Magic & Management

Video with subtitles & transcript from TEDx Venice “Magic & Management” given by Ferdinando Buscema

The title of my presentation is “Magic and Management”, two words that are usually very far apart from each other. In the next few minutes, I’m going to perform for you a piece of conjuring that is meant to connect these two worlds in your minds: Magic and Management. All you have to do is follow the thread of my talk and I promise that all the pieces will come together. That’s my word as a magician!

Let’s start talking about Magic. Magic is a word that in our culture evokes ambivalent meanings. ‘Magic’ refers to something obscure, ambiguous, and quite possibly false or deceptive. At the same time, ‘magic’ is associated with all that is mysterious, enchanting, extraordinary, astonishing and wonderful. For now, I’d like to suggest one of my favourite definitions of magic, by writer Arthur Clarke, according to whom “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from real magic.” The pivotal point of the phrase is the word ‘technology’. Etymologically, the Greek word Technè stands for a body of practical knowledge meant to create something: it takes a technè to build a house, to paint a painting or to write a poem. Hence a technè is the practical knowledge that allow us to make something happen in reality.

Over the ages, people have used the word Magician to describe anyone who possessed any kind of occult knowledge, and by occult I mean hidden, unknown to the common people. Thanks to such occult knowledge the Magician can make extraordinary things happen. If the Magician’s tech-gnosis is sophisticate, his operations will be considered wonderful and dazzling by those not initiated into his esoteric knowledge.

During the evolution of human thought, Magic and Technology have been two concepts very closely linked to one another, like paths running parallel to each other. Throughout time, magicians have researched the transmission of thoughts from mind to mind, imagined the possibility of flying across great distances in a very short time, and talked about the capacity of accessing huge amount of information with their minds, while the alchemists even searched for an elixir in order to extend life. Well, during the course of time, these ‘promises’ of Magic have been realized and implemented in the form of Technology, making these feats available to a large number of people. We don’t know if the ancient alchemists found the elixir of eternal life or not, but that’s exactly where we are heading today thanks to pharmaceutical technologies and genetic engineering. And of course telecommunication tools and information technologies are allowing us to implement and realize those ancient intuitions and promises of magic.

The spirit of magic – at its inner and deepest core – is about cracking nature’s secret codes, in order to use them for the benefit of the largest number of people. So, the spirit of magic has not vanished. It only shape-shifted into technology.

At this point I’d like to reveal you three secrets of magic, very practical pieces of information, the distillation of centuries of hermetic knowledge. Those who are able to put these ideas into practice in a conscious way, can make real magic happen! Here we go:

The first secret is that “Reality is not always what it seems to be”. Along history men questioned around the nature of reality. Is reality only what we can see with our own eyes and touch with our hands? Or is there more than meets the eye? Maybe there are things that exist even if we don’t perceive them directly. Over the ages, mankind created many narratives, different stories to explore the concept of reality. Be it Plato’s Myth of the Cave, or the Veil of Maya of Eastern philosophies, or modern cinema renderings of The Matrix or The Truman Show, these different narratives point their finger towards the same conclusion: our perceptions are limited and any model of reality we design is a pale representation of what’s “out there”. Explicitly, the function of art and the role of the artist is to interpret reality through his own point of view, showing novel slices of reality that others might not get through their limited eyes. In the words of Paul Klee “Art does not reproduce what is visible, it makes

things visible.” So, the starting point of any magical creation is the awareness of the existence of many levels of reality.

The second secret is that “Imagination creates reality”. I believe that every artist, of every school and at any time, agrees with this. Even more so, magicians of all times have considered imagination to be the main tool – even the highest function of human soul – to shape reality and navigate through the multiplicity of planes. In the wonderful words of musician Peter Gabriel, “All of the buildings and all of the cars, were once just a dream in somebody’s head.” In other words, all that surrounds us, before manifesting in the material and objective reality, was born in the form of an idea, an intuition, a thought or a vision in someone’s mind. And so, believing in magic – which sounds like an outdated superstition – means believing in the supreme power of the imagination to shape reality. As neurosciences has validated, to a great extent, we are and we become what we think. And so, the magic meme is a kind of mind software to conceive and do things which are, as it were, magical!

Finally, the third secret is that “Reality is made of words”. Magic is the art of the word that enchants and has concrete effects upon the world. The words that we speak shape our reality more deeply than we generally acknowledge. One postmodern philosopher pushes the idea so far as to say that the real secret of magic is that the world is made of words. Those who know the right words can realize virtually everything they want. This lesson applies to those who are active in politics or advertising or salesmanship, and everything else in between. Nowadays, along with the traditionally known languages, we have witnessed the emergence of a new breed of codes whose effects on reality are absolutely concrete. I’m talking about computer programming languages. These nomad codes are the new esoteric languages, which are totally obscure and mysterious to whoever is not initiated into the technology. As an example, knowing the right words this lady sold 500 million books; and knowing the right words this young man made 500 million friends! I bet these two people believe in the magical power of words!

Be it words or computer codes, reality is ultimately made of symbols. We navigate in a forest of symbols, which are abstract entities, whose effects upon reality are absolutely concrete, as anyone who is working in branding or advertising knows very well.

Summing up these three secrets of magic, we can say that the Magician is someone who is aware that reality is a dynamic process whose flow can be influenced and guided, through the proper use of imagination and the conscious manipulation of symbols.

All of this applies as well to the contemporary manager, and so let’s talk about management. Management is a technology, a technology meant to make things happen in reality, benefiting and harnessing the work of other people. When it achieves the right level of complexity and sophistication, management is closer to a magical art than an exact science. Any manager conscious of his role will confirm this. In the last decades, given the ubiquity of the corporate model in the capitalistic system, management has established itself as a scientific field of study. And the corporate playfield is increasingly characterized by emerging non-linear properties and chains of cause-and-effect which are completely opaque and mysterious – giving birth to what is popularly called Black Swan Events.

The following observations come from my personal experience in the corporate world, where I have worked as a mechanical engineer and later as management consultant. These ideas point the way towards an emerging archetype of the contemporary manager. Let’s start from here:

Every two years, IBM conducts an international survey, interviewing thousands of CEOs and managers from all over the world, in order to understand emerging trends in the world of companies. The last of this surveys was conducted in 2010, and it showed very interesting results. The vast majority of CEOs agree that a key skill of present and future managers will be the ability to read signals and interpret emerging tendencies in their business, and facilitate the process of the right ideas manifesting. More than 70% of the people interviewed consider the two fundamental skills a modern manager must posses to be imagination and intuition,

two of the magical qualities par excellence: the imagination to see what’s invisible to the naked eye, and the intuition – along with the rationality – to make strategic decisions.

The second skill of the contemporary manager is the management of meaning. The manager, recognizing that reality is a dynamic process, must be able to weave together narratives that are meaningful, in order to lead himself, coworkers and employees. The management of meaning is the process of receiving signals emerging from chaos, and then interpreting and translating them into a language that is comprehensible to others. Artists, magicians and managers, all traslate chaotic noise into meaningful signal. For example, a well-known narrative shift that took place in the world of business management over the last few years, regards the figure of the manager himself: we witnessed a shift of the image of the manager from that of a warrior – who conducts his work on the bloody battle field or corporate war – towards a more organic, fertile and peaceful narrative of the manager as an orchestra director – someone who is able to facilitate the emergence of harmony, rather than leading by force. And of course, there are plenty of managers living by the script of the magician as well, given the breadth of their visions and the impact of their intuitions.

The last feature of the new millennium manager DNA is the Cultivation of the Self. A manager must cultivate himself. He must be a complete person who can balance his technical skills and MBA with a rich variety of experiences. Cultivating oneself means to embrace a process of continuous learning and personal growth, in order to become more and more aware of one’s creative powers and harness them for the benefit of the corporate system in which one is immersed.

From my point of view, the contemporary manager can benefit and draw inspiration from the magical thinking, meant as a non-linear map that enables us to navigate that Middle Earth where imagination is more important than received knowledge, and where nothing is true but everything is possible.

And so, as promised at the beginning, I’d like to end by putting all the pieces back together, for those of you who followed the thread of my talk so far, as well as for those who got lost in the dark wood of symbols. That’s why there were some eye candy images, for your entertainment pleasure! To put the pieces back together, means to reconnect magic and management, to sum up everything I said, with just a simple piece of thread.

Our whole life, from the beginning till the end, is made up of many pieces: our memories, places, people, our dreams and wishes, technologies and TED Talks! Our life is a matrix of external world events and mental images spanning past, present and future. And all these pieces make up a very complex and intricate plot, where we blur the boundaries between what’s real and what’s only perceived. What magic means is to see beyond appearances and into the fundamental unity of all these pieces, fragments of the Cosmic Game where everything is connected and continuously unfolding.

About Ferdinando Buscema

Ferdinando Buscema design “magical experiences”: events meant to be entertaining, astonishing and memorable, weaving meaningful contents into the context, to leave a mark in the participants. To learn more go to his website.

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