UCLA Winter Quarter, 1991. I open a glass door engraved Department of Folklore and Mythology for my master’s degree interview, butterflies in my belly.
The adviser in her two-piece suit motions to me. “Come in. Sit down.”
I’ve not even reached the chair when she says, “First of all, we don’t do that Joseph Campbell comparative mythology stuff here. It’s considered poor scholarship.”
This confirmation takes me aback.
In my introductory folklore class, the professor had announced that Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” model bordered on colonialism because it “takes the folk out of folklore.” I’d just assumed he was an academic Marxist.
“So what does the department do?” I ask.
“Well…” She leans forward. “We consider Folklore and Mythology the new MBA.”
That’s the last thing I wanted to hear, having fled the corporate world for academia in my 30s.
“One of our Ph.D students,” she continues, “has received a very large grant to do fieldwork at Hughes Aircraft.”
“Really? I worked at Lockheed Aerospace for five years.”
She looks impressed. “So you have real-world experience and connections.”
Unfortunately. “So, what kind of fieldwork is this person doing at Hughes?”
“It’s fascinating,” the adviser pauses for effect. “She’s working with their Human Resources department to recast Howard Hughes as a trickster god to help raise employee morale.”
I ask her to repeat that.
“She’s helping Human Resources recast Howard Hughes as a trickster god to raise morale.”
I can’t help myself. I snort.
Aerospace was probably the most conservative industry of the 1980s. In the days before Anita Hill, sexism and sexual harassment ran unchecked.
I learned to not sit by one old exec in meetings because he always fondled my thigh. I regularly refused another’s invitation to dine at the local Marriott because everyone knew he expected room service. I was eventually forced to resign so my supervisor could hire his buddy in my place.
And I wasn’t alone. For a female researcher to go into that environment touting Howard Hughes’ mythic, um, attributes? Come on…Mercury, Coyote, Loki, and Howie?
“I’ve been there and I don’t think that will work,” I say.
The academic adviser leans back, “I don’t think you’ll be a match for the department.”
It drizzles as I walk back across campus. I step on the damp yellow leaves, angry and confused. Why did academia need to denigrate Joseph Campbell and deify Howard Hughes?
In the “hallowed halls” of learning, corporate funding still dictates the curriculum.
This anecdote is, of course, LaterBloomer.com’s origin myth — why I write about creative (not corporate) late bloomers.
UCLA disbanded their Department of Folklore and Mythology about a decade ago, due to funding cuts (ironically). I wonder if they regret it. Today, “storytelling” has become the new business buzzword.
They just missed churning out the next generation of high-concept marketing managers.
In a Forbes piece titled, “Not Just for Bedtime, Marketers Corner the Market on Storytelling,” Phil Johnson wrote:
At two recent conferences, almost every speaker opened with the words, “I’d like to tell you a story.” My hope for entertainment soared — and then was dashed just as quickly — as I listened to one attempt after another to wrap a business point in an anecdote masquerading as a story.
I could say the same about almost every blog I’ve visited recently (except the art and writing ones).
Storyselling has replaced storytelling.
Part of me wants to stamp my foot like a child and yell, “Why can’t stories be stories?” I just want to be inspired by someone’s authentic, individual experience.
The Roman poet Horace defined the essence of great storytelling when he wrote, “Change the name, and the story is about you.” Not burgers, cereal, deodorant, or Cialis.
I’d always planned to open LaterBloomer.com to personal stories, but couldn’t find time to do more interviews. Then it occurred to me — let people tell their own stories! (Duh.)
I want to hear your “late” bloomer tale. Please check out the new Your Story page for guest-posting guidelines. Let’s get back to storytelling!
(P.S. You can download a letter-size PDF of the “Heroic Living” image above, with Joseph Campbell’s words and my photography, here.)