The Professional and the Primitive
A couple of years ago when I was in Africa, I got a chance to visit a Masai village. The place was so far out in the boonies that we had to fly to it. There were no roads. We had two city Masai with us, a young man and a young woman, who did the translating.
When we landed, we could see that there was a commotion going on. Our guides explained to us, after speaking with several of the camp elders, that the shaman had just determined that the site upon which the village had made camp was “unwholesome.” So everyone was packing up to move.
The population of the camp was about five hundred—warriors, kids, old folks, plus all the tribe’s livestock. The ceremony of moving camp required that the procession be led by the white cattle. So these were being rounded up. This was not so easy, as the individual white cows were owned by different families and were scattered all over the valley. We watched for more than an hour while the elders, under the direction of the shaman, collected the white cattle and herded them to the front of the procession. The whole tribe had packed up now. The warriors—the tall, slim morans—were singing a ritual song and jumping up and down, surrounded by the pretty young maidens, who were contributing their own chorus.
Finally the village moved.
Two hundred yards up the hill.
“That’s it?” my girlfriend Nancy asked.
We were watching the shaman. Yep, that was it. He had solved the problem. The new campsite was much better.
At the time I didn’t think much about this. It all seemed perfectly natural and in keeping with Africa and tribal life. But when I got home, I started to wonder about the assumptions, as best as I could grasp them, that underpinned this whole extravaganza.
1. Some invisible malignant force threatened the first camp. What was this force? Ghosts? Restive ancestors? Free-floating evil? Would wicked things befall the tribespeople if they remained in the first camp?
2. This invisible evil could be warded off by moving the camp—even though that move was only a few hundred feet. Did that makes sense? Couldn’t the evil force simply follow the tribe up the hill and work its malice there? Why did such a simple fix solve the problem?
3. One individual, the shaman, was capable of perceiving this evil force, of divining its malign intent, and of warding this off by instructing the people to undertake a specific course of remedial action.
4. The tribe followed this individual’s counsel without a glimmer of protest. Not a solitary mom complained about having to pack up her stuff, which including kids and dogs, clothing, food and cooking gear, shelters made of animal hides and all kinds of other gear and impedimenta. Everyone participated freely and enthusiastically.
I must observe, of myself, that I too accepted the shaman’s edict without question. When we got uphill to the new camp, it did in fact feel better. I was glad we had moved.
5. The Masai culture itself. These were no benighted primitives being exploited by some canny hoo-doo man. The Masai were and are one of the great warrior cultures of all time. They have been in East Africa since the 1500s (longer than the entire tenure of the U.S. of A.) and they have thrived and dominated in a harsh land peopled by hundreds of proud, strong, and aggressive competing tribes.
Beyond that, the culture of the Masai is brilliant in and of itself—their dress, their ritual, their social organization. The people are tall, strong and beautiful. The young men stand up to lions, armed only with a spear. The Masai, it seems to me, must be doing something right.
What if, I asked myself, the Masai view of the world is correct? What if there really was an evil force threatening the lower camp? What if the shaman really saw it and concocted the exact right remedy?
Maybe if we had stayed in the lower camp, one of the pregnant young wives would have miscarried. Maybe a fight would have broken out between two braves and one of them would have gotten hurt. Maybe the whole village would have been seized by collective hysteria. Maybe the shaman’s wisdom saved us from that.
What does all this have to do with you and me as artists and professionals? What does it have to do with the idea of “turning pro?”
Here’s what I think:
I agree with the Masai. My world-view is a lot like theirs. I believe in the shaman. I wish I had a shaman myself. If I had a shaman, I would have breakfast with him every morning and whatever he told me to do that day, I would do it.
Better yet, I wish I was a shaman.
In truth, I practice my own form of shamanism every day. As an artist, I seek to access unseen powers. Evil forces are out there. Resistance, self-doubt, self-sabotage. How many other malign entities are hovering each morning over me and my huevos rancheros?
Then there are the good forces—inspiration, enthusiasm, courage … new ideas, brilliant breakthroughs, insights, intuitions. Where do they come from? I don’t know. How can I access them? I have no clue.
Yet this is my business. This is my calling. This is my life.
Damn right I want that shaman. He is my man! I love the guy!
In lieu of the shaman, I have … what?
I have a code of professionalism. I have virtues that I seek to strengthen and vices that I work to eradicate.
I serve the goddess. Where she says to go, I go. And sometimes I’m not sure where she wants me to go.
I wish I knew that shaman. I would love to sit down with him. I’d ask him what he saw or sensed that morning. How did he see it? How did he know what the remedy was? What course of training or initiation had he undergone to acquire his knowledge?
Does he see his role as serving the gods, like I do? Does he regard this gift as a blessing or a curse?
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