For Impact


Storytelling – The Basis for Human Progress.

Story | | Nick Fellers

I was turned on to Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind after reading a book review from Bill Gates. (I won’t try to ‘one-up’ a book summary by Bill Gates, so just read his.)

Harari walks through the rise of the homo sapien and argues that a ‘cognitive revolution’ is what allowed our species to really win out over other species.

Specifically, it was the ability to develop and transfer abstract concepts (Note: Harari calls these abstract concepts: fiction and story). Without an abstract concept, we would not have the concept of religion… or the rule of law. Without these abstract moral codes, our rival species did not assemble or cooperate in large groups. It required the idea of ‘something greater’ to develop cohesion and community in groups greater than about 150 individuals.

How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.

Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. States are rooted in common national myths. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland and the Serbian flag. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights – and the money paid out in fees.

Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.

People easily understand that ‘primitives’ cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits, and gathering each full moon to dance together around the campfire. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis. Take for example the world of business corporations. Modern business-people and lawyers are, in fact, powerful sorcerers. The principal difference between them and tribal shamans is that modern lawyers tell far stranger tales.

Here is the very powerful insight that sticks with me. Harari writes:

Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals.

Innovators, leaders, and fundraisers are storytellers. We develop NEW stories. We’ve evolved to do this! And… “Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it.”

The task in front of us is not easy, yet — just as it always has — all progress of humanity depends upon it.