Other than filmmaker George Lucas, I have never heard anyone refer to mythologist Joseph Campbell as a business mentor.

Yet beneath all the talk about 18-hour days, brand building, creating love affairs with your customers and keeping an up-to-date balance sheet, the central message presented by a group of Maine entrepreneurs last week was straight out of Campbell’s 1949 book about mythology, “The Hero With A Thousand Faces.”

The Maine Center for Creativity and the University of Southern Maine brought lifestyle-branding guru Angela Adams, designer/illustrator Scott Nash, Mad Gabs founder Gabrielle Melchionda and media impresario Rory Strunk to the Wishcamper Center to share their insights with more than 100 aspiring Maine entrepreneurs.

Each, in her/his own way, recounted the truth of Campbell’s dictum that, “if you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.”

Yes, technology and marketing and finance and taxes and human resource management and all the other skills required to operate a successful “business” are important.

Nash noted that those hoping to be digital game developers need to master trigonometry. Adams underlined the importance of protecting intellectual property.

Strunk emphasized the need to stay close to your customers wherever on the globe they may be. Melchionda spoke of her constant struggle to get a handle on “the numbers.”

All spoke of the importance of experienced mentors and dedicated partners and employees.

But over and over, their stories returned to the inward inventory. “What do I want to make?” “Where do I (or we) want this enterprise to go?” “What do I/we really want to do?”

And the current success of their businesses is, more than anything else, testament to the rigorous honesty of their answers. They each, in effect, said, “I’m going where my bliss takes me.”

They each, in effect, said (though they may not have known it clearly at the time), “I have faith that whatever doors need to open will open.”

So what is their lesson for Maine? What is the take-away for the sparkling eyes and coiled energy in their audience?

What do these models of successful Maine entrepreneurship say to the young art student whose piercingly perceptive question brought the evening to an all-too-early close: “How can I convince my friend from shop class who doesn’t even know the name of a single artist that he’s incredibly creative?”

How, in effect, can one follow one’s bliss if the very concept is alien? To follow one’s bliss, one must know what it is. And, even more fundamentally, to follow it, one must understand, know, have experienced bliss.

And cultivating that understanding, knowledge and experience is the fundamental challenge for Maine’s economy in the 21st century.

For 150 years, we have been able to live reasonably prosperous lives making things for someone else and following our bliss outside the workplace. “A fair day’s work for a fair wage” has been our mantra, and it has served both us and our employers well. But that era has disappeared.

The young art student’s question — more a plea, really — about how to reach his classmate from shop class in the school identified only as “from outside Portland” brought to mind Dylan Thomas’ cry:

These were the woods the river and sea
Where a boy
In the listening
Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.

We in Maine cannot return to the summertime of the dead.

Nor can we say, “Follow this blueprint to business success.”

We must, instead, find new ways to encourage our boys and girls to discover and whisper the truth of their joy.

That is the real lesson from listening to successful entrepreneurs. That is the creative imperative.

 

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at:

[email protected]