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Myth is Greater Than Truth

In my work with individuals and organizations, I focus on people’s “stories.” I call them their “myths.” Many people who study my work are at first put off by my use of the word myth and suggest that I use a different word. They feel that the word myth implies that the story is less than true, and therefore, somehow less than valid.

I suggest, however, that the very essence of my success in helping organizations and individuals make positive, drastic and lasting change is because I understand that their stories or their “myths” represent great truths to those who believe in them. If someone asked you, “What’s your story?” isn’t that another way of asking, “Who are you, why are you here, and why do you do what you do?”

The word myth or mythos originally meant “word,” “saying” or “story.” It was the Greek historian, Herodotus, in his account of the war between the Greeks and the Persians, who first used the word to distinguish between what he saw as essentially fictional accounts of the past and his “factual” description. A fundamental principal that serves as a foundation for my work is,

“Our success and happiness in life is largely determined by how well we understand, accept and manage ourselves.” – Joe Caruso

Critical to this understanding are the stories or myths that drive our behaviors and approaches. According to Robert Walter, Director of the Joseph Campbell Foundation, “We are, in essence, who we tell ourselves we are.” The meaning of a myth is as relative as the meaning of one’s own existence. To the owner of the myth, it is greater than truth and perhaps even “one step beyond logic.” To someone else, it is merely a story with only representations or shades of reality. When I’m asked about the difference between truth and myth, I always say, “If it’s not yours, then it’s a myth.”

The respective myths of any organization or individual are as valid as any truths to them. They are the driving force behind their approaches and behaviors. In this regard, the myths are inextricably attached to outcomes in life. My work is based on the fact that our very realities (our current outcomes) are, in large part, created by our myths, and not the other way around. If this seems backward to you, consider this question. If a 40-year-old divorced female thinks that all men are jerks, what are her chances of ever finding a loving, caring gentleman? The answer to the question is she can’t and she won’t. Her myths have created a reality that, in turn, will validate her myths. Further, she will continue to have real-life experiences that will validate her myths. (Note also in this example, how real-life past experience has transcended mere “experience” and has become mythical in power — it literally creates current and future realities. In essence, our version of the past, or our story, contributes to the creation of our future.)

The reason my work has been so successful is that I approach individuals and organizations in this “backward” way. I understand that I’m brought in to bring about behavioral change and that the current behavior is a by-product of the myth. I understand why most training efforts and culture-shift programs fail to change people’s behavior. It’s because people can’t behave in a way that is incongruent with their myths. Information and motivation are nice, but they usually aren’t strong enough to dispel the power of one’s myth.

Myth is greater than truth

However, if you can change the myth, you can change the behavior. To the chagrin of many, I stand by my use of the word myth. I know that the powerful relationship between myth and behavior is one of the reasons I succeed with clients while others who’ve gone before me have failed. I’ve not seen this approach fail yet and I’ve based my entire career on it. Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

(c) Joe Caruso and Caruso Leadership. Reprints available with permission.

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