For my twin toddlers, the instant attention-grabbing words are — Once upon a time. They drop everything and dash to whoever uttered those words.
It’s my only weapon to break their fights and tantrums. But once those words slip out then there is no escape.
“Tell me the story, Papa. Please tell me the story.” To their relentless prodding, I give in every time.
It doesn’t matter how interesting or boring the story is. Neither does it matter if I am telling them the same narrative for the hundredth time. Fed up they’re not. Any pause to catch my breath is cut short by an impatient stare demanding an exciting twist in the tale. Their eyes widen as if it’s not the ears but eyes they’re listening with.
Kids are suckers for stories. So are adults. Aren’t we?
The content may change but the fascination for stories is deeply ingrained trait that evolution has bestowed on the human brain.
What separates a story from an uninteresting collection of information?
John found a cat is information. John found Mary’s cat is a story. Brilliant, isn’t it?
It’s extraordinary how human species raced to the top of the food chain in a matter of few thousand years in spite of being physically weaker than many other animals. Historians provide several explanations for that but one of the most convincing theory among them gives credit to Homo Sapiens’ unique ability to believe in imagined realities — stories and fiction.
Yuval Harari, in his brilliant book Sapiens, writes –
…fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.
Over the past thousands of years, human brain has evolved rapidly and optimized itself for using language. The more adept we became in employing language the better we became with imagination. The more we imagined, sharper became the brain for processing stories.
Today, memory champions exploit this all the time. A trick called Mental Palace is a brilliant hack to remember a random piece of information e.g. a shuffled deck of cards.
This is how Mental Palace works: Imagine a palace with large rooms, vivid objects, and fancy props. Then as you are shown the cards, start placing these cards mentally inside the palace in such a manner that it creates a coherent story. Of course, it takes some practice. But it’s not very hard. You should hear my kids making up their own stories where they make Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger fight with Rhinos and Lions.
The best thing is that it’s an imaginary palace. Which means you can even bend the space, twist the walls, and blow things up or shrink them down out of proportion. Do whatever makes the picture vivid and amusing to your grey cells.
Thanks to evolution again, human mind is strikingly good in remembering visual map of physical spaces. So when those physical spaces are superimposed onto a logical sequence of events, i.e., a story, very minimal effort is required to recall the order of the deck of cards because all you have do is mentally revisit the imaginary palace and recall the stories associated with it.
Mental palace is a brilliant tool to leverage our brain’s superpower, i.e., special liking for stories and maps of physical spaces.
In the mental palace trick, the imagined story as well as the piece of information — a shuffled deck of cards — were both unimportant. Yet, our brain was fooled into treating it as important data and processed its storage and retrieval efficiently.
The lesson that I take away is that a story is a very effective tool to package any message or an abstract idea. Stories themselves are unimportant. What’s more important is the idea the construct of a story is enclosing inside it.
An idea doesn’t stick well if it’s not packaged in the form of a story.
Ancient Indian sages were called rishis, explains famous mythologist and author Devdutt Pattanaik, “those who saw what others did not see. They had discovered the value of stories a long time ago. The word for story, katha, and epic narrative, ka-avya, is rooted in ka, the first alphabet of Sanskrit, which is also the root of all interrogative words, in Sanskrit, as well as in Hindi today: kab (when), kahan (where), kyon (why), kaun (who). In the Veda, Ka is one of the earliest name of God. Ka-tha and ka-avya means stories and poems that enable humans to answer the questions about their existence and purpose. They are maps of the human mind. Mahabharata and Ramayanas were kathas and ka-avyas, composed by Vyasa, the sage who compiled and classified the Vedic mantras into chapters (mandalas), who passed it on to bards or sutas.”
In some way, all the mythological stories are just that — stories. One could debate endlessly if Ramayan or Mahabharat really happened. But there is little doubt about their resilience for they have survived through centuries. However, how many of these stories were successful in preserving the original message? The jury may still be out on that.
The best stories are the ones which leave enough room for the audience to fill in their own imagination. That’s the reason why stories take completely new form as they travel between one person’s mouth to another one’s ear. Everyone has his/her own interpretation of these stories. And what message do we derive out of these stories is again very subjective. The version of a story we propagate is heavily influenced by how we interpreted it at the first place.
Telling stories is not easy, writes Harari, “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.”
That brings us to another important missing piece here. If story is a box and the message is the jewel inside, then “the context” is the key that unlocks the box. Wrong context, i.e., wrong key and the box doesn’t open. The story doesn’t work.
In other words, when the key is misplaced, when the context is forgotten, the message becomes inaccessible and people mistake the box, i.e., the story itself to be the message.
That’s why the world rewards those who have mastered the art of summoning a great story under the right context. A great storyteller is one who knows which stories need to be told and when.
When an entrepreneur creates a startup, he believes in a story. And then he builds his team by telling the same story to others — his investors, his partners, his employees, vendors, and customers. The success of his endeavour rests on his ability as a storyteller. Ditto for a CEO who runs a large organization. The company’s goals, mission, vision, culture etc. are all stories and a great management is one who can communicate these stories convincingly.
So as an investor, when you are evaluating the ability of the CEO to execute, look for this trait – Is he/she a good storyteller?
I’ll leave you with this unnerving observation from Harari —
Over the years, people have woven an incredibly complex network of stories. The kinds of things that people create through this network of stories are known in academic circles as ‘fictions’, ‘social constructs’ or ‘imagined realities’. An imagined reality is not a lie. Unlike lying, an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world. Most millionaires sincerely believe in the existence of money and limited liability companies. Most human-rights activists sincerely believe in the existence of human rights.
Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.