What’s in a Meme?

Transformations are built on ideas.  “Creating a World That Works for All” is an idea, a meme, that is spreading over distance and over time.

Another meme:  You’ve heard me talk about the “Caterpillar & Butterfly” metaphor for years.  The short version: Our ever-consuming society is the caterpillar; “A World for All” is the vision of the beautiful butterfly.

Like most good memes, this idea has been bouncing around for years/decades, moving from mind to mind, until it has become embedded in our collective consciousness.

So, it came as a surprise to me to learn that the originator of the “Butterfly” meme is someone I’ve known for years!  I was talking with Norie Huddle about her support for Commonway’s “Butterfly Project” when she said, “You know, I was the one who came up with the “Butterfly” meme.”

Well, I DIDN’T know!  I knew that I didn’t come up with it, but I didn’t know who did.  As any good meme, it spread far from the original source.

Watch this 3-minute clip of Norie Huddle’s TEDx talk, where she refers to the “Butterfly” meme.  Click here for her full 19-minute TEDx talk.

In talking with Norie about memes, we recognized that memes are alive.  Once released into the world, a good meme takes on a life of their own.  Like our biological children, these intellectual kids can be steered but not controlled; nurtured but not force-fed; supported but not “owned”.

The attempts at “owning” or controlling memes always ends badly.  I can think of several instances where originators stifled their ideas to death, by associating the meme with their own ego.  (I once got a “cease and desist” lawyer letter from someone trying to control a meme.  I stopped using the phrase.  So did everyone else…)

Recognizing our role as “parent” (Norie refers to herself as “The Meme Mama”), we have a responsibility: to spread the meme, without attachment to the outcome.  In that way, everyone has the opportunity to become a carrier of the idea.  (There have been dozens of times whereI’ve heard someone refer to the “A World for All” meme without knowing I was the originator.  I can think of over a half-dozen times people have suggested that I buy and read a book called, “Creating a World That Works for All”!)

In the face of our mounting challenges, we need to make fundamental changes.  And, those fundamental changes require the right tools.  The tools of societal transformation include memes, metaphors and stories.

Over 100 years ago, a popular meme/metaphor was: “Workers of the World Unite!  You have nothing to lose but your chains!”  Said in the day when employers would sometime chain their workers to their work station, this was a potent meme.  Today, it’s largely meaningless. 

If you have the wrong metaphor, the inappropriate meme, the bad story, a fantasy masquerading as vision, the wrong questions… what you will get is a different kind of problem, not a solution.

We need new, appropriate and energizing memes, metaphors, stories, visions. Our two, “The Butterfly Metaphor” and “Creating a World That Works for All”, hand-in-hand, are ready to go the distance!

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