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Stories and Structures
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” goes one of the most popular stories in the world. This story has helped a lot of people find faith and happiness but has also helped unleash wars. Some people don’t believe in this story, others know it is not true but choose to believe in it, whilst others steadfastly cling to its literal meaning.
At its core, our world and the universe are made up of atoms glued together by forces (you can get fancier than that, but let’s stick with this). But we don’t perceive the world in terms of atoms and molecules. We see sand, we see bricks, we see buildings. And we see homes and corporations instead of buildings.
The world, for us, is glued together not by gravitational or electromagnetic forces, but by concepts and stories.
The origin of stories
At the dawn of civilization, someone realized that it is useful to have people work together in groups rather than solo. And how do you make that happen? You tell stories, and weave elaborate myths.
For example, the story of God helped people come together to build temples. The story of royalty helped elevate some individuals above others. This was not just so that some individuals benefit, but large scale cooperation depended on this. Without kings, kingdoms are not possible.
Religion became a useful construct to establish more structures in place. Morality was codified and new rules were established to help people become fearful of stealing and from doing other actions that undermine cooperation.
But of course, why should some king enjoy the fruits of labor of several peasants? And thus it was essential to have more stories and structures in place. The story of kings being closer to God was useful in asserting authority.
Why stories are important
Stories tie closely to mental models. You hold mental models in your head, but stories are mental models of entire societies, and can exist for a long time. If you are born in a society that believes in particular stories, you will eventually start to believe in them, and thus adopt a mental model that mirrors that story.
If you go back to the Iceberg principle, you can see that our mental models affect how we behave. Similarly, a society’s stories govern how they behave. Americans predominantly believe in the story of capitalism, which affects how they work, and how much they are willing to sacrifice their health for work etc.
One of my goals with this newsletter is for myself and my readers to see our world clearly and to observe beyond what we can see (see my previous post on Education and the role it plays in seeing clearly).
So stories are important in a few ways. It dictates how we behave as individuals and as societies. If you can inspect and understand what stories you believe in, you can better judge how you behave. Similarly, by understanding what someone else believes in, you can make sense of their actions or even predict how they respond.
A very related idea is the concept of structures. These are, in some sense, restrictions that lead you to act in a specific way.
These can be quite literal or figurative. A cup is a structure to hold water. It restricts the water to be confined into a cylinder. A road tells us that we can drive on it, not outside. A building is a structure that tells us that we can live or work there. You don’t sleep in the middle of the road and neither do you drive inside a building.
A team is a structure that dictates how people should cooperate.
A country is a complex structure that contains a group of people and asks them to believe in the story of nationalism.
Stories ↔ Structures
Stories and structures go hand-in-hand. Without the structures of a nation (borders, passports, political organizations), you can’t have the story of nationalism. And for the country to not disintegrate, it needs a strong story around nationalism.
Think about it, the boundaries that separate adjacent countries are arbitrary in many cases. Yet your identity and how you think and behave is very different depending on which side of the boundary you are in.
For the country to work well, it needs several elaborate stories and structures. The country celebrates fourth of july and memorial day. These rituals help strengthen nationalism which is essential for the country to prosper.
If now having read this, you feel enlightened and decide that you no longer want to lose your life for a country whose boundaries were arbitrarily drawn, thanks to some smart men purchasing large parcels of land several centuries ago, then what gives?
If each of us sees the world in only its physical reality and forego all the stories we have heard, then the society will break down. Without believing in the story of nations, why would anyone be willing to die for their country? Why would anyone want to pay tax for such an abstract things as a nation? We have to believe in the story, even if it is not true.
For example, I do believe in the story about my employer. It doesn’t exist in physical form and I can’t see it, but I believe it exists in the form of all the people that are employed, and in the buildings that my employer owns, the fact that it is registered across multiple countries, and more crucially, in its mission and services.
Without believing this story I can’t work there and I wouldn’t put countless hours into work (sometimes at the peril of my physical health).
Stories and Structures at work
You can see a lot of stories and structures at work as well. For example, a company might pride itself in the story of “excellent customer service”, which shapes the mental models of the employees. Repeated emphasis on the story could get the employees to start believing in this story and thus they start providing better customer service.
But the company might also establish some structures to ensure that the story holds. It might offer incentives to those who excel at customer service, show the employees who are rude to customers the door, and employ quality checks and other means of enforcing better customer service.
In conclusion, stories and structures govern how we perceive reality and how we behave as individuals and societies. Understanding the stories we believe in helps us understand how we behave, and it also helps us make sense of the world.