One of the main arguments the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari makes in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is that mankind differs from other species because we can cooperate flexibly in large numbers, united in cause and spirit not by anything real, but by the fictions of our collective imagination. Examples of these fictions include gods, nations, money, and human rights, which are supported by religions, political structures, trade networks, and legal institutions, respectively.
As an entrepreneur, I’m increasingly appreciative of and fascinated by the power of collective fictions. Building a technology company is hard. Incredibly hard. Lost deals, fragile egos, impulsive choices, bugs in the code, missed deadlines, frantic sprints to deliver on customer requests, the doldrums of execution, any number of things can temper the initial excitement of starting a new venture. Mission is another fiction required to keep a team united and driven when the proverbial shit hits the fan. While a strong, charismatic group of leaders is key to establishing and sustaining a company mission, companies don’t exist in a vacuum: they exist in a market, and participate in the larger collective fictions of the Zeitgeist in which the operate. The borders are fluid and porous, and leadership can use this porousness to energize a team to feel like they’re on the right track, like they’re fighting the right battle at the right time.