The Crossing of the Threshold

by Didier Marlier on Friday May 10th, 2013

One of the critical points in Joseph Campbell’s seminal work (the Universal Myth, the Hero’s Journey) is the “Crossing of the Threshold”… It is probably one of the most painful and difficult steps to take…

The Hero has come to where he is, thanks to the skills he has patiently developed through life, by falling and getting back on his feet again… Little by little, as Carl Jung explained, the Hero has identified with his mask and the attitudes, gestures, styles and behaviours have become such a powerful armor that this has become part of his identity: The Hero has become his mask and believes now that his “winning formula” is a vital part of himself.

There is nothing wrong with choosing consciously to wear an armor, to protect us in specially challenging times of our lives. As an adolescent, I suffered acne for years. It was so bad that it got me the nickname of “Martian”, as my school mates used to say that my face reflected well what that planet should be like with all its craters… Needless to say that, with such a “handicap”, being successful with girls was close to “Mission Impossible” when I was 16… So my winning formula, my coping strategy, the Mask I started to wear was the one of a wise, spiritual, Far Eastern religion inspired “hippie”… My interest in Taoism and Buddhism could free me from having to chase girls and the absence of success with them was therefore justified… I am still grateful to that identity as it helped me during a painful part of my adolescent’s journey. Needless to say that, having turned 23 and become one of the most successful ski instructors in the resort, by miracle, the prestigious uniform became my new armor and my esoteric mask didn’t last very long as I became a far more self-assured person. We all have the possibility of using such coping strategies during life. Wearing a mask is often helpful. It is just fundamental not to be fooled by our own construction, so that, when times change, we are able to challenge ourselves to literally “throw the mask down” and reinvent ourselves. And… trust me, I am experiencing it these months…

The “Crossing of the Threshold” is nothing else than choosing between hanging on to our old self or having the courage and energy to reinvent ourselves. By staying faithful to the previous personality we chose, we risk that it may not fit the new situation and start to become more of a promise of failure than a winning formula. It may be filled with comfort, automatisms and habits but projects an unauthentic image of ourselves. On the other hand, reinventing ourselves is a painful process… It requires a separation from concepts we held for true, sometimes even from people we loved. It suggests identifying and “challenging our orthodoxies”. And nothing grants that, by burning the fields behind us, we will head towards a new “Promised Land”…

So the temptation is great to refuse the invitation, to remain hidden in the emotional and intellectual comfort of our ancient beliefs. And indeed, the “crossing of the desert” may be long, unsecure and uncertain. The crew accompanying us may rebel and criticize our decision to cross the line, adding to our own doubts and pressure.

The world is going through increasingly unsettling societal, economic, environmental, political and other challenges. These probably bear huge threats and, equally promising opportunities. Those who believe that, this is mainly a reshuffling of the cards and that the useless gimmick of B.R.I.C. is “where things will happen now”, will totally miss the train of evolution.

Over the last twelve months, my partners and I have witnessed both executives and companies struggling with the necessity of change. We have seen promising leaders having the intuition that the “Disruption Economy” was coming their way, trying to respond to it with 1.0 strategies, organizations and leadership style.

But, if crossing the Threshold is such a difficult and painful step in one’s personal life, there should be no surprise that it is equally challenging for leaders to take that decision for the business they are responsible for.

Enjoy the Journey…

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6 Responses to “The Crossing of the Threshold”

  1. This is a powerful concept, Didier.

    Many times I have struggled to let go of the identity that I have created not only for internal reasons, but also because of ego and worry about how I will be perceived by others. (e.g. I said I was X, believe X to be true, or that I was going to do X. What will happen if I do something or become someone different?)

    Who cares? I need to realize that situations, realities, and “what is right” can all change. I need the moral courage to overcome my internal struggle and to not be preoccupied by how things will be perceived externally.

    Furthermore, I have found times when my time being connected to a certain person, group, or ontological path had come to its end. It can be a painful process to let go of people, communities, or behaviors – but is at times necessary and closing those doors allows the opening on many new doors of opportunity that create the possibility for new relationships, experiences, and ways of being.

    Thank you.

    • Dear Luke,
      If there is one thing I respect in business people, it is their capacity to be authentic, their integrity… I am moved by your text and not sure on who is learning from whom here…
      I hope our paths cross when I am in São-Paulo, um forte abraço

  2. Very nice post Didier.

    I’ve always carried the impression that masks are negative tools to avoid reality; and in a business scenario were a sign of distrust and deceit.

    You’ve cleared something very important for me.

    Thank you!
    Grande abraço e espero que tudo esteja bem!

    • Obrigado Edu, ALWAYS a honor to see that the blog also speaks to people of your new and promising generation. Um forte abraço

  3. Didier,

    Very nice reflection and it reminds me of a very nice children’s book called “the knight in rusty armour”.

    If find the skill of learning to let go, or to say no to something that has served us, one of the rarest in the business environment. So much of the identity of companies – and of course people – is built on what has made them successful … so, as you describe, it gets mixed with their ontological essence.

    I think one of the challenges leaders and OD practitioners have in the current socio-economic context is how to help companies/ teams let go of their masks even before they are clearly no longer a fit: how to create the sense of urgency and detachment so they can move on quickly enough to embrace the challenges ahead unencumbered by their old selves.

    It is an inquiry that is very alive for me and with many more question-marks than answers. One learning though, has been that getting them to be truly curious about what may be possible from a new identity or way of being/doing can, at times, be more effective than pushing them from a place of fear.

    Sometimes we cling to what hurts us the most, because at least it is something we know how to relate to …

    • Dear Paulo,
      I am delighted that we are talking the same things. Indeed, the “Crossing of the threshold” is fundamental for us, human beings and leaders, to grow on a personal basis and it is equally critical in business.
      My partner, Nick van Heck (whom you met) and I are often reflecting on how to improve 1) the awareness in organizations that (as Wittgenstein says) “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. 2) the realization that they have built “implicit assumptions & orthodoxies” that have unconsciously become unchallengable. We are fascinated by how to bring back to consciousness those implicit choices and let the leaders re-confirm or challenge these.
      VERY interested to reflect on this with you when you have time and interest. Have a great week,
      Abraço Didier


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