Putting the Tarot to Work by Mark McElroy
Review by Lee Bursten


If you would like to purchase this book, click here.


As someone who has managed to avoid the corporate world for his entire working life, I’m distinctly unqualified to review this book, which is specifically geared toward “executives, corporate employees and small business owners.”  However, one thing I can say is that it’s an excellent book for anyone interested in working with the tarot in any venue, corporate or not.


What I really like about Putting the Tarot to Work, and what makes it in my opinion so valuable for everyone, is that it completely eschews the standard occult, esoteric, fortune-telling, and mystical approaches, and instead considers the tarot as a purely practical tool which can be used in a variety of situations to expand our options and create a fertile ground for finding or creating new ideas.  Or, to use the author’s phrase, which I found clever at first but which I must admit grew a little tiresome the third or fourth time around, “no focus on hocus pocus.”


Let me hasten to clarify, I find esoteric approaches to be fascinating and worthy of study in their own right, but McElroy makes a persuasive case that the tarot can be used as a tool to enhance creativity and problem-solving in our everyday lives, completely apart from any spiritual aspect (“Instead of teaching fortune-telling, we’re discussing fortune-making”).  This is a way of looking at the Tarot which is all too rare in today’s rarified atmosphere, an atmosphere which I would liken to the Gill Tarot version of the High Priestess.  McElroy supplies a healthy corrective dose of the Soprafino version of Il Bagatto (the Magician), a craftsman who, with his apron and the tools of his trade, is using his creative energies to transform existing materials and create a new product.


The author starts by discussing what is apparently an already-existing technique used by some business folks to create new ideas:  cutting out pictures from magazines and using them for brainstorming sessions.  He then goes on to explain why a tarot deck is a much more practical and useful tool for this purpose, because of its convenient size and shape, its availability, its cost, and its internal structure.  I found the latter factor an interesting addition, because thinking about the tarot’s internal structure actually does bring in the beginnings of an esoteric viewpoint, which raises some intriguing ideas about how the esoteric, at least in a rudimentary way, might actually be in some sense applicable to the practical, business-like, workaday world.  Ironically, he cites the tarot’s exotic and mystical reputation as a reason why it can be effective as a practical tool:  “People associate Tarot cards with fortune telling or seeing the future – even if they don’t believe the cards can actually be used for these purposes.  Something about the Tarot attracts attention.  Everyone (including skeptics!) expects something to happen when the cards hit the table!”


McElroy’s approach is to assume the reader has no experience whatsoever with tarot.  I found this approach refreshing, since it allows us to suspend for the moment our previous knowledge of tarot and build our understanding of the author’s approach from the ground up.  He also deliberately uses a corporate-training style of writing, which serves three purposes: it allows us to see the tarot with new eyes; it makes the subject more palatable for its ostensible audience; and it allows him to use his own personal experiences as a writer of corporate training manuals.


While he suggests using illustrated pip decks in corporate settings, I was gratified to see that the author also discusses the Minor Arcana from a numerological standpoint, which can also, as he points out, help us to understand the illustrated pips as well as the unillustrated ones.  I loved his discussion of the Courts, and I gained some valuable new insights about them.  For instance, if one takes Kings to mean “assumption of control, exercise of authority, or imposition of order,” and Cups to mean “emotions, feelings, perceptions, […] prejudices,” then the King of Cups could represent “the desire to solve a problem or control a situation by enforcing prejudices, controlling relationships, limiting feelings, or ordering and organizing perceptions and responses.”  I found this to be an exciting interpretation method for the Courts and one that had never really occurred to me before, and it frees one from overly relying on stale personality-oriented interpretations gleaned from the Rider-Waite-Smith pictures.  I’ve always felt chronically inadequate when working with Court cards, and this approach suggests new options for me to explore.


I was also gratified to see that while McElroy, naturally enough given the context, favors interpreting the cards via a visceral, Rorschach-like reaction to them, he also mentions looking up written meanings as one way of exploring a specific card.  Throughout the book the author avoids easy, prescriptive, one-size-fits-all answers and encourages us to explore different methods and viewpoints, an attitude which I thoroughly applaud.


After the introductory material and a thorough discussion of various techniques of brainstorming with the Tarot, the author discusses several other uses a deck could be put to, including exploring career goals, preparing for performance  reviews, building better business relationships, and planning presentations, all of which could be easily applied to non-corporate situations.  Throughout, he presents many specific spreads and ideas.  It’s obvious that McElroy has not only given his suggestions a great deal of thought, but has put them into practice as well.  I particularly liked the methods he suggests for preparing for performance reviews.  I think anyone, whether about to give or receive a job review, could benefit from applying these perspective-widening techniques to such a notoriously emotionally-charged ordeal.


I found the author’s anecdotes and examples from the business world, many of which were obviously mined from personal experience, very entertaining.  The more harrowing tales had the perhaps unintended consequence of causing me to congratulate myself on my success in having avoided the corporate world. 


I must mention that there is another book on this general subject, Strategic Intuition for the 21st Century by James Wanless.  Between the two books, I much prefer McElroy’s.  Each book reflects the experiences of its author, and I think McElroy’s experiences as an employee and supervisor in the corporate world are probably more reflective of those of most people, while Wanless’s experiences are limited to running his own publishing company and giving presentations and seminars on Tarot and creativity, rather than toiling in the corporate trenches as McElroy has done.  As a result, Wanless’s book tends toward more general suggestions, lacking the specificity of McElroy’s work, and lacking as well the benefit of McElroy’s personal experiences.  Wanless’s book might be more appropriate for an entrepreneurial perspective, and he gives a great example of such a perspective by never missing an opportunity in his book to advertise his own Voyager Tarot deck.


I do find myself wondering how many non-tarot-experienced corporate employees will feel moved to pick up this book, much as I might wish they would.  It doesn’t matter, though, because I can heartily recommend Putting the Tarot to Work to everyone, regardless of Tarot background or level of experience, as an exciting and original entry in the field of Tarot literature.


Putting the Tarot to Work by Mark McElroy

Publisher: Llewellyn Worldwide
ISBN#: 073870444X


If you would like to purchase this book, click here.

You can read another review of this book here.


Lee Bursten has been studying the Tarot for 25 years. He is the author of a new tarot deck which will be published by Lo Scarabeo in 2004 or 2005. He owns over 170 Tarot and oracle decks and over 50 books on esoteric subjects including the Tarot, playing cards and astrology, and has written over 70 Tarot deck reviews for Tarot Passages.  He is available for professional e-mail readings at Aeclectic Tarot. 



Images © US Games (Gill Tarot High Priestess) and Lo Scarabeo (Ancient Italian Tarot Magician)
Review © 2003 Lee Bursten
Page © 2003 Diane Wilkes