an alternative thought experiment by Nikola Danaylov
“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.” Patrick Rothfuss
Stories are not just stories. Stories matter. Because, to paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche, if one has a sufficiently strong “why” one can endure any “how.” And the “why” comes not from facts or events. It comes from the story we attach to them. This desire to meaning is secondary only to the desire to survive: as soon as survival is not at stake, meaning becomes the primary motivation. But sometimes, even when survival is at stake, meaning can provide motivation for survival. That’s how important story is.
For example, if one is suffering greatly one can decide that it is meaningless to go on and give up on life. Or, like Viktor Frankl, one can choose a story that attaches positive meaning to their suffering and thus be motivated to endure even the living hell of Auschwitz. And this is true for individuals, or larger groups of people, such as corporations, religions or nations. As Frankl said:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
So, we are free to choose the story even when we are not free to choose our circumstances. Thus, the story is our “why” while the circumstances are merely our “how.” And the story is what ultimately makes the difference. Because a story is something that helps us feel connected to a reason and, more importantly, to a purpose.
For example, in the case of larger groups of people – such as corporations, story is the glue that brings everyone together and motivates them to cooperate and overcome obstacles. And so, in the past couple of decades, the most successful organizations have come up with what has been called a Massively Transformative Purpose [MTP]. [Salim Ismail, Exponential Organizations, page 53]
An MTP is the distilled essence of a story that captures who this organization is for and what’s its mission or purpose. For example, Google’s MTP is “organize the world’s information.” TED’s MTP is “ideas worth spreading.” Deep Mind’s MTP is “Solve intelligence. Use it to make the world a better place.” Calico’s MTP is “solve death.” Mark Zuckerberg’s new charity foundation’s MTP is “cure all disease.” Doctors Without Borders’ MTP is “medical aid where it is needed most.” [Having an MTP is particularly important for Millennials for whom the story of money is often not a sufficient “why.”]
Larger groupings of people such as religions and nations also utilize the power of story to forge their respective religious or national identity. Thus Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism all tell their own mythical stories. And the more we believe in those stories, the more we identify ourselves as Jewish, Christian, Muslim or Hindu. But nations or ideologies such as Liberalism, Humanism, Feminism, and Capitalism do it too. So, a Japanese identifies with the story that Japan – i.e., Nippon, is the “land of the rising Sun” – i.e., “the land of the Gods.” An American identifies with the story of “the land of opportunity” where everyone is free to pursue the “American dream.” A capitalist identifies with the “invisible hand” of the “free market”. A humanist identifies with the story that humanity is “the pinnacle of evolution”, “the supreme intelligence” and “the ultimate authority.”