Neo’s meeting with the Oracle is quite built up, so we share Neo’s disorientation when he walks into a shabby kitchen and meets who looks like a mitten-knitting grandmother when we’re expecting a robed mystic in a temple.
For the final installment of this series on The Matrix, we’re going to deconstruct Neo’s meeting with the Oracle. It’s perhaps the most enigmatic and memorable scene in the film, and for good reason: the Oracle is a masterful, Yoda-style coach. We can learn a great deal about mentoring from this scene.
“Not quite what you were expecting, right?” she says, just before removing cookies from the oven. Neo shifts on his feet, visibly uncomfortable.
“And don’t worry about the vase,” she says a moment later, just before Neo knocks it onto the floor.
“How did you know?” Neo asks.
“Oh… What’s really going to bake your noodle later on is, would you still have broken it if I hadn’t said anything,” she replies, not actually answering the question and adding to the mystery.
The Oracle establishes two things very quickly with Neo:
- Relating with me is going to be uncomfortable and disorienting.
- I know and see things you don’t.
Any coach, therapist, or mentor knows that cognitive dissonance is par for the course. For someone to make a change in their life, they have to think differently. Thinking differently requires an undoing of existing thought patterns. This creates confusion and unease. In small, manageable doses, this is a good thing. The deconstruction of existing patterns allows new patterns to form. This is how deep learning and transformation works.
Now the stage is set for the message she delivers: she’s got him off-balance and she’s built credibility. Neo’s expectation is that she’s going to tell him whether he’s “the one” or not, and this is another expectation to be thwarted, which is the essence of the coaching he’s to receive.
“So? What do you think? You think you’re the one?” she asks, putting the responsibility on him to answer his own question.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” Neo answers. The Oracle gestures to the wooden plaque above the door that says “Temet Nosce.”
“You know what that means?” she asks. “It’s Latin. It means, ‘Know Thyself.’”
The implication is that Neo is “the one” … who needs to figure it out.
Oracle: I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Being ‘the one’ is just like being in love. No one can tell you you’re in love, you just know it. Through and through. Balls to bones. Well, I better have a look at you. Open your mouth, say ‘Ahhh.’
The Oracle gives Neo a frame for exploring the question himself, also setting the stage for how love is going to be the vehicle through which he discovers his power: specifically, his love of Morpheus and Trinity (in the sequels).
She does an ironic physical exam that is funnier each time I see it. Part of Neo thinks maybe this exam is actually going to give him an answer. Part of him is saying, “What the hell is going on here?” She widens his eyes, checks his ears, and feels the gland on his neck as if she’s his primary care physician. She finishes by mocking a palm reader, looking at his hands.
Oracle: Okay. Now I’m supposed to say, `Umm, that’s interesting, but…’ then you say…
Neo: But what?
Oracle: But you already know what I’m going to tell you.
Neo: I’m not the one.
This is ingenious. She elicits his own self-doubt as exactly his theme to work. She tries to show that the answer is in him, while he continues to take her authority over his own.
Oracle: Sorry kiddo. You got the gift, but it looks like you’re waiting for something.
He’s still abdicating his own authority. This is obviously his question to answer. She doesn’t take the bait.
Oracle: Your next life maybe, who knows? That’s the way these things go. What’s funny?
Neo: Morpheus. He… he almost had me convinced.
She tells him directly that he has the capacity to be “the one,” but he doesn’t hear it. The question he should be asking is, “How do I translate that capacity into reality?” But he’s still too stuck in self-doubt.
Neo’s response tells the Oracle that no change can happen in this moment. He believes his own self-doubt, so it makes no sense for her to assert the truth, because he can’t yet hear it. She knows he’s going to have to discover it through himself, so she supports him to do so with a little healthy manipulation:
Oracle: I know. Poor Morpheus. Without him we’re lost.
This gets his attention. It’s easier for Neo to focus on his love for others than his own power, his love for himself, and the Oracle is going to use this to wake him up.
Neo: What do you mean, without him?
Oracle: Are you sure you want to hear this? Morpheus believes in you, Neo. And no one, not you, not even me can convince him otherwise. He believes it so blindly that he’s going to sacrifice his life to save yours.
She’s highlighting the way in which Morpheus believes in him more than he does himself, and how that isn’t working.
Oracle: You’re going to have to make a choice. In the one hand you’ll have Morpheus’ life, and in the other hand you’ll have your own. One of you is going to die. Which one will be up to you. I’m sorry, kiddo. I really am.
We discover, of course, that this isn’t true, but how it plays out is exactly what Neo needs to find his power. It’s a setup.
Oracle: You have a good soul, and I hate giving good people bad news. Oh, don’t worry about it. As soon as you step outside that door, you’ll start feeling better. You’ll remember you don’t believe in any of this fate crap. You’re in control of your own life, remember? Here, take a cookie. I promise, by the time you’re done eating it, you’ll feel right as rain.
In sales, this is called a takeaway. It’s a kind of reverse psychology. The Oracle brilliantly pushes on his self-doubt here, and the cookie is a symbol of the blue-pill perspective that says, “Reality is the low-power state you accept. Just go with what’s comfortable for you.” She knows this is an affront to his deeper values.
In other words, she highlights his internal division. Neo wants to believe in his own power, but at the same time, another part of him doesn’t. This contradiction is exactly what’s in the way of him turning his capacity into expression.
Neo is left more confused than when the scene began. He rejoins Morpheus in the hall, eating the cookie in cognitive dissonance because he knows, of course, the cookie is an illusion. Can he actually enjoy it? He is right in the center of his internal contradiction, staring it in the face.
Morpheus: What was said was for you and for you alone.
You’d think maybe Morpheus would eagerly ask, “So, what did she say? What did she say?” but he understands how the Oracle works. She has engaged Neo in a process and the content-answer she gave is far less important than the contextual coaching she gave him. Morpheus knows it’s none of his business.
When we think of oracles, we think of people who see things we don’t, gifted to bestow insight to others. While this is certainly a beautiful combination of gift and skill, it’s easy to see that it’s not enough. The real challenge is to lead others to discover those insights themselves.
The fact is for the most part, we humans cannot take in radical insights from others. We resist change too much. A good mentor can see what their mentee cannot, but has the wisdom to tell them only as much as they can receive.
The mentor provides direction for someone to discover the fullness of the insight on their own, so they can own their power. This is leadership.
On my own journey as a teacher, I’ve learned this the hard way. It’s still something I work on. When I started my career as a coach, I was a relatively poor reader of people. Early on, I discovered my own gifts for seeing what others could not, and I was naively direct about it with my clients. I was shocked to find that the more accurately insightful I became, the less people listened. Seventeen years of experience have taught me that the less direct I am, the better people are able to receive the message.
I see managers constantly learning this lesson the hard way. They’re convinced that if they just tell their people exactly what to do and how to think, then everything will be fine. Unfortunately, that method never works.
People must discover their power through their own power, or else the power of the authority gets in the way.
The art of leadership, you could say, is using your authority to support the emergence of the subordinate’s authority—very tricky business. Use too little of your authority, and they won’t listen at all. Use too much, and they’ll resist. The Oracle shows us the perfect middle ground. Her authority is unquestionable, but she respects Neo’s process and stays out of the way.
By the way, don’t hold yourself to the oracle’s standard. It’s a movie script. But if you do it half as well, half the time, you’ll be doing great.
For most managers, just doing more asking than telling will work wonders.
Do you want to learn how to be an oracle for your people? This one of the many things CAO members are learning in the Dojo. You can get in right now with a risk-free 30-day TRIAL. Why not try it on for size?