I was strolling through Central Park one afternoon when I came across a tribe of elves. Well I assumed they were elves, they could have been fairies. I wasn’t quite sure.
This was several years back when I lived in Manhattan. I was at a clearing that was west of Turtle Pond I think and stumbled onto a scene of dozens maybe a hundred people dressed like they were having a Middle-Earth Renaissance soiree. It was Live-Action-Role-Playing in progress, known as ‘L.A.R.P.ing’ for short.
A team of fairies (or elves) were off to one side teaching each other some sort of dance. Various other games were going on throughout and on the far side of the lawn was a group baring foam weapons apparently training for some sort of battle. I really hoped they weren’t going to come across anything too dangerous.
I observed for a bit not particularly stunned, it’s New York, but mesmerized by how different it was than what I had planned for the rest of my day. I was in business school at the time.
My life, so I thought revolved around non-fiction and it never occurred to me that the L.A.R.P.ing I was partaking in might have looked equally strange to my newfound fairy friends.
Somewhere between 70,000-30,000 years ago the cognitive revolution was taking place, as Yuval Noah Harari writes in his book ‘Sapiens’. The result of which was our jump to the top of the food chain.
The enabling feature? The origin of modern human language.
Up to that point Harari explains, all animals, humans included could cooperate in one of two ways: rigidly in large numbers or flexibly in small.
Bee hives he says, for example have hundreds maybe thousands of bees working together in perfect order but always in the same structure. Every hive supports the queen, never a mutiny or an overthrow.
On the other hand he points out how a wolf pack is able to moderate their behavior based on circumstances but never in groups larger than a few families.
What differentiated Homo sapiens was that we developed the ability to ‘cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers.’
This he tells us, was due to our new language capabilities. It wasn’t so much that it enhanced our ability to share actual information about the physical world but rather that it allowed us to make shit up.
‘…this ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language…fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively…the biblical creation story…the nationalist myth of modern states…our modern business corporations function on exactly the same basis.’
Our prior limits to group size maxed out at around 150 members, the number of relationships or brains could maintain. Now, Harari highlighted that entities never before possible could be formed based on a belief in shared stories. Two Catholics, he says who had never met before could now go on a crusade together, two lawyers could work together on the defense of a complete stranger based on their common understanding of laws (and fees), and business corporations could exert tremendous amounts of power based on the belief in property rights, shareholders, currency, and contracts.
The United States, the New York Giants, NASA, national borders. These entities weren’t products of the Big Bang. They are constructs from our own minds.
‘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.’
Nobody understood the nature of our collective fictions better than the co-founder of Apple, Steve Jobs:
‘When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money. That's a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you'll never be the same again.’
Steve would probably agree that a large portion of what we refer to as ‘non-fiction’ is really just fiction that we all agreed to implement. And it’s the ones that recognize this who end up changing the world. Take Richard Branson, Elon Musk, or Satoshi Nakamoto, the mysterious inventor of Bitcoin.
Up until Bitcoin was announced in January of 2009 the agreed way to trade and store value was a fiat monetary system (e.g. Benjamins). Governments controlled the supply and authorized intermediaries facilitated transactions, in exchange for fees of course.
Satoshi had an idea for a better story. He used something new called block chain to enable electronic, peer-to-peer, and frictionless (aka fee-less) exchange. When he told people his tale and released his invention to the world some stalwarts of the existing story got mad.
The history of progress is somebody showing us how our stories can change. The examples are infinite.
Even though not all stories are meant to immediately change the way we collectively interact, relegating them to mere entertainment is selling them short. They exist, the good ones at least to change the world in more subtle ways.
Shawn Coyne, seasoned book editor and storytelling expert tells us:
‘The reason that storytelling is so important is because stories are the vehicles we use to change ourselves.’
Hey continues in his book, ‘The Story Grid’:
‘To change anything…causes great anxiety…how we are convinced finally to change is by hearing stories of other people who risked and triumphed…we need stories to temper our anxieties, either as supporting messages to stay as we are or inspiring road maps to get us to take a chance…(they) give us the courage to examine our own lives and change them.’
They might embolden us to go be a Richard, or Elon, or Steve, or Satoshi.
It’s fitting to take this home with a passage from one of my favorite stories which comes from the fantasy novel, ‘The Name of the Wind’ by Patrick Rothfuss:
(Bast is speaking to Chronicler in the bar of an inn)
“Have you ever heard the story of Martin Maskmaker?” Chronicler shook his head and Bast gave a frustrated sigh. “How about plays? Have you seen ‘The Ghost and the Goosegirl’ or ‘The Ha’penny King’?”
Chronicler frowned. “Is that the one where the king sells his crown to an orphan boy?”
Bast nodded. “And the boy becomes a better king than the original. The goosegirl dresses like a countess and everyone is stunned by her grace and charm.” He hesitated, struggling to find the words he wanted. “You see, there’s a fundamental connection between seeming and being. Every Fae child knows this, but you mortals never seem to see. We understand how dangerous a mask can be. We all become what we pretend to be.”
Chronicler relaxed a bit, sensing familiar ground. “That’s basic psychology. You dress a beggar in fine clothes, people treat him like a noble and he lives up to their expectations.”
“That’s only the smallest piece of it,” Bast said. “The truth is deeper than that. It’s…” Bast floundered for a moment. “It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time.”
And Bast gives us the most important takeaway of all:
“That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”
You’ll have to excuse me now, I need to go re-watch Rocky.
 This Steve Jobs quote is from an interview that aired in the PBS documentary, ‘One Last Thing’ (2011) http://www.pbs.org/programs/steve-jobs-one-last-thing/. Here’s a clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oKkwbM3zM8M