The Lab

The fruits of riotous experimentation.

I want more stories like this, and fewer stories like that: part I

I wanted to enter the world of narrative research obliquely.  We’ll get to the theory in due course but we’re kicking off with some practiced application on your current state of physical health.

But first, a refresher on some basic biology and a quick review on how we humans are short-changed by evolution—and what we can do about it.

Improved sanitation, developments in medicine and easy access to volumes of cheap calories have allowed life expectancy to double in the past 300 years. We have seen an increase in expected lifespans too, and we now share approximately the same expected life span as existing hunter-gathers.

But, there is one sharp difference between the two populations. In hunter-gather groups, the distinction between ‘functional life span’ and ‘actual life span’ is small. If a tribe member has survived childhood and avoided serious injury, they are typically involved, physically and socially, with their family and tribe until a short time before their death.  Decline is precipitous. 

In contrast, though modern world inhabitants are living longer, they are spending more time in a debilitated, disabled or medicated state than any previous generation.  And it’s an increasing trend. Once we have passes our reproduction sell-by date, evolution no longer cares for us, and our current lifestyle exacerbates the worst of the consequences.

Between the ages of 16-30 the physiology of men and women is amenable to the build-up of lean muscle and the accompaniment of a modest amount of fat.  These are the prime conditions for reproduction. Post prime reproduction, from the age of 31-50, lean muscle build-up is still relatively easy to achieve but fat build-up is increasingly easy to achieve too. From 50-70, fat layers build up and lean tissue is more difficult to maintain. From 70+, loss of both lean muscle and fat is a pre-cursor to death.

The combination of lean muscle loss and fat build-up brings you to the starting line for health decline. The race toward inflammatory diseases, type II diabetes and ailments arising from loss in bone density begins.  

But it need not be so. While we cannot prevent our eventual demise, it does seem we are capable of extending, significantly, our functional lifespan. Contemporary hunter-gathers (as well as those laid to rest in the fossil record) seem to have largely avoided the chronic maladies above by maintaining power? lean muscle mass until the very last stages of life.

So let’s see how we might use narrative research to improve our current condition.

To dampen the whiplash resulting from passing through our reproductive prime, we need to have plenty of lean muscle mass, limited amounts of fat, and  the muscle type to be primarily ‘fast-twitch’ rather than ‘slow-twitch.’ We’re looking to be sprinters rather than long-distance athletes.  Our genes are more attuned to the former. This means we are looking for a lifestyle (diet + physical activity + work) that allows us to be lean, strong and fast—regardless of our age and sex.

So, if you agree with the logic, let’s take it a stage further.

You’re coming to the end of a long business trip. You meet your London-based nephew to enjoy a final curry near Heathrow before taking the last flight home to Chicago. Your belt is a little tighter after two weeks of ‘meetings’ and your back has a little twinge from putting your suitcase into the taxi earlier—even though it is comfortably below the maximum allowable weight.     

Your nephew is tanned and taut. He is 25, windsurfs (you taught him), and is taking a PhD in quantitative finance. He believes he’s going to live forever and has the equations to prove it. He loves your company and wants to spend more time windsurfing with you. He wants to know about your lifestyle.

What anecdote would you tell him, and where would you place it on the triad (figure 1). You can download it here.

Now let’s say you are dissatisfied with your current condition.  Place where you’d like to be. (Figure 2) Note: the motivation for change is irrelevant.  You may be driven to improve for improvement’s sake, or you may simply wish to stack the odds for future health in your favour.  The tool is neutral.

The next step is to reflect on how you wish to move from one location to the other.  As in life, there are multiple paths forward. 

You may wish to follow a number forward (different exercise regimes, a variety of diets) until you find one that gives the best return on the time (and potential discomfort) invested.

For those, like your nephew, who are uncomfortable without measurement (figure 3), you can always quantify a triad, but do so with caution.  This only works when the tool is for personal use.  It is less effective at a management level.

I tested this triad out over the weekend with a group of professional rugby players and some who have retired. I attach the data (figure 4.) and the coache's comment, “I want more stories like this, and fewer stories like that.” It is a phrase I have heard from Dave Snowden, and by Leaders who have adopted this method. 

So, in summary, we now have the essence of how narrative research can aid decision-making.

Once we have established the general issue we need to address, we have a decision-aid in which:-

1. The starting point is where we are now—not where we wish we were, nor where we’d like to be.

2. It gives us the option to test a number of paths forward, and for us to check progress using both quantitative and qualitative methods.

3. We can focus on the desired output but be free to choose the best method (for us, the organisation) on how that output can be generated.

 In the next series, we ramp up the approach and see how it can be expanded to give unique insight into Customer R&D™.