It was 1961. A small group of men were living on the side of a mountain in Saudi Arabia. They were there to build a road that would shape the future of the Kingdom. It was the Al-Sarawat mountain range and it extends 1,000 miles along the Red Sea from the border with Jordan all the way to Yemen. And since the beginning of the Kingdom, that mountain range effectively divided the country in two. Commerce and progress would have to wait.
But Faisal bin Abdulaziz wanted to change that. When he became king, he offered an exorbitant sum of money to the first construction firm that could build a road from Mecca to the Red Sea. Companies flocked in from all over the world to survey the land, but not one would submit a bid. Why? Because even if you could blast through the tons of hard granite, no one knew how to get excavators, bulldozers, backhoes, and graders to the site.
The king was defeated.
But one day, a small local firm offered to build the road in less than two years for a modest budget. While the king didn’t think that they could do it, he had no other option. He granted the contract, and those men gathered everything they had and went to live on the side of a mountain for the next 16 months.
The first thing they did was follow a donkey up and over the range to mark the path of least resistance. That would be their road. Then they blasted the path and came up against the intractable challenge of getting the equipment to the site. Their answer? Disassemble the large earthmovers and graders, put the pieces on the backs of donkeys and camels, walk a caravan to the site, unload and reassemble the equipment, and then build that road. And that’s exactly what they did. A Kingdom united.
So, what was it that enabled this small, inexperienced company to do the thing that no multi-million dollar firm could? Story.
The story that fueled those large firms was all about minimizing risk and maximizing profit. And if you’re only thinking about risk and profit, you won’t walk with that caravan up the mountain. You won’t give the blood it takes to bring dreams to life. But for that local firm, their story was about the future of the country. They knew the shop owners who would gain access to global markets, the people who would benefit from increased oil revenue, and so many more. And nothing would stop them from building that road.
That’s why story is the most powerful human invention.
This is not hyperbole. It’s easy to talk about the inspirational power of story, but it’s so much more than that. Story is the reason that we, as a species, rose from mid-level primates to the rulers of the world.
This is important, so let’s start at the beginning. The first couple million years of human existence were really just a prehistoric groundhog day: ape-like hominids living in small groups struggling to survive against the threat of starvation, cave bears, wolves, eagles, saber-toothed cats, and even giant kangaroos.
But roughly 70,000 years ago everything changed. We discovered fire. This enabled us to cook nutritious food that would eventually bring our brains to life. It was a cognitive revolution that had us thinking new big thoughts and creating language to communicate them. It was our defining moment, because unlike all other animals that use communication to describe reality, we were now able to use it to create reality. And so began our rise to rule the world.
What fueled the rise exactly? Human cooperation. No other animal species can cooperate in large numbers (e.g., no group of more than 50 primates can coordinate towards a shared goal), but the stories we tell can create a unifying purpose to mobilize collective action at scale. We didn’t spontaneously land on the moon, build great pyramids, or eradicate smallpox—all great human achievements were born from human cooperation. And that starts with story.
So here we are basking in the glow of human progress, as war, famine, and suffering are at all time lows. The irony is that our great challenge now is to keep up with the world that we created. A world where technology disrupts daily, markets turn on a dime, and change is constant. But like our ancestors, our success in the face of great challenge hinges on just one thing: our ability to tell (and live) the stories that will shape our future.
It starts today.