “mess”. It’s probably the best answer, I don’t mean that in a bad way. “Mess” can be liberating, “mess” can be empowering, “mess” can be a way of drawing upon multiple strengths. But what people wanted to say was, “My life is a journey.” 51% wanted to turn his or her life into a story. 11% said, “My life is a battle.” Again, that is a kind of story. 8% said, “My life is a novel.” 5% said, “My life is a play.” I don’t think anyone said, “My life is a reality TV show.”

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