Joe Walsh and the Narrative Fallacy

walsh_joe_mad_g_mp_576In 1975, Joe Walsh replaced Bernie Leadon as a guitarist for the Eagles.  His guitar “duels” with Don Felder were a highlight of every subsequent Eagles concert.  In Part I of Showtime’s terrific Alison Ellwood documentary of the band (discussed in this wonderful piece by Bill Simmons), Don Henley describes Walsh as follows. “In those days, you didn’t know what [Walsh] was gonna do next. That was fun most of the time, although not all the time. It was fun depending on how much you’d had to drink to see a television go sailing off a 14th-floor balcony and into the pool, as long as nobody got hurt.”

Now, check out what Walsh says below, as a kind of retrospective.

“As you live your life, it appears to be anarchy and chaos, and random events, nonrelated events, smashing into each other and causing this situation or that situation, and then, this happens, and it’s overwhelming, and it just looks like what in the world is going on. And later, when you look back at it, it looks like a finely crafted novel. But at the time, it don’t.”

That may be the quintessential example of the narrative fallacy in real life. We constantly create and are sucked in by stories — which have no necessary correlation with reality even if/when we are sure they’re true.

As an added Eagles bonus, the documentary includes the following Don Henley quote from 1977.

“The success of the first album scared the hell out of us. Why me instead of some guy down the street? Why me and some friends of mine who were just as good of musicians as I am, and yet it happened to me and it didn’t happen to them? I don’t know.”

In all probabilistic endeavors, success is determined by some combination of luck and skill. Most of the time, we fall for self-serving bias such that we disproportionately attribute our successes to skill and our failures to (bad) luck.  But especially when the success itself seems disproportionate (perhaps such that it’s a positive black swan), we can be overwhelmed by it. 

I’m an Eagles fan.  Excessive and sanctimonious? Sure. What great rock & roll band isn’t. But they receive more criticism than they deserve.  Their harmonies, especially, are magical. That they can show us something about ourselves is an added bonus.