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The Zebra Crossing Paradox

The Art of Narrative, Self-Awareness and the Originator’s Self-Sabotaging Capacity to turn the ‘dark arts’ on themselves

Zebra Crossing Deal Origination

Normally, when I write these kinds of articles, I like to come up with a pithy title.

Having done so, I’ll then normally plonk the narrative down randomly in the middle of some seemingly unconnected flight of fancy before gradually piecing the component parts together to form the illustrative point I’m making.

I use this technique partly to keep myself amused; but partly as a psychological signifier.  The signifier is intended to subtly imply that whist I’m extremely passionate and nerdy about my subject matter, I don’t take it – or myself – so seriously as to disappear into a fug of solipsistic indulgence.

But of course, the irony here is that this is, in itself, an colossal act of indulgence.  The implication being that I am – some might say rather arrogantly – backing my chances of keeping you with me through the whimsical flights of fancy in order to land a more effective punch when I come to make my point.

That’s the thing about us originators, we’re quite fond of having our cake and eating it, and we’re happy to deconstruct that metaphor on the basis that everything – even cake – can exist on different levels, even if they’re metaphysical.  In the quantum realm Schrödinger’s cake is both saved and eaten, depending on who’s interpreting it.  And it’s this kind of smug deconstruction that us originators are incredibly pleased with ourselves for being able to articulate, even if it leaves everyone else completely baffled.

And so as I foreshadowed in the opening, this is the bit where I get to the point before this whole article implodes into a self-combusting ball of meta. 

“Just because we can deconstruct the possibilities of interpretation to justify our decision-making as originators, it doesn’t actually make the original decision the right one, merely an explainable one.”

When I’m writing I’m aware that I am subtly using psychological layering designed to trigger different emotions and responses.  I’ve been doing it for so long I don’t even think about it.  But if you ask me to spend an hour talking about an email I took ten minutes to write, I could do it without a second’s thought, because essentially I’ve been refining a very limited set of skills over and over for two decades, so of course I can break these down over an hour or two.

But explaining what you did and why is only really helpful if you’re then able to apply the lessons from those choices and measure them against results.  Post-rationalisation sans constructive analysis has a very limited application.

And yet post-rationalisation and justification for its own sake has become such an embedded part of our corporate and public sector culture that we barely even notice its incongruity.

The great satirist Andy Zaltzman once said that Economics was “the art of telling people exactly what’s going to happen, and then explaining why it didn’t”.  Whilst we’re not economists, the joke is essentially universal in that we’ve all got so good at understanding the minutia of our individual crafts and spheres of expertise that we’ve become highly adept at that last bit, whilst some might say we have neglected to put as much thought as we should have done into that first bit.

As much as I rail against the opposite of this – the culture of being entirely results-orientated, which is every bit as damaging and counter-productive as the directionless introspection of retrofitted justification – being incredibly knowledgeable about origination concepts and techniques, does not necessarily make for a good originator in itself.

True enough, you do need to know what skills you’re working with, and how to articulate them.  I don’t think it’s practically possible to be a good originator without being painfully self-aware.  Sure, there will be those who can bludgeon their way through a few lucky strikes for a finite period blissfully unencumbered by a grounded sense of self; but to build any kind of long-term career it’s likely one will possess the kind of obsessive introspection that makes Marc Maron look like David Brent.

But it’s how we apply that self-awareness that becomes crucial.  Being aware enough to self-consciously buy yourself some time with classic self-justifying retrospection can cause you more harm than good.  The ability to weave an incredibly complex narrative that supposedly works on a number of levels is – no doubt – a useful tool to have in the kit bag.  But much like The Force there’s a good and bad way to apply it.  If it only exists to retrospectively justify some decisions made hastily in the moment then I’m afraid you’ve joined the dark side.  Unfortunately, like one Mr D Vader it’s sometimes possible to even kid ourselves that we’re doing the right thing.  We become so good at justification, we end up convincing ourselves.

And that is the most dangerous introspective indulgence of all.  To justify a wrong call with BS is one thing, to buy into your own BS is another; and it’s something every self-aware person needs to guard against fiercely.

Which brings me to the great Douglas Adams and, what I like to refer to, as the Zebra Crossing Paradox.  You’ve indulged me enough as it is to have got this far, so I’m guessing I can take the final liberty of quoting an entire passage from Hitchikers on the basis that I think it neatly surmises the point I’m trying to make far me succinctly and amusingly than I ever could.  So we cross to an argument between God and Man, around the wider implications of the Babelfish:

“I refuse to prove that I exist,'” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”
“But,” says Man, “The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.”
“Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
“Oh, that was easy,” says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white… and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.”

If you’re able to justify your origination choices, but not learn sufficiently from the ones that don’t work, then you’re the guy getting run over at the next zebra crossing.

So what I’m getting at is this:  If you’re an originator, you’re probably a pretty good story teller.  Part of what we do is to take people on journeys.  That all sounds incredibly self-aggrandising, but it’s very difficult to be an exceptional originator without having a good grasp of narrative.  But as you get better at developing these skills, be acutely self-aware of how it’s possible (and why you should avoid) using these skills against yourself.

The more layered and convincing we get at weaving a narrative and setting off all of those wonderfully layered psychological triggers, the more susceptible we become for retrofitting justification onto the wrong call.  We will all make these wrong calls, on a daily basis.  The better and more experienced originators will make less of them; but we’ll all make them.  Piecing the reasoning for the decision-making back together (retrofitted or otherwise) will have extremely limited benefit, unless you’re able to then deconstruct that rationale again to decipher why it didn’t work, and then piece together a strategy for making sure that when you’re in the same situation again you make a better decision.

I enjoy the writing of great originators as much as the next person (who am I kidding? Loads more than the next person!) but what a good originator enjoys more than anything is a positive response.  And you’re only going to get that if you’re able to keep your audience with you. And to do that means that for all the multiple layers of technique you might want to build into your writing, first and foremost your job is to engage your audience and bring them with you.

Each of those bits of technique may be the trigger that gains a response where otherwise you wouldn’t, but don’t make the mistake of obsessing over the theory that drove an ultimately unsuccessful approach, unless you’re prepared to learn from it.

So, how have I done?  Are you still here?  Did my out of control indulgence and meandering style hook you in?  Or did I lose you some time ago?  I guess, if it’s the latter, you won’t be here to tell me.  And so, just to prove I’m as fallible to ignoring my own advice as anyone else, I guess I’ll never know, and thus shall continue blissfully unencumbered by a grounded sense of self.  And it doesn’t get much more indulgent than a call-back to your own fairly unspectacular line from earlier.

But remember this, for all the tricks of the trade, and the bells and whistles, the flamboyance of ideas, narrative, story-telling; winning the argument of justification means nothing if you don’t follow it up pretty sharply with the appropriate results.  As I say, don’t go too far the other way and become entirely results-orientated, but be sure to learn from your choice of technique, and understand how it impacted your results.  Just being able to explain your technique if it didn’t work is not enough.  Technique without results is pure hubris.  And besides, the hospitals are full enough as it is without any additional zebra crossing-related accident victims.

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