Nobody Knows Anything

Screenwriter William Goldman famously said “nobody knows anything.”

He was talking about narratives. Not the narratives within a screenplay, but the narratives moviemakers use to describe what happened to their Hollywood projects, why one movie is a blockbuster and another is a bomb.

When you’re driving, and a newsbreak comes on the car radio, there’s a couple seconds where the narrator says that the market is “up 20 points on the Georgian floods” or “down one percent due to concerns about lunar mortgage softening” or whatever. In truth, nobody knows why the market is up 20 points or down one percent, but the narrator’s job is to explain things, so whatever the market’s situation is, you are given a reason.

But — nobody knows anything. If that narrator knew the exact correlation between lunar mortgage softening and the day’s stock market, he’d get out of radio and make a fortune day trading.

Here in the restaurant business, we always have an explanation for the day’s contour. By 7:30 at night, we’ll confidently assert that the rain kept everyone home (if it’s slow) or that the rain made people crave the comfort of a restaurant (if it’s busy). I love this ritual, it feels ancient, connects us to our real essence. But it’s all pure superstition — nobody actually knows anything.

Our brains process information from our senses along two pathways. The first is the “fast” pathway, that skips all rationality and goes right to our flight/flight/etc action center. This is why we reflexively duck when we see something flying at our head. We don’t create a story to explain why a thing is flying at our head — we just duck.

The “slow” pathway runs through our narration corridor, where sequence and sense is applied to the images and sounds and sensations. Instead of seeing random shifts of color, we see a person crossing the street.

Our narration system powers our dreams. As we sleep, our senses keep firing semi-randomly into our narrative mechanisms, and our brains turn those impulses into stories. We experience these stories as vividly as we experience reality: to our internal narrators, the electrical impulses we create are just as real as those we experience from the world!

While awake, we’re pretty effective at applying useful narratives to situations with which we have a lot of experience; specifically, we excel at understanding situations that have occurred for a million years to humans and our ancestors. But, situations like market dynamics have only existed for a few generations; thus, we understand market dynamics as well as our earliest ancestors understood the stars and planets.

In unfamiliar situations like the industrial world, we create explanatory narrations that placate us in light of our lack of understanding and control; but our young narratives about markets haven’t yet risen to the sophisticated level of myth or religion (Chicago School notwithstanding).

In modernity, our main activity is to paste shoddy explanatory narratives onto our confusing circumstances. The narratives don’t stand up to scrutiny, but… they all we got.

Personally, I’m starting on a quest to eliminate explanatory narratives from my life. I want to identify the things I can’t understand and bask in the awe of that which is beyond my comprehension.

And when I hear stories, and tell stories, I want them to be real stories, that tell the truth about us, even when the stories are fictional.

Stories open doors; explanations close them.

Because nobody knows anything.