Anecdotes (Contra Seth Godin)

Seth doesn’t want to hear your anecdote. I do.

For a couple of reasons: first, that something is true in your experience means that you’re basing decisions on it and reacting from your gut, not your analytical brain, in moments that are fraught with possibility.

Your anecdote could be like the one I witnessed on a crowded train yesterday, when a man supported a stranger who nearly tumbled over after the train lurched left, and then, after catching the stranger, gave him three kindly pats on the back. People are good and kind. See? My anecdote proves it.

Never mind that an impartial study would show that incident to be a statistical rarity and not how the world actually works. The anecdote works on you at a different level, a gut level, than the study will. It moves you.

The other reason I want to hear your anecdote is that our era is increasingly ceding valuable philosophical real estate to data, which is wonderful, but that will never fully explain how the world actually works. Our ability to collect, analyze, and put to use mountains of data is a game-changer for everything from public health to player development (in sports), so the question, “Do the data support it?” should always be answered with utmost honesty. And yet not all data are the same.

Qualitative research is no less valuable than quantitative, and yet its findings aren’t considered “data” in the same way. Case in point: I hear a lot of the same kinds of anecdotes from parents of my youth when I speak with them one-on-one. Taken together, those anecdotes tell me something true about how the world is actually working where I live in a way that a survey probably would not.

Finally, we’re becoming too timid with our personal anecdotes, I think. The data may not bear this out, but I suspect that many of us who respect the power of data experience a corresponding reluctance to make assertions based on our personal experience. We’re not telling our story. That’s a problem and something of a category mistake, because you can tell your story as illustrative of something true while not generalizing it as universally true for everyone. That’s a skill we need to learn in a data-driven age.

Particularly for those of us whose lives are wrapped up in faith, personal narrative is indispensable to the search for truth and meaning. The gospels are collections of anecdotes, for the Apostle Peter’s sake.

Respect the data. Tell your story. You can do both at once.

3 thoughts on “Anecdotes (Contra Seth Godin)

  1. I usually learn at a much deeper level from anecdotes than I do from data. Thank you. the Rev. Sara Dingman

    Synod Executive, The Synod of Lincoln Trails Presbyterian Church (USA)

    t. 317-923-3681 (office) e. a. 1100 W. 42nd Street, Suite 210, Indianapolis IN 46208

  2. Also, I was never confident in my spelling of the word “anecdotes” until I actually typed it out this morning. Twice. the Rev. Sara Dingman

    Synod Executive, The Synod of Lincoln Trails Presbyterian Church (USA)

    t. 317-923-3681 (office) e. a. 1100 W. 42nd Street, Suite 210, Indianapolis IN 46208

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