In a troubled time, powerful stories still pierce the darkness.
Take Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which radically suggested that space wasn’t inert and gravity could bend light. Physicists proved his theory during a solar eclipse in 1919—and in the middle of one of the worst pandemics in history, with the devastation of the Great War still gripping the world.
The irony of that breakthrough amid such chaos has stuck with me during COVID-19, the biggest worldwide disaster in most of our memories and one that has wreaked havoc on the creative industry.
What comforts me is Einstein’s last unproven theory. In it, I see an opportunity that could reignite the creative industry and bring us through this pandemic stronger than we went in (which was already fraught).
“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
Creative people take this Einstein hypothesis as an article of faith, but in these times it’s not a given. Because if ever a business environment called for imagination, it’s now.
This pandemic is not just about here-and-now dollars. It’s about connecting to people when standard communications forms are gone. It’s about preserving story value when you may not be able to sell your product.
It’s about great stories.
Detroit agency Doner pulled off a compelling PSA for its hometown. Conceived of by a young strategist, it shows what’s possible in the empty streets of Detroit. The footage was shot solo by the content director, with the voice-over recorded by a copywriter in her closet.
More creative professionals need to be similarly inspired. There is never an excuse to accept second-rate work, and there are way too many COVID-19 executions that default to “we’re all in this together” and other lazy lobs. Creative professional’s roots are in imagination, in growth. Stop being shy about it.
Start with a new pragmatism. In the pre-COVID-19 world, companies spent millions on inefficient media, seldom with tough questions coming from the C-suite. Those days are over. Smart creative professionals —especially the independents—can show how to save millions while driving new revenue. Companies will welcome common-sense business talk from creative professionals. But they also want to see the future. Consultants sell defense. That was great for a world where 3% growth got you a seven-figure bonus. Those days appear to be over.
Creative professionals sell offense. We are about to enter a period like after WWII. What did creative professionals do then? They gave us the Creative Revolution, building the most powerful middle class in history by fueling iconic, enduring brands and driving astonishing economic growth.
Saving millions and producing revenue are two powerful outcomes for a new era. But agencies need to stop two bad behaviors.
Stop giving away the best ideas. Keep them close and precious. Identify problems first, then seed ideas when they are at their highest market value.
Next, stop being the easy-going partner. Become the trusted advisor who will walk away if reasoned advice is rejected.
This means a new business model for creative professionals. We’ll need one in a post-pandemic world that demands visible problem solving and clear paths to measurable growth. This is a time to try something bold.
Think about Einstein. Why did he even say something like “imagination is more important than knowledge?” Because he looked at his existing business model—classical physics—and knew its paradigm would never explain how to bend light.
Only imagination could discover something so profound.
Your Life is your Story
Story is everywhere in life. Perhaps your story is that you are responsible for the happiness and livelihoods of dozens of people around you and you are the unappreciated hero. If you are focused on one subplot – your business – then maybe your story is that you sincerely want to execute the major initiatives in your company, yet you are restricted in some essential way. Maybe your story is that you must keep chasing even though you already seem to have a lot (even too much) because the point is to get more and more of it – money, prestige, power, control, attention. Maybe your story is that you and your children just can’t connect. Or your story might be essentially a rejection of another story – and everything you do is filtered through that rejection.
Story is everywhere. Your body tells a story. The smile or frown on your face, your shoulders thrust back in confidence or slumped roundly in despair, the liveliness or fatigue in your gait, the sparkle of hope and joy in your eyes or the blank stare, your fitness, the size of your gut, the tone and strength of your physical being, your overall presentation – those are all part of your story, one that’s especially apparant to everyone else. We judge books by their covers not simply because we are wired to judge quickly but because the cover so often provides astonishing accurate clues to what is going on inside. What is your story about your physical self? Does it truly work for you? Can it take you where you want to go in the short term? How about ten years from now? What about thirty?
You have a story about your company, though your version may depart wildly from your customer’s or business partners. You have a story about your family. Anything that consumes our energy can be a story, even if we don’t always call it a story. There is the story of your relationship. The story of you and food, or you and anger, or you and impossible dreams. The story of you, the friend. The story of you, your father’s son or your mother’s daughter. Some of these stories work and some of them fail. According to my experience, an astounding number of these stories, once they are identified are deemed tragic – not by me, mind you but by the people living them.
Like it or not, there will be a story around your death. What will it be? Will you die a senseless death? Perhaps you drank too much and failed to buckle your seat belt and were thrown from your car, or you died from colon cancer because you refused to undergo an embarrassing colonoscopy years before when the disease was treatable. Or after years of bad nutrition, no exercise, and abuse of your body, you suffered a fatal heart attack at age fifty – nine. ‘Senseless death’ means that it did not have to happen when it happened; it means your story did not have to end the way it ended. Think about the effect the story of your senseless death might have on your family, on those you care about who you are leaving behind. How would that story impact their life stories? Ask yourself, Am I okay dying a senseless death? Your immediate reaction is almost certainly, “No!, of course not!
Unhealthy storytelling is characterized by a diet of faulty thinking and, ultimately, long – term negative consequences. This undetectable, yet inexorable progression is not unlike what happens to coronary arteries from a high-fat, high-cholesterol diet. In the body, the consequence of such a diet is hardening of the arteries. In the mind, the consequence of bad storytelling is hardening of the categories, narrowing of the possibilities, calcification of perception. Both roads lead to tragedy, often quietly.
The cumulative effect of our damaging stories will have tragic consequences on our health, engagement, performance and happiness. Because we can’t confirm the damage our defective storytelling is wreaking, we disregard it, or veto our gut reactions to make a change. Then one day we awaken to the reality that we have become cynical, negative, angry. That is now who we are. Though we never quite saw it coming, that is now our true story.
We enjoy the privilege of being the hero, the final author of the story we write with our life, yet we possess a marvelous capacity to give ourselves only a supporting role in the ‘storytelling’ process, while ascribing the premier, dominant role to the markets, our family, our kids, fate, chance, genetics. Getting our stories straight in life does not happen without our understanding that the most precious resource that we human beings possess is our energy.
It is our storytelling that drives the way we gather and spend our energy. Stories determine our personal and professional destinies. And the most important story you will ever tell about yourself is the story you tell to yourself.
So, you would better examine your story, especially this one that is supposedly the most familiar of all. Participate in your story rather than observing it from afar, make sure it is a story that compels you. Tell yourself the right story – the rightness of which only you can really determine, only you can really feel – and the dynamics of your energy change. If you are finally living the story you want, then it need not – it should not and won’t – be an ordinary one. It can and will be extraordinary. After all you are not just the author of your story but also its main character the hero. Heroes are never ordinary.
In the end your story is not a tragedy. Nor is it a comedy or a romance or a thriller or a drama. It is something else. What label would you give the story of your life, the most important story you will ever tell. To me that sounds like a hero’s journey.
End of story.
“I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life,” says one of the searchers through the warehouse of treasures left behind by Charles Foster Kane. Then we get the famous series of shots leading to the closeup of the word “Rosebud” on a sled that has been tossed into a furnace, its paint curling in the flames. We remember that this was Kane’s childhood sled, taken from him as he was torn from his family and sent east to boarding school.
Rosebud is the emblem of the security, hope and innocence of childhood, which a man can spend his life seeking to regain. It is the green light at the end of Gatsby’s pier; the leopard atop Kilimanjaro, seeking nobody knows what; the bone tossed into the air in “2001.” It is that yearning after transience that adults learn to suppress. “Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get, or something he lost,” says Thompson, the reporter assigned to the puzzle of Kane’s dying word. “Anyway, it wouldn’t have explained anything.” True, it explains nothing, but it is remarkably satisfactory as a demonstration that nothing can be explained. “Citizen Kane” likes playful paradoxes like that. Its surface is as much fun as any movie ever made. Its depths surpass understanding. I have analyzed it a shot at a time with more than 30 groups, and together we have seen, I believe, pretty much everything that is there on the screen. The more clearly I can see its physical manifestation, the more I am stirred by its mystery.
It is one of the miracles of cinema that in 1941 a first-time director; a cynical, hard-drinking writer; an innovative cinematographer, and a group of New York stage and radio actors were given the keys to a studio and total control, and made a masterpiece. “Citizen Kane” is more than a great movie; it is a gathering of all the lessons of the emerging era of sound, just as “Birth of a Nation” assembled everything learned at the summit of the silent era, and “2001” pointed the way beyond narrative. These peaks stand above all the others.
The origins of “Citizen Kane” are well known. Orson Welles, the boy wonder of radio and stage, was given freedom by RKO Radio Pictures to make any picture he wished. Herman Mankiewicz, an experienced screenwriter, collaborated with him on a screenplay originally called “The American.” Its inspiration was the life of William Randolph Hearst, who had put together an empire of newspapers, radio stations, magazines and news services, and then built to himself the flamboyant monument of San Simeon, a castle furnished by rummaging the remains of nations. Hearst was Ted Turner, Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates rolled up into an enigma.
Arriving in Hollywood at age 25, Welles brought a subtle knowledge of sound and dialogue along with him; on his Mercury Theater of the Air, he’d experimented with audio styles more lithe and suggestive than those usually heard in the movies. As his cinematographer he hired Gregg Toland, who on John Ford’s “The Long Voyage Home” (1940) had experimented with deep focus photography–with shots where everything was in focus, from the front to the back, so that composition and movement determined where the eye looked first. For his cast Welles assembled his New York colleagues, including Joseph Cotten as Jed Leland, the hero’s best friend; Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander, the young woman Kane thought he could make into an opera star; Everett Sloane as Mr. Bernstein, the mogul’s business wizard; Ray Collins as Gettys, the corrupt political boss, and Agnes Moorehead as the boy’s forbidding mother. Welles himself played Kane from age 25 until his deathbed, using makeup and body language to trace the progress of a man increasingly captive inside his needs. “All he really wanted out of life was love,” Leland says. “That’s Charlie’s story–how he lost it.”
The structure of “Citizen Kane” is circular, adding more depth every time it passes over the life. The movie opens with newsreel obituary footage that briefs us on the life and times of Charles Foster Kane; this footage, with its portentous narration, is Welles’ bemused nod in the direction of the “March of Time” newsreels then being produced by another media mogul, Henry Luce. They provide a map of Kane’s trajectory, and it will keep us oriented as the screenplay skips around in time, piecing together the memories of those who knew him.
Curious about Kane’s dying word, “rosebud,” the newsreel editor assigns Thompson, a reporter, to find out what it meant. Thompson is played by William Alland in a thankless performance; he triggers every flashback, yet his face is never seen. He questions Kane’s alcoholic mistress, his ailing old friend, his rich associate and the other witnesses, while the movie loops through time. As often as I’ve seen “Citizen Kane,” I’ve never been able to firmly fix the order of the scenes in my mind. I look at a scene and tease myself with what will come next. But it remains elusive: By flashing back through the eyes of many witnesses, Welles and Mankiewicz created an emotional chronology set free from time.
The movie is filled with bravura visual moments: the towers of Xanadu; candidate Kane addressing a political rally; the doorway of his mistress dissolving into a front-page photo in a rival newspaper; the camera swooping down through a skylight toward the pathetic Susan in a nightclub; the many Kanes reflected through parallel mirrors; the boy playing in the snow in the background as his parents determine his future; the great shot as the camera rises straight up from Susan’s opera debut to a stagehand holding his nose, and the subsequent shot of Kane, his face hidden in shadow, defiantly applauding in the silent hall.
Along with the personal story is the history of a period. “Citizen Kane” covers the rise of the penny press (here Joseph Pulitzer is the model), the Hearst-supported Spanish-American War, the birth of radio, the power of political machines, the rise of fascism, the growth of celebrity journalism. A newsreel subtitle reads: “1895 to 1941. All of these years he covered, many of these he was.” The screenplay by Mankiewicz and Welles (which got an Oscar, the only one Welles ever won) is densely constructed and covers an amazing amount of ground, including a sequence showing Kane inventing the popular press; a record of his marriage, from early bliss to the famous montage of increasingly chilly breakfasts; the story of his courtship of Susan Alexander and her disastrous opera career, and his decline into the remote master of Xanadu (“I think if you look carefully in the west wing, Susan, you’ll find about a dozen vacationists still in residence”).
“Citizen Kane” knows the sled is not the answer. It explains what Rosebud is, but not what Rosebud means. The film’s construction shows how our lives, after we are gone, survive only in the memories of others, and those memories butt up against the walls we erect and the roles we play. There is the Kane who made shadow figures with his fingers, and the Kane who hated the traction trust; the Kane who chose his mistress over his marriage and political career, the Kane who entertained millions, the Kane who died alone.
There is a master image in “Citizen Kane” you might easily miss. The tycoon has overextended himself and is losing control of his empire. After he signs the papers of his surrender, he turns and walks into the back of the shot. Deep focus allows Welles to play a trick of perspective. Behind Kane on the wall is a window that seems to be of average size. But as he walks toward it, we see it is further away and much higher than we thought. Eventually he stands beneath its lower sill, shrunken and diminished. Then as he walks toward us, his stature grows again. A man always seems the same size to himself, because he does not stand where we stand to look at him.