“The moon tells the sky, the sky tells the sea, the sea tells the tide, and the tide tells me.”
From the cradle of humankind, we have been huddling over campfires to tell stories. Stories are an everyday part of our life. Inspiring stories about heroes, explanations on esoteric phenomenon and false narratives on our own shortcomings help us make sense of a complex world. How can we harness the power of a story?
Once upon a time..
From early on in our evolution – we walked the earth as many mammals do; We rose at dawn and hunted, gathered and built until sunset – after which we went to sleep in a lair in order to avoid the cold, dark night.
This all changed when man learned to control fire. After this momentous invention – our waking hours got greater and greater (until eventually reaching 16 waking hours a day, much more than any other mammal!).
Most of this newfound time was spent in communion around the warm and brilliant campfire. From this point on, we started communicating and culture began to spawn through the sharing of stories. At first, they were likely just fact-based observations, but eventually they evolved into more and more mystical explanations on unknown phenomena – especially once mind-altering plants started to get involved.
“Thunder is an almighty god striking with furious retribution upon those who are unkind.”
“The dead contain unholy energy that will grasp you to the afterlife if you don’t bury them.”
“The rivers overflow and drown us because we don’t pray enough to the spirits of the forest.”
And inevitably, people start to believe these mystical explanations – as the river has not overflown for quite some time, and we have been sacrificing chickens for a while now. Must be true. Makes sense.
Our human brains evolved to be susceptible to these explanations.
Stories and explanations are powerful shortcuts our brain uses in order to make sense of an increasingly complex world filled with facts, observations as well as many unknown factors. They are, by definition, an abstraction of reality – fiction – a way for us to accept cause and consequence without having all the details.
Because we know now – rivers overflow because of an incredibly complex natural ecosystem consisting of highly uncertain global weather patterns, shifts in seismic layers, human behavior across the stream, animal migration and the list of contributing factors goes on and on. There was simply no way old civilizations could see all these facts as they are.
And explanations are still flawed even today. For example, what creates a lasting company or a successful CEO? If you search for this, there are many explanations to be found on why this is. They are all false. There are simply too many factors that are impossible to measure that contribute to the result. There are patterns – sure – no-one became a great athlete without training countless hours – but patterns are not explanations. That would mean there is a 1-2-3 step plan to becoming a great athlete or top business executive, but the truth is that the data concludes there is a realm of randomness involved. There are plenty of athletes that train countless hours, but do not become pro. There are simply to many factors for our limited cognitive ability to understand.
And even if there is some cause and effect – it does not mean there is a correlation. In the middle ages, the black plague was one of the most deadly diseases to roam the world. At one point, a desperate health professional (some random farmer) tried to put leeches on people’s skin in order to suck out the disease. As some got cured “because of this”, they naturally explained it was because of the leeches. If they would, however, had the scientific method back then – they would have tried this method on a large amount of people, measure the results and notice how the facts would not support that at all. Not all people who got leeched lived. In fact, not a lot of them did!
This bias for stories and explanations are now deep-wired into the way our current brain functions. It allows them to even circumvent basic logic. It is called the narrative fallacy and a ton of research has alluded to this bias. Just giving a story and an explanation makes people much more likely to act irrationally.
Consider, for example, the following situation from a now-famous research;
Linda is a thirty-one years old, single, outspoken and very bright young woman. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice and also participated in antinuclear demonstrations.
Now, they asked. Which alternative is more probable?
- Linda is a bank teller
- Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.
A whopping 90% of interviewed people at major universities in the United States chose the second option!
Notice how the second option is rationally and factually always a less probable answer. It is a more detailed answer, and even contains – as a subset – the first statement. Yet is just makes more sense to our brains, because the story adds up. Changing the story does not change the facts, it merely changes our perception.
“Because” shuts down our rational brain. It focuses us on the story – the explanation – as opposed to the rational facts. It has been shown in another study that just giving a reason increases compliance to an order. People can -with a high amount of certainty (93%!) – jump to the front of a copy-machine queue by giving the reason “Because I have to make copies.” A completely useless and irrational reason. Everyone there does.
Now how does this relate to our journey? I propose the following strategy; Instead of trying to fight the cognitive bias of the narrative fallacy with increasingly complex logic and rationality – which puts us more and more into our flawed minds, we should embrace the shortcomings of our mind by creating personal myths, legends and stories that suit us.
Because we tell ourselves stories as well, and our favourite subject is you.
We tell ourselves we cannot achieve our dreams because *stupid reason #1*
and we cannot get a fulfilling relationship because *bullshit reason #2*
and we cannot …
Yet the facts do not support these statements at all. Actually, there is no evidence at all yet whether your dreams are achievable or not. These are just stories. False narratives. A great quote from the detective Sherlock Holmes comes to mind:
“Never theorize before you have data. Invariably, you end up twisting facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”
Hero with a thousand faces
All myths, legends and stories that inspire us share common characteristics. They have been well-documented and serve as a great basis for writers of all kinds. It is called the hero’s journey.
The common points of any story are:
- Departure. The hero leaves his ordinary world on a call for adventure. Although reluctant, the hero is helped by a mentor figure.
- Initiation. The hero traverses the threshold to an unknown, special or magical world. Here, the hero faces challenges – but does not give up and eventually passes all trials.
- Apotheosis. The hero reaches the central apex of the adventure. The grand enemy or the final ordeal. Where the hero overcomes the main obstacle and is reborn a new person – often with a reward in hand.
- Return. The hero returns to the ordinary world, transformed and/or with a great boon. The hero has wisdom or other spiritual power over both worlds. The hero shares this with his fellow man.
Use these same characteristics for your own personal myth. Note how the hero in the story faces many challenges, but does not give up, fails to achieve his/her goal or goes in a completely different direction suddenly. And the hero must leave the comfort zone, go deep into dangerous territory, but eventually succeeds in uplifting others.
Watch what stories you tell about yourself. They are just an additional layer you put upon reality yourself. This can either help you or destroy you.
Instead of telling yourself a false narrative of “I am disgusting, worthless, and should kill myself”, realize that you are right in the apotheosis phase of your personal myth. It is at this point that you should persevere and be reborn anew. Make your life an epic saga of heroic adventure and growth.
Instead of telling yourself a false narrative you will never be good enough, start your story of greatness by a departure from the comfort zone – as to find the treasure you seek. You are not failing because you are not good enough, you are failing because these are challenges to overcome. No worthy quest is easy.
Instead of telling yourself your dreams are out of reach – tell yourself the story of achievement and overcoming the doubts in your mind. Tell yourself the story of returning to those you love with the treasure in hand.
Change your frame from
“I am a victim and helpless”
“I am growing and healing”
and see how fast your world changes.
And he lived happily ever after..