"I have never doubted the truth of signs, Adso; they are the only things man has with which to orient himself in the world. What I did not understand is the relation among signs . . . I behaved stubbornly, pursuing a semblance of order, when I should have known well that there is no order in the universe."
"But in imagining an erroneous order you still found something. . . ."
"What you say is very fine, Adso, and I thank you. The order that our mind imagines is like a net, or like a ladder, built to attain something. But afterward you must throw the ladder away, because you discover that, even if it was useful, it was meaningless . . . The only truths that are useful are instruments to be thrown away."
-- The Name of the Rose, Seventh Day, Night
We're overhearing a conversation between two characters in one of Umberto Eco's novels. Eco is professor of semiotics -- the study of signs and symbols -- at the Universita' di Bologna, my Alma Mater.
Eco's novels, one of his communication vehicles, are complex works. They are tales filled with erudition, allusion, puzzles, conspiracies and images that have always stimulated my thought process.
I have been thinking hard about how to present my reverence for this modern thinker and author for a while. This dialogue was the perfect opening for some considerations on our propensity in business to fall in love with our ladders.
Falling in love with the organizing symbols
We have all read about case study after case study of companies and people who have excelled -- with growth, figuring out innovation, leadership, you name it -- today ultimately expressed in the hard currency of material wealth.
Many have written on and extrapolated the lessons we can learn from these people and companies. These are fascinating stories of achievement and often examples of intelligence, courage, determination, magnanimity and many other human qualities.
It is tempting to want to imitate and emulate our heroes of the day. We're like children who have had an exhilarating experience (in our minds) and want to recreate it. The problem with that thinking is that we do not face exactly the same conditions our favorite hero and company faced.
I grew up with two sisters. We all lived under the same roof, we had at times the same friends as we are not far apart in age, we had the same parents and relatives. At some point we even attended the same school, just a few years apart.
Yet, we are incredibly different from each other. This is the genetic vs. environment argument at work. We share genetic code not only with homo sapiens, we also share it with each other. And we shared the same environment, or did we?
I had two younger sisters, my middle sister had one older and one younger, my younger sister had two older sisters. This alone already changed the cards on who we were going to become. There were, of course, many other factors.
Our channels and paths through which we take in the world are different.
They depend on how we developed neurologically, physically and spiritually. They depend on how we think, how we process information, our choices and what it looks like when the world bounces off us and we show our dark side. They also depend on our attitude or spirit as I like to call it.
So while I agree there need to be diligent work and sharp minds involved, oftentimes we focus too much on trying to recreate the 'perfect storm' instead of throwing away the mold and creating the conditions for attaining the next level, step, growth stage.
Creating something new is fiction
In a way, anything that is radically novel is a work of fiction before it becomes the next best thing. We dare to imagine, we roll up our sleeves, we stay attuned to the signs in the marketplace -- the many conversations we have with friends, family and, as we build courage, devil's advocates. We build confidence and, most importantly, we believe it can be done. We make it up as we go along.
Eco teaches us again in another novel, Baudolino, which is a celebration of utopia, of those inventions that move the world. Columbus discovered America by mistake: he thought that the world was much smaller.
People still believe he was the only one to believe the world was round, he wasn't. They knew the world was round before Plato. We conquered a continent following a myth.
Instead of being coerced by some big truth or following a powerful leader who happens to sit in the corner office, a person without the trappings of leadership can create wonderful fictions and live as if they were true.
Over time, they will become true. Says Baudolino, echoing Eco: "The world condemns liars who do nothing but lie, even about the most-trivial things, and it rewards poets who lie only about the greatest things."
The lesson: "We need people who stimulate our imagination and our physical reactions. We need those people more than we need a sublime voice or a brilliant strategy." -- Read the full article by Harriet Rubin, Fast Company
(illustration by Tom Batchell, The New Yorker Review)