Hi—Jordan Bower here with your bi-weekly dose of Structured Spontaneity.
A reminder: every other Friday I open up my newsletter app at 11:00am, and I send whatever I’ve created by 1:00. That’s my way of being committed to sending regular updates—and being disciplined about shipping my work. I’m going to keep it up. I hope you’re enjoying it.
Today, we’re talking about myths, humiliation, and Tarot cards.
Let’s start with myths. Myth is a much maligned word in today’s culture, because most of us think that “myth” is tantamount to a lie. “It’s a myth that… the vaccine… Kanye… Leonardo DiCaprio…”
Cue eye roll.
But “myths” are not just stories that are untrue; they are stories that were never meant to be true in the first place.
Myth is to storytelling as Latin is to the English language: the roots, the foundation.
Huh? Let’s get deeper.
OK, I hear you: stories that were never meant to be true in the first place? Bro, what do you even mean?
Let’s say it like this: what makes communication effective, meaningful, and resonant is something called “subtext.” And what is subtext? (Apologies for those of you who have English Lit degrees.) Subtext is exactly what it sounds like—the thing hiding beneath the text.
Here’s an example. Imagine we’re meeting for lunch, and I show up with a big smile on my face and say something like, “well, I had a lot of fun last night…”
Poof: subtext. I didn’t need to spell out exactly what I did last night for you to get the meaning. (Get your mind out of the gutter. I was watching Succession.)
Subtext is the secret to great communication, because it engages the part of our brain that goes beyond thinking. Doing subtext well requires a deep understanding of how our audiences think and feel.
[MYTH RE-ENTERS THE CONVERSATION FROM STAGE LEFT]
Many people think that myths are just fairy tales. But a better way to think about myth is as the ideas and categories that structure our thought.
When we transmit our marketing copy, our leadership narratives, and even our stories about, erm, watching Succession, we are actively engaging a part of our audience’s brains that evolved hundred of thousands of years ago, while we were, erm, watching Succession while stewing wooly mammoth over the proverbial campfire.
These “structuring categories” do more than make us wait with baited breath like Cinderella for Prince Charming. Myths help us understand and define the nature of abstract concepts like justice, love, and power. They help bring the subtext to the surface.
Why is Cinderella waiting for Prince Charming anyway, when she could be a bad-ass bitch who starts her own clothing line, gains a hundred million followers, and buys out the kingdom from Prince Charming’s dad, the king?
The answer is baked into the subtext. The subtext comes from the myth.
Our professional and civic worlds are redolent with myth. I don’t mean fairy tales; I do mean underlying structuring categories of ideas about things like justice, love, and power. These underlying structuring categories are both systemic and conceptual; they are the physical prisons that we use for other people as well the psychological prisons that we use for ourselves.
(A funny aside: my younger brother is doing some renovation on a house. The other day, he offered one of his contractors some thanks for a job well done. The contractor replied, “Ever since they invented money, I don’t need thanks.” That’s myth in a nutshell.)
Every organization has its own set of myths. One of the most pernicious myth often goes by two names: The Way It’s Always Been Done and That Will Never Work. I meet these two all the time. People call me up and they say, I want you to help my people be better communicators. They expect that I will come in, wave my magic wand, and give them a bunch of secret tips. Poof. Better communication overnight.
Actually, there’s a really easy way to be a better communicator: spend the next month reading ten great works of fiction and write for twenty minutes in a journal every morning. In four weeks, you’ll be a better communicator. But most people don’t like that solution. They’ll say, my people are too busy for that. Isn’t there a shortcut?
In the process, we can reveal The Way It’s Always Been Done and That Will Never Work. It’s supposed to take place in a seminar or training; it’s supposed to have clear “learning objectives”; it’s supposed to be comprehensible in advance; it’s supposed to have clear frameworks that work; etc.
These myths about professional development are nested into even bigger myths about power, leadership, and business. Control needs to be from the top! You can’t tell people the truth—that will upset them too much! We need to lie about our product in order for people to value it! These are all foundational myths in late-stage consumer capitalism.
They’re not “lies”. They’re truths that are more than true. They establish the subtext, the structuring ideas that inform how we conceive and perceive what it means to do productive work.
We need these structuring ideas. We can’t live without them. But we also need to see how our particular set of myths informs which strategic directions we pursue and which ones we discard.
For example, think about office design. In the ‘90s, the myth was that cubicles led to productivity. In the 2000s, it was open offices; in the 2010s, it was “creative” spaces with slides that linked the floors. Now, productivity is working on a laptop in your bedroom. None of these are true or false—these are myths, the structuring ideas of thought.
The trouble comes when these structures start to crumble. Myths don’t die easily; they need to be replaced by something better or something new. The Way It’s Always Been Done and That Will Never Work don’t die when you show someone the data. It’s not about “the truth”—it’s about what the structuring idea represents inside of us.
For example, Elizabeth Holmes. You probably know that the founder of Theranos was just convicted for four counts of fraud. She’ll serve nine months in jail. She’s being punished for lying, and she’s clearly guilty. But lying is part of the prevailing myths of Silicon Valley. We wouldn’t be here right now if Zuckerberg, Bezos, etc. hadn’t lied about the future. Steve Jobs famously lied at the iPhone launch event when he pretended that the phone in his hand “worked”; it was a prop, simply rigged to act like it was ready to ship.
I can’t help but feel that Holmes is a scapegoat for the entire move-fast-and-break-things culture. She’s the “beautiful virgin” that we’re sacrificing at the stake.
But that myth is crumbling too…
Now, Tarot: I first became fascinated with Tarot cards about a decade ago. Before that, I thought that Tarot was like astrology and all other forms of fortune telling—essentially, bullshit. But then I started to understand that Tarot cards point to myths, things that were never supposed to be true in the first place.
For me, in a strange and mysterious way, I saw that the Tarot truer than true.
Bear with me for a moment before you commence your eye-rolling. A Tarot deck has 78 cards, and each of those cards is designed to suggest some form of archetypal human experience—some myth, some basic structuring category of human thought. The images on the cards depict things like falling in love, grieving, having a clear mind or clouded thoughts. These are intended to point to human experiences that are common to most of us.
The point of Tarot is like the point of myths: to focus our attention on what’s happening beneath the surface; to take us down to see the roots of things.
The insight of Tarot is that change needs to happen beneath the surface first. Only then can we make productive and sustainable transformation.
There’s one card in particular that relates to this concept of “structuring categories of ideas.” The card is called “The Tower.”
Just look at it. It’s clearly a disaster in progress. There’s the lightning strike, the edifice coming apart, the flames, the bodies flung wildly. It is intensely violent.
The real world version of the Tower doesn’t need to look like 9/11. It’s the the plague, the burning landscape, the storming of the Capitol.
The Tower is The Way It’s Always Been Done and That Will Never Work.
It’s the Old World falling apart…and the terror that comes with the arrival of Something New.
The Tower tells us the same thing as the myths of the organizational consultants: people massively resist change. Organizational consultants have created their own myths. It’s a whole science of “change management”—which, basically, the idea that transformation can happen more effectively if we spoon feed it to those involved.
The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t address any of the underlying myths of leadership and power. Change is still disseminated from the top, it still implies that there’s a definable outcome, a happily-ever-after. It still reinforces that the people who were in power then should continue to be the people who are in power now.
These, in particular, are “just myths.”
At a deeper level, The Tower points us to an emotion that most of us don’t want to feel. That emotion is “humiliation.” Humiliation: the state of being humbled, of being reduced in status, of being made to “bring low.”
Systems of power are explicitly designed to minimize the chance of humiliation. In organizations, to be humiliated is to be cast out of the ivory tower. The real punishment to Elizabeth Holmes is not the jail time—it’s the promise to the systems of power that she will never be called to lead again.
Humiliation is the real punishment of cancel culture. When we humiliate Kevin Spacey or Louis C.K. we banish them to a distant island, telling them never to return again. In order for there to be power—at least, in the old sense—there must also be people who are humiliated for questioning that power.
We experience this in organizations, even if we’re not Elizabeth Holmes. Just yesterday, I was listening to a radio advertisement for an electric toothbrush. The tagline was Brush Like a Pro. What does that even mean? Who were the people who green-lit that line? How much money was invested in developing it?
What myths about power and customers and consumerism, etc. did those people have to believe in order to think that was a good idea? And that’s not even a bad one—that’s just the one on the tip of my bald head. I could pick thousands of examples from advertising, corporate leadership, the f’n vaccine. I could name almost any corporation’s company values—integrity, excellence, courage, together, for better…blahblahblahblah
Myths: structuring categories of ideas that affect how we conceive and perceive who we are and what it means to do productive work.
We are at a moment when The Tower is falling. The myths are changing.
Change doesn’t arrive incrementally. It arrives suddenly, like that lightning strike. For it to land, we need to face the unavoidable humiliations.
Our old ideas about the world were wrong.
We didn’t know better, but now we do.
I didn’t know better, and I feel remorse for what I did.
I’m sorry, and I forgive myself—and them—and you—and, in the process, I make the space to create the new myths about justice, power, love, leadership, excellence, courage…
The Myth of Humiliation is that humiliation is punishment. No, that’s not true at all. Humiliation is reward. Humiliation comes from the Latin root, humilis—literally, on the ground, to go back to the earth, to be made humble.
My two pennies is that humiliation is what this whole pandemic crisis is really about. There’s a humiliation that should come to those that don’t believe the science, but there’s also a humiliation that needs to come to those who believe that science could possibly capture All There Is.
To be humiliated is to tear down The Way It’s Always Been Done, stick a fork in That Will Never Work, and to create something different, better, new.
To be humiliated is to be reduced to our humanity, and maybe raised to our humanity as well.
The Tarot works sequentially. “The Tower” is card 16. Card 17 is called “The Star”. It represents the calm after the storm, when the illusions have been stripped away, leaving us naked but also revealing the truth behind the myths. It suggests peace and hope, overflowing creativity, a new sense of balance with the surrounding world.
Our yearning for the peace of The Star is what gives the Tower its deepest meaning.
In fairy tales, there’s the famous story of the Emperor with No Clothes. You probably know it: two swindlers convince a self-involved emperor that they can create magnificent clothes that are invisible to those who are stupid or incompetent. The self-involved emperor, convinced of his genius, hires them. The swindlers set up their looms and go to work making the invisible garments.
One by one, a succession of officials check in on the swindlers process. Each of them sees that the looms are empty. But each official, under the spell on the myth of power, pretends to “see” the invisible clothing to avoid being thought a fool.
Finally, it’s time for the emperor to display his magnificent new outfit. He sets off on a regal procession before the whole city, and the townsfolk cheer for his genius—they also don’t want to appear stupid.
No one wants the blessings of humiliation. It takes a child—maybe a real one, maybe a metaphorical one—to blurt out the truth. It was right in front of us the whole time.
The myths of our mind are shifting. The Tower is falling. We need more than incremental change; we need to reimagine our underlying categories of thought.
Maybe we should start by celebrating our own humiliations. Perhaps we should banish ourselves to Louis C.K. island and taste whatever fruits might be growing there.
Are you trying to be the emperor? Or do you want to play the fool?