This is the second post in a thread about something I call “symbolic value”. In my first post, I argued that people act upon the symbolic value of what they perceive around them. I call it symbolic because it is value that we create because of whom we want to be. Value in this sense is inward to outward, not outward to inward.
We are supposed to understand this. It is why the ending to the 1941 Orsen Wells film Citizen Kane is so creepy. The fabulously wealthy Kane went on a gargantuan buying frenzy to get the “best” of everything, and died alone and miserable.
The rather heavy handed moral of the story (and for all of his gifts, Wells tended to be a bit heavy handed — except in his 1949 film “The Third Man”) is that Kane willfully refused to listen to his inner self. This deep character flaw destroyed the symbolic value of everything he touched. A modern Midas. Yikes! We don’t want to go that route!
So we might agree that it is dangerous to ignore the inner self, living in its inner world. But how does the inner self develop such powerful emotional context? If you have read your psychology, ego is the word we use to describe this. No matter what circumstances we find ourselves in, the inner self demands to be the hero of our life story. The meek and humble as well as the grand and mighty are all heroes inside.
This offers valuable marketing and sales insight. See and respect what is heroic to the inner customer choosing which laundry detergent to purchase and you will have a chance to sell your product. This is easy to say and hard to do well, as Lafley & Martin make abundantly clear in their business strategy book, “Playing to Win“. I never imagined that selling laundry detergent was so complex.
This is important stuff if we want to become strategists. It is also important if we just want to lead a good life. If we must be the hero of our stories, how do we develop that role? How do we direct our inner heroism? Or at least, how can we become more mindful of our the health of our inner heroic self? These are age old questions.
Off the top of my head, the best film that brings this out is Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero, made back in 1983. The “locals” in the film are easily heroic, while the modern businessmen visiting their village as a potential investment site are seemingly lost in a fog of their ambition. The ending scene captures the sadness of one of these businessmen when he must return to the big anonymous city – his “home”, an apartment in the sky where he lives alone
In the old days, we tended to the inner self by reaffirming our loyalty to certain heroic stories around us. These were the stories of the king, the church, and later of revolution, art, or whatever. According to Clark, this loyalty to stories greater than the self produced the genius works of western civilization. Simon Schama takes up the same idea in his series “the power of art”. Here he tries to awaken loyalty to artistic effect via the work of Mark Rothko.
But Clark was not satisfied with the modern storyline. He called it “heroic materialism” and said that this is not enough to inspire mankind to new greater civilizing adventure. I sympathize with this view. It is a glorification of things but not the symbolic value of things. It is the context for heroism in Rothko’s portraits of … nothing.
So you might ask, what stories these days bind the inner self? What stories are worthy of the loyalty of our inner selves? Well, before we say anything about this, consider the problem. Our orientation takes us in exactly the opposite direction.
We are encouraged to achieve “mastery” as a goal in itself, and might gleefully use a “cheat sheet” to get there. Indeed, Dan Pink argues that achieving mastery of anything is highly motivating. And we are encouraged to achieve “mindfulness” by controlling our unruly impulses. There is nothing wrong with these things in themselves. But notice how they are geared to raise up the self, not to help us identify what is greater than the self. They ignore the question, is the self in the abstract the ultimate? Is the ultimate inner adventure to dominate or to connect? Or put more directly, why is the self alone so damned fascinating? Do we dare entertain the thought that perhaps it is not. There is a certain poignancy to the suicide note left by the actor, George Sanders. In relevant part it says
Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored.
So, here we are. We have incredibly powerful inner worlds. Each of us has these at our disposal. And we ignore them at our peril. Our inner selves drive our sense of symbolic value. But despite our modern sophistication, we do seem to lack an organizing storyline or storyline type that our inner selves would embrace and makes connection more meaningful.
Can we do better? Well, that is next in this thread.