How kind men will save mankind
[Earlier this week, my friend David Weinstein invited me to speak on a panel at the blockchain and Web3 conference NEARCON in Lisbon. Our topic was decentralization and collective intelligence. What follows is a deeper exploration of the ideas behind the talk]
[15 minute read/11 minute listen here]
We are in a period of slow-motion global crisis. It’s a tangled mess of ecological, economic, political and mental collapse. It’s happening because our current world is fundamentally unbalanced.
The good news is that there’s a playbook for rebalancing a system in crisis. And there’s a story we tell ourselves to understand it.
Saving the Father From the Underworld
Whether you’re managing your life, company or country, the trick is always the same: steal evolution’s homework. If something has worked for millions of years, and still works, it’s worth copying. The entire universe is held in a dynamic balance between order and chaos, and the optimal place is right in the middle. Many of our human stories are allegorical guides as to how to maintain that balance.
One such myth is “saving the father from the underworld.” It’s Horus renewing Osiris in Ancient Egypt, Pinocchio rescuing Gepetto from the belly of the whale or Luke Skywalker redeeming Darth Vader from the dark side. That makes it a foundational myth of one of the world’s most enduring civilizations, the climax of one of our most famous parables and the ending of arguably the dominant media franchise of the last fifty years.
What does it mean?
As in the case of Darth Vader in Star Wars, the father has become a tyrant. The “tyrant” represents any system that’s imbalanced towards excessive order; control at the price of life. The closed borders of North Korea starving its citizens. A dictatorial CEO that fails to respond to a changing market. An extractive rather than regenerative economic system. It currently describes a significant number of our failing institutions.
In human form, the tyrant is defined by disconnection from life. It’s the abstracted intellectual stuck in his own head. It’s the person talking so much and listening so little that it’s like he’s filibustering his own soul. A friend of mine recently told me how his domineering father refused to get a hearing aid, because he no longer felt he’d hear anything of value from the outside world.
It’s currently perceived as problematic to genderize aspects of our psyche, but historically this kind of crisis has been described as an imbalance towards the “archetypal masculine.” Everyone has both a masculine and feminine side; an archetype describes a set of common qualities and characteristics. But this imbalance is also predominantly afflicting males, or more specifically, immature men. We receive daily confirmation of this through the gender makeup of virtually all mass shooters, terrorists, dictators and criminals.
The tyrant is fundamentally insecure, which is why he often freaks out at the first sign of a threat to his authority. Pharaoh killed the Hebrew children after his scribes warned him of the impending birth of Moses. King Herod did the same to prevent the rise of Jesus. Stalin purged millions in his paranoia. In our psyche this can be the anxiety, panic and insomnia that accompanies the first signs of a transition. Tyrants rule through fear.1
Meanwhile, the call for restoration of life, of balance, frequently appears as the “archetypal feminine,” what Carl Jung called the anima. In popular culture, this is Trinity’s message on the computer in The Matrix or Leia’s appeal for help in Star Wars.
The individual then descends into the underworld of primordial chaos to undertake a rebirth process. If successful, the tyrant is reborn as a “king.” In The Lord of the Rings, Return of The King, Aragorn enlists the army of the dead to defeat Sauron. Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette’s book on masculine archetypes, King, Warrior, Magician Lover, describes the character of the king:
It looks upon the world with a firm but kindly eye. It sees others in all their weakness and in all their talent and worth. It honors them and promotes them. It guides them and nurtures them toward their own fullness of being. It is not envious, because it is secure, as the King, in its own worth. It rewards and encourages creativity in us and in others.
Insecure, tyrannical chimps eventually get torn to pieces by an alliance of the other males. The most stable human systems are governed by a secure leader. By integrating the feminine, they create a balance of stable order and fertile growth. This role is closer to a gardener in a lush and diverse greenhouse, or the conductor of an orchestra. A good practical model is that of a patron.2 Our current crisis of masculinity is illustrated by how difficult it is to identify many public figures that fit this mold.
What does this myth mean in practice? I write about business and markets, so let’s examine the application of this idea to a corporation.
The King’s Company
A tyrannical organization is one where employees work 100 hour weeks in pursuit of an outdated goal. The CEO rules in isolation because his subordinates are too afraid to bring him bad news. If you want to turn someone into a tyrant, pay them handsomely, make their power dependent on their role and then make their position precarious. You, sir, have just invented an investment bank. When you’re insecure, your fundamental motivation is to extract as much as you can out of a system before you lose your position. In 2022, CEOs were paid 344 times as much as a typical worker. It was 21 times in 1965.3
In contrast, a more balanced organization makes use of “archetypal feminine” characteristics. That requires making room for intuitive innovation. Space for something new to grow into; a womb. This could mean unstructured creative time in the working day, as Rory Sutherland puts it; “20 minutes to stare off into space.” The company 3M gives employees 15% of their time to devote to experiments. Post-It notes are a legendary internal pay-off. This womb could also be a more formal “skunkworks” R&D division within the organization. High cash balances also provide anothers straightforward safety buffer and space for experimentation.
Innovative cultures provide psychological safety across the entire company, top to bottom, to propose experiments. Most truly novel innovations aren’t analytically obvious, in fact they often initially seem illogical.4 One excellent strategy to maintain social cohesion is to cap business units at Dunbar’s number of 150 people. As it’s the rough maximum of relationships we can maintain, it ensures greater interpersonal trust and reputation. Employees retain their unique identities rather than just becoming “headcount.” It’s harder to stab someone in the back when you know their children’s names.
One appropriate example of the success of this balanced approach is the Dutch nursing system. They used to rigidly allocate homecare nurses to patients for a pre-set amount of time. It was inefficient and everyone hated it. Then they asked “what if we just let nurses use their expert intuition as to how much time each patient needs to recover?” They cut costs by 30% because the patients got better in half the time.5
The resulting balance of chaos and order, the corporation as a king, is what Visa’s founder Dee Hock called a Cha-ordic System.6
Boyz II Men
There is a much bigger idea at play here. The cause and solution of today’s crisis is found at the level of individual consciousness.
How do you make an anxious tyrant secure again? The feminine makes the masculine feel heard, seen and held. We don’t kill our internal tyrants, we reintegrate them into ourselves by making them feel safe. Reconnecting to the guidance of intuition frees the ego from the illusion that it needs an answer for everything and that it’s the sole architect of its own fate. Anxiety is directly proportional to the gap between what you want to control, and what you can control. Surrender to emergence not only frees us from that futile desire, it gives us access to forces that guide us and create through us.
Most importantly, connection to intuition, brings initiated power.
In their heart of hearts, I think this is what most tyrants truly want.
Initiated power resides in us. When used in proper alignment with the world, it cannot be taken away, not by a recession, redundancy, old age or artificial intelligence. Self-love doesn’t come from repeating platitudes into a mirror, it comes from a clean connection to evolutionary emergence. That connection means our value isn’t precariously tethered to a specific abstract role or identity.
But it takes time. Intuitive pattern recognition on the basis of experience, wisdom, is embodied. Intelligence is roughly fixed from birth, awareness is not. Moreover, the head often doesn’t trust the heart and body. It’s probably not a coincidence that our current economy structurally undervalues embodied mastery and intuitive “caring” professions. Meanwhile the masters of mental abstractions, Wall Street and Silicon Valley, rule the same world they’re accidentally disrupting.
Not only does acquiring wisdom take time, the process of integrating the feminine can be absolutely horrific. It sets up a brutal battle against our inner tyrant, the failed coping mechanism. The myth makes it clear that redeeming the father, the stale masculine, often requires a full descent into the underworld of psychological chaos. As you’d expect from our adolescent culture, we’ve mostly done away with safe wombs within which to undergo that essential transition. So we’re now dealing with twin crises of sterile order and confused chaos. Responsibly rebuilding initiatory containers is going to be a profitable and meaningful pursuit. Demand for “transformational capitalism” is is confronting a generational supply mismatch. Wealth alone cannot ever make you feel fully secure, but using that wealth to cultivate your unique gifts (and those of your children) might. Wisdom is an inheritance that can’t be squandered.
Because we have no cultural initiation rites into the next stage of life, we have a world of paranoid men stuck in boyhood desperately trying to broadcast their worth to anyone that will listen. Indeed, we deny the power of the feminine in general, making the transition even harder. It’s why gaining an intellectual understanding of the nature of this force can change your life. It gives the left-brained tyrant some faith that he’s actually going to be safe if he loosens his grip and surrenders to the flow.
What does the reunion of masculine with feminine feel like? We all know it feels like love. This always sounds sentimental, but it’s actually grounded in practical physics. If you’re stuck in a barren place without energy, what attracts and excites you is probably the path out. Your nagging curiosity is the psychological manifestation of the urge for renewal through fertile “chaos.”
The most insightfully optimistic assessment of our current crisis comes from Richard Tarnas. He has argued (below) that this imbalance towards the tyrant was our destiny all along. It developed the power and independence of our individual egos so that we can be strong enough to voluntarily merge with the archetypal feminine. The feminine can be overwhelming and all-consuming; the smothering mother. You can see it manifested in the desire of some spiritual seekers to sit passively and chase bliss-states purely for their own sake. This global crisis needs more active kings, not passive monks.
Indeed; the purpose of the spiritual transition to kingship isn’t as much about self-help as it’s about placing us in service of the necessary rebalancing process. The Lion King is another retelling of this ancient story. The king, Mufasa, is usurped by the intellectualized tyrant Scar. His son Simba, galvanized by his love for the lioness Nala, returns to defeat Scar. His victory turns the Pride Lands from a barren wasteland to a flourishing and diverse kingdom.
Our culture’s obsession with technology sometimes means we forget that true change originates from revolutionary individuals.
“They are the ones who come carrying the nourishment for every culture, who even bring the air that’s needed to breathe- because there is nothing as fresh as what’s been fetched straight out of darkness.”
- Read. Epilogue to The Passion of The Western Mind by Richard Tarnas
- Why read. In the 70s, Richard Tarnas worked at the spiritual Mecca Esalen alongside giants like Joseph Campbell, Stan Grof, and Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. He spent 10 years writing The Passion of the Western Mind. The epilogue, linked here, is fascinating reading, especially the final few pages “Bringing It All Back Home.” It made me meaningfully more optimistic about our fate.
- “And this dramatic development is not just a compensation, not just a return of the repressed, as I believe this has all along been the underlying goal of Western intellectual and spiritual evolution. For the deepest passion of the Western mind has been to reunite with the ground of its being. The driving impulse of the West’s masculine consciousness has been its dialectical quest not only to realize itself, to forge its own autonomy, but also, finally, to recover its connection with the whole, to come to terms with the great feminine principle in life: to differentiate itself from but then rediscover and reunite with the feminine, with the mystery of life, of nature, of soul. And that reunion can now occur on a new and profoundly different level from that of the primordial unconscious unity, for the long evolution of human consciousness has prepared it to be capable at last of embracing the ground and matrix of its own being freely and consciously. The telos, the inner direction and goal, of the Western mind has been to reconnect with the cosmos in a mature participation mystique, to surrender itself freely and consciously in the embrace of a larger unity that preserves human autonomy while also transcending human alienation.”
- Read. How to Fall Down a Rabbit Hole by Alden Burke (13 minute read)
- Why read. The closest to a brand I probably have is “follow your curiosity.” So I enjoyed this quirky little piece on practical approaches to cultivating curiosity as a skill.
- The beauty of the rabbit hole, and the warren you create by falling down it, is how it activates your curiosity to generate new, reflective pockets of information and knowledge. And the better you become at “finding,” the more portals emerge, and the farther you get from a complete sense of having found. The state of curiosity is one of abundance: an unlimited resource for connecting, exploring, reflecting, documenting, and creating. To find is to begin, again, to wander.
- Read. 20 Life Lessons by Byron Wien (8 minute read).
- Why read. Byron recently passed away and this is a quick and valuable read from a relentlessly curious mind. Two pieces of advice naturally stood out:
- Don’t try to be better than your competitors, try to be different. There is always going to be someone smarter than you, but there may not be someone who is more imaginative.
- If you want to be successful and live a long, stimulating life, keep yourself at risk intellectually all the time.
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1 Lest any of this sound preachy, I’d like to note early on that my own intellectual crisis was triggered by the decision to have a child. And most of this piece describes the worst parts of my own character.
4 Rory Sutherland is limitlessly fascinating on this topic, his podcast this week with Spencer Kier was a typically enthralling listen. His short book Alchemy is also an enjoyable and surprisingly profound read.