In the late summer and early fall of 1771 Benjamin Franklin, on travel in Ireland and Scotland, met with James Watt and Adam Smith. The same James Watt that developed the steam engine that started the industrial revolution. And the same Adam Smith whose Wealth of Nations would introduce the world to the formal concepts of capitalism five years later. If there’s an answer to the “fly on the wall” question for me, it’s hard to think of two conversations I’d want to hear more.
One can imagine Franklin, whose life could be described as one massive brainstorm, and Watt talking through the applications of his machine. Or giving feedback on the best way to describe the “invisible hand” of market forces to Smith, the way he would give feedback to Jefferson a few summers later on his great opus. For polymath, historical geeks like me, it’s almost too much to take. And it’s hard not to get to work on narrative crafting. They were three men, standing on the brink of one of the great leaps forward of man, wrestling with the ideas of government, economics and social welfare, science and technology and trying to tell the world where and how far to leap. And over the next 250-years, it would be hard to find three men who’s ideas have shaped the world more.
When we look back through the twists and turns of history though, it’s important to add some skepticism to the “great man” theories so commonly used to explain the past. The ones that lean too much on singular individuals and their impact on important human inflection points as a credit to their personal greatness and forces of mind. They’re neat and tidy narratives that enable our innate human desires to explain things through stories. But they largely miss the more important point. That for the most part, these inflection points come about because of massive environmental forces at play. And that the men that eventually are tagged with the credit for the change were swimming in an ocean of change, finding their best purposes in chronicling what they were seeing and nudging what part of the world they could most impact in the directions their visions called for. Which is very different from one man hoisting the world on his back and carrying it forward to greatness.
To that point, those meetings in 1771 of such amazing minds in such a short period of time weren’t by chance. The ocean of change they were swimming in was one that’s tide rose on two centuries of scientific thought and humanist thinking that started with the Renaissance. So people like Franklin, who simply couldn’t resist the urge, once he looked at something he didn’t understand, to develop a theory about it and a handful of experiments to test it, weren’t burned at the stake for witchcraft when they put the first lighting rod atop their church. At the time, Franklin, before the American Revolution, was considered the most famous man in America and one of the most famous and admired men in the world. Entirely because of his mind. It was an age where the Adam Smith’s and the James Watt’s and the Thomas Jefferson’s of the world actually could make an impact. Because we’d created some space for and put a societal premium on something extremely important: Intellectual Curiosity.
When I hire someone to join my team, the thing I spend the most time testing for, assuming domain expertise got them in the door, is intellectual curiosity. It’s critically important. And it’s easy to test for. Un-curious people stand out in a conversation with curious ones. They tend to focus on people and events, instead of ideas. If you bring up Donald Trump (I would suggest not doing that in a job interview) then they talk about what a horrible or strong willed person he is, depending on persuasion. But they don’t talk about the broader idea of a nation striving for equality or one desperately seeking to break the political nonage of our times. The intellectually curious talk about the ideas. And ask better questions. And try to puzzle themselves. Because they don’t have the answers. So they seek them. The greatness is in the seeking. Like Asimov said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny …”
That’s what makes for better outcomes. And there’s almost nothing it can’t be applied to.
This weekend people in America and around the world marched in the name of Science. And if we’re not thinking about this correctly, we’re going to find ourselves locked into the less helpful debate about the worthiness of the people we’re shouting across the aisle at. Which sounds kind of like this: One side is about thinking and science. The other is about stupidity. Or like this: One side is about principles and proof, and the other is a bunch of yahoos tilting at windmills to signal false intelligence. You can jump on either side and ride that debate right into the ground if you want to. I’ll pass.
But as you tumble past those of us left behind to actually solve the problem of sustaining mankind and our present lifestyle for 7 billion people for longer than the life expectancy of my children, maybe consider this. Making America great actually requires us to do great things. And it’s really hard to do great things without intellectual curiosity and progress. In fact, it’s impossible. The industrial revolution was started by a chemist. The American Revolution was started by philosophers and scientists. Strength and principles are important. But they actually have to be aimed in a direction. And backwards is a bad one.
If you’re going to solve things like reducing carbon emissions because it’s really hard to imagine that the industrialization of 2.5 billion Chinese and Indians in the next 50 years won’t have an impact on our planet and our way of life, and creating a sustainable, scalable, renewable energy source first only makes America greater even if climate change is a big damn hoax, then you’re going to have to turn off cable news and start thinking better, bigger, newer thoughts. The funny thing is, as far as real material impact in our time, climate change may not even be the best reason to stop burning things for power. Boosting the economy, energy independence and the next generation of American exports all sound pretty grand too.
There’s a verb in that fantastic once in a generation campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again”. It’s make. Greatness has never been about remembering how you won the last game. It’s about winning the next one. And in order to do that, you’ve got to make something better than the other guy. So let’s get to making.