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On Narratives.

Five years ago, Nir Eyal wrote a book called Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, which helped startup tech firms understand user psychology. He discussed the research on slot machines, which use variable rewards and pleasures that come at unpredictable intervals. If you haven’t read, Addiction by Design, it is both amazing and alarming.

In response to pressure from psychologists and child development specialists, tech industry insiders have blown the whistle at Google, Facebook and WhatsApp, becoming critics of the very tools and addictive apps they spent years developing. In his latest book, Eyal admits that there will be a movement to be “post-digital” in 2020. He says, “We will start to realize that being chained to your mobile phone is a low-status behavior, similar to smoking.” But, he does not think technology is the problem. We are.

Throughout the book, Mr. Eyal challenges the idea that technology is doing all of this to us. “These are things we can do something about,” he argues, “It’s disrespectful for people who have the pathology of addiction to say we all have this disease. No, we don’t.” Eyal says technology is something people overuse, which suggests we need to do something about it ourselves, but Tristan Harris, the former Google ethicist, argues the opposite. Harris speaks around the world, leading the movement to regulate big tech firms and require that they change how they develop tools and apps, putting the onus on them to make their devices and apps less addictive.

Although I don’t expect these two narratives nor their arguments on technology and behavior to be settled anytime soon, I do think there are some valuable takeaways for your business, when faced with any challenge or opportunity:

First, never forget, regardless of the narrative in your mind, there is always a counter-narrative. Make it your job to get better at seeking out the counter-narratives in your life and in your business. Work to understand them, whether you ultimately accept them or not.

Second, ask two important questions when you face any challenge or opportunity: “Am I sloughing off personal responsibility or reclaiming it?” and “What does my understanding about this issue, opportunity or challenge tell me about me?”

Eyal equates his stance on technology and personal responsibility to a time in his life when he was obese. The myriad digital detox crash courses he attempted were just like the 30-day fad diets he tried but were unsuccessful. He finally lost weight for good when he asked himself why he was eating.

The solution he advocates and the narrative he’s accepted on technology overuse is a slow process. “People often look at their phones because they are anxious or bad at being alone,” he says, “The phone-hooked need to figure out why they are so uncomfortable waiting in line without their screen and what they fear around them.”

This mental contrasting ability to hold two narratives in your mind is extremely productive and serves as a great tool in running your business.

  • When an employee is consistently late to work, is the narrative in your mind that he’s a bad employee or can you accept that your policies and procedures have been unclear and perhaps you’ve been a bad manager of time in the past, setting an example for others to follow?
  • When a referral source goes dry, have you blindly accepted in your mind that the referrals are going somewhere cheaper and more convenient or can you challenge that narrative and ask how you might reclaim personal responsibility and put more wheels in motion to regain the trust of that referral source?
  • If a new competitor opens up across the street and starts poaching your employees, do you cry foul and play the victim or do you double down on making your office not only the best place for patients but also for employees?

In every corner of life and business, you’ll find those who cling to one narrative and those who can mentally contrast, play devil’s advocate, hold strong opinions loosely and let the best idea win. One road leads to success, fulfillment and happiness. The other leads to stagnation, frustration and peril. Here’s to taking the path less-traveled. Here’s to understanding all narratives and the power they have, for good or for ill, to help you or cause you to fail.

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