Want to Make an Idea Stand Out? Make It Work Like a Rainforest
Rainforests have an immediately recognizable surface: the vast, majestic blanket of treetops.
But venture below, stare at the inner bio-machinery that runs them so smoothly, and you’ll understand why we have the pressing need of getting Walt Disney out of the freezer to put sir David Attenborough in there instead.
Because one lifetime won’t be enough for him to explain to us every one of the interconnected, complex relationships that power up the ecosystem (and also because I’m too far into my Attenborough fandom to accept a voiceover replacement).
Ideas that stand out work in a similar fashion
From the surface, they are simple and eye-catching; familiar even. But they are run by a nuanced, complex ecosystem of interwoven concepts that makes them hold up when we scrutinize them from up close.
The problem? Most ideas are not built like rainforests. They’re built like coral reefs.
Those are the forgettable ones.
I’m not trying to say coral reefs are not beautiful, majestic, or worthy of a David Attenborough voiceover. I’m saying they are not strong, resilient, and diverse like rainforests are.
And those are not good qualities for an idea.
A coral reef, without the coral, is just a “reef”
A lifeless sandbank that can no longer host microhabitats, breeding grounds, or SpongeBob episodes.
The coral is not hard to spot. Hell, it’s everywhere. I see it in the “listicle,” an article structure with less inspiration that most of my grocery lists. I see it in pop songs adhering to what’s “commercially viable,” in book adaptations that are so desperately trying to become the next Harry Potter franchise that they forget to make a good movie.
Stare at any craft, art, or niche for long enough and you’ll see it there, the coral, interwoven and omnipresent. It’s “what the readers want,” “what the industry would buy.” So naturally, every small idea runs to take shelter under it. But what are they if deprived of the coral that gives them refugee? A lifeless reef. A boring rock.
If you want to stand out, welcome to the jungle
The movie The Matrix is an excellent example of how creative diversity can not only make an idea stand out but elevate it into a cultural phenomenon (read the following section with David Attenborough’s voice for added cinematic flavour.)
The living world of The Matrix is a unique and spectacular marvel. The countless influences and ideas that the Wachowskis poured into their work dazzle in their variety and richness.
Sci-fi action movies are sometimes seen as simple, primitive ideations. That’s a long way from the truth. The Matrix has had the pleasure to be influenced by some of the most enchanting tales. Our knowledge of some of these tales extends back centuries: from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Greek mythology, Eastern philosophy, and biblical legends.
Dwarfed by the vast expanse of its philosophical undertones, the choreographed fights had their own depth and nuance embedded into them. Drawing from the latest special effects technology and the wirework of Hong Kong legend Yuen Woo-ping, these fight scenes are some of the greatest martial art spectacles on Earth.
The cultural impact of Wachowskis’ work is still unfolding its influence across the globe, rooted in our very vocabulary, as we stopped having so many “déjà vus” to begin noticing “glitches in the Matrix,” and no longer we wake up to unpleasant truths, but “take the red pill” instead.
So, how do we move from the coral to the rainforest?
The takeaway from The Matrix is that I kinda liked déjà vus, and I’m sad they’re gone. But also, that outstanding ideas have more depth and nuance than what their surfaces might reveal. (Maybe I’ll overuse French expressions for a while, just to compensate for the lack of déjà vu).
So how do we create a working rainforest of subtle, interconnected influences that give that je ne sais quoi to our idea, making it stand out from the rest?
Simple: you give depth to every element of it. An idea is a confluence of different elements, like ingredients in a recipe. The Matrix’s ingredients were the sci-fi plot, the post-apocalyptic setting, the fight scenes, the archetypal journey of the “chosen one” hero.
But the Wachowskis went far and beyond, giving each ingredient carte blanche to be developed and deepen. So the sci-fi and the apocalypse transcend themselves to become a philosophical argument about humanity’s relationship with the fear of reality, the fear of technology, and perhaps fear itself.
When you work with each element carefully, they start to interact with each other, forming symbiotic relationships you couldn’t have discovered had you stayed on the surface with the rest of the small ideas.
If that’s what it takes to stand out, why choose not to?
Because it’s easier to take shelter on the coral and be like everyone else. Because creating an entire ecosystem of interconnected ideas takes lots of bother. And because most attempts do not lead to a cultural phenomenon but to a messy cul-de-sac.
On the surface, these ideas might seem like everyone else’s. How does George R. R. Martin manage to write epic fantasy that appeals to everyone and that we take seriously?
How Billie Eilish and Finneas write songs that are praised for their artistic integrity but still appeal to younger audiences and the pop culture? How did Jon Favreau made The Mandalorian, a show in the universe of Star Wars, without lightsabers, boring politics, and impossibly large stakes?
You know the answer won’t be on the surface, but deep below the treetops.
In the depths, you’ll find George’s deep knowledge of medieval history and literary fiction. You’ll find Billie and Finneas’ extensive musical influence nurtured by their parents when they grew up. You’ll find Favreau’s fascination with spaghetti westerns and old Japanese samurai movies.
Outstanding ideas might seem simple
But don’t be fooled by the apparent uniformity of the treetops on the surface. Look below the mushy blanket, study their influences, marvel at the complex biodiversity that makes you go “Woah that’s a great piece of work.”
Of course, you can shelter below the coral and still find success — provided that it’s not yet saturated with another myriad of copycats trying to exploit the formula. But if you want your ideas to stand out, you need to put the work into the ecosystem. And it may take as long as planting an actual rainforest all by yourself.
But hey, we are creatives. That’s what we signed up for. And who knows, if someday we manage to get to something truly awe-striking, an impressed David Attenborough will pop up from behind a bush and offer himself to do a voiceover about it.
I’m hoping he does.