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Paracosms, loyalty and reality in the pursuit of creative problem solving

A paracosm is an ornate, richly detailed imaginary world. Whether you're a three-year old with imaginary playmates, or a passionate inventor imagining how your insight will change just about everything, a paracosm gives you the opportunity to hypothesize, to try out big ideas and see where they take you.

Managers at established organizations have a very hard time with this. Take book publishing as an example. Ten or fifteen years ago, I'd sit with publishing chiefs and say, "let's imagine how the world looks when there are no mass market books published on paper…" Before we could get any further, they'd stop the exercise. "It's impossible to imagine that. Paper is magical. Are you saying you don't believe in books?" (I heard variations on this from people as recently as a year ago.)

The emotional response is easy to understand. If one of the core principles of your business needs to be abandoned in order to act out the paracosm, it feels disloyal to even utter it. Sort of like asking your spouse if he's going to remarry after you die…

And yet.

The most effective, powerful way to envision the future is to envision it, all of it, including a future that doesn't include your sacred cows. Only then can you try it on for size, imagine what the forces at work might be and then work to either prevent (or even better, improve on) that future and your role in it.

It's not disloyal to imagine a future that doesn't include your founding precepts. It's disloyal not to.

For the one person who didn’t get the joke

The fabled comedian is killing it at a club that seats 400. One guy in the back, though, isn't laughing.

Miles Davis was shunned by a few people in the audience, even at his coolest.

The theater critic at the Times might not like this play, the one that made people cry and sold tickets for years.

And just about every blog post and book listing collects a trolling comment from someone who didn't like it, didn't read it or didn't agree with it (or all three) and isn't shy about speaking up with a sharp tongue.

For those people, the message from the creator of the work is clear: "It's not for you."

Unanimity is impossible unless you are willing to be invisible. We can be unanimous in our lack of feedback for the invisible one.

For everyone else, though, the ability to say, "It's not for you," is the foundation for creating something brave and important. You can't do your best work if you're always trying to touch the untouchable, or entertain those that refuse to be entertained.

"It's not for you."

This is easy to say and incredibly difficult to do. You don't have much choice, though, not if you want your work to matter.

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