Our addiction to formulas is killing us

pattersonFormulas are the greatest gift and yet the greatest curse of modernity. In a culture where the wheels of commerce are greased through mass marketing, there is no greater path to wealth than a successful formula. However, when formulas are used to stifle creativity, the whole culture stagnates and eventually is ripe for disruption. The United States of America is stagnating, because we’ve steadily embraced this obsession with road maps over the last century. Rather than elect leaders to take us forward, we choose managers who can show us bullet points, formulas, and a spread sheet. The result feels safe but is actually stagnating and deflating, because it has no imagination.

Formula addiction is especially useless for institutions during times when equilibrium is lost amid chaos. In the 21st Century, we are in one of those times.

But formulas can also become counterproductive value propositions when people manipulated by formulas gain their (formerly) secret knowledge. One, formulas then produce a boring and predictable sameness, and, two, anybody is free to take up the same formula, thereby destroying the value of its former uniqueness. Add to this the corporate greed of formula exploiters, and suddenly a formula that used to “work” becomes a net turn‐off to its customers. This is where institutions fail the most, for modernist hierarchical groups can’t afford to talk with customers.

Star Wars, for example, is a very successful Hollywood formula. The rarity of its episodes (there have only been 7 in the last 40 years) doubtless contributed to that success, but we’re about to get one Christmastime movie a year (including spin‐offs) from Disney, because they like the profits produced by the formula. This means other movies won’t be made, because why should a corporation that’s in it for profit take a chance when all they have to do is copy a known formula for success, right?

It’s the same way with publishing, which is why James Patterson is the only author you see in TV advertising. The man is one giant formula gone to seed. Formula addiction contributes to failures with media, with education, and every aspect of our society, even the arts.

Beancounters love to copy. It’s why nearly every client I’ve had in broadcasting — when offered my ideas — has responded with, “Who else is doing this?” The inference is a reticence to experiment rather than copy something that’s already been tried and proven a success elsewhere. The ability to show broadcasters what’s working elsewhere is the core competency of TV news consulting, so my iconoclastic approach didn’t win any business for my employer. My evidence didn’t matter. I could show clients the damaging pathway of their existing strategy, and it didn’t matter. I could appeal to reason and present clever images to spark their imaginations, but it didn’t matter. None of it mattered, because their profit was based on known formulas, and despite evidence that the formulas wouldn’t ever meet their digital expectations, they still cling to them today. It will be their downfall.

Christianity is another tired cultural formula that’s being picked apart today. The Emergent or “Emerging Church” movement exploded on the scene as a “postmodern” alternative to stagnating orthodoxy, but it has slowed down considerably in the wake of scandals and other mischief. As one who writes of postmodernism, I’ve always felt both kinship with and distance from the leaders of this group, for they were using the basics of postmodern thought and tools to create a new hierarchy (and sell books). This is quite absurd by default, for horizontal chaos is the authority in a postmodern culture, not hierarchies.

Keep this in mind as you go about your lives in this century, for it’s on display everywhere. The left brain thinking that has governed life in the West for so long is crumbling under the weight of its disrespect for imagination.

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