The Proper Care & Feeding of Your Mental Story Machine

Tree growing from a bookHumans are story machines. We think in stories. We process in stories. We store in stories. When you add up all the television shows, movies, books, jokes, rumors, and gossip we tell, story-telling is in the running for our biggest industry. We require stories. We’re so hopelessly bad at dealing with information that isn’t in story form that we invented computers, which of course gave us whole new things to tell stories about.

We need stories because even with billion-word languages, there are still experiences we can’t express with lone words. Shakespeare wasn’t afraid to make up words, but even he resorted to tiny stories. Characters “fought fire with fire” or went on a “wild goose chase” or learned that “all that glitters is not gold.” Four hundred years later, we make up words at the drop of a hat, but we still haven’t come up with catchier ways to express the dozens of tiny stories Shakespeare inserted into our language.

“Accumulate idioms… The only difference(!) between Shakespeare and you was the size of his idiom list – not the size of his vocabulary.” – Alan Perlis

Unlike computers, the mind’s memory is also its processor. The stories we know affect how we think. Sometimes, where we don’t have a story, we have a blindspot. That’s why it’s valuable to accumulate metaphors, like cleaning dust from our mental lens. Stories help us perceive the world more clearly and more memorably.

As adults it’s easy to think we have the vocabulary we need, but just because we have the words doesn’t mean we have the stories. Here are a few perspective-shaping stories to get you started.

“Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.” –Yogi Berra

You’ve probably known someone who pathologically votes with the majority, whether for political candidates or where to eat. But sometimes it’s wiser to vote with the minority, as in the case of the El Farol Bar, where if too many people go, it’s so crowded they all wish they’d stayed home, and if too many stay home, they wish they’d gone out and had a good time at the not-so-crowded bar.

Sometimes, voting with the minority is a winning strategy. Ask any commuter.

“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.” – John Lennon

The story is told of a plan to add more armor to bombers during World War II. Engineers studied the planes that came back, where they had been shot, and they began to devise a plan to protect the bullet-ridden areas. An astute observer interrupted their plan and suggested that instead of armoring the riddled areas, they protect the parts of the planes that did not have any bullet holes at all. Why? Because the planes shot there didn’t come back.

Sometimes the evidence is a red herring. The real culprit may be the absence of evidence.

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” – Leo Tolstoy

Big organizations are like big ships. Given the slightest bit of speed, they become almost impossible to turn. All that momentum requires such a big rudder to steer it that the rudder itself is too big to push against the force of the water. Fortunately, you can keep adding rudders to the rudders until you have a rudder small enough that it can turn, and when it does it pulls the big rudder with it and the big rudder turns the ship.

Small pressure, applied in the right place, can make a big difference. That’s the lesson of the trim tab.


Even if computers one day learn to understand stories, they will never feed on stories the way we humans do. We’re fueled by myths and tales and anecdotes, and since they shape the way we think, it’s important to eat healthy. Feeding on stories makes us taller: it gives us a better vantage point, expands our horizons, and allows us to see more. It’s important to eat and eat well.

Your story machine will thank you.