A friend I’ve known since kindergarten is in love, and it has knocked her for a loop. Just as so many of us do when good or bad fortune arrives, she’s got stories to explain her feelings. How much different is she, I wonder, from what businesses do when things take a turn? Some of them might even have stories and data as wild as my friend’s.
“We knew each other in past lives,” Joan begins (not her real name), and from there she goes ever deeper into her backstory. The rich intimacy she has with her new boyfriend, she says, is all rooted in past lives in which she was a courtesan and he was a stable hand. So each of them did what psychologists call displacement. She imagined him in her clients and he imagined her in his horses’ firm flanks.
Joan overlooks the critical aspect: Her boyfriend not only believes these stories, he even embellishes hers and contributes his own. It has all woven together in the few weeks they’ve been together, and if it persists it could be a durable fabric.
Does it matter if reincarnation exists and that her story is true? Not at all. All that matters is that she believes it and that it helps her — and even more important that they both believe it. Such stories, true or not, are useful to explain love, hate, and so many other inexplicable feelings.
For this couple, they establish a shared set of beliefs that are like cards in a card game, boundary markers on a tennis court, rules of grammar, or rules of the road for drivers. Even simpler, a shared set of beliefs is like a campfire. All of these let people hang together.
I suspect that much of data’s function in business has a similar function. The data provides common ground — even if the data’s false.