On the power of myths and stories

This week, I'm sharing two essays that will form a part of my application to a Master's program I'm hoping to join. This is the second one. You can find the first one here.

Prompt: Select a book that you consider a great book and that has been important in shaping your thoughts. Analyze one aspect or theme of the text and explore how it has influenced you. We are seeking to understand how you approach a challenging text and your ability to focus on an individual theme.

There are no gods, no nations, no money and no human rights, except in our collective imagination.

With this provocative declaration, historian Yuval Noah Harari highlights the profound influence of shared stories and fictional realities in his magnum opus, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. This core theme served as a kind of intellectual compass for me, guiding me through a pivotal crossroads in my life in 2016. As the book took me on a journey through several millennia of human history, little did I know that it would shape my perspectives for years to come.

In his exploration of what he calls the cognitive revolution, Harari posits that the most unique feature of the development of human language is our ability to transmit information about things that don’t exist. This capacity to create and believe in shared myths has enabled unparalleled trust, cooperation, and societal advancement. Take money, for instance—a construct without intrinsic value, but one that wields enormous power from our shared belief in it, and which in turn empowers us to shape the world as we see it.

Yet, the same shared beliefs that unite us and drive societies forward can also divide us and trap us in invisible prisons of thought. Just consider the historical destruction caused by rigid and unwavering adherence to religious doctrines or nationalistic ideologies.

This insight forced me to grapple with the myths and beliefs that were dictating my life, reminding me of David Foster Wallace’s parable of the fish: There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

I started questioning the “water” I was swimming in. The flashlight of my skepticism, previously reserved for religious dogmas, now needed to be pointed at the subtler but equally pervasive myths of modernity.

Living in New York, I was surrounded by a seemingly endless pursuit of monetary success. I had unconsciously subscribed to the religion of materialism, where wealth and possessions were seen as the ultimate measures of happiness and fulfillment. But upon brief reflection, my experience suggested otherwise, reinforced by this passage from the book:

One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it.

Sapiens rekindled a child-like curiosity within me, encouraging me to question the status quo. Armed with a clearer understanding of the power of stories, I began taking control of my life with a boldness I had previously only dreamed of. This newfound courage inspired me to leave behind the familiar streets of New York for the innovative spirit of San Francisco, driven by my longstanding passion for and interest in startups.

I also adopted a healthy skepticism towards established narratives and authority, rejecting the notion that “that’s just how things are.” In our current sociopolitical climate, where narratives are constantly being written, unwritten, and rewritten, I find this mindset invaluable. It allows me to approach debates and developments with nuance, recognizing the power of shared myths as a powerful tool for understanding and navigating an increasingly complex world.

I continue to challenge my assumptions and the stories I tell myself. Recently, I’ve been reflecting on whether my move from New York to San Francisco in 2016 was merely substituting one type of status game for another without addressing a latent desire to understand what makes life meaningful or what causes human flourishing. These are the types of fundamental questions I expect to engage with more deeply at St John’s.

Overall, Sapiens has served as a catalyst for transformation and introspection, alerting me to the unseen forces of collective stories that shape our world and the personal stories that shape my own. By dissecting these stories, the book has granted me the clarity and courage to strive for an authentic life guided by my own values rather than ones I had adopted without examination.