What we've been reading: Success, storytelling and The Wire

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Welcome to What we've been reading, our weekly round-up of what's caught our eye this week. 

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Valme: The role of luck in life success is far greater than we realised

We like to think that the most successful people are the most talented ones but, unfortunately, that’s not always the case. So what does it really take to be successful? Truth is some of the most unsuspected elements can play an important role.

For instance, the chance of becoming a CEO is influenced by your name or month of birth, those with last names earlier in the alphabet are more likely to work at top departments and people with easy to pronounce names are judged more positively than others with difficult names.

In the world, talent is normally distributed, but success is not. In fact, currently just eight men own as much wealth as the poorest half of the population. But is there anything we can do about this?

As it turns, in scientific fields, giving grants to average-successful people leads to more scientific discoveries than the traditionally meritocratic approach of giving large grants to previously successful individuals.

But most importantly, this could mean that improving the chances of people with funds or rewards, regardless of their previous success (which could have been determined by their talent, but mainly by their luck) is a better strategy than rewarding the “elite” and could lead to a society in which wealth is more evenly distributed.

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Richard: Maddaddam and the Virgin Suicides

Isn’t it funny how the books flow into each other. Your mind is tuned to a certain theme and that’s what immediately comes to the fore. That’s what happened with the book I’ve just read and the one I am currently reading. 

On the surface, Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides are completely different stories. One concerns the survivors of a lethal plague, the other pieces together the final months of five sisters.

But reading the novels in succession, the tragic life of the Virgin Suicides’ Lisbon sisters and the end of the world as described in the Maddaddam series match up; in the ashes of each tragedy, the novels show how the characters rely on telling stories to each other to understand the past and to accept their present circumstances.

The middle-aged aged anonymous narrator in the Virgin Suicides uses stories to comprehend and restore the past, while the (largely made up) stories about the origins of the world appeases the childlike curiosity of the bioengineered Children of Crake in Maddaddam.

In both cases, storytelling serves as a bandage; for some it soothes, for others, storytelling fuels their nostalgic yearning to keep the past alive.

In an attempt to crowbar accountancy back into this, I remember how David Sloly advised practitioners to use the power of storytelling at last year’s Practice Excellence conference. “Studies in psychology show that stories deeply influence our attitudes, our beliefs and the decisions we make,” said Sloly. This is certainly true for these two books.  

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Francois: The Wire, 10 years on: ‘We tore the cover off a city and showed the American dream was dead’

My favourite TV programme, The Wire, turned a decade old this year. Overlooked while it was on air, the show ascended to a godly status once the show ended. It’s now widely lauded as the greatest show of all time.

It’s popularity was, like the show itself, a slow burn. I only watched the show when I was at university (around six years ago!). Bored over summer break, I blitzed the whole series in two weeks with my dad.

It amazed me then and, over time, the show has only grown in my estimation. I went in expecting a police procedural, but what I found was the biography of an American city.

Turns out I wasn’t alone in my misapprehension. The network executives that okayed the series thought it would be a cop drama, too. As The Wire’s creator, David Simon, confided to a friend. “I sold it as a cop show, but they don’t know it’s not really a cop show”.

It was something new: “A novel for television.”

The Wire was an education. You were an observer and the show’s novelistic ambitions altered the standard rhythms of television. Drama was mixed with prosaic, almost anti-dramatic elements. “The first thing we had to do was teach folks to watch television in a different way,” Simon wrote in hindsight.

There were no ‘heroes’; no central characters. I mean, I had my favourites and I became remarkably fond of the show’s cast. But The Wire was always unsentimental, characters would suddenly disappear or die, and the city, as cities do, would carry on.

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