I just started the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and it’s very interesting. It’s a short book about the history of humankind, looking specifically at the development of language, the development of agriculture and the development of science as three pivotal points in human history.
We’re not the first animals to use language. Monkeys, apes, wolves, crows and other creatures warn each other about predators and proposition each other all the time. What we do that is unique is that we make stuff up. We can talk about stuff that doesn’t exist.
In other words, homo sapiens create stories.
According to Harari, this ability helped us to kill all the other non-sapiens hominids and take over the world. Yay us!
We create legends and dress codes and instruction manuals and laws and songs and parking spaces and states and ads and games and curriculum and news. All these things are not real outside of language. We made them up and then we agreed on them.
Stories are super powerful. (I don’t just mean the ones with superheroes in them either.) Stories about gods and nations and money have inspired and/or killed hundreds of millions of people. Stories are the motivation behind almost every move we make. How many times are you driven to do something because of a basic drive like hunger? You probably stopped screaming about being hungry or thirsty around the time you learned how to ask for something to eat.
Stories are so integral to our lives that it’s easy to forget they are there. Fish don’t know what water is and we don’t notice the fictional soup we swim in.
By the way, a good way to tell if something is actually real (like a person or a car or an apple) or a consensually agreed upon fiction (like a parking space or money or school spirit) is to ask yourself if your dog or cat recognizes it in the same way you do.
Look around right now and identify what is real and what is a story. I’m writing this (all non-real) in a Starbucks (a corporation is a “legal fiction”). There are lots of packages and furniture in this building but the reason for them and most of the activity that is going on is based on invented laws and customs. All of commerce is a consensual hallucination. It is a very powerful and useful one and it’s not going away…but it is a great big story.
So what? Culture is, at it’s core, invented. Great point, John. Next you’ll tell me that water is wet and there are a lot more people in California than there are in Siberia. Big deal.
Here’s the point.
If we notice the stories we live inside of we can get power over them. Once we recognize the story we can change it. A lot of stories are consensual so if you want to change it in a meaningful way you have to get other people to change their story as well. People like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Junior and Nelson Mandela change history in part by telling a better story.
If you change your story you change your perception of the world around you.
But there are also a lot of stories that only you know and the only person who has to change the story is you. In my experience, when people want to accomplish something great and they don’t, the biggest obstacle is their own story.
The biggest obstacle is their own story.
Let me say that again but more directly…
and more forcefully
and in blue
with a larger font.
The biggest obstacle in your life is probably your own story. One that you made up years ago. An antiquated and useless work of fiction with no relationship to reality that needs to be tossed out or seriously rewritten.
Here’s a simple example of how this works.
You have a story that goes like this:
“Because of ____ and ____ I can’t achieve _____.”
As a result of your belief that this story is real, you don’t TRY to achieve _____.
Please note that your dog doesn’t even know about this story and if you told it to him he wouldn’t understand it. Thus it is a work of fiction.
Please note that I am NOT saying that the power of positive thinking will give you super human strength. What I am saying is that this story keeps tons of people from even trying. You can’t do anything if you take no action and if you KNOW (because of your story) that your action will not succeed you will not take action.
In his book David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell talks about dyslexic people like Gary Cohn (COO of Goldman Sachs) and Brian Grazer (Co-owner of Imagine Entertainment) who succeed in part because their learning disability taught them early on that failure wasn’t fatal. They kept trying because they knew from experience that the downside (failure) wasn’t so bad. They’d done that a lot. Their story might go like this:
“I might as well try _____ because the worse thing that can happen is that I fail and that’s not a such a bad thing. I don’t like it but it won’t kill me and I can learn from it.”
I have a huge aversion to failure. Huge. One of my worst stories goes like this:
“If I fail then it will confirm that I am a loser so I should only do things that I know I can succeed at.”
I’m giving that up.
Here’s another one:
“People don’t want to hear from me and if I keep talking about optimism and goal setting and creating habits they will think I’m a delusional loser.”
Note that I’m apparently very worried about being a loser. This worry is a story I made up in 7th grade when I thought I was a loser. I’ve actually worked very hard since then to not be a loser. This has been a tremendous waste of time and energy because, really, who cares? There are really only three people on earth who’s opinion means anything to me and one of them is me. The other two just want me to be happy and occasionally rub their feet so I am free to drop that story as well.
Here are some stories that most people tell themselves:
The world is against me.
I don’t deserve to be happy/successful/loved.
My parents screwed me up.
My responsibilities keep me from being happy.
I am a victim-y, victimized victim and my role in life is to suffer silently as I am victimized.
Someday I will take action so I should not take action now because today is not someday.
By the way, if you read all this and don’t think it applies to you, like you think you don’t base the way you live and act on a work of fiction, you’re delusional.
Here’s another way to ferret out your story. Think about that crazy relative of yours who supports that other candidate for president, the candidate that no one in their right mind would support. You can recognize that your relative is living based on a fictional world view, right?
Okay now think about your own political views from your relative’s point of view. They think that you’re completely nuts to vote for your candidate.
All the evidence that both of you have for the political views that you have are completely invented. Those deeply held political beliefs are works of fiction supported by more works of fiction. That’s why people can live in the same world and believe such different things. Beliefs are made up.
Here’s my proof.
I asked my dog who he was going to vote for and he had no opinion on the matter and was not interested in anything I had to say about it.
So think about that set of political opinions that you have about Trump or Clinton or Bernie or Key or Trudeau.* Think about the evidence you have accumulated to support those opinions. Do you see that every single bit of that is in the non-real realm.
Now I admit that I am being extreme to prove a point. I understand that most of modern life is comprised of made up stuff that every sane human had agreed to believe in (money, ethics, language, laws) and that it’s impractical and insane to reject those things.
The point I am making is that your personal relationship to any concept including money is in your control in a way that your relationship to mass and gravity is not. If you are literally under water you may die. If you are financially under water you may feel like your life is over but, in fact, it isn’t.
Now since my dog doesn’t understand the important consensual hallucination that we call money, perhaps he’s not the most useful arbiter of what is real. Imagine a person who you don’t know. If you told your disempowering story to them would they accept it without any explanation?
YOU: I have to keep the job I hate because my parents will freak out if I quit.
STRANGER: Are you under 18?
YOU: No, I’m 40.
STRANGER: Are you nuts?
YOU: I can’t get a promotion because my boss doesn’t like me.
STRANGER: That’s too bad. She told you that and there’s nothing you can do about it?
STRANGER: No, she didn’t tell you that or no, there is something you can do about it.
STRANGER: Why do you think she doesn’t like you?
YOU: She didn’t smile at me one time.
STRANGER: Are you nuts?
It’s actually very difficult to dig in and identify your stories. The most disempowering ones are often the hardest to identify and re-write.
Be tough on your stuff.
Then change your story.
Changing your story is only powerful if it changes what you do.
“When you understand, that what you’re telling is just a story. It isn’t happening anymore. When you realize the story you’re telling is just words, when you can just crumble up and throw your past in the trashcan, then we’ll figure out who you’re going to be.”
― Chuck Palahniuk,
|The ability to make up stories has given human beings the ability to create civilizations, organizations and advanced technology.
Stories can also stand in the way of progress, both personally and on larger scales.
Realizing that our stories are just made up can give us power over them if we recognize them.
Three Steps to
* Yes, I have international readers and I am pandering to them. Sue me!