The Beauty in “NO”!

This is the fourth post in a thread about symbolic value. The phrase “symbolic value” sounds a bit abstract.  And, yes, that is weird because value doesn’t seem abstract in day to day life. The price tags at the store seem real enough. You can see them and touch them as well as the stuff on sale. And the pieces of paper and coins in our wallets are real enough too. They seem even more so as we hand them over to the cashier. Bye! bye!

But where do the prices that we just paid come from? This is where things get weird. These “valuations” are not universal or extrinsic. We give value to this stuff and all of the stuff around us based on our inner senses. To be blunt, valuation is a fiction that we accept as real. Strange, no? And that fiction is better understood using the language of symbols. The language of symbols looks like this: “This stands for that”. “This and that share the same meaning”. Hence my phrase “symbolic value”.

So what is the basis for our valuations? It is easy to understand when we hear Richard III shout out “… my kingdom for a horse!” Not that it did him much good. No one was willing to do that deal with him just at that moment. Perhaps the day before, he would have had more luck. But at least, Richard did manage to make clear his relative value of a horse at that particular moment … just before he was poleaxed on the battlefield. Lesson learned! Urgency trumps all other story lines.

Got it. But this is still odd for me.  To tell the truth, I have never once in my life felt the sense of urgency that Richard confronted on the battlefield. I have never had to choose between giving up what I value most (my kingdom) for my life (quick transport to get the hell out of trouble). Yet, even though I have never had this experience, I feel as though i understand it. I am confident that if I were on the battlefield instead of him, I too would perceive the valuation issue the same way.

Perhaps this is because modern marketing is all about helping me feel “urgency” in everything that I do, from watching sports to reading a book. It is not a surprise that marketers manipulate me this way. As I mentioned yesterday, they invite me to transform my daily activities into something magical. And it works because invitations to transform form one part of stories that are greater than the self.

But that is not the only element. And that is for today. A second element of great stories is their power to “reveal beauty”. The word “reveal” is important. We do not bestow beauty, we feel it from the outside. And I would argue that once we see beauty, we are no longer the same. We become loyal to it as a thing that is larger than ourselves.

This is what happened to young Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone back in the 12 century. He was a bon vivant who liked all of the good things in life. And why not? His father was a wealthy silk merchant and he could afford it. But in a mysterious way, the young man saw the beauty of sharing. He gave away his clothes and his money, which drove his father a bit bonkers. The more he gave away the more he felt the beauty of sharing. This revelation produced the person that we know as St. Francis of Assisi, one of the most mystical of all the christian saints. And here is a nice image of him, with his beautiful friends, the birds and animals of the forest. Wild to us, friends to him.

For the artist, this is a pose. Whitman, for example wrote

I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

Whitman reveals to us something that we see every day. Grass. But with his help, we see the beauty of a single spear of grass in a field. Not for its individual greatness, but for what we share with it and with each other. As Clark and Schama point out, the purpose of art is to help reveal beauty in this way. In a leaf of grass or perhaps even in the ecstasy of St. Therese by Bernini.

So is this just for artists and intellectuals? Is there any “revelation” in the business world? I think so. And it has to do with how, in the real world we say “yes!” and “no!”

For all of us (the great and mighty business geniuses as well), seeing beauty is what gives us the power to say “no” to distractions. Indeed, we need to say “no” in order to focus on creating a thing of beauty that can be shared. It is true of the rather loopy artist in his studio. And this story about Steve Jobs refusing distraction conveys the same thing. Being part of this revelation connects us to a story that is greater than the self.

And the power of “revealed” beauty works with respect to leadership. We “see” leadership in situations. But not in the situations where leaders distance themselves from their followers. Simon Sinek argues that we see it when the leader shows that he or she serves us (rather than the other way around). They say “no” to the self in favor of a beautiful shared connection between themselves and their followers. So, leaders eat last, is his motto and the title of his new book. And that is a thing of beauty.

Summing up here, we now have two elements to the greatest stories of all — those that are larger than ourselves. They confer a transformative power and they reveal beauty. There is one more element here.

Stay tuned! That is next!

FOLLOW UP Susskind said of Hawkins that ” … He saw the right questions …” In other words, Hawkins helped us stop looking at stuff that we thought was pretty cool (to say “no”), in favor of other stuff that has more beauty.

2d FOLLOW UP – To become better at revealing beauty, one needs a strategy. It starts with asking and answering the question “who do I want to be?” as a person or a firm in relation to others? As you reveal beauty in yourself, you begin to see what you can offer to others.

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