History Is Written By Storytellers

Have you ever listened to a podcast where someone interviews a founder of a company, and asks them their origin story? More often than not they are really interesting, full of quirky little details and unexpected events. If you haven’t, well you’d best get started with a podcast like Inquisitive by the British King of Podcasting, Myke Hurley (that’s his official title by the way). If you have though, I have some bad news for you: they are mostly lies and half-truths.

When you ask someone to recall a past event, it is invariably, and invisibly shaped by things that happened long after that event. A company wrote an app that was wildly successful in a category? Well clearly every decision they made going into that process was the right one. Events that happen later were foreshadowed, and predicted as part of the decision making process. Most likely they thought these decisions through and debated them. Perhaps they spent an agonising amount of time choosing between two completely different paths. So their reasoned, debated and heavily pondered decisions led them to the success they now enjoy right? The most likely answer in my experience is: not really. There were probably hundreds of other companies that made similar decisions, maybe even ones that on paper were smarter ones, and most of them failed. The painful truth is if you have a successful origin story, a lot of things went right for you. While you might like to attribute them all to careful planning and a keen eye for strategy, in the world of indie development, you probably just got lucky.

Then there’s the details that change over time. All great stories become better each time they are told. Sometimes you tell the same story enough times and it becomes indistinguishable from the real events. Most scientific research shows our human memories to be much less reliable than we might imagine them to be. We often add things to them based on what we think happened, and things people tell us. How many of us have memories of what we did as children that are nine times out of ten actually just invented memories based on a relatives telling of a story? Probably more than we’d ever know, or care to admit. In our own Shifty Jelly story I often get asked “Why the name Shifty Jelly?”. My usual answer goes along the lines of “Philip and I were working full time corporate jobs when we started this, and we wanted to make sure we picked a quirky name that would look out of place in a board room. No one should ever be able to say ‘we outsourced our security to Shifty Jelly’ and maintain a straight face. We also wanted to make sure our employers felt comfortable with the fact that we weren’t going to even attempt to compete in the same field that they were in”. Is that 100% true? In all honesty I have no idea. I’d like it to be, and I think I have memories of us having discussions about it, but I’m not sure whether that was our thinking at the time or not. It seems logical that it would have been, but that doesn’t mean much. “I have no idea to be honest” makes for a pretty sucky origin story though, which is where I think the story of our name came from. I didn’t make it up in order for it to sound impressive, it’s just how I remembered it at the time.

Now imagine you want to tell your origin story with 100% accuracy. The issue becomes, you actually can’t. Your human memory is not even close to 100% accurate. If you believe some studies, you’re lucky if even 50% of your memories actually represent exactly what happened. Even if you documented in painstaking detail what you did each and every day, you’d have to interpret what you wrote many years ago without using the lens of your current knowledge. Maybe you’re a better person than I, but I’m convinced that’s about as impossible as convincing Australia’s current Prime Minister to roll out fibre to my house and fix global warming.

Long story short: almost every origin story is just that, a story. There are a lot of truths in there, but often they are embellished with the facts of the present. Most successful people attribute their success to planning and determination, and thus every origin story skews that way. That’s why books, posts and podcasts about successful people are rarely good sources of information for those starting out. You can copy how 37 Signals run their business, but you won’t magically become as successful as them. You can read all the Donald Trump books in the world, but you still won’t be Donald Trump. The oddest part of this to me though, is this: I love origin stories. I learn so many things from them. They don’t have to be 100% accurate to be informative or entertaining. Perhaps, just perhaps, story telling is built into our DNA for a reason.