With the prevalence of discourse about how storytelling factors into fundraising, marketing, and team building, some entrepreneurs eventually run into Joseph Campbell’s work and the related ideas of psychologist Carl Jung about the collective unconscious.
Campbell identified recurring symbols and structure in myths from cultures across the world. A deteriorating status quo, a reserved hero, crossing a threshold into a scary and exciting new world, finding allies and overcoming ordeals, near-death experiences, and returning with a bounty of wealth for the hero’s tribe.
The explanation for this recurring set of elements from Jungian psychology is that humans are drawn to these similar elements in our collective unconscious. From the fundamental ways that our brains are wired and the elements of social interaction that we’re most innately adapted for, we all want to live viscerally through or be inspired by stories of people who go out into the world to experience something different, sacrifice their identity, change, and get to return home with riches and acceptance of their new, complete self.
This structure maps fairly well onto the path and symbology of entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley. Every good pitch deck starts with the story of the founders, who have all undergone trials alone and together that prepared them to take on the problem identified a slide or two later. Every founder is asked why them and why now. They are expected to weave a narrative of how their past adventures broke them down and prepared them for these trials with the right combination of mindset and specific knowledge. Ideally, this set of experiences is unique and therefore few others will dare to venture down the same path.
As the venture progresses from idea to product to launch to growth and beyond, founders tell investors and talent that this process of growth by ordeal has continued as they’ve built the company. Overcoming the previous sets of challenges has set them up to take on the next set of problems on the horizon.
Internalizing this story, really believing it, can imbue a founder with preternatural confidence that is hard to ignore. The kind of confidence that inspires investors, customers, and potential hires that if they stick with you, they’ll get to see the elephant. When harnessed well, the resources, team, and market that can be drawn in by this charisma and vision can make an impossible problem surprisingly manageable, seemingly distorting reality around those used to operating within the constraints of the status quo.
It seems like a healthy enough narrative to buy into. If you’re going to build this thing, overthrow the status quo, get rich, you’re going to have to change. It’s going to be tough, you can’t do it alone, you need friends who will be able to make up for your weaknesses. If things get really terrible, you can pull through and come out better and more capable for it.
The flip side is that, reality is not a clean narrative where the problems you face align with the life you’ve lived to date. Lessons learned may have over-indexed on what happened in particular circumstances that won’t emerge again. Unexpected tragedy can throughly and permanently cut off plans that were assumed to be destiny.
Irrecoverable failure happens when people go too long operating against a mental model of the world that’s becoming increasingly distant from the ground truth of reality. The delusion that you’re the hero in a monomyth-style narrative and that all challenges can be overcome through a combination of fate and past experience is one of the paths to what Peter Thiel calls “definite optimism,” the perspective that allows someone to make it through the violent flux between highs and lows as an entrepreneur. But it can also pull you dangerously far from reality.
Among founders who have to tell this story all the time to raise money and hire the right talent, I don’t imagine it’s possible for most to compartmentalize the information such that it doesn’t act on their psyche and shape their thinking, their view of how the world works and what they have control over. But it’s also not a matter of binary states, where you’re either deluded or seeing the world clearly and rationally.
Since reading Philip Tetlock’s Superforecasting back in 2016, I’ve tried to actively resist the tendency toward that kind of simplification and try to break out my read of things into different possible contributing factors/truths and attaching some weight of confidence to those factors, with more or less rigor, exactness, and iteration based on the specific problem, timeframe, and domain. (That is, I try to not overthink the little things.) Once you’ve adopted this perspective, it isn’t a leap to then begin incorporating the ideas of folks like Charlie Munger, who argues that you can mitigate errors in your decision making by building a latticework of mental models about how the world works and cultivating a habit of looking for signs of bias in your own thinking.
This, I think, is the way to embrace psychic tools like heroic narratives without giving into delusion. Periodically check in on why things are working, look for discrepancies between what metrics or subjective trends tell you and the idealized story you tell yourself and others, and identify the “faking it” factor. Then plan and execute actions that make whatever progress you can to align the narrative with reality, whether it’s adjusting the story of what will come next to intersect the viable paths in front of you, or specific interventions toward operational excellence that can maximize the impact of the team and assets you’ve assembled.