Best Story Wins

C. R. Hallpike is a respected anthropologist who once wrote a review of a young author’s recent book on the history of humans. It states:

It would be fair to say that whenever his facts are broadly correct they are not new, and whenever he tries to strike out on his own he often gets things wrong, sometimes seriously … [It is not] a contribution to knowledge.

Two things are notable here.

One is that the book’s author doesn’t seem to disagree with the assessment.

Another is that the author, Yuval Noah Harari, has sold over 27 million books, making him one of the bestselling contemporary authors in any field, and his book Sapiens – which Hallpike was reviewing – the most successful anthropology book of all time.

Harari recently said about writing Sapiens:

I thought, ‘This is so banal!’ … There is absolutely nothing there that is new. I’m not an archeologist. I’m not a primatologist. I mean, I did zero new research. . . . It was really reading the kind of common knowledge and just presenting it in a new way.

What Sapiens does have is excellent writing. Beautiful writing. The stories are captivating, the flow is effortless. Harari took what was already known and wrote it better than anyone had done before. The result was fame greater than anyone before him could imagine. Best story wins.

It’s nothing to be ashamed of, because so many successes work this way.

Charles Darwin didn’t discover evolution, he just wrote the first and most compelling book about it.

John Burr Williams had more profound insight on the topic of valuing companies than Benjamin Graham. But Graham knew how to write a good paragraph, so he became the legend.

In a perfect world the importance of information wouldn’t rely on its author’s eloquence. But we live in a world where people are bored, impatient, emotional, and need complicated things distilled into easy-to-grasp scenes.

A few things about good stories worth remembering:

When a topic is complex, stories are like leverage.

Leverage is just something that squeezes the full potential out of something with less effort. Stories can leverage ideas in the same way debt can leverage assets.

Trying to explain something like physics is so hard if you’re just deadlifting facts and formulas. But if you can explain things like how fire works with a story about balls rolling down hills and running into each other – watch Richard Feynman, an astounding storyteller, do that here – you can explain something complex in seconds, without much effort.

Good stories create so much hidden opportunity among things you assume can’t be improved.

Rory Sutherland writes in his book Alchemy about the idea of psychological moonshots:

Making a train journey 20 per cent faster might cost hundreds of millions, but making it 20 per cent more enjoyable may cost almost nothing.

The Uber map is a psychological moonshot because it does not reduce the waiting time for a taxi but simply makes waiting 90 per cent less frustrating.

It seems likely that the biggest progress in the next 50 years may come not from improvements in technology but in psychology and design thinking. Put simply, it’s easy to achieve massive improvements in perception at a fraction of the cost of equivalent improvements in reality.

This applies to so many things.

How many great ideas have already been discovered but could grow 100x or more if someone just explained them better?

You’ll get discouraged if you think every new book has to be about an original idea, or that every new company has to sell a brand new invention. There is so much more opportunity if you see the world like Yuval Noah Harari – best story wins.