I’ve just finished reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A brief history of humankind. It’s a great read that takes you through our species history, from the first homo sapiens to the future of what we might become. Three things of this story stuck with me the most. I’ll share them in this post.
If you want to read the book spoiler free, leave this post. If you like a teaser of what’s so great about it, please continue.
1: The 150 limit
Like other animals, the number of other humans we can intimately know has a natural limit. For humans, the limit is 150. If a group grows larger, we’re unable to function properly within the group. In the early days of humankind, the group split up into two smaller ones upon reaching this threshold. If one group encountered another one, either one drove the other away.
I like how this social limit translates into businesses. If you’d apply a 150 people threshold for companies, I’d bet the ‘knowing everyone part gets lost somewhere around that number. Luckily, the second thing that stuck with me fixes this exact issue.
2: Common myths
The power of our species is the ability to share common myths, things that don’t exist, but we all believe in. You might think about religion, but Yuval also discusses how almost everything (countries, economy, capitalism, etc.) is a common myth. For example: if we look at countries, they only exist because we all agree they do. If all humans decided that France doesn’t exist, it’s gone. But it works the other way around as well. If a company like Apple would lose all its employees, factories and stores, the brand would still exist in our collective thought.
Common myths are what keeps us together, and allow us to work together even when we don’t know each other. A Christian will pray side to side with a total stranger who is also a Christan. We put our trust in a juridical system with judges we don’t know because we believe it’s a good system.
Looking at the 150-threshold, the value of common myths will increase as a group reaches and surpasses the 150 mark. For companies, it’ll be more important to maintain a company culture that made the company what it is today. People used to pick up the culture naturally. They knew everyone and everyone lived it. But at 150+, you’ll have to make sure every smaller group within the company shares the same myths. That’s how they know other people within the company think alike, even if they never see them.
3: Our economy is built on trust
Sapiens also thought me how our economy got a boost in a very simple way. Say you have three people:
The contractor (1) has one million and stores this at his banker (2). An entrepreneur (3) wants to start a business and needs 1 million to pay the contractor to build his store. Het loans the money from the banker (2) and pays the contractor (1) with it. The contractor (1) again puts the money in the bank (2). In this situation, the contractor has 2 million, even though there’s still only 1 million in physical money. If the building turns out to be more expensive, the contractor (1) will ask for another 1 million. As the entrepreneur (3) still needs to start making money, he’ll again loan 1 million from the banker (2) and pays the contractor (1). Now, the 1 million has turned into 3 million. But still, there’s only 1 million in physical money.
The growth of our economy is based on this exact principle: the trust that the money will be paid for in the future. It’s this switch in mindset that gave (and still gives) the economy a tremendous boost. It’s a key factor that made our economy and development (science!) get as far as it is today.
For me, I love how this translates to Stephen Covey’s quadrant based planning of tasks: focus on non-urgent but important stuff. These are the things that are not needed right now but will be of value in the future. Invest now, profit from it in the future. Sow and harvest. Have trust.
Go and read it
I think Sapiens is a must-read for everyone. It teaches you who and what we are, and how it might impact our future by telling you where we come from.
Reading about the why and the might-be of our very own species. Who doesn’t want that?