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Tell your own story

I often like to think about this scenario:

Imagine you were some sort of alien, and you landed on planet earth in Cape Town in about 1850 AD - what would you see?

Then imagine you zoomed back into outer space, hung out there for a while, and came back to Cape Town in the present day - what would you see now? More specifically, what would you see now that is still the same as it was in 1850?

I’m betting that Table Mountain would still be there, the sun would probably still rise in the East, and forces like gravity and the evaporation of water would still be in play.

Less likely, is that the borders of the Western Cape Province (if it was even called WC back then) would be the same, or that the legal systems in which we operate would have remained consistent across time. It’s almost impossible to think that any of the companies you found in 1850 would still be around, and so on.

In his timeless classic, Sapiens, Yuval Harari points out that as humans, one of our unique capabilities is to engage in “shared fiction”. That is to say, if enough people believe in the same fabrication of our minds, it starts to feel like reality. Indeed, the borders between countries have no enduring eternal truth to them, they only exist in our shared fiction, and these fictions are prone to change from over time.

Companies are very much like this. We create a brand, we speak of a vision and purpose, we set goals and financial targets, but companies only actually exist in our shared fiction. The same is true of countries, money, stock markets, and so much more in our day-to-day lives.

Cool story, but why the heck does this matter?

I’ve always found this point to be incredibly empowering. Many of these shared fictions we engage in on a day-to-day basis feel as real as gravity. When enough people believe in the same thing, these constructs start to feel as immovable as Table Mountain.

Seeing these clearly for what they are, a shared fiction, means that we can see the translucent nature of these entities in our lives. Seeing the fictions clearly means that they are capable of being changed, of being improved, of evolving over time, or even being broken apart and recreated from scratch when necessary.

A lot of the things in our lives which feel immovable, let’s say the political system in our country, are anything but. With the right leadership and drive, new stories can be told, and new realities of shared fiction can be created. This point is fundamentally empowering for every one of us.

Closer to home, we all have some sort of fiction we’ve told ourselves and others about who we are, what we stand for, what we like and don’t like, etc. Over time this starts to feel immovable, “Oh, I’m just not into that sort of thing.” In truth, our identities and sense of self are far more malleable than we typically allow for, and there is always more room for growth and change. We have this strange sense of obligation to be consistent with the version of ourselves we’ve presented to others in the past - the shared fiction of what sort of person you are.

The opportunity here is to take a critical look at the fictions which exist in your life. See them clearly. Many of these fictions will be serving you well, and of course, there’s no need to change them. However, I’ll bet there are a number of these fictions which aren’t serving you, and you’re only staying true to them because of the sense that they are as real as gravity.

Tell your own story.


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