Joseph Campbell on the entrepreneur as hero

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“The Calling” of the Entrepreneur​

by Cyril Morong​

(Published in The New Leaders: The Business Bulletin for Transformative Leadership, November/December 1992.)

Entrepreneurs are heroes. They are not like heroes, they are heroes. Heroes and entrepreneurs are called to and take part in the greatest and most universal adventure that life has to offer: the simultaneous journey of self-discovery, spiritual growth, and the personal creativity they make possible. In fact, the entrepreneur’s journey closely resembles the journey of the “hero” in mythology, as outlined in the book The Hero With a Thousand Faces , by Joseph Campbell. There is an amazing and profound similarity between not only the journey that entrepreneurs take and the adventure of heroes but also in their personality traits. The comparison is profound because the myths are about universal human desires and conflicts that we see played out in the lives of entrepreneurs.

But what is the hero's adventure? Campbell writes "The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation-initiation-return , which might be named the nuclear unit of the monomyth. 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." How is the hero's adventure similar to the entrepreneur's adventure?

The hero's journey begins with a call to adventure. He or she is awakened by some herald which touches his or her unconscious world and creative destiny. The entrepreneur, too, is "called" to the adventure. By chance, he or is discovers a previously unknown product or way to make a profit. The lucky discovery cannot be planned and is itself the herald of the adventure.

The entrepreneur must step out of the ordinary way of producing and into his or her imagination about the way things could be to discover the previously undreamt of technique or product. The "fabulous forces" might be applying the assembly line technique or interchangeable parts to producing automobiles or building microcomputers in a garage. The mysterious adventure is the time spent tinkering in research and development. But once those techniques are discovered or developed, the entrepreneur now has the power to bestow this boon on the rest of humankind.

Heroes bring change. Campbell refers to the constant change in the universe as "The Cosmogonic Cycle" which "unrolls the great vision of the creation and destruction of the world which is vouchsafed as revelation to the successful hero." This is similar to Joseph Schumpeter's theory of entrepreneurship called “creative destruction.” A successful entrepreneur simultaneously destroys and creates a new world, or at least a new way of life. Henry Ford, for example, destroyed the horse and buggy age while creating the age of the automobile. The hero also finds that the world "suffers from a symbolical deficiency" and "appears on the scene in various forms according to the changing needs of the race." The changing needs and the deficiency correspond to the changing market conditions or the changing desires for products. The entrepreneur is the first person to perceive the changing needs.

Regarding personality traits, the hero and entrepreneur are risk-takers and creators. But what is the source of their creativity? People become creative when in the words of Campbell , they "follow their bliss." This is the message of mythology. It means you should engage in an activity, pursue a career or entrepreneurial venture because it is what you love to do and it gives you a sense of personal importance and fulfillment, not because the social system dictates that you do so. The drive comes from within. It is this courageous action that opens up doors and creative possibilities that did not previously exist. This is the journey of self-discovery and spiritual growth. Although it may be long, painful, and lonely, it is very rewarding.

Both the entrepreneur and hero are aided by mentors, are humble enough to listen to others in order to learn (and thus become creative), and face a road of trials where they must continually slay the demons and dragons of their own unconscious (such as fear, their egos) in order to discover their creative ability which ultimately comes from giving themselves up to a higher power.

Ultimately, they become selfless and can see the creative possibilities that the universe offers. They become masters of two worlds, one of imagination and creativity and the other of material things and business. This mastery makes it possible for them to bestow the boon.
Bob Dylan Roof

I disagree that modern entrepreneurs are heroes. Perhaps some of them are, but to me they appear as mostly above-average but unremarkable types that, by a set of fortuitous circumstances (like securing financing from a family member or friend without being underwritten), find themselves at an advantage over competitors in the same field. This largely results from the fact that the rich and upper-middle classes have done everything in their power to insulate themselves from actual competition - from the market.

I think it's more accurate to say that Capitalism did have its heroic age, which has now passed. The French socialist/fascist Georges Sorel wrote of capitalist America,

”When we are studying the modern industrial system we should always bear in mind this similarity between the capitalist type and the warrior type; it was for very good reasons that the men who directed gigantic enterprises were named captains of industry. This type is still found today in all its purity in the United States: there are found the indomitable energy, the the audacity based on a just appreciation of its strength, the cold calculation of interests, which are the qualities of great generals and great capitalists.”​

Sorel further wrote approvingly of the average American's will to try his luck on the battlefield of the market, though it would likely condemn him "to lead to the end of [his] days a galley-slave existence."

For Sorel, the only way to restore this vitality is through proletarian violence:

”Proletarian violence not only makes the future revolution certain, but it seems also to be the only means by which the European nations – at present stupefied by humanitarianism – can recover their former energy. This kind of violence compels capitalism to restrict its attentions solely to its material role and tends to restore to it the warlike qualities which it formerly possessed. A growing and solidly organised working class can compel the capitalist class to remain firm in the industrial war; if a united and revolutionary proletariat confronts a rich middle class, eager for conquest, capitalist society will have reached its historical perfection.”​


The problem with these kinds of odes to capitalism as a ''heroic'' impulse is that they constitute a profound abuse of history. That isn't to say that audacious men of industry or mercantile geniuses don't exhibit a kind of intense vitality within their own lives (often they do) or that their labors aren't in some way admirable, but to cast these things as ''heroic'' is really nothing but an effort by bourgeois thinkers and social theorists to appropriate a pathos of glory from heroic ages of the past to deify themselves - and in doing so acknowledging that the world in which they preside over is largely boring and devoid of transcendental meaning.

Carlyle, ever the Protestant, pointed out that heroes are basically flawed men who live at times when values are confused and often under threat due to the unrelenting prevalence of an oftentimes savage dialectic between opposing belief systems. Heroes aim to reconcile these problems through violent action, because they believe they are acting as historical instruments of transcendental principles that are ''true''. The ''truth'' of their beliefs isn't rational or pragmatic or tailored to facilitate progress, but instead is purported to justify itself due to (if nothing else) the ability of their ideas to command absolute fealty from masses of people.

Capitalism, in contrast, is a way of thinking about the world - this was Heidegger's big point about politics. Capitalist thought envelops every aspect of life because its purpose is to end history and eliminate contentious dialectic through rational processes that are purported to be able to manage social problems by resolving all contradictions. The capitalist doesn't believe he is implementing any kind of radically essentialist principle, he thinks he is doing away with history because history is ''bad'' and it deprives people of rational goods.

Capitalism, in other words, requires Liberalism to survive because it considers men of a heroic spirit to be crazy people - or religious fanatics, or, at worst, criminals. It can't abide value systems that would deprive in any way the majority of people of the rational pursuit of material goods and physical safety. To distill the perspective to a platitude, war and/or political extremism is ''bad for business'', and things that have a tendency towards depriving people of the goods provided by business shouldn't be tolerated.

Bob Dylan Roof
Good points. It should be stressed that though individual capitalists (There Will Be Blood ubermenschen) operate in pursuit of ideals and irrational instincts, the philosophy and morality of capitalist society is essentially antagonistic to those elements that allow the individual capitalist to approach the heroic ideal. The ultimate end of liberalism is the pacification of man, and this involves eliminating any pretense that men could in some sense be superior to or move beyond the merely vegetative reciprocal acts of consumption and production.
Thomas' post really gets to the heart of matter. There is certainly something heroic about setting sail into largely unknown territories to discover new markets or venturing across an uncivilized continent to do the same but this is not the entrepreneurialism of today. If anything, most entrepreneurialism seems to feed off and perpetuate the fatuous navel gazing of our current culture. Consider Kickstarter, a site designed to elicit funds for a variety of upstart business ventures. A noble idea and a convenient model, sure, but just what sorts of ideas are our young entrepreneurs coming up with? Fort communities and RoboCop statues are far more common than actual businesses which provide useful goods and services.

These are extreme examples, to be sure, but what about Facebook, the pinnacle of young upstart tech entrepreneurialism? Hardly revolutionary, Zuckerberg simply privatized the commons (that is, social interaction) so now anyone who wants to stay in contact with friends and relatives from afar needs to submit to data mining procedures. At best, Facebook is the Yellow Pages 2.0.

The only contemporary entrepreneur I find particularly fascinating is Peter Thiel . While I'm not a libertarian, I find something particularly admirable about a man who uses his wealth to invest ideologically, so to speak. Of course, as the article mentions, Thiel detests ideology but it's hard not to see his technocratic utopianism as anything but. Like all capitalist idealists, Thiel buys into the fallacy that the best way to improve the world is to start a company. You'd think he'd know better as the credo for this venture capital firm seems to speak directly to the drought of ideas: We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters .
Don Johnson

Peter Thiel is a homo.

He also throws parties with shirtless bartenders and servers in assless chaps.

And that's just what we know about. He probably throws gay orgies too.