There’s a lot of things I could say about the Lego Movie (2014). It’s a perfect representation of the hero’s journey, pulled so closely from contemporary remixes (Tron, the Matrix) to seem like every movie at once.
The hero, like all good heroes, is young and untested. Foolish, an outcast, alone. His motivation is merely to make friends and be with others. He fulfills an ancient prophecy by accident, meets a wise teacher (and a romantic interest who of course is dating a much cooler boyfriend) and begins his adventure.
But more interesting than the story, is the self-conscious exploration of the dichotomy between creativity and direction-following.
We’ve had tons of movies about revolution, thinking outside the box, breaking the rules, but none have touched as specifically on the problems of creativity as this one.
How do you think up an idea that nobody has ever thought before? How do you create something original, using the materials around you but in your own special way?
The creative people — the “masterbuilders” — can’t tell you. They just do it.
They hate directions and instructions. They like to be free and play with no rules. The central conflict in the movie, however, is that they are facing a corporate army that builds everything with unlimited resources, and employs a think-tank of the greatest minds.
Just like in the real world, the creative people are losing the battle against the shirt-and-ties (even brilliant creatives usually end up getting a job and working for the Man, and keeping their creations as hobby).
At the mid-way point in The Lego Movie, they look to the hero, the ordinary and boring lego guy (in a cast that includes all of the greatest, most famous superheroes and historical figures in history).
“What should we do?” they ask.
“Guys you’re all so talented, and imaginative… but you can’t work as a team. I’m just a construction worker, but when I had a plan, and we were all working together, we could build a skyscraper. Just imagine what could happen if you could did that. You could save the universe.”
It’s an inspiring speech. The problem is, the only way to get them to work together as a group is to make something boring and unoriginal.
“They’re expecting us to arrive in a batspaceship or a pirate spaceship or a rainbow-sparkly spaceship, my idea is to show up in a spaceship that looks exactly like all the other spaceships.”
So, all the creative genius masterbuilders limit their creativity and ram their heads against the frustrating instructions.
Everybody wants to be special. Everybody wants to be “The Special One” who does the most amazing, important, interesting things ever. But doing it isn’t enough. It has to make an impact. It has to matter.
In the final fight between good and evil, just as the movie seems to be self-consciously proclaiming its own tagline or major concept — “You see Emmet, a corrupted spirit is no match for the purity of imagina-” — the bad guy cuts off the good guy’s head.
But then he comes back as a ghost to finish explaining.
“You must know something about the prophecy… I made it up, it’s not true.”
You mean, I’m not the special?
The reason I made up the Prophecy was because I knew whoever found the piece could become the special, because the only thing anyone needs to be special is to believe that you can be. You just need to believe it.
“But how can I just decide to believe that I’m special, when I’m not.”
“Because the world depends on it.”
The hero sacrifices himself to stop the destruction of the world (obviously), and his friends mourn him. They wish there were more people like him (ordinary), and decide to broadcast a message to all the normal people.
“I used to look down on people like that, following the instructions, fitting in. I used to think they were followers with no ideas or vision… turns out Emmet had great ideas… although weird and kind of pointless, but he came closer than anyone else to actually saving the universe.
“We have to finish what he started, by making whatever weird thing pops into our heads. All of you have the ability to be a groundbreaker — and I mean literally. Break the ground! Peel off the pieces, tear apart your walls! Build things only you could build. Defend yourselves, we need to Fight Back against President Businesses’ plan to freeze us. Today won’t be known as Taco Tuesday, it’ll be known as Freedom Friday!”
That’s a call for freedom that began with Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and has continued to be the sole battle cry for all protagonists since. Freedom against control, law, rules, government, aliens, computers… it doesn’t matter what the characters do, the ones for “Freedom!!” are the good guys.
The hero, Emmet, gets a vision of the real world. The Man Upstairs… the business man (this is real life) comes down and sees his kid playing with his toys.
“I know this is tough for you to understand, but this is Dad’s stuff, OK? All of this that you see before you, it is all your father’s.”
This heavy ritualistic language has biblical solemnity.
“Everything is thought out. You know the rules. This isn’t a toy.”
“It kind of is.”
“The way that I’m using it, it’s an adult thing.”
The kid sees value in the ordinary:
“He’s not just a construction worker, he’s the hero.”
The dad just wants everything to be set perfectly, as it’s supposed to be, according to the directions:
“No he’s not, he’s the ordinary, generic construction worker and I need to put him back where he belongs.”
This is the same narrative, just on a higher level: raw creation lets you do anything, be anything, but The Man Upstairs (Father Figure, God or Demiurge, your Conscious Mind or Ego, the Deceiver, Resistance, Fear, the 1%) wants you to just follow the rules and make things according to the instructions, the way they’re supposed to be.
Reborn like Neo, the hero comes back to life, to his home word with his newfound abilities. He has become a masterbuilder.
“I can see everything,” he says. He is creativity personified. He is Pure Genius — he sees the potential use of everything, he can take raw materials and create things that didn’t exist before. He challenges his arch rival, President Business (big corporations).
He uses his secret weapon, which he calls “The Power of the Special.”
My hand. I want you to take it. I want you to join me.
Look at all these things that people built. You might see a mess.
Exactly, a bunch of weird, dorky stuff that ruined my perfectly good stuff.
Ok, what I see, are people, inspired by each other, inspired by you. People taking what you made and making something new out of it.
Meanwhile, in the real world, Dad finally understands that his son is being creative… and has made a whole narrative where he (the father) is the bad guy, the suit, trying to fix everything with super glue. He takes his son’s narrative as a way to open their communication and improve the relationship.
“If the construction guy said something to President Business, what would he say?”
“You don’t have to be the bad guy. You, are the most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person in the universe, and you are capable of amazing things, because you are the special.”
“And so am I. And so is everyone.”
The prophecy is made up, but it’s also true.
And it right now, it’s about you.
And you… STILL… can change everything.
A healed father-son dynamic.
Everyone is wonderful.
Emotions are awesome.
Together, they begin unsuperglueing everything.
Freedom! Play! Make creative, weird stuff that has no purpose or function, because you’re SPECIAL!
Trumpets, loud music, party poppers.
Now Let Me Shit on your Parade
Even on the very flat, obvious surface of The Lego Movie’s enthusiasm are some potholes. If you weren’t paying attention, you might assume the moral of the movie is that everybody can be creative, and whatever we make is beautiful and wonderful, and you (YOU!) are special and talented and extraordinary.
That’s in line with the prevailing (but changing) New Age universalism that’s in vogue these days, with prophets of the Cult of Passion teaching artists to just keep making stuff, because everybody who tells you not to is the bad guy, and you should make stuff even if nobody appreciates it.
All it takes to be a writer or an artist is the belief that you are already one. This is popular motivational mantra left over from The Artist’s Way and The Alchemist.
But if you bought that ego-stroking, happy ideology, you missed the point — and the same garbage you’re swallowing is keeping you from being successful.
If you’re one of the “normal” people, you’ll keep doing your job, you’ll keep serving the man, and you’ll make enough money to keep watching movies, buying toys and things to play with, making stuff for no reason, just for your own enjoyment.
Creativity is a plaything, a pastime. You may believe it’s your purpose on earth to be doing that one thing that makes you feel special, but your creativity, your passion, your enthusiasm—none of those things will lead to success.
You may object that “success” doesn’t matter. But if you have one thing you’re put on earth to do, don’t you think it’s strange to be given a gift meant to be enjoyed by you alone?
Our Cult of Creativity is almost exactly like the Religion of Genius of the 19th century. I’m currently reading Divine Fury by Darrin M. McMahon, which is about the history of our beliefs about creative genius—it traces the rising trend to identify and celebrate great minds as something truly separate and apart from “normal” humans; great minds that were a product of nature and accident, rather than learning or culture. Geniuses could be born, not made.
Today, our New Age positive enthusiasm encourages us to believe that we can be anything; including a creative genius. That creativity isn’t something special or 1-in-10,000; that creativity isn’t something to worship or look up to; it’s something we can all choose to be just by believing in it.
Everybody is creative? So what.
In the Lego Movie, all the creative masterbuilders get told they need to work together and make really boring stuff.
Why? Because, cool, random shit has no purpose. It doesn’t matter. What makes things matter, is one universal narrative or a story. Most creative people can build cool stuff but they don’t have the rich imagination to dream up a huge adventure.
So a winning, orthodox interpretation of The Lego Movie could be that talent doesn’t matter. Creativity (or skill, technique, imagination) doesn’t matter. What you need to be successful is a narrative — a narrative powerful enough to melt hearts and change minds.
A narrative that understands, comforts, welcomes and transforms.
This, rather than the Follow your Passion, Cult of Creativity, is on the cutting edge of global ideology.
As Daniel H. Pink writes in A Whole New Mind, “Scratch the surface in a typical boardroom and we’re all just cavemen with briefcases, hungry for a wise person to tell us stories.” Production can be outsourced to cheap labor, so making content meaningful through story-telling is the new most valuable skillset.
To be a successful creative person, it doesn’t matter so much what you make, it matters what big narrative you’re telling. That’s the narrative about your biography, your purpose, your mission — it’s behind the individual books, paintings, apps or services, or whatever else you build. It’s the thing that holds it all together.
That’s what will make you successful (not only in terms of being liked and making money, but also in the sense of mattering to anybody).
If you’re making things that don’t matter, simply because you like making them, you don’t deserve success. It isn’t owed to you. Success comes from the value you provide to others.
And while I could end on a positive note if I stopped now…
The truth is that the only people telling good narratives are the professionals. Hollywood keeps cranking out hero journey formulaic movies because they work, every time. We appreciate that story no matter what form it comes in.
Huge corporations, politicians and even governments spend millions on framing themselves into the right narrative. The “War or Terror” or the “War on Drugs” is a matter of story-telling to achieve wide-spread compliance with unpopular government policies. The fact that Coke, McDonald’s and Starbucks are loved globally while their business chains destroy economies, natural resources and even our own bodies is the result of well-spun narratives.
Most of us have bought into narratives that carefully dictate our choices and beliefs. We are in a self-destructive routine that’s ultimately bad for our health, our minds and bodies, and part of a massive human experiment in self-genocide. We live paycheck to paycheck, spending all our money (and more) on vacations, flat screens and distraction.
Sure, we could revolt, and rip up the floors and the walls, and tear everything down… but what would we put in its place? Chaos. The Specials among us will weave a new story. That’s the magic power. And no, not everybody is Special in this way.
It doesn’t matter if you have your own cute style, or like a certain color, or can make crazy ass shit that nobody but you gets. It doesn’t matter that you feel happy when you’re creating something by yourself and playing with your imagination.
Specials can make a story so good everybody wants to be in on it.
The Specials are the people who make things matter.
They’re the people who can give meaning to your life and give you a purpose (and to everyone else’s). But they can be good, or evil.
Hitler was a Special, who told a powerful story of a Master Race that was celebrated by his followers. Mother Teresa was a special, as was Ghandi, Martin Luther (and Martin Luther King, Jr.), Jesus (or his followers, who wrote the narratives about him).
But they don’t have to be the same people in the stories themselves: J.K. Rowling is a special, as is Steven King and most other famous writers. They write stories that impact people. Even if they’re just for entertainment or enjoyment, the best books become part of people’s lives and identities.
This is the secret that will change your life…
Being creative, or having a great imagination, isn’t enough. No matter who you are or what you do, you need to tell stories that resonate with other people. You need to create products that fit into their narratives support their beliefs.
You need to frame yourself as the hero, create a conflict with clear stakes, motivate them to join your team, inspire them to take action, and get them working towards a big, common goal that is meaningful for everybody.
And you need to do it fast, because all the big narratives are already being used to keep the system in place. Going back to The Lego Movie, there’s a reason President Business is so successful.
He’s teaching everybody how awesome it is to be happy and be part of a team. They’re building stuff and following the directions! He’s motivating and inspiring (because there is no alternative).
And the few people who could change everything, the Specials, the meaning-makers, aren’t involved in business or politics. Instead they’re trying to self-publish little stories or smut-novellas or sell handcrafts on Etsy or buying scrapbooking material. They are using their creativity to embellish their me-centered narratives. They dream about making an extra buck or two so they can quit the job they hate.
The only real way to Save the Universe is to create a new narrative that forbids practices currently in place — a new narrative that (for example) stresses a Quaker-like, clean-technology, vegetarian, pro-education lifestyle.
But it won’t happen. Because nobody really benefits (except of course, everybody — I mean, nobody specific). There used to be a time when people didn’t have enough, so the Grand Narrative taught people it was better to be poor, to be happy, to be generous and not to complain, to be dutiful and submissive. That way the people telling the Grand Narrative could have comfortable lives.
Now, there is plenty for everyone. Our current Grand Narrative tells people to buy whatever they want, to do whatever they want, to enjoy themselves and spend money and work hard so they can play hard.
Our current Grand Narrative tells people that they’re special and meaningful and the stuff they make is magic, and has value even if they’re building it in their basement and nobody will ever see it. They keep working, making stuff, and spending their money to buy other stuff (just like the Chinese indentured workers who built the railways; or the man in the tie following the directions and supergluing his legos together).
Yes, I’m talking about you.
They want you to feel special, they want you to think that you matter, so you’ll keep buying their shit. You’ll keep playing the game because you’re working on that book, or painting, or project, or new business idea, that you’ll get around to “when you have more time” and then you’ll get rich and famous and quit your job and life a meaningful life.
Think you’ll be famous after you’re dead? There’s no time for that. The world has gotten too fast, too connected. If you aren’t discovered and already famous in this lifetime, you aren’t going to be rediscovered later. There’s too much content. There are too many new voices pushing for space.
What are you going to do about it?
Create a story that unites a huge number of people.
Create value that earns a huge amount of capital.
Use your new-found platform and wealth to actually get involved and make stuff happen. You can do it! Go you!
A lot of people say, ‘Well, toy movies are just designed to sell toys.’ And that’s not something that was compelling to us… it wasn’t like we needed a movie to help us sell more stuff.” (Michael McNally, Lego’s brand relations director)