Jeremy Côté

Stories and Tracks

I have been studying physics for over six years. As such, I have learned a bunch and changed as a person. I now have a better appreciation for physics and science in general than I did when I first began years ago, and I expect to see the field differently another five years from now.

A question that is often asked of people is, “How did you get started?” Whether you are a cartoonist, writer, actor, athlete, engineer, scientist, mathematician, businessperson, or designer, people love to know the backstory behind the career. Humans adore stories, and origin stories are often the most inspirational. They show how we change over the years, and what the vantage point of experience has given us.

However, life doesn’t often unroll as a perfect story. Life doesn’t have knowledge of story structure. We don’t always have an inciting incident to kick things off, an epic climax that pushes us to our maximum, and a denouement that brings us to the present moment. Instead, we simply have a collection of moments, with some suggestions of an arc. Furthermore, the arc isn’t complete, so we don’t have a nice structure that we can point to. At best, we have a direction that seems well-defined.

But humans don’t just like stories, we are experts at crafting them too. As a result, when someone asks, say, an artist about their past, the artist will be quite capable of fashioning a story of their life. We are great at picking moments from our past and bolting story structure to our lives.

In a way, this makes our stories fake. They are often not as exciting as we portray them, and we seldom learn a ton of lessons through some harrowing journey. It’s only with the gift of hindsight that we look back on what we did and identify the major moments of our story. In this sense, we are sort of like those who make “post-dictions”: explanations from a theory after they look at the data. In other words, we know the end game, and we work backwards to make an appropriate story. (This isn’t even to mention the fallibility of memory.)

I’ve thought about this in my own life as a science student. What were the moments that tilted my life in the direction of physics and mathematics? Were these moments important, or was I always “destined” to arrive where I am, like a ball rolling down a wide trench and getting funnelled to a destination?

It’s difficult to answer this question with any sort of confidence. However, it has gotten me thinking about the role of stories versus tracks. What I mean by the latter is simple: a “track” is some sort of physical evidence of who you once were. This means you can reference it in the present moment, instead of relying on your memories.

Many things can serve as tracks. I’m thinking of journal entries, work you did, photographs, and other memorabilia that you collect over the years. These are physical manifestations of what you did, and they can likely stand the test of time better than your memories. As such, when it comes time to talk about your past (which everyone seems to inevitably do), you can show your tracks instead of presenting a polished story.

Does that mean you might seem more mundane? Certainly, but I personally prefer this to crafting my own story. Besides, there’s nothing stopping me from supplementing my tracks with stories. I just don’t want to rely solely on stories, because I know they aren’t the most accurate.

My preference for tracks stems from the fact that I know we like to see ourselves in the best light possible. This is fine, but it means we tend to exaggerate our accomplishments or other moments in order to serve us. I’m more interested in the story of what I was feeling at a certain moment in time. Being able to capture the exact thoughts and feelings I had seems like a much better way to recall the past than by sampling my memories.

Laying down tracks might seem boring when you do it, but you are giving your future self a gift. Stories are great, but tracks allow you to capture entire moments of your life, and revisit them over and over again.

I think that’s a worthy cause.