What we do in small scale—the minute, the hour, the day—is a glimpse of revolution at the scale of decades or centuries.
The following is a speech I gave a few years ago on my last day at Yahoo. It culminated a time in which, through practice, I had developed my rapid prototyping and rate-based learning techniques, and commemorated my uncle who had recently passed away. I feel it represents the right-brained creative origins of these practices and embodies the motivations from which they sprung. With that, I leave you with the speech, and hope that along with my previous article it completes a philosophical diptych on possibility.
There are events and categories of work which happen just once or twice in a lifetime, and others which happen five times in a decade. Learn to know the differences in scale, and how to approach challenges that are at the right level.
A human lifetime will span a handful of epic events and a multitude of the smaller cyclings. In 84 years of life, my uncle (born 1925) saw China turn to Communism, the cultural revolution, the expulsion of TW from UN recognition, its rise to economic strength, and its first fully democratic elections. In technology, his life spanned the rise of phonograph/radio, highway system, television, then internet, all viewed for many years in rural TW, and then later from the rapidly growing and modern US.
These are “handful in a lifetime” events — true revolutions in collective thought and the way that societies are structured. As leaders and innovators, we must find these types of opportunities — and as hard as they may seem to locate, the recipe is known. In each time scale there is a glimpse of every other time scale, just as in each human being there is a glimpse of all humanity.
What we do in small scale — the minute, the hour, the day that is spent in innovative, creative, or challenging thinking, is a glimpse of revolution at the scale of decades or centuries. This is simply a matter of sustaining rates, and of renewing meaning in ways where many minds and hands can coalesce around the possibility of a changed future. Those that choose a path that benefits many (and better yet, all humanity and its surrounding environment), choose a path where belief can be sustained and renewed, where creativity is reborn after each setback.
And so it goes with leadership. The strength of any vision is ultimately a function of how well-aligned it is with the common good. The strength of relationships comes from the understanding that each interaction is a microcosm of all humanity, each conflict a microcosm of all destruction, and with that knowledge, re-guiding and re-aligning ourselves after each episode toward that truth.
Technology is the vehicle by which all human capability is magnified. It is morally neutral, but its creators are not. The means by which technological revolutions are created are known. It has happened several times over in the last century and for centuries before. There is no doubt as to whether humanity will create more technology going forward, the only doubt is in the character in which technology will be created. By which values will we fashion these capabilities? In the spirit of Man vs. Man? Country vs. Country? Company vs. Company? All Humanity vs. Nature?
The challenge of the 21st century is not one of merely creating more technological tools and capabilities. It is the challenge of finding our own common humanity so that the image of what we create is not one born in rivalry and destruction. As technology has helped the modernized world overcome the challenges of survival, then of comfort, then of convenience, it faces now the greatest challenge — that of meaning itself. My belief is that part of the challenge of meaning will come from connecting the world and helping the many impoverished billions overcome the first 3 challenges. Beyond that, I do not know what lies ahead, but that may be a challenge for a different lifetime — for a different student of meaning to rise to.
In 50 more years, when I near my uncle’s age, my hope is that humanity will have risen to and overcome some of these great challenges. It may be a greater challenge than all the world’s wars, as this one is against the darkness within our own minds.
What’s your perspective on the origins of meaning in the 21st century?
Update: We often lose sight of the long term because of a perspective on the short term, and similarly long term thinkers often have no idea what to do *now*. I think the core of this article is to understand how intimately and directly the two are intertwined, and how deeply intertwined with the larger scope of all of life and the sweep of history we all operate within and contribute to.