Using Myths to understand the Future of Work

Using Myths to understand the Future of Work

I have always marveled at the power of stories and myths in helping us make sense of our (personal and collective) psychological realities as well as in understanding broader socio-cultural-economic shifts. Myths find their reflections in reality and studying them gives us another frame with which to understand what is happening around us. To that end, I will use the example of Narasimha to show how myths can help us understand the future of work. 

Narasimha is the fourth avatar of Vishnu, half man-half-lion (Nara meaning man and Simha meaning lion). He comes after the earlier three avatars of Matsya (fish), Kurma (tortoise) and Varaha (boar). 

Legend has it that Hiranyaksha and his elder brother Hiranyakshipu were oppressive demons (Asuras). Hiranyaksha was defeated and killed by the Varaha avatar of Vishnu, the mighty boar with its huge tusk. Enraged at the death of his brother, Hiranyakashipu, the elder brother performed intense penance and received a boon from Lord Brahma that he could not be killed by either man or animal, during day nor at night, not inside nor outside, not above nor below and not by weapon nor by tool. This boon made Hiranyakshipu immortal and invincible. Hiranyakshipu pretty much acquired a God complex, and was furious at his son Prahlad who dared to worship Lord Vishnu, and who challenged his father that a greater power exists everywhere, even within the pillars of his palace. 

Hiranyakshipu smote one such pillar and out of it emerged Narasimha, half man-half lion. The strange creature grabbed Hiranyakashipu and dragged him to the threshold, which was neither inside nor outside, placed him on his thigh (not above nor below), at dusk (not day or night), and tore him apart with his sharp claws (not a weapon nor a tool). And thus was defeated an invincible force. 

I find Hiranyakashipu to be wonderfully evocative of what we consider ‘wicked problems’ today. Like a wicked problem, Hiranyakashipu seems invincible and indestructible using conventional problem solving means of strength and skill. In fact wicked problems persist as if they have been given a boon by Brahma – our collective follies and ignorance. At least, pure strength and skill could get the better of the previous generation of problems, aka Hiranyaksha being killed by Varaha. But the wicked Hiranyakashipu is made of sterner stuff. 

Enter the shape-shifter Narasimha or the creature which is neither man nor animal and belies straitlaced categorisations. Narasimha to me stands for the new breed of shape-shifting, multi-potential, boundary spanning people who are attracted to wicked problems. Among these ‘creatures’ who may still be regarded as oddities, form is trumped by intent and a unique ability to take on wicked problems. They stand at the boundaries of domains, educational qualifications, functional specializations – neither inside nor outside and they may even choose to work on wicked problems at a time which is neither day nor night! Their sharp claws are a potent mix of weaponry and sophistication in tools – diverse experiences, skills, breadth and depth of self and other awareness.  

portfolio careers in the future of work

There is perhaps no doubt that the future of work is about solving wicked problems. But is your organization/entity geared to engage with Narasimhas, culturally and structurally? Are you ready as hiring managers or business managers to reframe your expectations about the form in which talent works to solve wicked problems and how you will support them in this? Can you provide a fertile space for nurturing Narasimhas by allowing them to tap into their curiosity and natural affinity to certain kinds of wicked problems?

And finally, if you are an individual who wants to be at the cutting edge of solving wicked problems, what’s your plan to evolve into a Narasimha?

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Kavita, an alumna of IIM Ahmedabad, brings 20 years of experience in Experiential Learning, Coaching, Personal Growth & Change. Her forte is Career Transition Coaching and Leadership Development for mid-senior individuals, helping them find success and fulfilment at work . She also teaches Career & Self Development courses at leading management institutes including IIM Kozhikode, IIM Udaipur, IIM Indore and at the IITs.