By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 11, 2013
Several of the streets I normally drive are blocked these days by construction for a new light rail line. As I was detouring around one blockage yesterday I thought, “Mass transit is a great idea but it’ll never work here in Los Angeles.”
The reason it won’t work is that it runs counter to the culture of the city. L.A. is a car culture. Even when the Metro Line gave away free passes, the trains were still 90% empty.
That got me thinking about cultures in general.
Institutions have cultures. Apple has a culture, IBM has a culture; so do NASCAR and Wired magazine and the surfing locals on the North Shore of Oahu. The Roman legions had a culture, the Navy SEALs have a culture. Al Qaeda has a culture.
Institutional cultures give shape and identity to the individuals within their organizations. If you’re a bubble-headed bleached blonde working for Fox News, you will dress, think, and act differently that the Commie pinko socialists at MSNBC.
Cultures persist. The New York Yankees of today share indelible DNA with the Bronx Bombers of the Babe Ruth era. The reason Marissa Mayer was hired at Yahoo was to change the corporate culture. That’s why new studio heads are brought in by Paramount and Warner Bros. and fresh coaches are recruited by the NBA, the NFL, and the NCAA.
To change an organization, change its culture.
The strongest institutional culture I can think of is that of the U.S. Marine Corps. The Marines have two boot camps—one at Parris Island, SC and another at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, CA. For a hundred years these places have been stamping out identical Marines. I can testify from personal experience that no matter how hard you try to resist that culture, in the end you will drink the Kool-Aid. You will buy in to the culture, and that buy-in will be ineradicable.
But the most amazing proof of the power of Marine culture comes from the experience of the 1st Marine Division at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea, winter 1950. Surrounded and outnumbered 8-1 by 67,000 soldiers of the Chinese 9th Army at temperatures that hit thirty-below, these Marines fought their way out over a period of seventeen days in one of war’s all-time ordeals of suffering and endurance. But here’s the incredible part:
Many of these Marines were reservists who, at that time, had never been through boot camp. In other words, USMC culture was so strong that its members imbibed it even without being formally exposed to it.
That’s an institutional culture.
But there’s such a thing as individual culture as well. A personal culture unique to one individual. Personal culture is what you and I have to have, and if we don’t have it, we have to acquire it. As artists and entrepreneurs we must design, construct, and perpetuate an interior culture that is as vivid, unique, and self-empowering as that of the corporations and institutions we work with and compete against.
Who is an example of someone with an “individual culture?”
Stevie Nicks has a culture. Bruce Springsteen has one. So does Louis C.K. Chris Christie has a culture. Nelson Mandela’s personal culture was so strong it could change a nation and even the world.
In my experience the evolution of a personal culture takes place in two stages.
First, we have to find it. We’ve got one already, never fear. It was there from the minute we were born. Our personal culture is constituted of our point of view, our style, our sense of humor, our unique gifts and drives. Our personal culture is our voice. It’s our artist’s sensibility. It’s our Authentic Swing.
When we embark on our hero’s journey, we are seeking our individual culture, whether we realize it or not. The climax of that journey is our discovery of that voice, those gifts, that unique point of view.
Phase two is the construction and reinforcement of that individual culture. Sometimes it just happens without us even thinking about it. Stevie Nicks picked up a tambourine. She found the top hat, the swirling skirts, the whole Welsh Witch thing. It’s been working for her from “Rhiannon” in 1975 to “New Orleans” in 2009.
Hillary Clinton’s culture has evolved dramatically, but who can deny that it has remained consistent since her days at Wellesley, even before she met Bill?
Why do you and I need a personal culture? Because a culture supports us and empowers us. When we’re down, it holds us up. A culture is different from a brand. A brand can be false; it can be constructed artificially to monetize our work or to hype our ego and our narcissism. (A brand, it should be said, can also be real. That’s the best kind.)
A personal culture is true, whether we’re selling something or not. Our culture works in a crowd and it works when we’re alone; it works at the North Pole or in outer space.
My friend David Leddick says in his dry way, “Do you have a style? If not, please think about acquiring one.” I say the same for a personal culture. It’ll evolve. You’ll find one only to shed it like a snake sheds its skin. That’s fine. Because the new culture, if it’s true, will be a deeper, more authentic version of the older one.
Hemingway had a culture. So did Proust. One guy was in Africa hunting lions, the other took to his bed and never got out. Both cultures worked.