Reflecting on the power of mythic stories and legends

Reflecting on the power of mythic stories and legends

An early iPhone call: This week, I read a story in Fast Company about the first public phone call made from an iPhone, which happened on January 9, 2007. From the stage of the Moscone Center in San Francisco, where he was unveiling the new “insanely great” product, Steve Jobs opened Google Maps, searched for Starbucks, and called a nearby store. While such events may be commonplace today, at that time it was truly a historic occurrence, foreshadowing the impending revolution in mobile communication.

The call went something like this:

Starbucks employee: “Good morning. How may I help you?”

Jobs [grinning]: “Yes, I’d like to order 4,000 lattes to go, please. No, just kidding. Wrong number. Goodbye.”

At that point, the audience erupted in laughter.

You can watch a video of this event here

Today, the tale of Jobs’ Starbucks call has become the stuff of corporate legend, part of Apple’s lore that has taken on mythic proportions. And, the event lives on among Apple’s legions of admirers. Some six years later, copycat imitators still call the fabled Starbucks location, asking for thousands of lattes. Countless others make their personal pilgrimages to the store, hoping to speak with the employee who answered the phone that morning. (In fact, her name is Ying Hang “Hannah” Zhang, and she does still work there.)

Apple is a unique company with a cult-like following. I often say that it is a remarkable entity, for the way they have brought their customers inside, and made them part of the corporate culture. This is an exceedingly rare phenomenon in today’s world. Jobs’ historic call, and the the subsequent actions of the pilgrims and imitators, demonstrate the power of institutional myths and legends. The behavior of the fan community shows how strong Apple’s corporate mythology is, and how passionate the followers can be.

One of my memories from high school is that of studying ancient Greece and learning of the classic myths, and of the desire of mortals to emulate and imitate the gods. As such, I will watch with great interest the Steve Jobs myth as it unfolds over time. In the world of modern business, Jobs is the closest thing we have to a mythic Greek god, and I cannot help but wonder how long his “myth” will last.

Skinny dipping at Bryn Mawr College–another case of modeling the behavior of a mythic figure: Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate student at Haverford, I spent considerable time at our sister institution, nearby Bryn Mawr College. This prestigious school has many famous alumnae, including the movie actress Katherine Hepburn.

According to legend, when Hepburn was a student in the 1920s, she would often go for late night swims, naked, in a pool at the Cloisters near the library. During my year living at Bryn Mawr, I heard numerous students speak of this mythic activity, calling it something one absolutely had to do before graduating. None of these women were sure if the story was indeed true, but that did not seem to matter. Myth can be stronger than truth anyway.

Today, the school’s official website clarifies the story as follows: At Bryn Mawr’s Centennial Commencement Convocation on May 18, 1985, Hepburn addressed the rumor that she used to swim naked in a fountain pool in the Cloisters of Bryn Mawr’s Thomas Library. “The truth is that I was desperately trying to study and retain what I’d studied,” she said. “I’d spend the night in the library, get exhausted, then dip into the Cloister pool in a mad effort to stay awake. It was an act of the greatest virtue. And a fact that I had no bathing suit.”

A quick conclusion about classic story and myth: I see the same phenomenon at play in the Katherine Hepburn story and in the Steve Jobs story. Reenacting the iPhone prank, visiting the Starbucks store that received the call, or taking a midnight swim in the old Cloisters at Bryn Mawr–it all stems from the basic human desire to be part of a mythic journey. Modeling the behavior of the gods, or of the great men and women of the past, can fill us with a sense of destiny, a broader perspective, even a feeling of doing something great, historic and meaningful.

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