Author Michael Margolis on October 29, 2014

Culture is a Creative Act

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Have you ever felt like you don’t quite fit in? Haunted by the feeling that you don’t quite belong anywhere?

In my life, I’ve constantly bumped up against the edges of culture and I’ll find myself searching for a way to fit in. It’s the curse of the innovator, to be living a life at the edges. 

More and more, I think that we’re all searching for home, for our community, for people who understand us. 

Maybe it’s in my genes to stay alert to my surroundings and learn the hidden stories around the places we grow up.

I think about this a lot. I’m a descendant of Jewish immigrants — and the stories of my ancestors and of this culture involves a similar storyline. Imagine being a Jewish immigrant fleeing the darkness of Eastern Europe, only to end up on the frontier of Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), the far reaches of the British Empire. This is where half my family lived for almost a 100 years. They worked their way from a small trading post in the bush of Africa to a building a factory and a brand (Olivine Industries) that employed thousands.

The other half of my family (also Eastern European Jews) landed in upstate New York. While a bit less exotic, they too worked their butts off, finding their way in American life. My grandfather Arkie was a canned soup salesman and master storyteller. If someone ever had an issue with his religious faith, he’d tell a joke and walk right out. He wasn’t one to compromise who he was just to close a sale. He ended up so successful that he retired early and moved to Florida, where he still tells some epic stories today. Just a few weeks ago, we celebrated his 75th wedding anniversary with my grandmother Myrtle.

STILL RECONCILING THE STORY OF MY IDENTITY

All of this was the culture I grew up in. And this all rubbed off on me. From the work ethic, to the discomfort of being a perpetual outsider, to the desire to storytell my way out of uncomfortable situations. Growing up as an ex-pat kid in Switzerland. Desperately failing to fit in as a teenager in Los Angeles. 

It’s no wonder I became an anthropologist, searching for answers. I’ve since been blessed to observe infinite cultures in infinite contexts, working across 4 continents and 42 countries. From technologists, social activists and healthcare execs, to entrepreneurs, healers, scientists, and so many more. This past decade we’ve talked to people from NASA to Zappos to Greenpeace to Marriott to Bloomberg.

And throughout it all, time and time again we’ve witnessed how every culture is its own unique creation. 

We’ve been writing a lot lately about the humanization of business and the democratization of storytelling — both of which are huge game-changing trends for business, for innovation, and for culture. The third trend I want to share with you today is the idea of culture as a creative act:

We can consciously shape and affect the culture around us through the stories we tell. 

I’ve learned first-hand: we are all constantly inventing culture.

WHAT DOES “CULTURE CREATION” MEAN?

It’s not just organizations that get to define or create their culture. The 21st century has done more to redefine the boundaries of culture than any other time in human history. 

Twitter has a user culture of RTs and #FF, whereas Facebook has its own culture of Throwback Thursdays and epic lists of congratulations. A newlywed couple creates their own culture in their newly shared home. Restaurants each have their own culture. TV shows have a culture. The post office has a culture. And every brand, business, and organization has a culture. From rules and norms to unspoken behaviors. The boundaries of what is real, what is possible, and what is acceptable are defined in the culture.  

WHAT CULTURE ARE YOUR STORIES CREATING?

If you want to learn about a culture, listen to the stories. If you want to change a culture, change the stories.

Across all of these cultures and experiences, it became apparent that culture is a creative act:

Culture = the stories we share in common.
We choose to create the culture around us.
We create culture through the stories we tell. 

From this vantage point, culture becomes a choice. Yes, we all inherit stories from our ancestors, yet we get to choose which of these stories we want to hold onto, which we want to reinterpret, and which we want to let go of. 

Culture is never good or bad, culture just is.

“If culture isn’t deliberately designed, it will emerge by default.” – Rita King, Futurist

So without trying, without conscious effort, culture is created through the collection of stories that we are all consciously or unconsciously living. If everyone stays late at your company, even without an explicit policy, you have a certain culture that’s hard to break away from when new folks join in. “Everyone always stays late,” becomes the story norm. 

Changing culture is not about sheer force of will. Entrepreneurs and businesses often think that through sheer force of will, we’re going to change reality. Change agents embed themselves in the stories of their culture. They hear them, discern them, record them. They can’t be ignorant or blind to the stories people are living within.

CULTURE USED TO MOVE AT THE SPEED OF GLACIERS, NOW IT MOVES AT 140 CHARACTERS. 

We often forget, that we owe our lives to culture. Culture by definition is programmed for self-preservation. Biologically programmed to protect us from the tsunami and tiger that might destroy the village. The natural forces that must be tamed by our human ingenuity.

So when we say the “culture is broken” we’re are doing ourselves, and our ancestors a dis-service. We owe our lives to the culture. It’s just that the world around us, the environment outside the safety of our village, is changing faster than we have the time to adapt or evolve our culture. So we have to change the stories. 

Stories are the DNA source code of culture

There’s an intimate link between culture and storytelling: as storytellers, you have the power to architect and shift the boundaries of culture.

When you shift your approach where you are more consciously making choices about your life or your work or your brand, the more conscious and intentional the culture can become. If you want to be a change-maker or a change-agent without becoming fluent in the language and narrative — without learning the source language of humanity — would be like trying to navigate the Star Trek Enterprise without a Star Map. You’re going to get lost. 

Just as every story has a consciousness; so too does culture have a deeper consciousness that we can shape and influence. The more people believe the culture story as their story, the greater power that story has in the world (whether that story is true or not). Culture is made up of the stories we share in common. If you want to listen to a culture, you listen to the stories — and if you want to change the culture, change the stories. 

What cultural stories are you living? How are you shaping the culture around you through the stories you tell?


home_michaelprofile_129x129px-2xAuthor Michael Margolis
Michael is the CEO at Get Storied. You can find him on Twitter @GetStoried where he engages daily with a quarter-million fans. Also, enjoy his free training storytelling at www.getstoried.com/redpill


  • Backyard Brand

    Congrats to grampa. 75 years! That’s an accomplishment. God bless ’em

    • It’s a humbling milestone. 🙂

      • Backyard Brand

        mine made it to 66 yrs—and I thought that was a lot!

  • johnkellden

    Love where you are going with this Michael.

  • John Hand

    I’m living the story that it’s acceptable to be who I am and love who I wish. We are co-creating the story that, with our love and the actions that manifest from it, we are helping to save humanity from it’s own destruction and returning our planet to the bountiful paradise that it is.

    I chose to stay in the margins to tell new stories of cultural transformation as an innovator, instead of a passive byproduct of culture.

    Thank you for sharing this!

  • Tim

    I really like the connections you draw here between culture and stories. I’ve seen first hand in the organizations I’ve worked with how telling the wrong stories about the who, what, and why of the organization (or failing to actively tell stories at all) has left culture unmanaged.

    The power of stories to shape culture is real and it’s great to see you taking on that link head on!

    • Thanks Tim! Yes, judging the existing culture is a surefire recipe in failure. Would be fascinated to hear more about what you’ve witnessed in this regard.

  • Deryn van der Tang

    Love the thought ‘haunted by the feeling that you don’t quite belong anywhere’, I too come from a similar background with Rhodesian pioneer ancestors, living at the edge of every culture I become a part of on my journey. I find it so enriching that I do not have to buy into any particular culture, but create my own.

    • Deryn – that’s the gift of being the outsider/traveler. Being in the world, but not of it. The cost is that we can end up living our life exiled from a place of belonging/community. When in fact, coming home is one of the fundamental impulses of the human experience. And what I believe so many of us are seeking. So, it’s a balance…

  • Jana Branch

    I appreciate the connections you’re making, but I think something is missing when you say that culture isn’t good or bad but “just is,” as if the stories we tell are physical or biological phenomena like fire or even, as you say, DNA. Yes, I get the metaphor of the way stories propagate, but culture — while it begins with individuals — is only “culture” when it becomes a collective phenomenon. And once we start sharing our stories with each other — activating certain aspirations and ideas and sidelining or even demonizing others — then to say culture isn’t good or bad feels like a move that allows us to put our head in the egocentric sand, a statement that gives us a way out of taking responsibility for the culture we’re propagating.

    We have to tell our stories, and those stories weave themselves together into a larger whole — I wholeheartedly agree with you — but in the leap from personal to collective journey, we then have to look with a discerning eye and ask how our stories are constructive and/or destructive to the people who share the space of that culture. The attitude that “culture just is” feels like a copout, given that we create and live this reality together. And some realities are certainly preferable to others.

    Thanks for this conversation, and I look forward to following more of your thinking.

    • Hi Jana – thanks for the feedback. My point about culture not being “bad” or “good” is to challenge us not to attack the existing culture. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t actively engage it, and work to transform, or evolve the culture in ways that it is more responsive than it currently is. There is no cop out…

      In my experience, you can’t influence and judge at the same time. And the moment we say, “the culture is bad” – we’ve activated all the antibodies that are designed to preserve the culture to battle with us. That’s a bloody battle I don’t want to fight, nor do I advocate anyone else to take on. Instead, how can we appreciate how the culture has protected us to date. When we tell a story of what the culture can become, we have to have room in the story for the old way of being to (or at least part of it and its values, to belong in the new story too). Otherwise, the “culture change” initiative will soon be dead in the water.

      Would love to hear more about your interest with culture.

      • Jana Branch

        Thanks for clarifying. I can see the slippage between talking about suspending judgement in the PROCESS of culture change and what reads like a statement about the nature of culture itself. Yes, open-mindedness (or at least a neutral mind-field) is essential to keeping change initatives alive. Rather than “culture just is,” I would say that a culture works until
        it doesn’t. It’s a dynamic functional infrastructure with ethical implications.

        When it comes to the PROCESS of sorting out what comes forward and what’s left behind in culture change, there’s still a role for judgement — in the form of evaluating how well different parts of a culture work/don’t work for different constituencies … what has protected us but also what has left us vulnerable (two groups in the same company sometimes experiencing the complete opposite from each other). Connecting that conversation to overarching vision/mission/values can be a way to combine subjective and objective criteria, so people have a way to judge/assess/evaluate the culture without being “judgey.”

        And, yeah, these conversations can definitely feel like attacks, even within the most displomatic frame. That’s part of the process, too, since culture change is always a response to some perceived lack. Respecting the frustration inherent in that, while also appreciating what’s working, is part of the emotional process. Change is never easy, even when people say that they want it. Certainly getting people to articulate stories is a hugely constructive part of helping them through it.

        Thanks for the good conversation.

      • The story is more about reality than it is about morality

  • Danny from Miami

    I really appreciate the simplicity of this idea – and how spot-on it is.

    I’ve experienced something else in addition to this phenomenon of storytelling as a cultural driver. Stories don’t just tell you the behavioral norms, beliefs, and values of your company – they tell you the groups perceptions as well.

    If “perception is reality” then this matters a lot. For all one knows, the stories that contribute to a company’s culture could be blown out of proportion – how would a leader than gauge whether their performance is what needs changing? I think this is what others argue needs additional consideration – a more holistic approach to understanding how communication impacts company culture.