Is it human nature to believe that we can rebuild, even from devastation?
I thought of this last evening, of the myth of the Phoenix rising from the ashes. I was watching the season finale of Mad Men, as the main character’s life seems to slip through his fingers – his marriage, his illusions about his spouse, his children whom he loves, his career, his alliances (many, taken for granted).
Ruefully, the fictitious hero grapples with the world crumbling around him. But he uses his wits, character, and new found humility to spark the start of something new.
The myth of the Phoenix
The myth of the Phoenix rising from the ashes is applicable to many. In this ancient story of rebirth and renewal, a great and colorful bird, one of its kind, is destroyed in a blazing nest. From the flames, a new egg forms and the magnificent creature rises again from the ashes.
The Phoenix myth is about hope; for those of us who have been slammed by tragedy or hardship – death, illness, job loss, divorce, financial ruin – can we rebuild?
Inherent in American culture is another myth – stubborn insistence on dreams, on fighting “the good fight,” on picking ourselves up, licking our wounds, and trying again. Our American myth rests on a foundation of youthful beliefs in fairness, in “the system,” and in the power of the individual. Of character.
Reality, not television
If I told you how many times I’d been knocked down and gotten back up, you’d shake your head, wondering if my stories were fabricated. They aren’t, but that’s not the point; every life will know some measure of catastrophe and we will be called upon to show what we’re made of. And then what?
When the landscape of your personal and professional reality goes up in flames, when devastation accumulates, when events topple you over and over as you try to recover, how do you keep rising from the ashes?
In last evening’s Season 3 Mad Men Finale, the wise elder partner says to the much younger Don Draper (paraphrased): “You still have your whole life in front of you to take risks.”
He’s right. At 30 or at 40 the resources to reinvent one’s world are more easily assembled; you’ve experienced fewer defeats. Innocence may be tarnished, but not obliterated. Belief in support systems hasn’t deserted, and stamina remains intact as you call upon strength to rally new troops.
Guts, luck, leadership, alliances
When you rebuild from nothing, guts, luck, and leadership skills are critical. If you don’t have them, you must create them, in yourself. You must forge new alliances, and if it’s your own charge you’re leading, that means motivating, inspiring, negotiating, and ceding elements of control in a difficult dance of interdependence. The rules of the game have changed. Territories are unfamiliar.
Gods and myths
In this same episode, a nonchalant Conrad Hilton describes his distaste for those who “whine” about their situation. “I didn’t take you for one of those… I built everything on my own,” he says.
For our flawed hero, Hilton acts as mentor and father; to some extent Don serves him, as though paying tribute to a god. To be cut loose with “it’s just business” is an unexpected and eye-opening lesson. The rules of the game were more complex than he realized. Myths have been shattered, along with everything else.
Hilton’s statement is a simplification. No one builds everything on their own.
Maintaining relationships, determination, competence, judgment – charisma – these all play a vital role in accomplishments of significance. And they are the building blocks of leadership which is, as we all come to realize, a lonely place. Leadership in constructing something new. Leadership, heading into war.
So I ask you:
- Are you looking to rise from your own ashes?
- Do you still believe it is possible?
- Are you doing it alone, or with help?
- In pursuit of your survival, or your success?