False Narratives

I am very fond of reading commencement speeches at universities. One of the most impactful commencement speeches that I read was by David Foster Wallace. In his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, he told a story,

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

In our flourishing context, just like the fish were not aware of the water in which they were swimming, most of us are not aware of the false narratives in our culture that impact our behavior unconsciously and impede our flourishing. The reason we do not continue to flourish is because these dominant false narratives lead to Means and Ends Inversion or MEI. MEI is a phenomenon where we confuse something that ought to be a means to helping us realize LLP, as our ends. Money is the simplest example of means. We need money as a resource for a good life, but for most people, it becomes their end goal. MEI results when we live compulsively and not consciously.

Why do we live compulsively: The socialized mind

The phrase “socialized minds” has been attributed to Robert Kegan of Harvard University, who built on previous research and theories that proposed five stages of minds. We all go through these stages depending on our age. When we are at a stage with a socialized mind(around age 18 onwards), we draw our meaning, purpose, and scripts from what may be the dominant yet could be false narratives at social and national levels. Human beings are designed to learn through imitation. We imitate whosoever we think we respect. Essentially, we become accustomed to rules, rituals, and customs that we blindly conform to. We internalize these rules by creating narratives around them, which become accepted and followed by society. And these meta-narratives find their way into our subconscious that we use to create values, ideas, and meaning to live by and can take us in the opposite direction of our intentional core of loving, learning and playing. These are constantly reinforced by religious or economic or political institutions as we have a desire to conform to societal norms and do not have the knowledge or the strength to swim against the tide (till we reach the fourth order of mind in Kegan’s framework which majority of us never do).

The socialized mind stops us from living consciously. Our decision-making becomes compulsive and not conscious. Instead of the triple helix of loving, learning and playing as a path to flourishing, we chase the triple helix of money, power, and fame. We basically sleepwalk through our lives, sedated by the prescriptions of society and its institutions.

False narratives are an assumption of what we want reality to look like instead of acknowledging what it does look like. We use limited one-sided evidence to justify the beliefs. It can be easier to place the “blame” on an external entity, rather than taking responsibility ourselves. These human reactions to reality have been happening since the start of recorded history. The history of most religions and world politics are full of manufactured narratives to drive an agenda.

The danger of false narratives is it stops us from realizing our inherent interconnectedness. It limits our understanding of the world, and distracts us from flourishing.

To flourish, we must recognize the false truths we carry.


False narratives often align with your own beliefs, which makes it difficult to distinguish between reality and your perception. It is human nature to gravitate toward explanations that align to our false perceptions, and ignore those that do not. The internet and social media are filled with such narratives reinforcing our perception. There are common areas we encounter false narratives daily- our views of Beauty, Money, and aspects of Self-Worth.



Every culture has a definition of beauty and attractiveness which is promoted to men and women alike from a young age. We are immersed with ideas of what is desirable, and all too often from this idea our self-worth is measured. Fair skin versus light, petite or tall, eye shape, nose shape, eye color, hair color, every element of our outward appearance is called to question. We carry the false narrative that the only way to achieve self-acceptance and happiness is to meet the societal trends of outward appearance. Imagine if you took the time, emotions, and money spent to fulfill perceived beauty, and invested it on your personal growth?


Does money equal happiness? Having a high salary will give you financial stability with access to more lifestyle choices, but once you are in your penthouse apartment, will you be happy? Will you have time to enjoy the fruits of your labor if you spend most of your time behind a computer? Are you living, or are you spending the prime years of your life for an end goal of numbers? When you realize money is something that you will always have more or less of, you can mentally process that money isn’t the end goal of life. Money is just a means of getting you to your goals (ends). Who taught you about money? What does money mean to you?

Nothing good comes easy

Somewhere in our upbringing, unless you are born into wealth, we are taught to value the “self-made” individual, because if you want something it will take struggle. It can begin in early childhood with earning money in your piggy bank through chores. As adults we can hold the outward projection that if you have less money it is because you have not worked hard enough, or to enjoy your accomplishment you have to work hard and make sacrifices. Why should work not come easy? Why should you not enjoy your process toward accomplishing a goal? Can you accept your success without carrying guilt?


With the enormous amounts of data our brain takes on every day, our brains create “shortcuts” to simplify decision making, often carrying on the false narratives picked up through our life. The speed at which our brain processes via these shortcuts makes us vulnerable to biases and false narratives. Slowing down our thinking process is one way to start the process of overriding acceptance of false narratives.

Harvard Business School professor Chris Argyris developed a practical tool to keep the focus on evidence, data, and facts when taking action to break down false narratives. The Ladder of Inference is a metaphor for the steps in our mental reasoning. Envision each step as a rung on a ladder. By bringing awareness to each rung, we can uncover the subtle, even subconscious, patterns that lead to counterproductive thoughts and behaviors.

  • We experience observable data, things we can see, hear, feel, taste and smell.
  • We focus on selected data, only certain parts of the evidence, data or facts that resonate with us based on our past experiences and conditioning.
  • We add interpretation and meaning to our observations, based on that past experience and conditioning.
  • We draw conclusions.
  • We adopt beliefs about what’s going on.
  • We take action.

In climbing the mental ladder from experience to action we don’t question whether the evidence we’ve focused on is real and whether the conclusions we’ve drawn are supported by evidence. Sometimes we need to climb the ladder a little slower when we find ourselves drawing conclusions automatically.
Take cognition of yourself – what evidence are you using to base your belief? What else could be going on? What other interpretations are possible?

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Knowledge acquired by human beings has been increasing at an exponential rate for over a century. However, we have yet to make commensurate progress in human flourishing. This is because knowledge has been getting increasingly fragmented and sits mostly in silos. The UEF believes that if we can integrate knowledge across the silos of time, civilizations, geographies and academic disciplines.