The Four Quadrants of Narrative: Wisdom, Innovation, Imitation, Nostalgia

Maybe it’s a sign of getting older, but I’ve been thinking about the concept of “wisdom” a lot lately. Being in the middle of Silicon Valley’s obsession with everything new and innovative, it’s a word that I honestly don’t hear too much…but in a lot of ways, that may even be the point of being here to begin with.

Generally speaking, we’re living in a very nostalgic time in the US right now and this has a very strong influence on how we talk and think about things in an overall sense. You might have noticed that there’s a heaping dose of retro and “vintage” works that have found itself into the mainstream (ex. vinyl sales still continue to hit record highs) as the wave of nostalgia in pop culture continues to grow. Personally I find it kind of weird that young people nowadays are listening to similar songs that I did growing up; if not directly, in its derivative forms manifested as mashup and remixed tracks.

Digital processing has made a lot of progress in recent years, but as long as you’re using pre-mades you’ll never have complete creative control…which is, in essence, an unfortunate metaphor for the lack of control younger people currently have over their futures at this point in time. We can rearrange and process the things that were handed down to us, but the act of creating things from scratch remains out of reach for many out there.

Trump’s ascent into presidency is an obvious sign that nostalgia is very strong among the right, but the less-talked-about issue is that the left is currently caught in a very similar sentimentality as well. What we have right now is essentially a recreation of politics of an earlier era: the “good ol’ days” vs its historical response, identity politics. The reason why politics feels strange and particularly devastating these days has to do with the fact that both parties are essentially competing against each other in the same bottom-right quadrant (Nostalgia), using ideas and methodologies that feels completely out of place in today’s globalized, technology-driven world.

What’s striking about our current political situation isn’t necessarily the emerging gap between the left and the right, but how similar they’ve become in terms of its ideological construction. The problem isn’t so much that the two parties have drifted too far apart — but that they’ve gotten too close, and are now struggling to differentiate themselves from one another.

There is actually a simple, time-honored word used to describe Trump’s worldview: reactionary. Trump successfully used the left’s identity politics and sense of nostalgia against itself — why arguments between the left and the right seem to mirror each other despite their attempts to differentiate. (Both sides accuse each other of “fake news”, being “snowflakes”, while Obama and Trump have both been compared to Hitler.) The phrase “reactionary” was suggested a few times by more astute observers but it never really caught on because the media itself was in on the joke: perhaps they were initially entranced by seeing a strange, perverse version of themselves rise among the ranks, and wanted to see how far it would go. Trump did not, after all, come out of nowhere: he’s always had the media’s support in the form of free publicity, even if its coverage happened to be negative in tone.

If solutions and compromises seem out of reach to us right now, it’s because we’ve allowed the media, our technologies, our routines to limit our imaginations to what might actually be possible in the ways we formulate our ideas and opinions. In order to break out of this rut, we need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture first. My hope is that this post will have some effect on our ability to think outside of the box, and encourage ideas that may give us a better chance of addressing the many issues that we face as a society today.

The Four Quadrants of Narrative

Yes, a 2x2 is its own kind of box, but here’s the thing: this chart is entirely useless for managers or organizations looking to pigeonhole people into caricatures — its value is primarily derived from understanding how thoughts move from one area to another. Every person will go through every quadrant of thinking at certain points in their lives; and may even change their position day to day, minute by minute, depending on how they feel. Even if you take this chart at complete face value (please don’t), mapping out someone’s thought process in its full form will almost always yield a mangled, garbled mess. People are complicated, irrational, and full of unreasonable desires and contradictions when you get down to it — and that’s something we just have to accept as the default of how reality works.

As human beings, however, our main means of communicating with one another is through the act of storytelling. Here, we can untangle the mess that exists in our heads and tell someone about something with a degree of direction and clarity that makes the world appear to “make sense”. Some stories are small, like that funny thing that happened to you at the store the other day; while others are grand, like the direction society is moving towards, or the quest to find the meaning of life.

The pattern of a typical “coming of age” story. A child starts by Imitating those around them, gets restless and wants to try new things (Innovate), goes through some good times, bad times during a rut (Nostalgia), forcing them to reflect and contemplate on what had transpired, and then becomes a little bit wiser having gone through the experience as a whole.

The labels colored green are things that are generally looked upon favorably by society, red, unfavorably. There is a hidden 3rd personality/group-driven spectrum that also runs diagonally that would make the chart look like a 3-dimensional banana, but I’ll mostly leave that up to your imagination rather than mine. Either way, I’m hoping that the fact that this chart captures the complex, often contradictory nature of human sentiment, where even individual spectrums run in opposite directions in terms of what people actually *want*. (People want status but don’t like getting old, people don’t like being boring but don’t like taking risks, etc.)

But there’s one thing that’s a universal constant: moving from one quadrant to another often leads to interesting stories that are also “truthful”. In the humanities, this is known as narrative/character development, what separates art from the fluff that tries to present static, prefabricated images as if that’s all there were to see.

This is how a typical “bad” story is written, which also happens to be the model that propaganda pieces use in order to elevate someone’s status artificially. With all of the struggles and negative experiences removed, it’s implied that the character was somehow “born” special, and formulated their Wisdom around countless “victories” against insurmountable odds. It’s the types of stories that monarchies and authoritarian regimes use to justify their rule in power. None of this has any basis in reality, however.

Incidentally, the ability to spot the difference between fake and real news, guilt or innocence, “good” vs “bad” art, comes from this ability to recognize the plausibility of something changing from one state to another. Understanding the truth has more to do with understanding how things change more so than just knowing the “facts”. Facts are very easy to fabricate, both socially and professionally, because coming up things out-of-context is something that basically anyone can do. Coming up with a believable story, on the other hand, is much more difficult — unless it also happens to be true. The ability to recognize a good story directly correlates with our ability to understand the truth, making it an essential skill for people living in an information-based society.

Artists and entrepreneurs have the innate ability to spin plausible stories from nothing, where their creativity finds its way into a medium most suited for their ideas and expressions. Does this mean that creatives are just really good at lying by making things up that aren’t true? Not quite: if the story is plausible enough, it shows its audience a path towards how it could be true, allowing for the possibility where life imitates art. Plausibility is what separates visions from fabrications, which makes its understanding all that more important.

In the end, this chart is meant to be reflective rather than prescriptive — this will not help you come up with better stories, life experiences, or character designs in themselves, nor will it help you do a better job at HR, analytics, data modeling, or anything else that might have an immediate, tangible benefit. If you happen to find yourself in a rut, however, it may provide some suggestions for what to think or where to go intellectually, if you’re honestly in search of something different than what you already know.

In art, staying in one place too long leads to boredom; in politics, the stagnation of progress; in life, the end of hope and joy in it of itself. For our own sake, we have to keep on pressing and moving at all times, no matter the cost.

The Details

New (Low Status) <-> Old (High Status)

An example of how artworks might be categorized under this chart. This shows the various types of works that may come out of artists’ attitudes towards risk and working styles.

Things that gain high stature in society will be “old” by default because commodities and ideas that gain maturation, by definition, require a period of cultivation and refinement in order for it be included as part of “high” culture. There is a downside to this, however…with more status, the less you’ll be exposed to the risks of new ideas, but also of the truth (i.e. the future), which is a necessary ingredient for ideas to progress forward in a real sense.

Video games is a good example of a new, low-status medium, gradually making its way towards an higher status as its demographics start to mature. Nostalgia for the old days of 8-bit and 16-bit systems has created its own conception of “classics” in gaming, which has served as inspiration for recent “retro-styled” games. This trend will likely continue as attachments to older mediums start to fade away, then start all over again after the gaming industry becomes disrupted by something entirely different again.

One thing to keep in mind is that “high status” doesn’t necessarily mean “wealthy” — there is no direct correlation between money and status, although it’s fairly common to conflate the two as if there were. The video game industry, for example, is making more revenue than TV, film, and radio combined, but still ranks lower on the status totem-pole as far as artwork types go. We tend to think of classical music as being “high status” but it doesn’t tend to do as well in the commercial market simply because the demand for it isn’t as high. There’s much to say about how or why these things happen, but it’s important to disentangle the two in order to avoid misconceptions on how these ideas relate to one another.

Mundane (Low Risk) <-> Novel (High Risk)

An example of how the US film industry might be categorized according to this chart. As mentioned above, we are living in a very Nostalgic time right now, where studios are very deliberately “rebooting” existing franchises in order to try to milk more value out of already existing content.

This axis is a pretty straightforward spectrum between the Novel and the Mundane—ideas that are unique versus those that fall under the category of common, supported knowledge. Uniqueness contains excitement and allure because of the potential for making progress but is also inherently risky, simply because something that has the capability of creating its own category has the potential to disrupt the status quo in ways that can’t be predicted or controlled.

In business terms, Novelty may give you an advantage over your competitors, but the risk lies in people misunderstanding what your product actually does. Using a business model that has already been proven to work saves you the trouble of having to discover an entirely new product-market-fit, but the drawback is that since the model is already known, it’s likely to attract a lot more competition around the same opportunities.

Personality Driven <-> Group Driven

An example of how character types might be depicted using this chart. The Hero’s/Heroine’s journey primarily involves moving from Innovation to Wisdom, with detours into other quadrants to make for an interesting story. This also explains why Puritans may have conflated the pursuit of love with ideas about the devil’s temptations — since they both share similar traits in regards to status and risk. Characters with more depth will move between the quadrants with greater intention, however.

As an added layer underneath everything else, Wisdom and Innovation tends to be ideas that are typically associated with personalities rather than groups. We’re used to thinking of innovators and wise souls as visionaries rather than a result of collective sentiment or action, and there’s some truth in how these things play out in the real world, as well. A focused artist/CEO/leader will be both innovative and wise at the same time (it’s practically required for the job), but will slip into other categories when they fall from grace.

Although the chart may seem to imply that collective thinking is largely a negative trait, this has more to do with what we currently value as a society, rather than a gauge of an idea’s merit. Sometimes the wisdom of the crowd is real — other times, it’s not. But ideas presented with precision and clarity usually come from individuals just because visions tend to be much more powerful when they come from a single set of eyes, rather than of many.

Innovation: High Risk, Low Status

The tech industry’s propagan…err, “success stories” follow the same “hero’s/heroine’s journey” as political ones as well. The founder comes up with a brilliant idea, then through the sheer genius of the individual will, grows the company into the behemoth that is today. Makes for an exciting story, as long as you leave out 90% of the details that made it actually possible.

The concept of Innovation (i.e. creativity) is probably the most misunderstood in society, since it’s often used as a catch-all phrase for people who do “good work”. It’s important to know that good work is not always innovative, and innovations do not necessarily always lead to good work. Innovation is the quadrant that everyone wants to be in (since it’s the quadrant of heroes and heroines), but in actual practice, only a very tiny percentage of people manage to actually stay in that area for long periods of time.

The reason for Innovation’s rarity has nothing to do with intellect or ability, but the lifestyle and mentality required to maintain its outlook over longer periods of time. Something that’s genuinely new and novel will not enjoy the status/benefits that come with working with a refined product, which typically isn’t a situation that people actively seek. There is something inherently unreasonable about the process of innovation, which is why it tends to attract its share of eccentrics, obsessives, strong personalities, and downright crazies that make beating the endurance games it creates a remote possibility.

The discussion on matters of innovation and creativity tends to get muddled when you throw status into the mix: when you promote something as being “innovative”, you’ve already put it on a pedestal, elevating its status into a higher state of being. Now, you might think that you’re doing the idea/product a favor by saying nice things about it (even giving it some money, perhaps) but when you expose an idea to the general public in that way you end up imposing external standards onto it that may end up stifling its creativity in the long run.

This is the main reason why many startup founders aren’t able to function when their company transitions to its growth phases — they’d rather be learning and innovating, rather than making money or playing status games with the rest of society — i.e. building a “real” business. Such a mindset may seem immature or unwise to many, but it helps to keep in mind that Innovation and Wisdom are two very different things that serve two very different purposes in the overall picture. Incubating a creative idea requires a careful balancing act between passion and pragmatism that is very difficult to achieve, hence why startups tend to have very high failure rates, even when very talented people are involved with the process.

If you’re genuinely interested in innovative ideas, here are some traits to look for: genuinely new and unique (not just another spin-off of another idea), very risky, and decidedly unpopular. By unpopular I don’t mean hated, since hate is also a form of status that just happens to be rallied by a different type of emotion. It needs to be not-popular, while having the support of a minority community that’s largely indifferent to the idea of external validation or recognition. Real innovation is difficult to find because it usually doesn’t want to be bothered with worldly things that drive the rest of society — status, recognition, money, social signaling, etc. — it’s usually something that you have to go way out of your way to even notice that it’s there.

Imitation: Low Risk, Low Status

This is what educational institutions generally aim to do. Students learn by Imitation, then move onto becoming Innovators that end up making lots of positive contributions to society, at least in theory. Higher education’s obsession over status and novelty has driven it towards a state of Nostalgia in recent years, however.

Every artist, no matter how talented and unique they might be, starts off with Imitation — copying the works of people you look up to is the only way anyone gets their start, after all. This is true in art, in music, in writing, and even in the types of startups that founders may envision when first starting out. There is actually a nicer word to describe what Imitation really is: learning. The student is not the master (hence their low status) but at the same time, as long as they’re learning, the risks of what they do will always be low.

With enough discipline and practice, it’s assumed that every artist will find their “voice” and eventually move into the Innovation quadrant, where they’re most likely to produce their most “important” works of their lifetime. In classical music, works produced during a composer’s Imitation phase are usually called “early works”, whereas Innovation phases usually happen shortly after adolescence, where many of their “masterworks” are created. If they live long enough, they may get old enough to explore the bottom two regions as well (Wisdom and Nostalgia) as “late” or “mature” works of their kind.

Some artists never do find their “voice”, however — and even if they do, it’s incredibly difficult to make originality a form of living in itself. Cover songs, remixes, derivative works may not have the self-expression that many artists seek, but it does, more often than not, pay the bills. So we end up seeing a lot of creativity being utilized for commercial purposes, which usually finds itself in the Imitation quadrant.

Startups being called the “Uber of X” is peak-Imitation, at least in the tech world. Not only is the idea clearly comparable to something else, Uber itself being a variation on traditional dispatching (the main service it provides is still getting passengers from A or B, after all) makes it less novel than companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft that built products that truly changed people’s actions and behaviors from the ground up.

It’s worth noting that many respectable artists, businesses and innovators live and thrive in the Imitation quadrant, and can be perfectly happy being there. You don’t have to reinvent the taco to have a good taco stand, and there are many cover bands that are very good and enjoy what they do for a living. A business that’s honest about what it’s doing and has no delusions about it will gradually refine its output over time, making its way into the Wisdom quadrant. Sometimes good execution is all that’s needed to differentiate yourself from the competition, even if the idea itself has been attempted a million times before.

Nostalgia: High Risk, High Status

Nostalgia is often the worst state to be in, because it’s usually prompted by negative events that forces organizations/individuals into that state of being. Nothing new is learned during this time, nor is there any obvious “value” to be gained from the process — just more of a better understanding of what had already transpired. In stories, this quadrant is where the hero/heroine faces most of their internal struggles.

Nostalgia happens when people start to “reflect” about the things that they already know and love. It’s the stuff “behind the scenes” and celebrity biographies are made of — the attempt at finding novelty in a known product by looking at it from various different angles. (“Steve Jobs ate these things for breakfast!”, “Miley Cyrus did this thing at this place!”, etc.) Nostalgia is often associated with fond feelings of the distant past, but can also be used to describe the present, as long as the content you’re thinking about is already established in some way or form.

Since we are talking about things that are already known (i.e. refined), this puts Nostalgia into the high-status category. But trying to squeeze more juice out of something that you already know and love has its own risks: you might find out something about it that you rather not have wanted to know. Or perhaps worse — you might just get bored of it entirely.

Sometimes that just involves being exposed to a poorly-made remake/sequel/remix that makes you enjoy the original a little bit less. Other times you might read about celebrity gossip/drama that makes you lose respect for people that you used to love. (Reality TV is practically this idea put into a show format.) Thanks to the “openness” of internet culture, we’re finding out a lot of things about a lot of things — but is it actually good for us to have all this information? The problem with prying deep into the things that we love is that we end up cannibalizing them for increasingly marginal gains.

“Make America Great Again” is the ultimate statement of Nostalgia — the claim of American exceptionalism, but only in the past-tense. The problem with the left’s response to Trump’s Nostalgia was that they’ve countered it with its own sense of past-glory, using ideas and methods that has largely remained unchanged since the 60s when it was first introduced. Hence many young people feel frustrated with figures in the Democratic establishment that proudly proclaim that there is no need for the party to change its course, despite its heavy losses during the last election cycle.

For the left to provide an alternative path, they would have to either let go of its status-driven culture or its attachment to the novelty of identity politics in order to truly progress. (Either will work, neither will fail.) Will this necessary shift happen before the next election cycle rolls around? Only time will tell. But we can at least be specific about what to look for now, and focus our attention only one those who may actually be serious about making the changes that are needed in the way we talk and think about things in general.

There is also the possibility that the traditional right will go through a reformation that will become the new platform for these alternative ideas to emerge. Either way, it’s worth paying attention to fringe movements on both sides of the isle for the next couple of years, since the unstable landscape makes it rife for these types of changes to make itself permanent in the overall scheme of things.

Wisdom: Low Risk, High Status

The Idealized hero’s journey, going straight from Innovation to Wisdom, exists only as a fiction and doesn’t reflect the actual process of acquiring knowledge and experience of “timeless” value. Good stories, however, will make the effort to flesh out the difficulties in getting there, either through the process of learning (Imitation) or reflection (Nostalgia).

It’s always worth noting that, at the end of the day, we’re all basically living on a hunk of rock that circles around the sun endlessly — why history is capable of repeating itself; why the idea of timelessness is more real than myth. We are, literally and physically, going around and around in circles so it shouldn’t be all that surprising that we end up doing very similar things to our ancestors who came many years before. The reason why we can read texts from hundreds of years ago and still get something out it rests on the fact that despite all the technological progress that we have made in recent years, we’re still mostly the same hunk of flesh that we used to be when we first learned how to speak.

True Wisdom has no risk because it’s just a description of reality itself, so there’s nothing to hedge your bets against. And there’s no higher order of status than the Truth (with a capital T) since it rises above the sentiments and conflicts that plague the lives of mere mortals like us. It’s no wonder, then, Wisdom is often associated with ideas about ancient wisdom and divine inspiration, since it seems to possess a mystical quality that’s beyond the reach of human comprehension.

I don’t claim to know what “True Wisdom” really is (I don’t think anyone does, really) but we can sort of hedge a little closer to it by trying to avoid things that obviously aren’t. And when you get down to it — wisdom comes from things that have nothing to do with newness or novelty because it’s the pure pursuit of timeless truths. The fact that I’m thinking this way might just be another sign that I’m starting to get old, though.

Then again…if Wisdom was all we had, the world would just exist as is, with nothing ever changing for the better. So there will be times when you need to be wise, times where you should be learning, times to be creative, and times when some reflection is in order. But we need to be always moving from one state to another, or we risk driving ourselves into an inescapable rut. If there was ever a time to keep an open mind, it would be right at this moment — when it’s needed the most.