I am obsessed with the allegory of the phoenix for business, creative businesses in particular. For those that do not know, the phoenix is a mythical bird born of its own ashes. It lives then burns and is reborn again. Many philosophers, mystics and theologians have weighed in, but my favorite is from Eliphas Levi …”it is because, as essential condition of existence, a void is necessary to every plenitude, space for every dimension, an affirmation for each negation: herein is the eternal realization of the phoenix allegory.”
When applied to creative business, the idea has two levels. The first is rather straightforward: to rise again you have to reinvent yourself. The second is much subtler and insidious: to rise again, the you you once were must be fully dead. The phoenix rises again only after ALL of her feathers have burned. From the ashes…
There are so many examples of the first level – what Steve Jobs did with Apple in 2005, Lou Gerstner with IBM in the 90s, and countless fashion designers throughout their careers. The overarching sentiment on the first level is the road you are on is ended or ending (i.e., the phoenix is dying) and, if you want to keep going, you have to go another way. Sure, betting the proverbial farm is always daunting but, with nothing to lose, not as scary as when there is life left. Hey, the phoenix has burned or is burning.
More fascinating is when you have reinvented yourself and your creative business, supposedly owning the reinvention. I hear it all the time – some permutation of “Life is great, but whenever things slow down for a little bit, I am worried about 2008/2009 happening all over again.” Put it to the phoenix allegory – the current version of the phoenix is not burning, however you remember the feeling so you trap yourself in purgatory. You worry about the past as if you live there today, thereby precluding the work on today’s process. Fear of yesterday drives you away from what is necessary for today.
If you have changed your model to reflect what clients now want in the information age – getting paid for your ideas, your artistry as much as for your execution, then when things slow, your evolution must come from here, not where you were. If you once did piece work (i.e., a graphic designer just doing a logo instead of a total brand strategy, an interior designer a single room instead of an entire space, etc.), going back in the name of protecting the business is foolsplay. You can only be seen in the light you cast. Instead, the questions should be, how can I improve my presentation? My production process? My reveal? Which part of THIS business is meant to die? Which part is to rise from THOSE ashes?
It is scary, I know, believing a shut door can never be opened again. Then again, you shut it for a reason. With a little success and distance, you forget the pain of hiding that lies behind that door. Evolution demands that you remember why the phoenix burned in the first place so you can live fully in the phoenix you are today. Most profound though is knowing the phoenix will burn again as will your creative business (or a specific part of it) only to rise again if are willing to let it fully burn. Be completely invested in what you look like today and you will be guaranteed that tomorrow will look completely different. What a ride.