Mar 21 What We’re Reading: Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind
Every now and then, a book comes along and changes your life. I first heard about Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind from an acquaintance over a business lunch, and my interest piqued immediately when I my friend said something along the lines of: “It’s a new look at human history that is totally fascinating, but also kind of creepy.”
Sapiens is the story of humankind as told by historian Yuval Noah Harari, who happens to also be extremely knowledgeable in evolutionary biology, and an astute observer of human culture in all its glory and with all its quirks.
Every chapter offers a new and often mind-blowing perspective on topics such as the evolution of our brains, religion, and the workings of our economy. I’d like to keep spoilers to a minimum, but here is a thought I just had to share with you.
Take a moment and think about this question: what is the single-most important evolutionary advantage of the human species? Why were we able to progress from communities that would allow cooperation of no more than 150 people to the complex global civilization in which we live today?
If big brains, our ability to make tools, and language come to mind, you’re not wrong. However, Harari offers this:
“[…] the truly innovative feature of our language is not the ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all.”
Let that sink in for a minute. Harari suggests that our evolutionary advantage is storytelling. As he writes,
“just try to imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, or churches, or legal systems if we could only speak about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions.”
Stories and myths are not confined to ancient cultures. They are what our lives are based on today, in 21st century America: the nation-state we live in, the limited liability corporations we work for, the marriages we lead. We have agreed on these common sets of beliefs, or as he calls them, ‘imagined realities’, in order to collaborate effectively. A large majority of things that give meaning to our existence are things we can’t touch, smell or see, but as long as we all believe in them, they except a real force in our world. Harari writes:
“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.”
As I was reading this first part of the book, I had an acute sense of how much meaning our ability to tell stories gives to our lived experience. While many people may feel that Harari’s thesis pulls the rug from underneath their feet, I’m amongst those who feel the opposite: I find it deeply grounding and liberating, and it gives me a renewed sense of purpose as a storyteller for my organization.
So today, I’d like to ask you this: What belief do you inspire in the customers who place their trust in you? What’s your organizations’ story and how does it allow you and your customers evolve? And lastly, what is one thing you could do to tell it better?