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Learning from the oldest story ever told

Researchers say they have discovered the oldest folk tale ever told, and it goes back 6,000 years — all the way back to the Bronze Age — probably before the invention of writing.

The tale known as “The Smith and the Devil” has been told and re-told, in thousands of now-extinct languages, since the first cities arose in the Middle East. A metal smith makes a pact with the devil, trading his mortal soul for unmatched smithing powers. Then the smith uses his newfound skills to bind the Devil to a tree, thereby keeping both his skills and soul intact.

Other familiar tales, such as “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Beauty and the Beast” are a mere four or five thousand years old. Why then, has this one story endured so long, while countless others have faded from human memory?

Fundamentally, “The Smith and the Devil” is extremely strong in the three essential elements of every good story: Choice, risk and reward. The smith makes a very interesting choice at the start, with extremely high risks, in hope of a great reward. The story ends when the smith makes a second interesting choice, an unexpected twist that delivers the smith from evil.

Similar stories about “selling your soul” have been common in literature for centuries. They’re common in business, too, because the temptation to sell off what you hold most dear is central to the human condition. Most real-life tales of selling one’s soul don’t end so well, which is why we never tire of plays like Faust and musicals like Damn Yankees. These stories remind us that we put ourselves in danger when we submit to temptation, but when we do, we can still count on our wits to escape true harm.

One of the best real-life re-tellings of “The Smith and the Devil” is the founding of Home Depot. In the late 1970s, Arthur Blank and Bernie Marcus were both executives with a California home-improvement chain called Handy Dan’s. When Handy Dan’s fell into the grip of a rapacious turnaround artist nicknamed “Ming the Merciless” (for the way he ruthlessly disposed of senior managers), Blank and Marcus tried to stick it out. As Marcus later wrote, ”Handy Dan made so much money that we thought ['Ming'] would be stupid to get rid of us."

Instead, both Blank and Marcus were abruptly fired. In essence, they had sold themselves to the devil and they were punished — but then they turned the tables. In 1978, buoyed by the retail smarts they learned at Handy Dan’s, the duo launched a competitor they called Home Depot. Within three years, their chain had gone public and by 2005, it had grown to number 13 on the Fortune 500 (just below Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway). Handy Dan’s, meanwhile, went belly up in 1989.

So the next time you need an opening for a speech or blog post that’s guaranteed to attract attention, try taking a page from “The Smith and the Devil.” Just recount that memorable time you compromised a bit, maybe put one of your principles aside and sold just a little piece of your soul in hope of a material reward. Maybe you got the best of “the devil” in the end. More likely, you ended up sadder, but wiser. No matter the ending, rest assured that if you share your brush with temptation with your audience, you will have their full attention for whatever else you have to say.

That’s because stories of temptation are sources of eternal fascination. We are hopelessly hooked on hearing what happened next: the choice you made, the risk you took, the reward you hoped for, and the price you paid.

Don’t just take my word for it. It’s a story with a 6,000-year pedigree.


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