Why watch a movie like Apollo 13 ? I already know the plot, astronauts get stranded in space, smart NASA guys figure out a solution, astronauts return to earth. I know what will happen, why watch the movie ? A related question, why did we evolve to enjoy the listening and telling for stories ? I will share my thoughts on these questions and in the process explain why the journey is more important then the destination.

Why did we evolve to enjoy stories ?

Related to this question, what evolutionary advantage did long term memory give us ? Our brains use 20% of our energy requirements, this is more then any other animal. Most of the energy is expended processing and storing events. What advantage could an 80 year old man have remembering his 5th birthday party ? Curious, I decided to research the answer to what appears to be an obvious question. A simplistic answer is, memory allows us to use the outcomes of previous events to predict future events. Why did we evolve to enjoy stories ? Stories allow us to transfer information between human beings, it allows us to share our experiences.

Stories are a simulation of a journey

Three psychologists interested in how people come to understand stories created a few for their study participants to read on a computer. They divided the participants into two groups. The first group read a story in which a critical object was associated with the main character in the story—for instance, “John put on his sweatshirt before he went jogging.” The second group read a story in which the same critical object was separated from the main character: “John took off his sweatshirt before jogging.”

Two sentences later, the story threw in a reference to the sweatshirt, and the computer was able to track how long it took people to read that sentence. Something strange happened: The people who thought John had taken off his sweatshirt before the jog took more time to read the sentence than the people who thought John had it on.

This result is subtle but fascinating. It implies that we create a kind of geographic simulation of the stories we hear. It’s one thing to say “Reading stories makes us see pictures in our head.” We’d all find that statement intuitive. It’s quite another thing to say that when John left his sweatshirt behind, he left it back at the house in a more remote place in our heads. For that to be true, we cannot simply visualize the story on a movie screen in our heads; we must somehow simulate it, complete with some analogue (however loose) to the spatial relationships described in the story. These studies suggest that there’s no such thing as a passive audience. When we hear a story, our minds move from room to room. When we hear a story, we simulate it. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

This experiment shows that when we hear a story, we attempt to recreate it within our minds. The better the story, the better we can recreate the emotions and sensations felt by the protagonist. The deeper the emotions, they greater the chance the story and its lesson will be remembered.

When my kids where younger, I was always telling them do not play by the stove. The kids would remember for a while, then start playing by the stove. I then told them a story about a young girl who kept on playing by the stove. She knocked over a boiling pot onto herself. She ended up getting burned badly. The girl then needed to spend a month in the hospital to recover. Right away my kids started asking questions like, Did the girl have a father ?, How did the father feel ?, How come the girl didn’t listen to her father ? I then explained yes the girl had a father, he told her repeatedly not to play near the stove. Unfortunately the girl didn’t listen. The father then was extremely sad because his child was hurt. After that, I never had a problem with the children playing near the stove.

We can go on many different types of journeys, hiking or engaging on a new business adventure are both journeys. A story allows us to experience the emotions and see possible pitfalls and adversity which might occur on the journey. It then provides solutions on how to overcome this adversity. You then can apply this knowledge to your own journeys.

Pitfalls of stories

The story teller either consciously or unconsciously wants to guide you in a certain direction. Most successful advertisements are their core have a story. The first personal deodorant advertisements employed this tactic. Young man or woman is unable to find any friends, they don’t know what the problem is, no one will tell them. Then our young man or woman purchases deodorant, they are now the life of the party, all of their life problems are solved.

A less obvious problem of stories is the loss of information and the story is framed by the author’s view point. Leon Uris’s book The Haj portrays Jews as a people who are fighting against all odds to establish a homeland. The story is told from the perspective of an Arab protagonist. The Arab is raised in an a culture where violence and hatred is condoned. Instead of saying Arabs are uncivilized barbarians, the author has the Arab tell the story himself. That is what makes it so powerful. Leon Uris’s being Jewish and spending a great time in Israel has told one perspective of the story.

By contrast, The Reluctant Fundamentalist tells the story of a highly educated, peaceful Pakistani Professor, who was educated in USA before 911. How he did all the right things in USA but wasn’t successful. He then returns to his native Pakistan to continue teaching. Despite teaching peace some of his students are implicated terrorist activities. The Professor is telling his story in a Pakistani coffee-shop to a man who possibly a CIA agent and wants to assassinate him. Despite knowing this, the Professor makes no attempt to escape, is courteous and continues to tell his story.

Both book offer from different perspectives what is essentially a clash between cultures. People like black and white answers but both books in their own way are honest perspectives.

Adopt principles as opposed to procedures

No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength” (or “no plan survives contact with the enemy”) Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

People enjoy procedures as opposed to principles due to the illusion they remove uncertainty. An example of a simple procedure is a recipe. The recipe will work perfectly providing your equipment and ingredients are exactly the same as the person who created the recipe. I decided to make lollipops, I then located a recipe on the Internet. The recipe was deceptively simple.


  • 500 grams white sugar
  • 240 ml water
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar


Put all of the ingredients into a saucepan, heat till 300 degrees Fahrenheit, allow to cool, add flavor and pour into molds.

The recipe mentioned something about do not stir the mixture, it seemed counter intuitive, I ignored this. I pull all the ingredients into the pot and started to heat it. Worried it would burn, I stirred it vigorously after it started to boil. Once the mixture reached 300 Fahrenheit, I allowed it to cool, added flavor and coloring, and then poured the mixture into molds. Instead of clear lollipops, I ended up with an opaque, sticky, crystallized mess. What went wrong ? I didn’t have an idea since the only information I had is a procedure. I lacked the science or principles of candy making.

A search on Google located these principles of hard candy making. Essentially rearranging the molecular structure of a sugar water mixture, this is similar to melting sand to create glass or how graphite under pressure and heat is transformed into diamonds. The temperate of the sugar/water mixture indirectly measures the amount of water. The higher the temperature, the lower the water content and the harder the resulting candy. I then discovered these principles.

  • White table sugar is chemically called sucrose
  • A sucrose water mixture when exposed to an acid and heated to above 237 Fahrenheit will break down into Fructose and Glucose. This is known as inverting the sugar. Cream of tartar is an acid.
  • Fructose and Glucose when added to a sucrose solution helps prevent crystallization.
  • Fructose and Glucose will absorb water from the air, this will cause the candy to become sticky. Therefore it should be kept to a minimum.
  • Stirring or banging the sugar solution after it has begun boiling will cause crystallization. Impurities in the sugar or water can cause the same problems.

Armed with this principles, I can figure out what went wrong with previous attempt. First I stirred the mixture, this caused crystallization. If I am making the candy in a humid environment, I can attempt to cut down on the amount of cream of tartar to reduce stickiness. If I do not have cream of tartar, I can use another acid such as vinegar, lemon juice etc. The primary ingredient of corn syrup is Fructose, instead of adding an acid, I could substitute by weight 10% or more corn syrup. This would achieve the same purpose.

Most importantly, I found out that my intuition was wrong. The next batch of lollipops I attempted, I was careful not to stir the mixture after it began boiling. Despite my apprehensions it did not burn. Once I understood these principles, the possibilities are limitless. Most importantly if something goes wrong, it is possible to find out what the problem is.

Take that first step

a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

Human beings, myself included, are risk adverse. Venturing into the unknown is a risk, we inherently avoid it. We then rationalize why are avoiding this risk. The important part of every journey is to take that first step, take the leap.

Before starting on a journey, an Antifragile mindset is important. Minimize or fix potential losses while maximizing potential gains. For my lollipop making journey, the costs have been fixed. One pound of sugar, some cream of tartar, an hour of my time. I already had a saucepan, a stove and a candy thermometer from my other experiments. Worse case scenario, I end up with a mess and a bruised ego. Possibly I could burn myself on the mixture but I have ice and water close by to minimize the damage. I also have a fire extinguisher, all known risks are covered.

Learning starts by experiencing. The causes of failure are rarely the expected they are the unexpected. By taking journeys you will learn and become more adept at dealing with the unexpected.

Become goal oriented as opposed to procedure oriented

The way to adopt a principle based solutions is to become goal oriented as opposed to procedure oriented. As I showed in the previous section, procedures are fragile, they react poorly to chaos. With a goal oriented approach you can apply principles to adjust the unexpected. Worse yet, blindly following procedures can cause us from turning unexpected events which normally would be failures into opportunities. Example of turning a possible failure into an opportunity.

I was meeting someone at the shopping mall, after I arrived they texted me they would be a couple hours late. Instead of feeling frustration, I decided to turn this into an opportunity. At the time, my job was selling a specialized product, why not use this time in the mall to see how similar products where being sold ?

I spotted a kiosk which was selling a product which would go well with mine. I pretended to be an interested customer, I did not directly tell them I was handling a similar product. I approached the sales clerk and asked if I could purchase that product with my product. I then asked if I could speak to her manager about if it was possible to buy their product with my product. I then asked the manager the same question. The manager then replied, no unfortunately we do not sell a product like yours but it is a good idea. The two products would work well together but I have no idea where we could get a product like yours.

The most important principle in sales is to demonstrate a need for your product. Manager’s salaries are usually performance based, increased sales means increased personal profit. One I showed the manager how my product helped her, the product sold itself. It was a simple matter to have her introduce me to the company’s purchaser.

Eventually my friend showed up, we went and had a few beers. The next day, I returned to the office and told my boss we had a large order. The boss replied, don’t you ever stop working ? I thought you where taking a break ? I didn’t tell him that by being goal oriented as opposed to procedure oriented I was able to find opportunity. Usually people think of shopping malls as places to buy items, not sell them.

Learning from failure

Most people when they fail instead of accepting responsibility blame external factors. The system is rigged, he didn’t play fair, it was bad luck. Most of the time, the person is correct, usually the system is rigged.

The system is indirectly rigged because the biggest problem you will face on any journey is accurate information. This can either be a lack of information or information which is incorrect. That means at certain points in your journey, you will experience failure. At this point, you either have to come up with a solution using the resources you have or withdraw.

Withdrawal is a good idea if your solution is too costly or risky. Are egos cause us to pursue ventures which are unprofitable, don’t fall into this trap. How you will react to this failure will determine the success of your future journeys.

The only person you can control is yourself

What could I have done differently ? You need to answer this question honestly after suffering a defeat. The only person you can directly control in any situation is yourself. We desire to claim credit for success and avoid blame for failure to protect our social status. As a result we rarely learn from our mistakes. But I am a victim you cry.

I had a small consultancy agency, one of my employees was a hard worker who appeared to be conscientious. I then promoted him to handle my accounts and file my taxes. A year later, the tax department contacted me, my taxes where not filed properly and I was facing penalties. I hired an accountant to solve the problem, she discovered my entrusted employ was embezzling money and then incorrectly filing taxes to hide it. Fixing the problem and paying penalties cost more then my employee stole.

My natural response was to scream victim, cry about how people are untrustworthy etc. The question I needed to ask myself was How was I responsible ?. First I failed to have a proper auditing system in place. The amounts stolen where small but with a proper system I would have been able to catch them. Also if my employee was aware that an auditing system was in place it might have discouraged his theft. Secondly I was ignorant of how business taxes should be filed, I became dependent on my employee. I could have ensured that they where being filed correctly by educating myself.

Besides learning the importance of audits, I also discovered that it is better to take a loss as opposed to attempting legal action. Talking to a lawyer, I discovered it would be difficult to prove criminal intent. Even if I won the case, I would have problems collecting the amount lost.

Problems and failure are an important part of every journeys, learning to overcome and adapt is an important part of every journey.

The importance of seeing the elephant

Seeing the elephant was an expression used by US Civil war soldiers who had seen combat. Since ancient times, it was known that soldiers who had seen combat would have a greater chance of survival and more importantly be more effective in future engagements. This was attributed to something called experience, what exactly is this experience ?

One might falsely assume it means actual knowledge, evidence seems to indicate otherwise. During WW2 and during the Vietnam conflict, the replacements usually where trained by veterans. Often their technical knowledge was better then front-line soldiers. Yet their initial survival rate didn’t improve that much. This indicates that the experience wasn’t actual knowledge.

In my opinion, it is learning how to react to traumatic or unexpected experiences. When an unexpected or traumatic event happens, our brains instinctively switch into a lower, more emotional state. It then uses these emotional circuits to make decisions. By contrast the experienced soldier is able continue using his logical circuits. This is something which can not be directly learned.

It is only from taking journeys that one can confidence and learn how to deal with unexpected and situations. Earlier I talked about how I was able to sell a product in a shopping mall, what I didn’t talk about was the countless failures I experienced in the past.

Further directions

The best time to start a new journey is right now. Start researching, start planning, right this moment. Your plan does not need to be perfect. The knowledge gained on the journey is more important then the destination.

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