‘If myths weren’t real, we’d have to invent them’: The purpose and power of storytelling

Myths get a bad press. Nowadays ‘myth’ is often used pejoratively, in the sense of a lie or a counterfeit. But actual myths are far more elementary, essential, powerful and complex. In his 2014 book Sapiens , Dr Yuval Harari argued that our species of human* gave ourselves an unassailable competitive advantage – in a very real, Darwinian sense – when we developed the ability to make and share myths. It’s a brilliant argument. Chimpanzee groups can co-operate for the common good. But in groups of 30 or more, that co-operation breaks down. And for sure, no chimpanzee group has ever been observed teaming with a neighbouring group to fend off a pride of chimp-eating lions.

Shared myths, perhaps about nature, gods or creation, helped our ancestors to bond and cooperate faster, better and on an exponentially larger scale. I may not know you from Adam, but the fact that we both know who Adam is – and might be prepared to believe him to be the father of our people – connects us at many levels. Shared myths create trust even between complete strangers. Trust fostered cooperation on an unprecedented scale. Imaginative, collaborative, sociable Sapiens spread themselves over the globe. The rest is, literally, history.

The value of myths hasn’t diminished: it’s actually increased.

In all of that time, the value of myths hasn’t diminished: it’s actually increased. As soon as Sapiens were able to cooperate with strangers, they were able to trade surplus goods to resolve their own shortages. But trade was limited until the value of goods could be easily and universally established. That’s the job of money. What is the Pound (or Dollar) in your pocket actually worth? The real answer is: only as much as we collectively believe it to be. A shared belief in the invincibility of the Bank of England, or US Federal Reserve – the myth of sovereign currency – is what underpins that value.

And so we come to perhaps the most prevalent category of modern myth: the brand. What makes Apple currently the richest and most successful company on Earth? The myth of the Apple brand. It encompasses a creation, a glorious ‘first age’, a fall from grace, a resurrection and a messianic leader. It professes universally attractive themes of good versus bad, excellence versus mediocrity, innovation versus copycat. In some respects, it even manages to still act and sound like a David, when it is manifestly a Goliath. And the power wielded by Apple Computer Inc comes from understanding its own myth… by believing it, living it, nurturing it. And consequently, being the creatures that we are, tens of millions of Sapiens believe it, live it and nurture it too. Apple isn’t being cynical, dishonest or manipulative. It’s being human. And as humans, we connect and respond.

The power wielded by Apple Computer Inc comes from understanding its own myth… by believing it, living by it, nurturing it…

Now, you’re very smart, been around the block, savvy. I think you’re noodling on this and saying to yourself: surely this myth thing can’t be so hard wired? Someone spins me a good yarn and I come over all drooling Pavlovian puppy? I’m smarter than that!

In actuality, I am saying that humanity has a talent for creating and believing myths. I’m saying there’s a gene for that, and it first passed the test of natural selection tens of millennia ago. The bread and butter of myth-making and sharing is storytelling, and you can see it working all around you, every day. Try this thought experiment. Imagine yourself back in the classroom at age six or seven. It’s late afternoon and light is fading. You’ve been running yourself ragged in the playground and you’re in no mood to settle down. Then the teacher calls you into a huddle, and sets a book on her knees. She begins to read. Can you remember what that feels like…?

The human instinct to make and tell stories is as strong as the instinct to walk on two legs – and more unique – yet we often take it for granted. As a business person you can legitimately and honestly harness that powerful talent. Understand the real purpose of your business – what does it exist to do? Why is it so gifted at doing it? What strengths, talents, beliefs and ethics are you harnessing? Create THAT story, keep it honest, and tell it well. Figure out your company’s brand myth, nourish it and invest in it. Do it right, and it will be your greatest natural asset.

So here’s a short, seasonal story to finish up with. On December 19th, 1843 a very short novel – or long political pamphlet – was first published. It was, in essence, a rejection of the harsh social and economic theories of the early Industrial Revolution. It argued that every citizen in a just society had a right to an education, and deserved a share of the wealth they worked to create. And even today, those values seem as relevant as ever. The author wanted to amplify his message by tapping into the spirit of the season, “A time… when want is keenly felt, and abundance rejoices.” In doing so he gave us one of literature’s greatest anti-heroes and conjured – mythologised – a version of Christmas that we believe, share and strive to recreate today. Until Charles Dickens wrote ‘A Christmas Carol’ there really was no universal, shared experience of the Christmas holiday.

And until Jim Henson’s Muppets brought it to the big screen, there had never been a cinema experience to match the brilliance of the original book. Enjoy

Merry Christmas!

* Homo Sapiens Sapiens. As distinct from Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis and maybe as many as three other human species that, for a while, we shared the planet with.

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