There are many benefits of reading fiction. Most of the productivity blogs / investing blogs I have read don’t offer much advice on how (or even why) to accommodate fiction in our lives. Apart from its entertainment value, fiction can be an effective tool to train our mind.
The future of a company, which we investors imagine today, is based on yesterday’s facts. It is in essence a matter of fiction. That’s what good fiction does. It provides us with a relationship between the facts. The narrative is just for us to absorb the trend a little better.
Errol Morris’ brilliant documentary interview with Robert McNamara, called Fog of war, starts with ‘Empathy’ & is worth watching. Empathy in the investing context is to look at a business from the point of view of the person who’s running it. This is one of the ways to visualise the possibility of scaling the business or turning it around. Fiction starts with that, empathy towards an idea.
While reading fiction, it says to us that it’s ok to suspend disbelief for a while, at least till the bigger picture emerges. The ability to hold random bits of the story in our working memory, long enough to allow the plot to unravel and then being able to connect them is a beautiful exercise in imagining outcomes. We end up feeling connected to this manufactured reality for a while, long enough to process it.
This naturally demands patience and it also demands that we pay attention to details. Valuable skills for any investor.
Every now & then it’s good to get a dose of reality. There are some things that are not knowable immediately. It takes a long time to understand how the real world operates. That means we need to be locked on to something for a really long time till a cohesive connection emerges.
Reality is slow, but there’s one way to supercharge our understanding about it. Ironically it involves reading fiction. Many times people are afraid to give us the reality because like Jack Nicholson says in a Few Good Men, “we can’t handle the truth.” Especially being investors watching outside in, we really don’t know what to do with the truth 7 times out of 10. Due to some other unknowables in a particular situation, we can only assume that we can correctly weigh the importance of the truth. In this case fiction helps us appreciate that people have their own motivations & incentives when they sell us their version of reality.
It takes experience to really see how important or unimportant a piece of evidence really is. Even a good sample size can be unreliable some times. But since we have visualised reality to some extent, we can combine our experience, facts & our imagination to reach to some judgement.
One way to appreciate this is to drop the promise of rationality & logic from our thought process. Sometimes people don’t necessarily behave in logical ways. There are times when decisions are made without thinking things through. In fiction weird things happen all the time, so it helps reduce the element of surprise when weird things happen in real life 🙂
The other bit about fiction that I find valuable, is that after we are done reading it we have to go back to reality. We have to question the premise in the story and allow the disbelief to creep back in our thoughts. Without healthy scepticism it becomes difficult to separate fact from fiction. The story has to stand the test of this process in order to be plausible. Also after this exercise the boundary between fact and fiction starts to become clearer.
How to identify good fiction? you’d ask.
Well, we all have to go book by book 🙂
To get you started:
An example of good fiction, in my view, is one that can help us relate to some reality – A Man In Full (Nov. 1988) by Tom Wolfe, the legendary journalist/novelist who could take us inside the skin of his subjects. A Man in Full has several overlapping stories set in the City of Atlanta, in US. Most interesting aspect is the relationship between business, banking, politics, the legal system, social class & racism. The story of a larger than life promoter, the influential social elite trying to bend the legal system for some ulterior motive and for the lovers of Stoicism, the struggle of a working class man who invariably is the real protagonist of the book.
Ghachar Ghochar a Kannada novella by Vivek Shanbag, translated to English by Srinath Perur. It’s a nice psychological drama about a family who deals with the sudden influx of wealth and the changes in their attitudes as their social conditions change.