Titans and Heroes

Like so many of you, I have become a bit of a podcast junky. So much amazing content is being made available so fast that it’s hard to keep up. Of course, we all have certain shows that just can’t come out fast enough. We listen as soon as they drop and we eagerly await what’s next. For me that list includes both The Tim Ferriss Show, which I just assume you know, as well the Jordan B. Peterson channel, where this brilliant, and recently controversial, professor from the University of Toronto posts recordings from his lectures. 

This week, a friend and I drove from Tampa to Austin Texas for SXSW. That’s not a short drive so we had plenty of time to get in some podcasts. When we left we cued up the most recent episode from each and a thought that has been brewing for some time solidified in my mind as I listened to these two episodes back to back. In short, Tim Ferriss is doing what Jordan Peterson is describing. It’s brilliant and desperately needed. 

The Hero's Journey as sketched out by Joseph Campbell.
Jordan Peterson has a fascinating way of blending his work in Neuropsychology with evolutionary biology, and making a brilliant case for the rise and crucial role of mythology in the human experience. He argues that as humans evolved they would tell stories about those that had been successful in navigating the world and the social dominance hierarchies within which they existed. It was by way of symbolic representation that stories would pass on the wisdom and values of those who had gone before. These narratives would, naturally, take on religious significance and develop over time into the great mythologies of our world’s religions. The key observation here is not so much how religious traditions and myths evolved but that all of our ideologies have narrative structure and shape how we understand the world within which we find ourselves. People’s success and emotional stability depends upon the integrity of their stories.

As Peterson points out, “the first monkey to drop a stick on a snake, was very popular.” When we see someone who is particularly strong, or smart, or successful, we tell their stories. These stories help us imitate that success and strength in our own lives. Over time, one story would merge with another and less relevant details would be dropped as the story becomes more and more distilled, and a hero myth emerges that tells about the most successful and smartest person who succeeds in every imaginable scenario and so a kind of christ emerges. 

This is the archetype of success. The story of the one who has oriented themselves to the highest imaginable good and adopted the most effective means of achieving that good in whatever context they happen to find themselves in. 

This is what Tim Ferriss is doing. With over 225 podcasts he has been exploring “The Tactics, Routines and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers” as the subtitle of his most recent gem, Tools of Titans, states so clearly. Again and Again you will hear him say that these people who have excelled in one arena or another, whether gymnastics, business, investing, or chess, have more in common with one another, than with the vast majority of folks within their own arena. These folks, most anyway, and among other such patterns, set goals, have clearly defined routines, meditate, journal, and exercise. He is extracting the stories of those who have succeeded in many different dominance hierarchies and is articulating the archetype of success. If one were to extract from Tools of Titans that distilled archetype that is contained within its pages and turn that character into a single figure, and then tell that hero’s story, we would have the modern hero myth that would be sure to take on religious significance. The truth is it already has taken on such significance for the gargantuan following Ferriss has accumulated by helping to tell the story of that “first monkey to drop a stick on the head of a snake.” These stories are inspirational and instructional. As we imitate those that succeed we grow more like that figure ourselves. 

Ferriss highlights today’s Titans while Peterson points out that the stories of the past, the great hero myths, teach us about how to live in this world. They may not always describe the objective world of matter, but they describe the world of value and they teach us what matters. This is the world in which we live and we must not miss the value of the heroes and titans of both today and history, as they model the way of heroic action for tomorrow. In a time and society within which many have abandoned traditional religions as superstitious, lack meaningful rituals or systems of sacrifice, we are desperate for orientation to what is good, and right, and leads to success. Ferriss, whether conscious of it or not, is meeting what is a deep and existential need of our generation. Chuck Palaniuk’s Fight Club articulates our condition well: 

We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.

Just as the myths of old are spoken in response to our deepest existential questions, so the archetype emerging from the stories of Ferriss’s Titans is responding to this existential angst in our generation. Maybe you won’t be a movie star or a millionaire, but you can live well and be a success if you choose to. 

Just as Jesus told his listeners at the end of a hero story that he told, a story still told today and known as “The Good Samaritan,” a phrase implied at the end of all hero stories:

“Go and do likewise” 

Personally, I would like to thank both Ferriss and Peterson for their work. Both have served to challenge my own development and thinking. Both have helped clarify what actually matters. 
Thank you both!