Last year, on the morning when we learned that a man who literally inspired some of the villains in 1980s movies had been elected president of the United States of America, I began a slow epiphany. It started with realising that something about the way that I saw the world was wrong.

I wrote a piece for this very website which included the following passage:

“…failure to adapt to reality isn’t just a problem for politicians. Whenever we seek to solve problems, if we don’t begin with reality, we are immediately lost.”

I didn’t at that point know what it was that I was wrong about. I just knew that I was wrong. The events of 2016, specifically the rise of the far right in Europe, the EU Referendum result in the UK, and the election of Donald Trump, proved to me that I wasn’t living in the world that I imagined. Something about my model of the universe was out of kilter with reality.

“All models are wrong but some are useful”

George Box (1978)

Of course, as George Box noted, all models are wrong. We are creatures with vast but still finite mental capacities so we take the complexity of the universe and we scrunch it down into something more manageable. So being “wrong” about the universe was not the problem. The problem was that my model wasn’t useful anymore. Something had to change.

My model wasn’t useful anymore

In the weeks since, I’ve gone through something of an existential crisis. I had believed in a generally good and just world in which good people win. But when I stopped to examine that notion I had to admit that it wasn’t based on much. Or, to put it another way, it was based on a great deal. But those things, those model forming experiences in my life, weren’t real events; they were movies.

In 1976 the first VHS player was launched in Japan. I was born in 1981. In 1985 Blockbuster Video was founded. Movies shaped me in the same way that radio had shaped my parent’s generation, and the internet is shaping children of today. I remember how exciting it was at Christmas or on my birthday to notice that the colourfully-wrapped object under the tree was the shape and size of a video cassette! My generation was raised on movies.

Movies on VHS tapes were, of course, only the latest innovation in perhaps the most common human activity: storytelling. Telling stories is part of the fabric of human culture. But until the 20th century they were confined to books which few could read and to theatres, or to folk tales and songs sung by travelling bards. In the 1890s silent movies were born and then in the early 1900s we had “talkies”. Radio plays followed in the 1920s and then TV brought moving pictures into our homes for the first time. But the VHS player and the ability to watch the latest special effects laden spectacular in the comfort of your own home was a step change.

Our stories tend to be unrealistic in very specific ways

This wouldn’t be so bad if our stories were realistic. But they aren’t. They’re for entertainment purposes and real life is often anything but entertaining. The curious thing is the realisation that our stories tend to be unrealistic in very specific ways.

In 1949 Jospeh Campbell wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a study of storytelling in which he claimed he had uncovered a pattern. He called it The Hero’s Journey. This journey has many elements but, for our purposes, the following points will suffice:

  1. The hero is, by and large, of humble origins and/or reluctant to be a hero. He is “chosen” by fate and called to adventure.
  2. The hero is “good” and self-evidently so. He is surrounded by people who see his goodness and seek to help him.
  3. The good guy always wins.

If I spent my childhood watching immersive and captivating stories in which these things were invariably true was it really so surprising that I expected them to be true in life?

I have, since the time of this realisation, been immersing myself in books and articles on the nature of good and evil and what I cannot escape is that our concept of what it means to be good is a dangerous and disempowering idea.

Our concept of what it means to be good is a dangerous and disempowering ideaClick To Tweet

Consider Harry Potter, the most popular series of books in history and, until recently, the highest grossing movie franchise. This is a useful example because it is so recent, so influential, and so clearly makes the point. In these stories, we follow the struggle between a humble orphan boy who, chosen by fate, must face a great foe who seems to want nothing more than power for its own sake. Where Harry is generally reluctant to be seen as a hero, Voldemort does nothing but grandstand. And, in the end, having won the greatest power in the Wizarding World, Harry chooses to throw it away.

“I’m putting the Elder Wand back where it came from. It can stay there. If I die a natural death like Ignotus, its power will be broken, won’t it? The previous master will never have been defeated. That’ll be the end of it.”

Harry Potter, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007)

Arguably the two main messages that have shaped my understanding of good and evil, and my understanding of the world, are these:

  • Power is evil, so you can’t want power and be good
  • And don’t worry, the good guys always win in the end

I fear that you, I, and many of the people I try to help in my work are stuck in this mindset, inside a slave mentality that says you mustn’t want power, mustn’t practice the means by which you achieve it and you mustn’t try to change things in your image because, to be a hero, you need to be passive until the world asks for you. Don’t call the world. If the world wants you, it’ll call you.

You’re better off looking at the villains for inspirationClick To Tweet

The universe you live in is a model of reality. Creativity demands that we seek to test that model constantly, find new ways to change things and learn how change can really come about. The heroes of our folk stories and our modern blockbusters are terrible role models if what you want to do is find a new way, shake up the stale and old and bring about the fresh and new.

If you ask me, you’re better off looking at the villains for inspiration. They may be bad dudes, but they get stuff done. ReesPersonal Creativitycreativity,evil,good,hero,stories,villains
Last year, on the morning when we learned that a man who literally inspired some of the villains in 1980s movies had been elected president of the United States of America, I began a slow epiphany. It started with realising that something about the way that I saw the...
Aran Rees
Founder and Coach at Sabre Tooth Panda
Aran is a creativity coach, facilitator and communicator, founder of Sabre Tooth Panda and creator of No Wrong Answers: the hypothetical quiz. He believes that expressing creativity is all about how you and those around you relate to creativity both at an emotional and intellectual level. He helps his clients to get cosy with creativity to solve big problems and have more fun.