Most people embrace new ideas only after they’ve become widely accepted.
There’s a reason why you keep seeing the same posts throughout social media. Different avatars and logos, similar stories. If you’re a student of history, you’ll see the phenomenon more clearly with the benefit of distance.
Paradigm-shifting ideas have always encountered resistance. Because they challenge our thinking. As individuals—and culture—we get into grooves. People say they want creativity, but deep down they don’t. What they want is acceptance and belonging.
And that means going with the flow. Hence the sea of sameness. We love the work of original artists only when they’re safely dead (it’s often the case).
Resistance to originality hits close to home. Because what it takes to make a new idea happen doesn’t only challenge existing limiting frames—it challenges us in the process. Which is why conflict and self doubt are part of the creation process.
If you’re wondering why humanity keeps tinkering with old stuff—we’re now in the seventeenth sequels in movies, music, books, etc.—it’s because it’s safe enough to find an audience (increasingly bored, but not yet enough to make the effort to find something new).
Studies conducted by psychologist Jennifer Mueller and colleagues at Cornell University showed that a bias against creativity interfered with participants’ ability to recognize an original idea:
People often reject creative ideas even when espousing creativity as a desired goal. To explain this paradox, we propose that people can hold a bias against creativity that is not necessarily overt, and which is activated when people experience a motivation to reduce uncertainty.
Safe and conventional win because we fear what we desire. We camouflage our propensity to go with what has already garnered favor in the mainstream by telling ourselves we’re choosing the practical.
Uncertainty is uncomfortable. Hence if I told you my book sold thousands of copies, you’d be buying it instantly.
You need cultural gatekeepers to tell you something is good—before you allow yourself to read, subscribe, listen to, watch.
Which means the work of the artist (and the original) doubles—shaping and creating the idea, and bringing it to market. I’m not so sure social media has made the process easier or more democratic. Discovery remains a big problem platforms and monopolies exacerbate.
The phenomenon doesn’t impact only original ideas in the arts and creative fields. It stunts innovation in any field. We keep tinkering at the margins when things should be radically transformed.
For example, to counter the effects of climate change.
Conformity stunts education. Creative students never become the teacher’s pet. I was a creative, I know what I’m talking about. To me, there was an irresistible pull to broaden the scope of any piece of instruction and look beyond and around it to educate myself.
Austin Powers would chide me: “Oh, behave!”
The system favors tinkering. Tinkering is good for the exploiters. You can make a decent living out of exploiting existing ideas. Industry after industry has taken value out of creators and exchanged it into money for technocrats, bureaucrats, gatekeepers.
Humanity is at a turning point. There’s tremendous value in culture, still. There are many more creators than ever working on new ideas. From fiction to law, history and research, the people are out there. Just not broadly known or seen.
We need to keep training ourselves to see beyond mainstream narrative filters. And to be more interested in our work than in the reaction it garners. Perhaps what we seek with the latter is love.
But we don’t need everything to be dazzling for the work to have value. It’s what “On Value in Culture” is all about.
An invitation to shared learning
My goal with this publication isn’t to convince or convert you. It’s a stance that has run out of juice. Pushing ideas (like pushing of any kind) signals insecurity—’what if I’m not enough?’—and focuses on ego metrics—‘What if I don’t succeed?’
Instead, as I say in the podcast introductions, I choose to focus on learning with you. Each conversation (and article) is an exploration of a main question on ‘value in’ a slice of what shapes culture.
Value in Narrative
Precision and thoughtfulness in storytelling lead to value creation. In this short clip produced by Traces & Dreams, author Christina Patterson talks about her passion for writing, why teaching resilience is bad and how journalism is changing in the digital age.
For the full episode and my commentary, read details are the hallmarks of a story you can relate to.
Value in Ethical Decision Making
Good vs Evil in the workplace: can a toxic environments turn us towards unethical decisions? In this short clip produced by Traces & Dreams, Dr. Guido Palazzo takes you on a journey to understand the dark side of the force in organizations.
Whatever it takes has my commentary and the full episode of our conversation.
Value in Language
In all the years I’ve been on this planet, I never once worried that someone would come out of a dark corner and say something truly different and insightful to me. My conversation with linguist Julie Sedivy revealed a lot about the connection between language and emotion.
How we speak is who we are, literally.
There’s much more to explore together.
I’ve created a separate section for supporters that collects essays and deeper explorations. The Vault expresses my gratitude for your kindness by engaging with big themes.
- A physicist discusses the cultural valence of time.
- A theater director plays with the embodiment of experience.
- A literary writer explores the invention of debt and its narrative.
- … and more to come (a film director might be next).
If you, like me, are a creator working on a new idea, take heart. I know how hard it is to keep going when it’s crickets out there. Author Michelle Holliday has a good way to think about the process of building something new.
“Life sprouts where there is fertile soil. Go where there is energy and openness. Start with the ready. Grow from there. Trust that this is what is yours to do. Engage with time on life’s own terms. Know that there are others offering invitations of their own. When the conditions are right, the edges of your gardens will join together and the invitation will be irresistible.”
There’s plenty of energy and openness in Emilia-Romagna, despite the current difficulties. Which is why going to lend a hand is on my list. I may post sporadically next month.