You don’t have to know the plot to jump into this argument, because the crux of it is this: I’m furious at Angel Clare for what he does, and my husband admires him, and holds fast to the idea that he was just “a product of his time.” This isn’t just a debate for literary nerds and college English classes, it’s a real-life thing, and it has implications for how to raise your kids to how you run your business.
My stand is this: I think relying on this notion of people as products of their time is far too victimish. I’d rather think of time as the product of what people do. Yes, I’m a cheery humanist and my husband is a gloomy—but charming—determinist. And yes, there are some flaws to my unabashed positivity, but stick with me for a moment.
Getting Ahead of Time
Da Vinci, Galileo, Darwin, Susan B. Anthony, Tesla, Gandhi, Hitchcock, Mary Quant (who popularized the mini-skirt), The Beatles, Steve Jobs, Lady Gaga: we have whole lists of people who set trends or suggested things that were so different than what most people were saying that they get classified as “ahead of their time.” But these are just the names we remember. For every famous inventor or trendsetter, there are armies of people putting forth ideas that challenge, in every industry and in every scenario.
People start movements. People make situations. People look at what’s going on in the world and in nature and decide what they think about it. It’s pretty hard to tell your story if you’re convinced that people are just products of their time. Because then, all you’ve got are a series of facts about what happened, and you’re at their mercy. I was thinking about this as I was preparing a presentation for small businesses about telling your story, and how you have to blend the tangible and intangible layers (the hard data and the stuff that underlies it). Context doesn’t get created for you: you create it. You have to take charge of the context and translate it in an interesting, relatable way. (Incidentally, this is the step I see people missing on “About Us” pages all of the time.)
People are both change-makers and interpreters. A ton of things happen in life and in business that we can’t control or change—so then, we just have to interpret. But if you get stuck in the mindset of “things are determined to be the way they are,” how can you put forth better ideas and interpretations? How can you tell a story that inspires?
It’s not really a simple issue, and I only have a handle on part of it. I’m going to keep thinking about it—you should too.
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