Avoiding the “Inevitability Trap”

August 11, 2023
By Chris Maier

We’ve all felt it before — that force that compels us to believe that we’re just along for the ride. Call it fate, call it destiny, call it just-the-way-things-are-gonna-be. Whatever name you give to it, it’s something that distracts us and makes us feel like our hands are tied. In The Medium Is the Massage, the provocative cornerstone of modern media studies, author Marshall McLuhan addresses this head on: “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.” Fifty-odd years after those words were penned, they remain as true as ever. And even more today than then, “what is happening” is often defined as much by the headlines we read and the content we scroll as it is by the thing itself.

Take climate change, for instance. The situation is dire — there’s no question about it. And the challenges ahead of us are real and urgent. Headlines from recent weeks bear this out: “Earth in Uncharted Territory” (BBC), “Will Vacation Be a Thing of the Past?” (New York Times), “Time Is Running Out” (Wall Street Journal). These headlines describe a pressing issue, but not one with an inevitable outcome. Yet when headlines like these overwhelm the cultural conversation, they become “what is happening,” clouding out other important aspects of the story — specifically, that if we do address climate change, a lower-carbon future could be an incredible place to occupy. After all, electric vehicles perform better than gas. Induction stoves boil water in a fraction of the time of traditional stove tops. Smart buildings are more comfortable and boast healthier air. These optimistic signals are part of the noisy climate change story, too.

But, of course, gloomy headlines fuel doom scrolls and inspire impulse clicks — and this is what keeps the lights on at modern media companies. This formula works because, in the human mind, negativity is a dominant forceBut it’s also paralyzing. So if we’re trying to drive behavior change or push toward new and impactful product horizons, it’s important to remember that while negativity sticks, positivity sells. As professional strategists and storytellers, we have the opportunity — and, possibly, the obligation — to pick up where the headlines leave off by helping our forward-thinking clients and colleagues to connect the moves they’re making (and the actions they’re encouraging) to the much-improved future that awaits us. After all, “what is happening” is, in part, that our daily doom scrolls shape our perception of the world around us. If we can infuse some targeted positivity back into the spotlight, nothing is inevitable except for change.

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