The Power of Stories

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Picture this. You’re standing outside of a football stadium. There are 80,000 seats inside and exactly 80,000 fans standing outside of the gates.

Your job is to tell every fan exactly where to sit so that every person has a seat.

Turns out this is an easy task. Just give every seat a number. Then give each person a piece of paper with their seat number.

The 80,000 will file in and find their seats. Every seat filled. No quarreling, no fighting.

. . .

Or consider this. You’re the mayor of a town with no roads. You have a group of workers build an entire network of roads.

There’s only one problem. 

Sometimes the roads cross. This means two cars might drive through at the exact same time, running into each other. How do you prevent this?

Easy. Put in stop signs at each corner.

Tell everyone that they have to stop driving if they encounter one of these signs.

Then tell them the person who got to the crossing first is the one who’s allowed to drive through first. The other person has to wait. 

Boom. Problem solved. Accidents avoided. 

. . .

One more scenario. You live in a region where two tribes exist.

Tribe Bread-Yum makes bread. Like, really good bread.

Tribe Comfy-Shoe makes shoes. Like, really comfortable shoes. 

Tribe Bread-Yum would like some shoes. Tribe Comfy-Shoe would like some bread. But how do they conduct trade with each other?

What’s fair? Two loaves of bread for one pair of shoes?

Maybe five loaves of bread for one pair of shoes?

What if there are different types of shoes?

The solution, of course, is to create a currency. Tell both tribes that a certain type of paper has value, even though it inherently doesn’t.

Then explain that they can use this paper to buy and sell stuff. This way, they can give everything a value in terms of paper.

Suddenly, trade becomes a whole lot easier.

. . .

There’s a common thread in each of these scenarios: humans are unbelievably good at organizing themselves in large groups.

Why? 

Because we believe in stories. 

Sports tickets with seat numbers are stories. The ticket says I sit in Section E Row 5 Seat 4.

You physically could sit in a different seat, but you don’t.

Stop signs are stories. If I see a stop sign, I bring my car to a halt.

You physically could drive through it without stopping, but you (hopefully) don’t.

Currency is a story. You could sell a pair of shoes to someone on Ebay in exchange for a loaf of bread, but you don’t.

You sell the shoes for money, then use money to buy bread. 

. . .

Stories help humans organize themselves. They help us figure out how to behave. 

But there are some stories that do more harm than good. Specifically, the story about retirement:

Graduate high school. Take on student loans. Graduate college. Get your first job. Buy your first house. Get promoted. Get a bigger house. Get promoted again. Get a newer car. Repeat from age 23 to 65. Then retire. 

That’s the story. 

But when we take a step back, we see this path for what it is – just a story. If we want, we can choose not to believe it. 

In fact, there are plenty of examples of people who have successfully rejected the traditional retirement story – Millennial Revolution, Mr. Free At 33, Mr. Money Mustache, Our Next Life, Frugalwoods, and Mad Fientist to name a few.

They paved their own retirement path by making a few simple choices that we can all replicate.

Reject mindless consumption. The story that you have to upgrade your house, car, and lifestyle as your income increases is a myth. You can choose not to believe the myth and instead spend exclusively on stuff that brings you value and joy.

Buy assets, not stuff. Spend your money accumulating things that tend to increase in value over time like stocks, bonds, real estate, websites, and businesses.

Prioritize freedom, not approval. Make decisions that lead to more freedom, rather than ones that lead to approval from people who don’t matter. This naturally leads to saving more money and buying less crap to impress people.

Practice gratitude. It’s easy to spend less money when you’re grateful for all that you already have.

By making these simple choices, you can save enough money to reach retirement in significantly less time.

The traditional retirement story sucks. Luckily, it’s just a story. You can choose not to believe in it.


I first discovered the power of stories in the book Sapiens by Yuval Harari.


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5 Replies to “The Power of Stories”

  1. This was a great “story”. Many people call things like money or retirement “truth” when in reality, we’re just making these up and agreeing to them. I have a friend who is always saying “that’s not REALITY” like early retirement is some kind of fairy that I made up. But in two years… we’ll see who gets sprinkled with magic dust and who gets left in the dust. haha!

    1. Exactly – most of what we believe in are just stories we have heard. And I get a similar reaction from people when I tell them about the idea of early retirement. I have found that it’s best for most people to just come around to the idea themselves 🙂

  2. Stories are indeed powerful. Even the one regarding stop signs preventing accidents. Many towns and cities are looking to adapt Shared Space concept as a way to make streets for people and places and not cars and traffic. It strips away a lot of signs that we’ve all become accustomed to. It appears to be working well in parts of Europe.

    Kudos to gratitude 🙂

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