Cynthia Smith

The Myth Of The Hero And The Truth About Collaboration (Chapter 11)

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IMG_1388Joseph Campbell is the author of The Hero With A Thousand Faces and the person who is largely attributed for bringing the concept of The Hero’s Journey into popular culture. He is known for shaping storytelling, and is often seen as a key influence on the great film-makers. I also believe that the idea of the Hero’s Journey is greatly misunderstood.

“Follow your bliss” is one quote for which he is well known. His work describes the path of a ‘hero’ when through circumstance they find themselves entering an unknown world after answering a call to adventure. Through the process of engaging on this journey they are tested, the result of which is a process of transformation. Through a process of rebirth largely as a result of the people encountered, the hero has an irreversible alchemic experience.

The heroic is a romantic idea. Particularly in the West, we celebrate the triumph of the lone hero receiving the accolades of many. The traditional model for leadership takes a similar view which describes the lonely journey of the leader at the top of an hierarchical totem pole.

It is as thought we are willing the hero to be the saviour of the normal world which we inhabit. If the entertainment industry was any measure, it would be fair to assume that we are waiting to be rescued by flights into fantasy. We want our lives to be changed by the hero. And I think this is a mistake in how the hero is often perceived. The Hero’s Journey is perhaps more about what happens within the hero to share them indelibly, rather than to provide an action narrative which we as observers can celebrate. It is the hero who is the malleable canvas ready to be shaped and coloured. It is a visceral experience.

We want to observe an heroic narrative which is dramatic and spectacular. But I don’t believe this is realistic, and is the reason why I believe the Hero’s Journey is misunderstood. The difficult process of transformation is mostly mundane and banal, but at the same time intensely uncomfortable. I believe this is what makes the Hero’s Journey so difficult, because the trials are easily overlooked by people other than those intimately involved in the experience. Departing our Ordinary World involves risk that few are prepared to accept. In a similar way, few people want to talk about the discipline needed to address the boring and tedious work that is essential in enabling heroic quests to be accomplished. Heartbreaking failures that take place during this journey often occur at the loneliest and most vulnerable of times.

I am not suggesting that to understand the heroic it is necessary to fall in love with the mundane and the difficult, but without this discipline we won’t encounter the heroic. The mundane does not make for a good story. There is no gripping “what happened next?” moment with the mundane. The mundane is not interesting. It is tedious and mind-numbingly unbearable.

The Hero’s Journey is fraught with danger. There is no guarantee that the journey will succeed. The hero also has no idea of where the journey will lead. It could be a hopeless and pathetic journey of waste and loss.

Danger comes in many forms and I would argue that a moral, even existential, danger that tempts a person to succumb to mediocrity because of the absence of financial and emotional resources is the most troubling. The Hero’s Journey is actually about plumbing unknown depths into a place that cannot be visited willingly. The unglamorous journey through poverty and rejection is more than likely to be that thing that creates the hero more than the physical confrontation of danger. The difficult journeys are the ones which we find during the dark night of the soul.

I met with my friend Cynthia in New York for breakfast after I completed the 10 City Bridge Run journey. It was good to see her as I have always admired her work as a designer influencing change for those most in need of help. She has always had a kind and sympathetic ear to what I have often thought was my own clumsiness in trying to make things happen. Over breakfast she listened as I told her about what I had been through. I think I was trying to make sense of my folly more than tell a story. She sat with an intense gaze, as if astonished to see something obvious that was hidden to myself. “This is the Hero’s Journey” she uttered at one stage, unprompted.

My journey on the 10 City Bridge Run was a result of the difficulties encountered. What transpired was different from the romance that I had envisaged at the beginning. Although more difficult, it was also sweeter, more satisfying in some ways, and these often came at the lowest points. I remember well the cold splash of rain in Brooklyn on that last leg running through a wet and dark night in New York and just knowing that the journey would somehow prove worthwhile.

Self-identifying the Hero’s Journey is an act of great pretentiousness. I sense that the power of the story is lost if we lay claim to ‘the hero’s journey’. It is almost as though only the audience can observe what is happening, as was the case with Cynthia.

We want to see the hero as a lone actor, that person who has what it takes to get through the storm. But the reality is that there are no lone actors in the heroic realm. No one ever acts completely alone. The subtle influences from others shape our behaviour. The lesson here is to not underestimate the impact of your actions and words on others.

The person who sits in a log cabin alone and isolated from the world only really becomes a hero because it is in relation to how this affects or is affected by other people. There is a bridge between us and others that is of critical importance to build. This bridge might come after the hero’s death. If we are lucky, we will see a reference to our actions as heroic while we are alive. This is a human bridge with far more dimensions than simply an extension of our resources to help others. The human bridge is also that essential connection to others through which our lives are given meaning.

A radical collaboration is at the heart of the Hero’s Journey. It is not the trials that we go through, but the involvement of others that gives our journey meaning. We can’t schedule in collaboration: we can make time for it, but there is a magic, an alchemy, which comes about when others shape the adventure we are experiencing.

The concept of Backswing is about this shared journey. Backswing focuses on the central actor of the batter, but actually it is grounded in collaboration. It is a natural tendency to hold ourselves back at the wind up of backswing, and to balk at attempting to hit the ball. The responsibility to hit and not to miss can result in fear. Consequently,  we want to stay in the comfortable space of All Backswing. That comfortable space is the Ordinary World of the Hero’s Journey. But the reason for Backswing is to hit the ball. It takes commitment to release the bat and follow through to hit the ball, smacking it out of the park. The authentic swing described by Steven Pressfield is effortless and feels good. But are we prepared to let go of the Ordinary World in order to find that passage to our own internal transformation?

The 9 City Bridge Run was a difficult journey that at the time seemed to me to be a colossal failure. This experience was repeated during the 10 City Bridge Run. It was only that I kept forging ahead on this epic quest that I have been able to get to this point to write this book for you.

The journey continues, unfinished. It is also an invitation to you to leave the Ordinary World, if you dare…

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

― Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces


I Began Questioning

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imageWhere does your journey begin for making a difference that matters? We all have the same amount of time, and each are gifted in some ways, some more gifted than others. I’m interested in this question of when and why people chose to make a difference, rather than how much of a difference they might have made which is a very subjective measure of contribution.

I was delighted to meet up with an old friend Cynthia Smith in New York the previous week at the conclusion of my epic running stunt where I ran 10 sub-marathons each of 24 km in 10 cities across 10 countries. Many of you know already that the running was a stunt to thread a common narrative through 10 cities where an important question will be explored through a nine month period this year in a series of Design Forums asking: “how might we use our networks to improve the delivery of child survival?”

With Cynthia in front of the centrepiece of thought-provoking exhibition about tools and design
With Cynthia in front of the centrepiece of thought-provoking exhibition about tools and design

Cynthia is a curator of design at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in what was once Andrew Carnegie’s home.

Cynthia Smith is a remarkable lady who has led a movement examining ‘design for the other 90%’. The idea is that most design is made for that 10% of the global population that can afford to live in homes, drive cars, enjoy discretionary entertainment, and then still have money left over for fashion, holidays, pets, and everything else that we seldom stop to think twice about.

There is a quote in a book she curated which I read once and carry with me as an inspiration. The quote talks about a decision to make a difference, rather than worrying about how ready we are to make that difference. She wrote:

As a result, I began questioning: ‘In what ways could I, as a designer, make a difference?’

imageWe met for breakfast, and afterwards spent some time at the collection at the Cooper Hewitt. After saying farewell, I spent some time wandering around the collection myself. What impressed me most was the idea of accessibility of being a designer. One exhibition was about Human Centred Design, and was essentially a call to action for everyone who walked into the exhibition in the old library of Andrew Carnegie to become a designer.

So what does this mean for you and I? Are we any different to Cynthia? After all, she is a ‘capital D’ Designer. You know, a real one.

imageI think what it means is that you need to read her quote above and own it for yourself. Take ownership of becoming a designer. And start by asking ‘will you decide to make a difference?’

If is not a new thought to you already, then there is one thing I want you to do for me. Share this post with someone who is ‘just ordinary’, but let them know they are far from ordinary. We need them as designers to make a difference. Maybe not in a big way, but with some sense of conviction that they can actually make a difference.

The centrepiece exhibition was about tools, and was thought-provoking. It took the ordinary and showed how everything has in some way been designed.

I like this thought because it comes back to the Design Forums I spoke about earlier in this post. In every city, we will have a particular focus. When we arrive in New York which I believe will be in May, I would like to pick up this theme of tools as it relates to child survival. It is a conversation I want to pick up with Cynthia, and in some ways I am opening up that thought with this post.

Carnegie's garden that flourished with sunshine rather than shade because of the church design
Carnegie’s garden that flourished with sunshine rather than shade because of the church design

In a stroke of serendipity when we were walking to the Cooper Hewitt, we passed the church that is adjacent to the museum. Apparently, Carnegie’s wife gifted the land to the church knowing that the highrises of the city were starting to be build closer and closer to her house. It was an ingenious was to create a buffer to allow her garden to receive sunlight. That the church doesn’t have steeples confirms this story.

I visited the church the Sunday after we met as was totally inspired by the vision of the Minister who had created a real culture of questioning in what ways could the church make a difference to the local community. So my intention is to speak both with Cynthia and the membership at the church to ask, together in what ways could we make a difference?

But the person who I most want to engage in this conversation is you. In what ways as a designer could you make a difference?