Byte Tank

Pedro Lopes Notes

Let Me Tell You a Story

You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven. How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined.

― Yuval Noah Harari

Take a minute to think of what a nation is. Let’s say the United States of America. What makes someone American? Is it their physique, genetic traits, family lineage, pheromones? No, it’s a concept in their head, which stems from a mix of identity, ideology, personal gains from abiding to that concept (say, gaining currency via a job or a company, that allows you to acquire things you desire), perceived protection and support from peers because they believe you are commonly aligned on core beliefs / concepts.

The same can be said of a company. A company is not a physical being, it’s a shared idea in our imagination. As Yuval mentions in Sapiens, Peugeot does not really exist, except in our minds. It doesn’t have a body, mind, anything. We have the common belief that Peugeot exists, because we also have the common belief of what a company means, we are aligned on how it should be represented and who can represent it, we recognize it as an entity with rights and duties, and which laws it should abide by.

Laws, as well, are worth nothing if only one person believes in them. They are powerful because a large group of people believe in them, and they expect others to do so as well. That’s why we have courts, prisons, and educational systems for that matter. They are ways to punish, format, and incentivise for the entire group to have the required level of consistency, and keep rowing in the same direction.

That’s why complete anarchy loses its edge on a large scale. It extinguishes the biggest thing Humans have going for them: the ability for large numbers of people to rally in common goals, even though they don’t personally know most of their fellow believers.

As N. K. Humphrey suggests, these ideas, behaviors, or styles that spread by means of imitation from person to person within a culture, also known as memes, could even be considered as living structures, not just metaphorically. The generational propagation of a meme outweighs the lifespan of the Human who created it, so in a way, “we are living inside the dreams of dead people”, as Yuval puts it.

That being said, how do we align on a common concept or belief?


We’ve seen above how powerful and valuable having a broad range of concepts aligned within a group of people. They bring value to the whole, but also to the individual.

You can force someone to abide to a given concept via force (coercion, blackmailing, etc), but since they see little value going on for them, they don’t have the incentive to grow that concept inside them, or to propagate that concept to others

Stories however, allow you to describe a world to others that they can interpret in their head, and they can see by themselves how it would benefit them, and the ones around them. It’s an information passage mechanism that allows Humans to communicate and agree on a given concept, and they are everywhere:

  • Children’s bedtime stories - notice how several of these transmit moral values, this is, expectations of how one should behave in a given situation, in order to be in alignment with the overall group / society
  • Novels, biographies, movies
  • When interviewees tell you a story of their childhood, how they created their company, how they achieved X, what happened during their struggles, etc
  • When a leader, such as a CEO, convinces others of their vision / story, and that future prospects that would derive from working in a certain direction
  • When meeting someone, when you talk about your background and your goals
  • When you sell you employee skills to an employers, giving a summary of your professional trajectory
  • When politicians portray their vision on how they want to improve their nation
  • The lore of a nation, tribe, family, and their laws / duties / rights

Being a good storyteller is a powerful skill

As a species, one of our biggest distinguishing factors is that we are able to goal on highly abstract concepts that only exist in our minds, such as the concept of a company, a nation, a mission, an ideology, an intellectual relationship, the concept of money. As Yuval puts it, “We are the only species with the ability to use language—not just to describe things we can see, taste, and touch, but also to invent stories about things that don’t exist.”

A magical thing happens when a group of people interpret and value that concept in the same way, and are highly aligned on it. Narrative is the first and most crucial step for leaders who want to solve big problems and shape the world for the better. After all, a person can have the greatest idea in the world, but if they fail to rally others to make that idea come alive, nothing gets done.