Story drives human progress, and our ability to subscribe to story is the greatest distinguishing characteristic between human beings and any other species.
A key to living a content and wealthy life is to balance the relationship between playing our roles in fictional stories with what is real.
If you’re familiar with the work of Yuval Harari, you’re likely familiar with his examples of fictions that have moved the needle of human progress.
From his book “Sapiens”:
“Just try to imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, churches, corporations, or legal systems if we could only speak about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees, or lions.”
How funny that the real nature of sports is typically just a bunch of people chasing a ball – but the belief system around the sport and the agreed upon rules create an amazing story to which many people dedicate their lives. Professional athletes give everything they have and, as fans, we might even call ourselves, “die-hards”.
It always intrigues me that by giving a few dollars to a random stranger (cashier) at the supermarket, that I can get a loaf of bread. Only because the entire world agrees upon the story that a piece of paper, like a $5 bill, is worth something am I allowed to leave with something in hand. But it’s just a piece of paper.
As mentioned in the beginning – story is what separates us from other species. And look who’ve we become – story is clearly powerful.
But it seems that if we’re not careful, too much of our lives becomes fictional story. This isn’t a claim that story is bad – after all, story has made us the dominant species. No other species can buy-in collectively at massive scale like us and maintain the ability to adapt when necessary.
Our corporations, our political system, our monetary system, Google – all exist because we subscribe to the story. These stories serve us in some way by enhancing our lives or solving a problem. But they only exist because of our belief in them – not in the same way a rock exists.
My claim is that story has a creeping effect – it grows like ivy. And that if we’re not paying attention, decades can go by, and we’ve been carried by humanity’s stories. Meanwhile, there was plenty of reality in which we could rest – in nature, other people, in doing something creative, in just being quiet.
There’s not much doubt that this creeping effect happens to all of us. We can simply look at humanity’s darkest times and see the belief in a fictional story line that propels the unthinkable.
Yes, story is a great tool to move the needle in many directions. Story created concentration camps. The only way for a travesty like Auschwitz to occur is with a great storyteller, a promise for a better future, and massive buy-in on an extreme fiction. We’re clearly willing to believe a lot and not accepting that we’re vulnerable to being caught in story is turning a blind eye.
We don’t even need to be that dramatic to watch stories play out in our lives.
If we go to a doctor for treatment we have a protagonist (us, the patient, seeking to feel better), an antagonist (an illness, maybe a virus) seeking to survive just as much as we are, and a hero (likely a doctor).
Pretty quickly in human history, we faced the challenge of not having what we wanted or needed and lacking the current funding. There’s a protagonist (us), an antagonist (lack of money or tradable goods), a hero (lenders).
There comes a time, whether by choice or not, that people no longer want to work. Retirement is a very new plot – only a few generations old, at most. Protagonist (either disabled worker or someone who prefers not to work). Antagonist (the need for money without working). Hero (401(k)s, pensions, Social Security benefits).
There’s friction and plot in all our interactions (sometimes subtle, sometimes not) – sprinkle in the desire for love and you’ve got yourself a nice romantic comedy.
It seems best practice is to always be asking ourselves, ‘what story am I in right now and what role do I play?” This also needs balanced with something that is not so temporary, something that is real. Additionally, this isn’t to imply the roles in the storylines are meaningless – quite the contrary. The manner in which we fulfill those roles is an offering to a greater reality.
So when it comes to the stories in which we all have roles – as spouses, employees, bosses, investors, political activists, citizens, etc., it seems important to remember a few things:
- Be good at our roles. Humanity needs us. We’re obligated to help the species survive and thrive. Play the role well and accept the storyline. At times, we’ll be the protagonist and, others, the antagonist. The friction is needed for the story – play the role and appreciate the need for the other.
- It’s just a role and it will come and go as all stories do. Some will be leading roles, some not. Some will last a long time, some will not. The stories will always be changing so while we ought to play the role well, we probably shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. Many times, we don’t even choose our role – it’s just a product of past centuries’ compounding events and a blow of the wind ages ago can impact who we are now (some scientists might call this the Butterfly Effect)
- Balance the story with something that’s real. No doubt playing our roles can take us from our natural state. This is why early mornings can seem so peaceful – only to be disrupted by the stories of the day. I’ve found that removing yourself briefly from the storyline 2-3 times/day is incredibly helpful – whether that means a walk, unplugging, or sitting in silence. But, it’s not a resistance to the story, just a reset.
The stories we’re all in have the good cop / bad cop dynamic. They have conflict and dilemma – otherwise known as a plot. The stories will have heroes – otherwise known as problem solvers. Love interests and confidants. People that capture our attention and trust. Systems upon systems upon systems that we’ve set in motion as humans to solve for whatever stands in the way of survival and progress – and the house of cards is built upon our willingness to believe in the systems and the stories.
All of this is fine and what makes us human beings – which is why we have a duty to take our roles seriously. In the same breath, they are merely fictional stories to which we cannot tie our identity. Our investment account balance, our job title, our political affiliation – all rest on everyone’s willingness to believe the story – which is the exact same mechanism used by some of the worst events in human history. The use of story is incredibly helpful and it’s also no place to throw our anchor.
The great irony is that if we focus more outside of the storylines, frequently this translates to better performance in our fictional roles. We’re dispassionate to what comes and goes, more doors open, and we can more easily watch the plot unfold compared to manipulating outcomes (this is paramount with investment behavior).
Singer / songwriter, Trevor Hall, has a song: “Blue Sky Mind”.
We each need to find our version of the blue sky that doesn’t move while the clouds pass by – while simultaneously playing the roles of the story.
Break a leg.
Thanks for reading,