Job titles are contemporary archetypal energies :: #59
4 March 2023 :: Whether you are a CEO, a manager, an engineer or a clerk, how much of your motivation, goals and focus come from you vs the 'energy' you choose to tune into?
I’m going to open this piece with what is likely to be a gross mischaracterisation of what an archetype is. If you can forgive and bear with me, let’s get to it.
Jungian archetypes are “a universal, inherited idea, pattern of thought, or image that is present in the collective unconscious of all human beings.” (Wikipedia). They are perspectives, roles and perhaps development stages that have played out repeatedly throughout human history—and perhaps earlier—and are in a sense encoded into how we relate to ourselves and the world.
Examples of archetypes, according to Jung, include ‘The Mother’, ‘The Shadow’ and ‘The Wise Old Man’. Contemporary thinking includes more examples, like “King”, “Warrior”, “Magician” and “Lover” (from the book of this name, which explores ‘mature masculine’ archetypes specifically).
My way of making sense of this idea is something like this: there exist what might be called ‘energies’ that are both part of us and also transcend us. An individual may be a father in the technical sense of having children, while only sometimes tapping into and expressing the qualities contained within The Father.
The metaphysical assertion here is that there are meta-patterns called “The Father” and “The Mother” that manifest themselves through you. Whether or not these things actually exist seems irrelevant, because they can be experienced all the same, although some might argue convincingly that this counts as ‘existing’.
For example, if I ask you to close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and tune into “The Warrior” for a few minutes, as if it were a kind of magical radio station, I suspect you’d be able to get at least something from the experience. Perhaps your breathing and posture would change. You might have different thoughts about how the world should be, about what’s important to you or about where your attention should be.
However subtle, it seems there is some extra content there that shows up when you make yourself available to it. And if someone you cared about were being threatened, I suspect the Warrior would make itself known much more powerfully in a way that would likely surprise you.
This idea got me thinking about how it shows up in less arcane contexts, like at work. I wonder if job titles are a modern-day version of these ‘archetypal energies’. Perhaps not as powerful as the ones that go back hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years, but I suspect they’re still influential in their own way.
Consider the CEO. On the one hand, CEO is a title that an individual can hold in a business. On the other hand, it’s a perspective, something larger than the individual that the individual can step into and out of. The archetypal CEO cares about certain things, wants certain things and has certain goals. In this frame, job descriptions become an attempt to crystallise the archetype in writing.
To illustrate what I mean, imagine a work meeting where participants, who are all employees of the business, are asked to sit in different seats around a table. Each seat represents a different role in the business: perhaps CEO, manager, engineer and clerk. There could be a label, a brief job description, and even some kind of talismanic object that fits the role.
Participants would be invited to move between each position and ‘tune into’ the energy of each role. As with the example of tuning into the warrior above, my assumption is that each participant would be able to follow this instruction and get some kind of useful perspective-shifting experience, however subtle. The manager would gain a greater appreciation of the CEO, and the CEO would gain a greater appreciation of the clerk.
But, importantly, I don’t think this is due to the manager empathising with the CEO as an individual. Instead, the manager is becoming available to the ‘archetypal energy’ of the CEO that whoever holds that position also tunes into.
This is feeling particularly relevant and useful to me recently, because as a solopreneur, I am every single role in my business. Sometimes I need to be CEO, sometimes I need to be designer, and sometimes I need to be office manager. However nebulous, unscientific and woo it may sound, I’ve found that when I ‘tune into the energy of the CEO’, I find it to be a useful way of orienting myself towards behaving and seeing like a CEO.
Then, later, I can put that down and tune into a different energy. This can also be difficult, though, and I suspect a lot of people get into trouble when they ‘blend’ with the archetype.
Consider the image of the CEO who can’t stop being a CEO when they go home to their families. Like the persona in ancient Greek theatre—the mask that actors wore to portray their characters—it’s vital to be able to stop playing the role once it’s no longer appropriate. You never want to forget that you’re wearing a mask.
How to get out of your own way at work
For those of you who subscribe to Every, I recently published a new essay there based on the ideas in The Inner Game of Work — you can read it here (paywalled).
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This is like a very down-to-earth, thoroughly applied IFS (at least from what I know about IFS) where you either tap into standard library archetypes, or download an extension with novel classes, or build a new class yourself. Great post, thank you, Michael!