how to stop lying to yourself about your career and life, in 7 sloppy graphs

Almost every day, a voice calls out to me. He asks me:

Sometimes this voice is another person - a curious friend, an aunt or an uncle, a stranger or old acquaintance. A parent, a sibling. Sometimes it's that voice inside my own head.

I've learned that this voice, bless his soul, is very often full of shit. You see, the honest, correct, encouraging, and life-affirming answer to that question would be:

We're all just making it up as we go along, and then we re-jigger our personal narratives after the fact, in hindsight. "I did this which led to this and that." 

Messy, undefined narratives in the present tense are part of the deal -- they only begin to take on a shape after you reflect and decide that they have a discernible shape. But if you don't have enough source material, there's not enough stuff to reflect on; your only choice then is to keep moving forward and gathering that source material. 

Alas, that pernicious voice doesn't like this state of affairs. He wants reality to be predictable, unchanging, and easy to reason about. So I lie and give him answers like this:

These are the lies we tell to give ourselves some semblance of control. The mystery is now neatly packaged into a trope, a playbook of sorts. The voice receives a nice little dopamine hit, and he leaves satisfied knowing that his game of Jenga lives to see another day.

Vague Graphs as Rorschach Tests

The disconnect here lies in the fact that much of the observable world is a Rorschach Test -- you see what you want to see, and you see it that way until it kills you (or hurts you enough to cause you to see it differently).

So here's a Rorschach Test. I present 7 graphs, accompanied by quotes that you may have heard before. These graphs have in some form made rounds in mainstream business press, but many of them also serve as the foundation for the work of some of the most thoughtful writers of our generation. So they are dense with different kinds of meaning, depending on where you decide to look.

For each graph, think about what strikes you most about it. Then read the accompanying quote. Now what do you think about the graph?

1. The Problem with Averages

"Much of the real world is controlled as much by the 'tails' of distribution as by means or averages: by the exceptional, not the mean; by the catastrophe, not the steady drip; by the very rich, not the 'middle class.' We need to free ourselves from 'average' thinking."
Some Thoughts about Distribution in Economics, Philip Anderson
2. The Mythical Success Arc

"For a soldier trained at West Point as an engineer, the idea that a problem has different solutions on different days was fundamentally disturbing. Yet that was the case ... Efficiency, once the sole icon on the hill, must make room for adaptability in structures, processes, and mindsets that is often uncomfortable."
Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal
3. Compounding

"We're taught then when you are given a choice you have to choose only one option. But why choose? ... This multiple-choice approach - if properly managed - can create tremendous momentum. Ideas cross-pollinate. Networks expand."
Bold, Peter Diamandis
4. Reference Bias

“Most people get stuck at the Local Max (A) because changing strategy in any direction leads to poorer results … You’ve got a very good job as an art director. To do better, you’d either have to move to another firm, move to another town, switch careers or go back to school. And all of them have costs and very uncertain returns, so you stay. […] Local Max (A) isn’t actually that great when you realize that Big Max (B) is not particularly far away.” 
Seth Godin, author, entrepreneur
5. The Location of Your Efforts

"The frequency of correctness does not matter; it is the magnitude of correctness that matters."
More Than You Know, Michael Mauboussin
6. Decision-Making & Skin in the Game

“Optionality is the property of asymmetric upside (preferably unlimited) with correspondingly limited downside (preferably tiny). […] If you have optionality, you don’t have much need for what is commonly called intelligence, knowledge, insight, skills, and these complicated things that take place in our brain cells. For you don’t have to be right that often. All you need is the wisdom to not do unintelligent things to hurt yourself (some acts of omission) and recognize favorable outcomes when they occur.” 
— Nassim Taleb, philosopher

7. What Are Needs?

"At any given time, the input that is most important to a system is the one that is most limiting."
Thinking in Systems, Donella Meadows