The numbers made sense to him. The box scores, the stock quotes, the weather – this was the useful information. It was standardized and you could pick up any older edition and see the changes between then and today.
As he got towards the front page, the numbers faded and the stories grew. Progressively, nothing would make sense anymore. It was much harder to analyze headlines compared to the numbers.
Think about that.
Usually we’re trying to quantify the headlines. We look for the key variables in the story.
Brown worked in the other direction. He looked for the standardized information, was curious about spotting the key variables, and looked for the deviations that would become the story.
A winning streak in baseball becomes a headline. A dropping or soaring stock price becomes a headline. An unseasonal change in weather or a surprise storm becomes a headline. It’s the transition from “unknown” to “everybody knows” that captivates us – and that’s an exercise in hindsight.
The story rarely makes the numbers, but the numbers always make the story.
We can make it even more tangible if we think of a biography. Any one will do. Now ask yourself, why doesn’t your life have a clear narrative arc like that story?
Because life is a bunch of noisy data points. We pick the peaks and troughs and stitch them together to get to a narrative arc. Biographies don’t just unfold. In real time, it all feels much more discombobulated.
When Brown was reading the paper from back to front, he was in search of the future potential headlines. That’s a lot harder to do. It takes a comfort with being wrong that’s unparalleled to the sheer glee of “who made the cover?” He wasn’t looking for the finished biography, he was looking for the emergent trends that a writer would turn into a narrative arc.
It’s not easy to approach the world from the back page to the front page, but most of us can accept that there are a lot of stories on the cutting room floor after the biographies are written. Even if it’s not (always) us, we need people in our lives to help shift through that data.
If we just remember to toggle our approach periodically, it can do wonders for our perspective.