The final article in this series brings to completion a journey during which we have examined the effect on all our lives of the seven great archetypal stories recurring through literature, folk tales and the classics.
We’ve seen how the experience of individual heroes and heroines in literature affects our collective consciousness by shaping the destiny of nations, the performance of great companies, and the behaviour of sportsmen and celebrities. You can find the previous posts analysing contemporary events and corporate leadership issues, using as a starting-point the key principles behind Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots.
Now it’s time to see how we, as ordinary individuals, are also driven by these primordial story patterns. With its triumphs and disasters, our own life story is unique to each of us.
Yet these very stories show us that something more than a random distribution of luck will determine which lives are crowned with success and fulfilment. It’s a commonplace that some people are luckier than others. Perhaps that just means they’re better able to understand the narrative in which they find themselves, manufacturing credibility and crafting their own “happy ending.” Others are condemned to repeat their narrative. We call people with unresolved stories “unlucky.”
To illustrate the role the Seven Archetypal Stories play in the lives of ordinary people I want to explore the adventurous world of the small businessman/woman or entrepreneur. There is perhaps no other walk of life where individual character and the ability to decipher which story we are living through, drives the outcomes so completely.
From start-up to sell-out, the entrepreneurial experience of today has perhaps more affinities with man’s heroic myths and journeys, his comedies and tragedies, than any other walk of life. If Homer were alive today, he might be a VC. In place of the Trojan Wars we would hear about Silicon Valley.
At the outset, the small businessman has nothing else but his own story to tell and to sell. How high can he/she fly? So join me in seeing where he/she takes that adventure, and how his ability to spin that tale makes or breaks his luck.
And there’s a postscript which trails the next series of posts, which will explore Narrativity.
The Businessman’s Treasure Map: The Odysseus-Entrepreneur, the Sugar-Giant, and the Castaway.
When television producers wish to explain business and the dramas facing entrepreneurs to a mass audience, they use fairy tales.
In The Apprentice, the world of make-believe is close below the surface. Candidates who would learn the secrets of the Sorcerer (Donald Trump or his British counterpart Sir Alan Sugar in the BBC version) must prove their worth by showing they can help him collect riches from the Treasure Cave. And just like the young hero Aladdin, they must possess sufficient knowledge to find but not hand over the lamp and its all-powerful genie, indicating they could one day outsmart this dark father-figure at his own money-game.
Likewise, those would-be entrepreneurs who climb the winding stairs to The Dragon’s Den in the successful BBC business series, are doing more than simply pitching new business ideas to a fractious panel of ill-tempered and greedy venture capitalists. Like the hero of Jack and the Beanstalk, each must “steal” golden treasures from the Giant’s den while he sleeps, by making business presentations artful enough to secure cash investments in exchange for little more than a story. Just as Jack finds sacks of gold in the Giant’s castle, so the BBC “Dragons” lounge in their chairs before offensively large piles of banknotes.
Charming money from these ill-tempered “Dragons” is usually achieved with the help of the giant’s wife (sympathetically played by Deborah Meaden, the lead female panellist). It’s at least implicit that, having secured a golden investment, the plucky hero-entrepreneur will contrive to chop down the Beanstalk and gain liberty from his tiresome new business partner.
While the US version of The Apprentice has veered into baroque self-parody by adding celebrity (Def Leppard, La Toya and David Cassidy) and charitable fund-raising to the mix, the British version of plot has morphed from Aladdin to copy Jack and the Beanstalk. Now, the big prize is no longer a a job working for the wicked Sorcerer. Instead it’s a passive investment by the Giant (Sugar), who allows the plucky hero to steal his gold. Sugar also has a “wife” (executive assistant Karren Brady) who helps the winning entrepreneur to make off with the gold. Helicopter shots, high-rise buildings and frequent use of the staircase motif make clear that the Sugar-Giant’s world of big business is “up in the sky.”
The massive success of each TV series (the UK models are now into 7th and 9th series respectively while Trump is on series five) has nothing to do with business. We are watching a latterday version of the Rags to Riches played out before us. In The Apprentice there is no meaningful business activity: the competitive assignments are really a series of character tests designed to separate contenders possessed of the “light” attributes of loyalty, honesty, gallantry, charity and clear-sightedness, from the “dark” proponents of egotism, greed, bitching and back-stabbing.
These shows, which fulfil the function of a medieval joust, are all about character driving the result. We want Jack, or Aladdin to possess a treasure, to overcome the dark forces, and to find his princess.
And so it is in the real world of small business. Here, we relive the archetypal world of our great stories with frightening intensity. For the businessman is his story. At networking events, in business clubs, at live demos, at accelerator show’n’tells, at casual encounters, or in the elevator, at the bank, we have just a few seconds to compress our narrative into a snippet so engaging that, just like Scheherazade, our powerful business contact (the VC investor doubling as the King of Persia) will say: “You won’t die tonight. Come and see me tomorrow. I want to know more.”
Because the cycle of a small business follows the pattern of a human life, so its key steps and transformative dramas can be traced using the familiar language of our great stories. We experience a tiny fragment of the universal plot of self-realisation: the evolution from immaturity towards enlightenment – passing through temptation, danger, near-dissolution and redeeming acts of love that elevate the spirit to a higher plane. What began as a solo voyage before long becomes a community beyond our own identity.
I have started four small businesses in 13 years. So some of the pattern I’ll describe is inevitably the fruit of my own experience (including spills and thrills). For those working in Silicon Valley and lately, in London’s “Silicon Roundabout,” the same general principles are valid.
Quite soon after their own “start-up” (which we also call birth), very young children have partially separated their own identity from that of the mother-figure. They want to explore a world fraught with perils. So it is that Red Riding Hood meets the Wolf. In the nick of time a wood-cutter saves the heroine, who returns safely to her mother. Likewise Goldilocks, after making free in the mysterious home of the three bears, returns home to mother.
Arguably the most primal of all stories, Overcoming the Monster is experienced internally by every would-be entrepreneur contemplating leaving the safety of his or her fixed job to start out alone. Perhaps the Monster is an oppressive workplace or mean-spirited boss. But more often the Monster is fear itself. “Without a salary, can I support my family, make the mortgage payments? Am I worthy? Am I strong enough?”
In those first days we feel washed up on a desert island. Just like Tom Hanks in the film Castaway, we use fragments of our “old” lives to help us survive. On first leaving home for his great adventure, every entrepreneur has faced doubts as well as debts. Quite soon, of course, as the world opens up and our early confidence builds, these concerns seem laughable (often dangerously so as we begin to feel invincible.)
In a dreamlike state we are carried forward from the familiar home into a world where our new strengths and skills seem able provide us with everything. We enter the ambitious world of Rags to Riches. Just as the unnoticed young squire Arthur manages to pull the Sword from the Stone, or Clark Kent transforms himself from the weedy journalist into Superman, so our powers are revealed. Our presentations are original! Clients believe in us! We are making sales! Angel investors are calling! There is money in the bank!
Business books frequently present the start of a new business as an undertaking requiring superhuman force, advanced mathematical skills and steely discipline. In fact, most businessmen at least partially attuned to their subconscious, will experience phases of dreamlike, almost effortless progress where amazing coincidences drive us forward. We call this “luck.” Suddenly, golden “presents” are showered, a patron favours our service, or we emerge victorious from a succession of challenges.
Conversely, there are moments when simply everything is going against us. Could there be a conspiracy afoot to ruin us, similar to that of the 1983 movie Trading Places? There, the Eddie Murphy character is made to experience wild see-saws of fortune simply to satisfy a cynical bet. Sometimes, we feel like climbers facing a glass-like wall, with no single hand-hold. Some evil force in against us.
Of course, dark figures continue to beset the young business (the bank, tax payments, cynical former colleagues). But along the way we encounter mysterious helpers who believe in us despite the world’s cynicism. These helpers – Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, Dick Whittington’s Cat, King Arthur’s Merlin or of course Aladdin’s Genie – ensure our young business can pass safely over the first great crisis. (Most commonly, an older relative or family friend may support ailing cash-flow, or make a crucial business introduction that yields sales.)
Whatever the instance, it becomes increasingly clear that our ability to grow the business is not so much due to external factors as our own perseverance and purity of heart. As the business grows, dubious offers will be made, attempts to incorporate our energy into the plans of others less well-intentioned. We may glimpse temptation in the wing-mirror. Like Aladdin, we must go down into the Treasure Cave at the Sorcerer’s behest — yet reject the temptation of easy riches. Like Jason distracting the dragon to seize the Golden Fleece, our motive must be pure. Each of the fully-resolved Rags to Riches stories makes clear that money itself is not the final prize. It is to “inherit the kingdom” or “win the hand of the princess” by embracing the “light” side of ourselves.
Ask any even moderately successful entrepreneur what drives him (or her) forward and you’ll discover it has nothing to do with money. Pretty soon they will have more money than time available to spend it, and anyway they’ll end up giving most of it away. So money itself is a placeholder for something else: it’s a yardstick of progress toward self-actualisation. Money is one effective way of showing how well we are progressing in the next of life’s great story-patterns: The Quest.
Every new group of partners toasting future success with a freshly-signed business agreement before them believes they are unique. Not so: they are simply companions on another well-travelled path we call the Quest. Just as in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, every young Jim starts with a map to guide him. But the map is encoded, or worse than useless if it leads us to new perils. That’s also true of our first Business Plan (always a flimsy and misleading fiction).
Just like Luke Skywalker languishing on a distant planet in Star Wars, or Frodo the Hobbit at home in the Shire in Lord of the Rings, every entrepreneur hears a call to action. Life at home has become intolerable, and with the aid of some spiritual guidance, we learn of a long and perilous journey that must be undertaken. Together with a band of companions who join us along the way, we journey forth on our own business mini-epic. We may have to journey through a dark “underworld” of debt, and engage the help of “wise old men” (business counsellors). Ogres (VAT officers, tax accountants, employee litigation) will surely threaten us.
What’s clear is that not all companions will survive. Eleven of the twelve shiploads accompanying Odysseus fall prey to cannibal giants, while the remainder of his men are lost to the Sirens. He faces the final challenge – routing the suitors of Penelope in his home island of Ithaca – all alone. So too in Lord of the Rings, the Companionship of the Ring supporting Frodo has broken down by the time he reaches Mordor.
The partnerships that do survive the Quest seem to be based upon a mysterious union of male and female forces, such as the pairing of Will and Lyra in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. Together they achieve a soaring act of redemption and grace of planetary significance that rewrites Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. It’s no coincidence that each story in the Indiana Jones trilogy includes a feisty female sidekick, who makes the hero complete. In Pretty Woman, the Richard Gere character only becomes a “good” entrepreneur when he teams up with a hooker (Julia Roberts).
The problem with partnerships in business at an early stage of individuation, of course, is that each director (or Quest companion) is living his or her own story at a time when the company doesn’t yet have a clear “shared story” or crusade around which to coalesce. Some members may embark on different journeys, after frustrated attempts to turn the narrative “their” way. This causes many a business break-up.
Which is why in our own case in our business, we have worked to ensure relationships between directors are based upon chosen and agreed values which lie inside the circle of our personalities. “Living the values,” not interpersonal dynamics, determines our commitment to the business.
Every fulfilled Quest ends at home. What entrepreneur has not proudly come back to show the fruits of his heroic labour to a mother, a wife, a partner, an early believer? To go forth boldly is good. But then to return safely with wisdom and treasure intact, is to live the hugely satisfying trope of Voyage and Return.
Like Robinson Crusoe’s safe homecoming after extraordinary adventures, with his hard-won self-knowledge, the entrepreneur who makes it to safe harbour partakes of a higher level of spiritual development. He may have set forth, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, as a carefree, selfish young wanderer. But he returns a complete man. In this latter case, the expiation of the killing of the albatross, can only be achieved through a spontaneous gesture of love for the most reviled of earth’s creatures. The Mariner’s sentence is to teach humility to the wedding-guest.
So it is that entrepreneurs who have completed the cycle of “bringing home the treasure” or “inheriting the kingdom,” are frequently found in business schools as guides and mentors. They want now to give back, not to take more out. So it is that in The Color of Money (Sequel to The Hustler) Paul Newman’s older character is mentor to the young Tom Cruise. Angel investors are second stage entrepreneurs who continue to “live the dream” through the experience of younger adventurers.
Of course we know the final stage of the business cycle – the trade sale, IPO, or strategic alliance with venture capitalists – is fraught with danger. ‘Dark rivals’ in the shape of scheming corporate lawyers, tricky investment bankers and VC investors, will challenge the hero for his hard-won stake. Perhaps a ‘dark father figure’ in the shape of an original angel investor will create opposition. The dark ‘witch queen’ (frequently a litigious ex-wife) may seek an unjustly large share of the treasure. At each stage, the contractual ‘earn-out’ can be imperilled, with hero figuratively imprisoned in ‘golden handcuffs’ for an age before he at last can be free – to start all over again if he is a committed serial entrepreneur.
So much for the basic trajectory of our entrepreneur-hero’s journey, the so-called ‘plot structure.’ These first four stories describe the “making” of the company. But just as important is the evolution of character. The final three Story Archetypes are devoted to the development of the community and the making of a culture. This is where leadership kicks in – and many entrepreneurs kick off.
For although the journey begins as one of individuation or self-actualisation, quite soon every entrepreneur realises the importance of starting a business is not about himself. Precisely the opposite. The whole significance of running a business is that we have created something bigger than, and distinct from, our own personality. The business works on while we sleep, when we go on vacation, when we die. We have built a community bigger than ourselves which can live on, just like a painting or a work of literature. It is our own tiny piece of quasi-immortality.
Just how we define and then live by the rules of this community or “little kingdom” also known as a growing, sustainable business, is the proper subject of Comedy.
It’s a paradox that, after years of lonely struggle and the huge exercise of willpower needed to build a business, what the entrepreneur needs to do next is relax. At this point he’s managing people, no longer giving substance to his original idea.
So the single biggest threat to any company is the egotism of the leader and his unwillingness to delegate power to a new generation. Letting go, and ensuring happiness in the community, are the hardest lessons a self-made entrepreneur must learn.
What can Comedy teach the entrepreneur? On stage or screen, every successful comedy creates order from disorder, harmony from competing and chaotic demands. Much like a day at the office. What we learn from Comedy is that harmonious and loving union between hero and heroine is no more, or no less essential than the happiness of every single member of our little social order. Prince and Princess, Shepherd and Shepherdesses, must all unite to ensure a proper “happy ending.” Likewise, it matters little how much fun the directors are having, if just one unhappy secretary at the water-cooler spreads doom in the office.
In Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, the insane jealousy between Leontes, the CEO-king of Sicilia, and his fellow-director Polixenes (visiting king of Bohemia), sparks a titanic bout of dysfunctional behaviour among stakeholders that would defy the best-trained executive coach or Human Resources professional. Only by working through a “management succession story” of the young lovers Perdita and Florizel, do we reach a happy ending.
From the Magic Flute to Mrs Doubtfire, successful comedy depends on the hero embracing his sensitive, female side and rejecting the tyrannical, egocentric masculine persona. In the Pursuit of Happyness, the Will Smith persona is both father, mother, and businessman.
If Comedy shows the entrepreneur how to successfully manage his community, then Tragedy shows the hero being dragged down fatally by the power of the dark side, as egotism and tyrannical behaviour cut him off from salvation and he becomes too weak to wrest control of the situation. There are few financial bankruptcies that have not been preceded by their moral equivalent. Once John deLorean began dealing drugs in a desperate 1981 attempt to salvage his sports car company, the outcome was inevitable.
What businessman has not been forced to “put on a brave face”, as events threaten to spiral out of control? In Oscar Wilde’s A Portrait of Dorian Gray, the hero’s portrait becomes a parody of the dysfunctional entrepreneur – he is “all front,” while the horrors accumulate behind the mask. Wilde’s story is an object lesson in “perfect PR” run amok. Likewise, the “dark self” that takes possession of Natalie Portman’s heroine of Black Swan, points toward the self-destructiveness and paranoia that can dominate even level-headed entrepreneurs.
Tragedy gives us vital clues as to how the flaw of hubris operates in the workplace, inverting values and alienating entrepreneurs from humanity as they single-mindedly pursue dangerous obsessions. Take the case of a fatal rift between three directors of a world-beating multinational. One has become infatuated with a private investment project – let’s call it Cleopatra – into which he’s pouring time, resources end emotional commitment. This director – let’s call him Mark Antony – won’t show up at board meetings, and wants to spin off his Cleopatra project as a private fiefdom in defiance of his loyalty to other directors (Octavian and Marcus Lepidus) of the multinational – let’s call it ancient Rome.
Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra summarises every internal company feud sparked by egotistical, lazy behaviour. Likewise, The Merchant of Venice is an object-lesson about what happens when entrepreneurs insist upon unenforceable contracts.
Retirement is anathema to the entrepreneur. He cannot give up, while mind and body still have force. After his last company is sold (or has failed), he may become a teacher, or an investor. But chances are, he will keep starting over with new ventures. Because he must continually reach out for something new, he lives the last and most compelling of our archetypal story patterns; that of Rebirth.
Every new venture starts with the promise that this time, everything will be different, less precarious, less vulnerable. Thanks to the seed capital from the last venture, the start-up will be more comfortable. Hard-won experience means that old mistakes won’t be repeated.
And yet, as Tolstoy might have written in Anna Karenina, “Established businesses are all happy, all alike; every new business is unhappy in its own way.” How can we distinguish genuine Rebirth from repeated rotations on the Karmic wheel?
The entrepreneur experiences Rebirth – the most complex of the Seven Story Archetypes – when an act of love or generosity lifts the dark spell and breaks through the businessman’s egotistical, masculine persona. In Disney’s Lion King, the young lion only abandons his dreamlike flight into the forest and takes up his responsibilities when awakened by his female counterpart.
Like Scrooge in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, or Frodo of Lord of the Rings once his Ring Quest is fulfilled, a whole new life is offered. No wonder, then, that so many entrepreneurs end up giving all their money away – and then starting over.
In a world where the space for adventure grows ever smaller, the life of the entrepreneur provides one of the last great untamed places to live one’s own exciting and fulfilling story with all the richness of a complete narrative.
Epilogue: From Storytelling to Narrativity.
Through this series we have explored how this great cycle of Seven Stories has inspired our creative, cultural and artistic heritage from our earliest days, both as individuals and as peoples. The function of all art derived from these tales is to show us “how the world works,” because we can take these stories and apply them to our own lives. Or rather, we receive confirmation at the deepest psychological levels that our lives move according to reassuring and ancient patterns.
Next, I want to look at how the other ‘non-artistic’ disciplines mankind uses to explain “how the world works,” can also been seen as exercises in mass opinion-formation. What if social sciences that we’re taught to believe are both empirical and objective, are really just slick exercises in storytelling? Perhaps our entire conception of both history and political economy is nothing more than a subjective construct. What if historians have always been writing fiction? What if economists have no firmer grasp on “reality” than poets or rappers?
Almost a century ago, modernist historians began showing us how the narrative of colonial exploitation had been written by the conquerors. There followed a “story of the colonized,” which became Cold War, then East-West, then North-South studies. In the end all this modernist analysis was no truer a version of the way the world really works, than what had preceded it.
Then came Post-Modernism, based on the concept that every event is surrounded by multiple discourses. Philosophers like Foucault showed how narrative defines the very relative truths we accept. In the language of modern journalism, there is “less substance than spin.” Foucault, RD Laing and Wilhelm Reich lifted the veil on the rules that society uses to decide which of the mad are sane, and which of the sane are mad. And Joseph Heller wrote all about it in Catch-22.
This lies behind the emerging discipline of “Narrativity,” which is linked to the Storytelling we’ve been examining. To get to the roots of Narrativity, I next want to examine in detail the work of the great American historian Hayden White through his 1973 masterwork, Metahistory.
Just as Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots served as the springboard for us to analyse the limited number of stories driving human consciousness, so White’s book identifies four dominant approaches used by historians to make sense of events and to create the “official version” of our times. He shows how historians unconsciously follow very distinct scripts when they weave together storylines, arguments and ideological positions to create the “historical facts” we study in school and accept as “gospel truth”.
In the next series of posts in coming months, I’ll be introducing Metahistory and its importance for students of Narrativity. Then I will be looking at each of White’s four “Modes of Emplotment” used by historians. They are: Romantic; Tragic; Comic; and Satirical. From these labels, you can already tell that the worlds of Seven Basic Plots and Metahistory are closely interlinked.
In fact, Metahistory provides just as compelling a conceptual grid or matrix for analyzing “the way the world works” as Marxism was once (so deceptively) thought to offer. Like Booker, White was influenced by Northrop Frye, a Canadian literary critic whose 1957 book Anatomy of Criticism delivered a conceptual framework showing how literature works by reinterpreting myth.
Just like I’ve tried to do with The Seven Basic Plots, you can also take the basic learnings of Frye’s or White’s work and use them to show how modern history, economics and political thinking are every bit as “made up” as the stories that Booker analyses in his study. So Narrativity is the “public affairs” branch of Storytelling.
My objective in all this is very simple. We’re seeking a much deeper understanding of the opinion formation process and its links to the power around us. It’s a fiction to suppose that only advertising, PR, lobbyists and pollsters work in this field and that the ordinary person can tell when he’s being “sold” something to believe in. Opinion formation is the basis of our society and pervades everything.
Nowadays, people talk about “Soft Power,” which is the way enlightened leaders and opinion formers project policies that benefit people around the world. Soft Power agents use public diplomacy, dialogue, transparency. Their currency is ideals and values. Soft Power uses constructive narratives to guide people.
By contrast, “Hard Power” works with cluster bombs, pilotless drones, redacted cables, defamation suits, cease and desist injunctions, hostile press releases, publicists, planted stories, negative briefings, phone hacking, you name it.
Personally, I want to know when and why my emotions are being exploited and exactly how my behaviour is shaped by somebody else’s storytelling. I want to have the analytical tools to ascertain if the narrative being pushed is all about Hard or Soft Power. I want to look right through the storyteller and know what’s behind him.
And I freely admit, I want to use stories myself to change other people’s opinions, and to share the secret of how to do this with others.
Thanks for travelling this far with me and I hope you’ll join me for the next series!