A Good Story Is Overrated. But A Strong Narrative Is Worth Its Weight In Creative Gold

A Good Story Is Overrated. But A Strong Narrative Is Worth Its Weight In Creative Gold

Create February 24, 2020 / By Larry Robertson
A Good Story Is Overrated. But A Strong Narrative Is Worth Its Weight In Creative Gold

Creative breakthrough ongoing and with lasting impact adds up to more than just a good story. Here's how and why.

Want to hear a story about creative breakthroughs – a story about how to have more of our own, more often, and with lasting impact? Of course! We all do. But there’s a problem, two actually. The first, is the kind of story we seek. But the second and bigger issue is the story itself. 

Not just in creativity, but in everything, the kind of story we are increasingly told and encouraged to look for is short, perfect, and immediate. The implied promise in this kind of story is not only that we’ll gain some important insight, but that it will come with a formula for employing it, a guarantee that it will work, and the instant gratification of whatever reward is associated with it. Think Twitter – millions of micro stories judged by characters, not content, each one considered somehow complete. The trouble is that creativity, indeed life, never matches up to the quick-and-easy promise. But even when we get the story right, long or short, simple or complex, we give way too much credit to the story. Entertaining as it may sometimes be, the story isn’t really the thing that fuels the ability to adapt, advance, and create ongoing. It’s the narrative. 

Pause for a moment and consider the distinction and this question: Is it possible you’re looking for a story, when what you ought to be pursuing is a narrative? If what you seek is creative breakthroughs ongoing and with lasting impact, and that’s not happening, the answer is an emphatic, yes. Because the truth of the matter is that creativity, creating value, life, human progress, are a perpetual narrative far greater than a 280-character tweet.

Like true creative breakthroughs, narrative is an accumulation – a series of many connected stories and events that only together add up to something meaningful and lasting. The most successful creators tell us this over and over again. Take Ric Scofidio for example. The architect and co-creator of New York City wonders like the High Line and the Shed, and otherworldly spaces like the Broad Museum in L.A., he describes the process of creating as similar to crossing a stream without a bridge. To get across, you first walk the shore for a while, considering your options for where to begin. You toss in a big rock here, a branch there, gradually testing, refining, eventually creating a way. Bit by bit, you string together enough pieces that combined become the breakthrough that allows you to arrive at a new place. 

While it’s true that at its core narrative is about connecting pieces (stories, observations, and idea), its greater power lies beyond the pure mechanics, as columnist David Brooks recently offered in a New York Times Op Ed piece. Brooks was talking about creators of a different sort, presidential candidates to be exact, those would-be creators of a new way forward for a people or country. “Successful presidential candidates,” Brooks wrote, do more than stand at the podium and tell stories. They are mythmakers. They put forth a narrative and seed ideas “that help people make meaning out of the current moment” – the environment, the challenges, the opportunities, and the people trying to adapt to it all. But the power of narrative is more than the story. As Brooks makes clear, it isn’t the mythology – that is to say, the storyline – that’s so potent. It’s when those who weave it and those who hear it actually come to ‘inhabit’ it that it becomes a force. Stories, creative ideas, calls to action become something greater, something real, and something lasting when people are allowed to inhabit them – or more precisely, when each of us is given the chance to weave the thread of our own story into a larger fabric.

The story of creative breakthrough is the same. Rather than being about the individual ideas or outputs, the difference maker, the breakthrough if you will, is the connection of those creative ideas to one another, and the connection of the people who generate, bring value to, and realize those ideas to each other. Period. End of story – well, almost. Because the narrative casts a still wider and more powerful net. 

Though he was writing with a different purpose in mind, once again Brooks sheds important light with an idea he calls the ‘gathering’ myth. The gathering myth isn’t one person “standing at a podium and bellowing” their story or claiming superiority. “In a gathering myth,” Brooks says, the truly heroic are those who encourage in themselves and others ongoing “open-mindedness, flexibility, listening skills, team-building skills, and basics human warmth. In this saga, leaders are measured by their ability to expand relationships, not wall them off.” What Brooks is saying, is that rather than one individual seeking to create a something, the most impactful creatives seed a culture of creativity. Not surprisingly, the research around creativity reveals that it’s within such conditions that ideas are more likely to emerge, more often and from every corner, and to more naturally accumulate into the breakthroughs we both seek and need.

So ask yourself, maybe even every day: how’s your narrative coming? If it looks to be worth no more than 280 characters, maybe you need to pause more, rush less and take stock of what you’re trying to create in the larger sense and what and who it takes to do that. In the end, it’s the only reliable way across the stream.

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