Real Unicorns

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When I was young, I believed in unicorns.

I don’t think I had at that point taxonomized the word “belief” into all the categories we find so essential as adults. If you had asked me if I thought I would meet a real unicorn one day, I would have been doubtful. If you had asked me to produce tangible evidence for this belief in unicorns, I would have been lost. But when I read or watched stories about unicorns and the magic they embodied, like The Last Unicorn, or Bruce Coville’s Unicorn Chronicles, my heart leapt, and I knew that I needed what these creatures had, what they were. I could not live without them, and so I believed in them in the same way we must believe in ourselves. I believed in what they represented, and I felt that I would follow them and love them until the end of the world. Same with dragons. I couldn't have told you why. The feeling WAS the “why.”

Crucially, in both the fictional examples I gave, the unicorn embodies the introduction of magic into the everyday. In The Last Unicorn everyone is in awe of her, because she represents an energy they’re desperately missing as it passes from their world. In Coville’s Into The Land of the Unicorns, our young human heroine is shocked and transformed by her encounter with the mythical beasts as she enters their realm.

Again, I believed in these kinds of intrusions of magic the same way people believe in religions– because I desperately required them. Their realness felt in some way essential to my survival. I would constantly check the backs of wardrobes for secret passageways, I would do little rituals with crystals or stones that I found to attempt to transform into another species, and I would comb the dusty corners of libraries looking for magic books that perhaps, like Myst, could warp me to somewhere else. I didn’t want to live in a world where these kinds of things weren’t possible. I wanted the real thing.

In some ways, adulthood has not been kind to these beliefs. It’s true that I have not yet met a live dragon or a real unicorn. But I’ve had many experiences that I never imagined and never expected, and there have been many moments that felt like real intrusions of magic.

In the world of tech startups, the word “unicorn” means something different. It means a startup that has the potential to make lots of money, and possibly disrupt the market. These are the companies that get valued at hundreds of billions of dollars. Really, the word “unicorn” as it applies to startups is about making the right bets: venture capitalists use the word to denote those difficult-to-find companies that are going to become huge and make them great returns on their investment.

There’s something sad about this, in a way. It’s clear the word “unicorn” still carries some of that magic for people– why would they pick that word to describe extraordinary, rare occurrences otherwise? But instead of referring to an unfathomable and otherworldly beast, it just refers to a company like Uber. Uber is kind of magical– you can summon a car with the push of a button! And they’ve definitely made people lots of money. But it’s not quite the same as seeing a real live unicorn, is it?

This might seem like a silly comparison, but for me, it’s very meaningful. I’m a storyteller, and have done work in branding, copywriting, and content marketing. So it’s often my job to introduce meaning to a product or experience. I have to help people to understand how a given thing or idea fits into their lives. I build coherence. But I would very much like to make real magic.

Netflix just put out this movie by Brie Larson called “The Unicorn Store.” It’s about exactly what it sounds like– the main character is a painter, an artist who decides to get a “real job” at a PR / advertising firm. She’s always trying to introduce a little glitter or magic into her job, and into her everyday experiences. She tries to make things sparkle, even when her coworkers and boss would prefer she didn’t. And she loves, loves, loves unicorns.

In true fairytale fashion, she stumbles across a mysterious shop, and the shopkeeper offers to let her adopt a real, live unicorn. But there’s a catch: she has to prepare her home, her whole life, to receive this creature and care for it. She has to be ready for the love and the mystery, and she has to trust– even though she’s trying to work her grown-up job and have normal human relationships.

Trust in magic is complicated for me. One of the reasons I wanted to work in branding is because I was excited about how culture got made. When I was young, musicians and artists enticed me with extraordinary experiences. In branding, there’s often this magical atmosphere created around a product by a team of people– think perfume ads. These creative people try to capture something ineffable about the product and communicate it to an audience– at least that’s what I thought. I would get so excited about Disney movies or Apple products or big concerts by my favorite bands because of this atmosphere of magic– this idea that with the right creative choices, we could break through into some extraordinary realm.

I haven’t yet explored every advertising firm or creative agency in the world, of course. I’m actually quite inexperienced compared to many. But the experiences I’ve had have not necessarily been magical, and the friends I ask, who are deeper in the industry, have not given me much reason to hope. At every turn, I’m told these companies are primarily concerned with sales and metrics. It isn’t really about creating magic– it’s about making money; getting the numbers up. Now, I know that in order to have a viable business, you have to make money. But so many of the supposedly progressive voices in the world of branding have said long and loud that in order to make money, you need to make amazing brands and products. If you build it, they will come. Branding in that paradigm is about communicating something important and extraordinary, like Steve Jobs’ product presentations. It’s not supposed to be about lying.

I haven’t really found much evidence that many people really care about creating amazing products or experiences. Maybe it’s just where the economy is at, or maybe my perspective is naive and I need to grow up. I’m not sure. But I’m still on the prowl for something real, and I feel like I’ll know it when I see it.

This is probably the reason I’m still so fascinated with musicians and artists, and probably why everyone else is too. When I go to a Depeche Mode concert, for example, Depeche Mode isn’t telling me that the magic is located somewhere else. The magic is right there. Through sound and light, we have a collective experience, and then we go home. Artists are at least doing their best to create a real moment of magic. Maybe there are product developers and branding professionals out there trying to do the same thing. I don’t know. But I would like to believe there are.

At the end of The Unicorn Store, I was on the edge of my seat and holding my breath. Because of course, this whole business about the main character preparing her home for a unicorn had to lead somewhere. There was so much tension. Was it a hoax or a scam, like some of her friends said? Was she actually losing her mind, and imagining this mysterious shopkeeper?

When she walked into the room at the end of the movie and there was an actual unicorn standing there, I started laughing uncontrollably and I couldn’t stop. Of course there was a real unicorn. There had to be. I understand the person that made this movie. I know her type. Even if it ruins our lives, we won’t settle for anything less.