The Myth of Telling Stories About Innovators

Just finished reading The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson. The author is surely a very good storyteller, and when stories are told brilliantly well, they become more than stories.

The primary premise, it seems, is that no single person instantiates a series of happenings that we call innovation, which is nothing new.

The secondary premises include, almost with cliche, how innovation can happen, as well as what kind of personal or interpersonal traits afford it to happen. Nothing new here either — there are a few decent books telling you the same things, which indeed make quite much sense.

Having already realized those above, I didn’t expect a book that’s any better than Steve Jobs, the author’s previous best seller.

But I just couldn’t put it down. The author moves from person to person, focusing in turn on each one’s background and development up to the fine point of certain historically significant events, while at the same time connects those events using intentionally dropped clues in previous tellings. At the end of each chapter, you get a big picture of the topic that makes very much contextual sense. The dots are connected (in one way or another, albeit simplified).

Thus what’s really impressive here is the way the author tells stories, more than what the stories are about. As a revealing history of the digital revolution intended for general readers, techies probably won’t find much depth in the book. By emphasizing certain personality traits, the author guides you to get familiar with the person in concern, and describes how those traits had influenced his/her decisions that eventually led to the significant events.

So here’s the fascinating thing: the author is basically saying, hey this guy is a genius and he/she is really good at this, and that’s why he/she chooses to do that; but, ya know, he/she couldn’t have done that innovation alone.

That is to say:

The author first establishes individual myths of a bunch of people doing things, trying to explain why they do it, and then, by putting them into bigger context, debunks the myth of a lone innovator. A myth is debunked by another myth. And the storytelling of debunking the former is so well executed, that you almost blindly accept the personal myth.

Simplifying complex personality traits and circumstances down to a directional mythical character is sometimes necessary to deliver less challenging storytelling that general readers can enjoy. Not everyone would like to take a casual jump and find himself/herself diving into a deep sea.

If you could be aware of that myth-creating storytelling of debunking myths, you probably would enjoy the book as much as I do. Walter Isaacson does know how to tell good stories. How I wish I could write like that.


Originally published at kingofark.com on October 25, 2014.

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